The Webcam as an Emerging Cinematic Medium

The Webcam as an Emerging Cinematic Medium
Paula Albuquerque

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2018
Film Culture in Transition Series, 1st Edition
244 pp. Trade, 99 €
ISBN: 9789462985582.

Reviewed by
Will Luers
June 2020

This review of The Webcam as an Emerging Cinematic Medium is being written after two months of a global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With face-to-face social interaction rapidly replaced by video conferencing technologies, it seems that the webcam is now well beyond just an “emerging” cinematic medium. Albuquerque, a webcam artist and scholar, draws on her extensive practice-based research to illuminate little known aspects of the technology in which we are immersed. Her ideas around the webcam as a cinematic “continuum” or Latourian “mode of existence” resonate bodily under stay-at-home orders. But the book was written when it was the 24/7 video surveillance of public street life that was the pervasive webcam technology and the main political concern of webcam artists. The irony of reading these ideas during the pandemic is that public spaces are now mostly empty. Active social life is indoors, at home, surveilled perhaps within the video conferencing system itself.

A webcam is a video camera that connects to a computer, which then simultaneously streams live video to users through the Internet. Designed for online professional gatherings, the popular Zoom software uses what Albuquerque calls the “webcam apparatus”: camera, computer, and the Internet. During the months of the pandemic, this same apparatus has become a medium that uses itself as the setting for diversion and entertainment: theater and sketch comedy skits set in mock webinars, live performances of music and poetry from kitchens and living rooms, and more vernacular forms of personal expression, such as virtual-background effects and stunts during meetings. The author, however, offers the reader a more penetrating and philosophical toolset with which to ponder the aesthetics and the politics of our post-pandemic relation to the webcam.

Albuquerque makes her case that the webcam apparatus is an expressive media with which artists explore, interrogate, and subvert a pervasive culture of global surveillance. But her notion of the technological panopticon extends beyond crime-preventative webcam systems. The God-like eye, capturing the present moment as it passes, storing a shadow-life of the past in highly structured databases is life lived on and through the Internet. We are a culture addicted to and dependent upon recording, sharing and storing the passing moment – the Now. Surveillance video works with online monitoring of personal data, social media updates, video chat, drones, personal webcams, and video conferencing to create a cinematic continuum – a sequenced, structured and timestamped flow of moving-image data. This new temporality, what Albuquerque calls “Realtime,” is an extension of the “long-take” in cinema, a unit of continuous time without the illusory cuts. The difference is that the temporality of Realtime is synchronized across multiple recording systems, delivered through networks and stored in databases that are accessible as a future archive.

Albuquerque writes that the “the camera entered the digital age by multiplying into several devices that operate beyond the scope of filmmaking and also the televisual.” By merging traditional cinematic time (continuity editing), the long-take (the single continuous shot) with Internet or network time, webcam artists have a medium to deconstruct not only surveillance culture, but the dominant notions of contemporary temporality. With examples of her own body of work with webcams and appropriated webcam images, along with the work of artists such as Hito Steyerl, Harun Faroki, and Walid Raad, Albuquerque examines the aesthetics and politics of appropriating low-resolution webcam images (Steyerl’s “poor image”) and the new narratives that can be discovered in the vast archive. Albuquerque’s three-channel video installation, Onscreen/Débris, uses discarded webcam footage from the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing to explore the peripheral images around the main suspects in the case, “the potential future criminalization of anyone who happens to be filmed.” When artists appropriate surveillance video or stage their own forms of webcam surveillance they are quite literally altering the historical record.

This reader wonders what Albuquerque has to say about the new directions of webcam technology – the post-pandemic infrastructures of surveillance and the new norms in virtual culture. For now, this prescient book is enough to get us thinking in new ways.