Introduction to Diller + Scofidio's Refresh

Architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have worked in many media using the built environment and the visual arts to reveal societal norms that operate invisibly to govern and inform daily relationships. One recent area of this investigation has focused on "liveness" -- a term that originated in broadcasting and has grown to be synonymous with authenticity and a trusted reality.

For their first project for the web, entitled Refresh, Diller + Scofidio have taken office webcams as their point of departure, with the intention of examining the role of live video technologies on everyday life. A webcam is a camera that takes pictures at set intervals, that can range from 15 times per second to once per hour, then instantly transmits the images to a web server, where the image becomes simultaneously available to anyone on the web. At present, thousands of webcams exist, broadcasting live pictures of fish tanks, traffic conditions, vending machines, private bedrooms, offices...

The artists speculated on the motivations for these cameras: "The live cam phenomenon can be thought of as a public service, or a mode of passive advertisement, or it may be a new type of exhibitionism, or self-disciplinary device. The desire to connect to others in real time may be driven by a response to the "loss" of the public realm. But, however varied the motives, live cam views always seem casual and lacking dramatic interest and content; they appear unmediated. Despite this apparent innocence, cameras are willfully positioned, their field of vision is carefully considered, and behavior within that field cannot help but anticipate the looming presence of the global viewer."

For each of the dozen sites located in the US, Europe and Australia that Diller + Scofidio selected for this project, they have constructed fictional narratives using text and fabricated images. For every site there is a grid of twelve images, one of which is live and refreshes when clicked; the other eleven have been constructed for this project with the aid of hired actors and Photoshop. None of the people from the actual location appear in the fabricated images; however, the juxtaposition of the live and the fictional establishes a provocative correspondence. The stories, which range in time from a single day to several seasons, concentrate on subtle changes in behavior as a consequence of the acknowledged presence of the camera in the office: a gradual shift in dress style, the activities of an after-hours cleaning crew, a ritual of stacking paper, one person's discreet and incessant ordering of take out food, and a potential office romance unfolding by the water cooler. There is nothing shocking or dramatic, rather, everyday conventions are slightly modified, either to perform for or to hide from the camera.

The flip side to the performative role chosen or imposed on the people at the live site is the role of the spectator at the other end. Diller + Scofidio argue that liveness appeals to both ends of the technophile/technophobe spectrum: "For technophobes who blame technology for the collapse of the public sphere, liveness may be a last vestige of authenticity -- seeing and/or hearing the event at the precise moment of its occurrence. The un-mediated is the im-mediate. For technophiles, liveness defines technology's aspiration to simulate the realin real-time. Lag time, search time, and download time all impair real-time computational performance. But whether motivated by the desire to preserve the real or to fabricate it, liveness is synonymous with the real -- an object of uncritical desire for techno-extremes."

Regardless of where one falls on the technophile/phobe spectrum, it is hard not to be captivated by the potential of witnessing something uncensored, no matter how banal. Yet this excitement requires an act of faith that what you are seeing truly is "live," a faith increasingly difficult to achieve given the bag of technical tricks available, especially on the internet. This skepticism aids, to a degree, these artists' desire to tease the distinctions: to undermine the authority of "live" over mediated experience and to collapse the two into an indeterminate unity.

Sara Tucker

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