The stream seems like something that could have only begun as a joke, but in fact, it didn’t. The webcam which streams a roundabout in the sleepy suburban town of Purmerend in the Netherlands came to life as an internet connection test: was it possible to stream high-definition video live over the internet? The answer: a resounding yes.
But it must have quickly turned into a joke. When the stream was recently pulled offline, many people complained. Some said they watched the roundabout several hours a day and that it provided them with some much-coveted peace of mind. Whether the joke consists of actually watching the footage or merely claiming to do so, I’m not sure. All I know is that it intrigues me.
Watching the stream, I am reminded of Georges Perec, the French novelist who once sat in the window of the same café for one long weekend to observe a small Parisian square. He published the results of his little experiment in a small book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Reading the book is a bit like watching the roundabout: throughout most of the text, Perec semi-hypnotically enumerates the buses and cars that pass him by. “Why count the buses,” he starts to ask himself about half a day in. He answers:
“Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable. The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big M of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…
In Purmerend, you can see just that. Every passing bus is strangely pleasing, because yes, they punctuate time, they reoccur like clockwork, but there is always the notion in the back of our heads that the system is kept running by bus drivers, ticket takers and passengers—humans. The pleasure is in the realization that this could almost just as well be a five-minute film incessantly looped, yet decidedly isn’t.
I decided to do to the roundabout what Perec did to the square; a kind of stake-out observation. I lasted about thirty minutes, if that.
Yet in that half hour, I did pick up on some patterns. Pizza couriers, hurried as they generally are, break the geometric mode of curving around the centre by shooting almost straight across the roundabout, tightly skirting and sometimes traversing the heightened middle section. I noticed that the text of the road signs in the centre of the roundabout is just too small to be legible, which could be considered an incessant taunt, but in a way strikes me as just perfect: it retains the roundabout’s right to be any roundabout in any place. Perec noticed something similar:
“By looking at only a single detail, for example rue Férou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one to two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Étampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I’ve never been.
But the main reason I stopped my experiment short was, I’d like to think, more profound: Perec’s point was to observe everything. No matter how insignificant the place and no matter how meaningless the exercise, his stake-out would at least be perfect, a complete encapsulation and observation (at which, by the way, he fails bitterly: “even when my only goal is just to observe,” he notes, “I don’t see what takes place a few metres before me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking”).
My fascination with this webcam, on the other hand, stems precisely from the opposite sentiment, the idea that everything occurring before my eyes is utterly mundane, and ephemeral. Nothing matters, so nothing has to be registered. In fact, this opposite view, and this whole situation, the live stream and my observation of it, were anticipated in Don DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist:
“She spent hours at the computer screen looking at a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was in the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.
I don’t know if the Kotka live stream really existed back then; if not, the passage is strangely prescient. It goes on:
“She sat and looked at the screen. It was compelling to her, real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance. It was three in the morning and she waited for a car to come along—not that she wondered who was in it. It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.
At a certain point—I am writing this while casting nervous glances at the screen, which is inexplicably hard to ignore—a woman on a bike, with a girl on the rear seat, rides straight onto the middle platform of the roundabout, does two, maybe three laps, then dives off it again. Over the next few minutes she reappears episodically, entering the screen from different angles, striking different trajectories, almost as if she was airbrushing us a message.
She must have been aware of the webcam, which went viral several weeks back. Her entrance is like a snap of the fingers breaking a spell—the Kotka spell. What her action breaks is “the circumstance of nothing going on.” It turned simple observation—a scarce commodity online—into the now ubiquitous act of performance.
Within this small world of the roundabout, this place “contained in an unyielding frame”, that act was akin to a revolution. I want to bring it back to the screen, but of course can’t, and I am struck by this inability. Everything that appears in video on the screen these days, whether live or not, is captured, catalogued and retraceable. This is not. It is ephemeral; a normal state in the real world, yet a bizarre fact online. It was, unsurprisingly, also DeLillo who once wrote that “if a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself.” Perhaps the great thing about this live stream is that, bar the girl, film does not seem implied in it. It is, indeed, simply the fact of Purmerend.
The difference between the video, which can endlessly be replayed, and the live stream, which is always one thing, always the present, always simply the fact of what it is, is like the difference between Perec’s cars and buses: the live stream passes by because it has to pass by; yet the video can back up, can break the ceaseless punctuation of time. In another paragraph from The Body Artist, DeLillo nails this inevitability of the live stream, dubbing it “an odd and hollow urgency”:
“She set aside time every day for the webcam at Kotka. She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It was best in the dead times. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward, and she sat and watched, waiting for a car to take fleeting shape on the roadway.
Turn the stream into a video and this urgency disappears. A video, any video, could never be an act of floating poetry. In the technicalities of its recording and in the inevitable circumstance of determined frame following determined frame, it loses precisely the ambiguous qualities of the poetic. Instead, the stream is more like Magritte’s famous pipe: not simply the fact of Purmerend, but a video of a fact of Purmerend. Nobody wants to look at that.