Harco Haagsma : »Biological System: Vilno«, 1997; »How the System works 4«, 2001
by Dörte Zbikowski
In his works Harco Haagsma examines the interplay between »looking and being looked at.« He employs video and sensor technologies in order to allow people to experience »looking at each other as a game«. With his works, he makes »fun of surveillance«.
The installation Biological System: Vilno  centers on a flexible articulated arm that Haagsma has fondly christened »Vilno«. Suspended from the ceiling, Vilno has on its lower end sensors and a camera. The scene of the action is marked out by four monitors located in the corners. Everyone who enters the room is perceived by the sensors. Vilno turns towards them and follows their movements. Though in purely practical terms it consists of undisguised technology, this ability lends Vilno the traits of a living creature. It seeks the closeness to visitors, seeks contact, seeks dialogue. Vilno makes no distinctions, approaches everyone.
At the same time, Vilno films the unsuspecting person immediately opposite. The image appears on all four monitors; often highly unusual camera positions or pans are employed, since Vilno is highly agile, and films from every conceivable angle. It is Vilno’s view of us that we simultaneously follow on the monitors. In this manner a film evolves whose actors are the museum visitors, and whose camera man is a machine. This is a decisive principle in the works of Haagsma, who first worked as a director before looking for ways of re-casting the roles of actor and director.
Haagsma’s thoughts on the effect produced by a camera strongly influenced his work. He describes the view of the camera as »a one way street. The person behind the camera alters our behaviour: we feel we are being treated like a victim. But if there is a camera without a person behind it, this makes us believe there can’t be any bad intention; the camera changes into an eye.« The camera observes us and simultaneously has the task of moving us to responses, interactions, actions. Ultimately, the camera becomes a counterpart that cannot exist without our attention.
This approach is also evident in the work How the System works . Here the camera responds to persons who pose in front of the monitor that is let into the wall in the manner of a picture. The camera »observes« people via its sensors, and controlled by a random generator takes photos at intervals of a few minutes up to several days or weeks. Consequently, it is not possible to foresee whether your own image will appear next on the monitor. And even if you are photographed, you do not realize this immediately as the picture appears with a time lag. But then it is possible that it remains on view for several days as if burned into the screen until the camera becomes active once more. Forty images remain stored, before the machine deletes them again one after another at intervals as irregular as those it produces new ones at.
Haagsma developed How the System works for a vocational school in the Hague, which he knew to have a high crime rate. After initially experiencing the ever watchful eye of the camera as something threatening, the young people swiftly learned to enter into a playful dialog with the machine. They pose in front of the camera waiting to be photographed.
Once again the observer becomes an actor who tries out his various course of action, and thus his influence on the »behavior« of the technical apparatus. Haagsma reveals the one-sided relationship between man and media to be a mutual one, conditioned as it is by the dominance of video technology in our everyday lives. Moreover, his expressing this altered perception in a playful manner lends it all the more force.
[This text is based on an interview conducted with Harco Haagsma by Ulrike Havemann and Dörte Zbikowski in October 2001 in Karlsruhe.]