Bart Dijkman : »Observation #762«, 1997
by Bart Rutten
»Almost every day, I see this man performing the same actions, and I can't help wondering what comes over him each time. And, in fact, the starting point of this video work is the wish, as it were, to zoom into his brain, and to register in sound and image the exhilaration of his neurosis.« [Bart Dijkman]
Observation #762 is without doubt a work whose imagery is very reminiscent of the video material produced by surveillance cameras. The simplicity of the images makes it look like an accidental recording, one made by a camera that is constantly gathering images without being operated by anyone. The observation seems to have been selected out of thousands of hours of video footage that the artist just happened to come across. Even the title suggests a stroke of luck, an observation found among many hundreds [fragment or even tape #762]. What we are presented with is utterly simple. We witness how a man parks his car, and is subsequently seized by a neurosis. He remains in his seat, rummages about in the car, and then gets out, visibly racked by doubt. Then he changes his mind, gets back into the car, and resumes his rummaging about in or on the dashboard in front of him. Then he gets out again, hesitates again, gets back in, gets out again, over and over. The longer this continues, the more absurd the action becomes. For almost seven minutes you gaze at the indecision of an eccentric figure, whose behaviour is ridiculous and at the same time pitiable. Because the situation is recognizable as well as absurd, your reaction hovers between embarrassment and amusement. It is difficult to decide on a standpoint with regard to this action.
But it is not only the action itself that creates confusion; gradually, the recording also appears to be less accidental. Purposeful choices were made in the area of the form [camera standpoint] and manipulations implemented [sound effects], which influence the viewer’s reaction and make you share in this person’s desperation.
The flirtation with the surveillance imagery plays an important role in this. The similarity is deliberate: the decision to use black-and-white, the impersonal recording without zoom or movement. The position of the camera is high, so that it has a good overall view of the spot that has to be kept under observation. The trunk of the tree that cuts across the composition of the image betrays its hidden position. It is clear to see that the man does not know he is being filmed, and is not trying to be anything other than he is in reality. It appears as if we have caught him behaving in the way he only does when he is alone, when there is no social control. So here, the surveillance imagery is put to use as unpolished realism. No effort seems to have been made to embellish what is happening in front of the camera. What matters is simply the presence of the camera that merely registers, making our confrontation with his behaviour even harder.
But this simplicity in realism is deceptive. The camera standpoint is not functional enough for a proper surveillance job. Its range of vision could be hugely enlarged by a small adjustment, so the camera could be used much more effectively. This limitation creates suspicion. It does not seem to be about registering the place [the primary task of surveillance cameras, because the what and how of the situation are as yet unknown], but rather, about a different use of the camera: the registration of a specific action. This is taking place exactly within the field of vision of the camera, which makes you doubt whether it was recorded by accident. The precise framing suggests that Dijkman had been watching this man before, and has now positioned the camera secretively, carefully measuring the perspective. This is why the recording brings to mind the use of video in psychology and psychiatry. A form of surveillance whereby patients are filmed in order to allow a detailed study of their behaviour, so that coincidence plays a much less important role. And precisely in this ambiguity of the video material lies the beauty of the work. The form suggests an ambivalent use of video; of subtle construction versus the hard registration of reality.
Not only the framing detracts from the reality or realism of the images. In particular the emphatic presence of the sound makes the viewer suspicious: to a great extent, the sound dominates the meaning of the filmed action. The man’s indecision is grotesquely accentuated by the suggestion that the sound is actually coming from the car radio. It is a shrewdly chosen musical fragment, from the aria Patience, from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which not only gives the character’s desperation a new context [the man seems to have endless patience], but also gives the prolonged agony of the action striking depth. In Bart Dijkman’s own words: »I saw how, before locking it, the man kept getting back into his car. I couldn't use this action at first, unless I provided it with a distinct weight of content. By turning the radio on and off, on and off, you create the perfect forerunner - the signal of the problem – for the end sequence. It also further removes the whole issue from the car.« Despite this momentous addition, the man’s paranoid desperation remains disguised as a joke, as if it were a staged Candid Camera situation [a hybrid intermediate form of surveillance: the makers hope that something worth recording will happen, as opposed to a purely coincidental registration]. But because no-one tells him that this is a practical joke, the man’s reality becomes even more painful.
Then there is the sound of the twittering birds, which turns the peace and quiet of the moment into a caricature. But as soon as the man appears on the scene, the relaxed atmosphere abruptly comes to an end, because the birds fall silent and the only sounds claiming attention are those from the action [the slamming of the doors and the added musical sounds]. Not until the man leaves does the sound of the birds swell up again. The artificial silence has a twofold effect: it underlines the loneliness of the moment for the central character, who is completely absorbed in his own mental world, and it also illustrates the lack of understanding of people who are confused by his behaviour. The standpoint of the camera suggests a spot amongst the birds. As viewer, you share the vantage point of the birds, and their reaction determines yours. With his tactical sound effects, Dijkman alienates the recordings from reality.
And yet, the recorded scene never loses touch with reality. After all, the man is recognizable, thereby maintaining an extremely confrontational link with reality. For a long time, Dijkman left the person intact, that is to say, he left the man recognizable to the viewer. But due to the growing popularity of the film, more and more people came to see it, and this forced him to make concessions for fear of recognition, and to sacrifice this embarrassing form of realism. To protect the person, his face was ‘scrambled’ to make him anonymous. The vulnerability of the individual image made way for a much more general one. On the one hand, this meant sacrificing a principle of surveillance - the power of identification - but on the other, it also gave the work a more recognizable element of surveillance, by showing it in the way in which it appears on television. In popular ‘real-life-action’ police series, this ‘scrambling’ constantly reminds us of the fact that we are watching real villains [actors have no need of a disguise]. Here, too, everything revolves around the action rather than something specific: the person. Making the person unrecognizable is a huge intervention in the meaning of the work, but perhaps because of this, it fits even better into Dijkman’s oeuvre.
Bart Dijkman is an artist who has been making use of video since the mid-1980s. He has investigated a huge diversity of genres, varying from short, narrative films [made with minimal resources] during his art-school years, to accessible animation films in the late 1980s. Dijkman refuses to confine himself to a single film language and prefers the use of various genres in which to wrap up his ideas. For instance, Billy  appears to be an innocent animation film, but the tenor of the story [a seriously ill mother is given poisoned flowers by her son] is in sharp contrast to this. Or Talk Now , in which the subject matter, stuttering, is cloaked in the cliché of a Hollywood trailer. And Dijkman generally shows a striking preference for human defects as subject matter for his work. Time and time again, it is the [often congenital] handicaps or phobias of the main characters that determine the course of the story. And by choosing a particular genre, he manages to give an even more confrontational slant to the impairment in question. From this point of view, the choice of capturing the paranoid man in Observation #762 with surveillance imagery is remarkable. This shows that Dijkman regards the surveillance video as a recognizable language, but he erodes its most typical characteristic - surveillance as an unpolished representation of reality – as much as possible by means of small manipulations, in order to make his rendition of the subject even more striking. The additions enhance the authenticity of the man’s behaviour. By erasing the individual recognizability, he inserts a sublime layer. It actually makes the material more identifiable as ‘real’ to the public, while it is in fact further removed from reality. Without intending to, Bart Dijkman penetrated deeper into the language of surveillance as a genre.
[Translated from Dutch by Marion Olivier-Dalhuisen]