J Armitage on Mon, 25 Nov 2002 16:35:44 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Necrocam

[From the 'whatever will they think of next?' department ... John.]
November 25, 2002
Mourning Becomes Electronic: A Final Webcast Place

Toward the end of "This Is Our Youth," Kenneth Lonergan's play about
disaffected New Yorkers set in 1982, the characters learn of an
acquaintance's death. The news spooks the motor-mouthed Dennis into
pondering the benefits of religion when confronting the afterlife. "How
much better would it be," he asks, "to think you're gonna be somewhere,
you know? Instead of absolutely nowhere. Like gone, forever."

Fast forward to 2001, when the Internet has given the youths in
"Necrocam," a 50-minute film made for Dutch television, a less
conventional way to cope with death's mysteries. Christine, a teenager
with cancer, tells her friends that upon her death she wants a digital
camera with an Internet connection installed in her coffin. Images of her
decaying remains will then be transmitted to a Web page for all to see,
making her virtually immortal. The friends pledge to install a Webcam in
the coffin of the first one to die, and they seal their pact with an oath
to the computing world's highest power: "This we swear on Bill Gates's

"Necrocam" was shown in September by VARA, a public-broadcasting network
in the Netherlands. Now, the entertaining and - given its grotesque
premise - unexpectedly moving film will have an opportunity to find its
natural audience of online viewers. Last week the network put a version of
the film with English subtitles on its Web site, at vara.nl/necrocam.

When one of the teenagers dies, the survivors must decide whether to
fulfill their high-tech pledge and if so, how. One stipulation moves the
story into the gothic realm of Edgar Allan Poe. The coffin is to contain a
heating element that will speed or reduce the body's rate of
decomposition. The temperature will then be controlled by online visitors,
who can adjust an interactive thermostat on the tell-tale Web site.

Yet the film's central and rather macabre conceit may be its least
interesting element. Suffused with grief, "Necrocam" is closer to an
Ingmar Bergman psychodrama than a Wes Craven fright flick. Dana Nechustan,
the film's director, bathes her actors in a pale blue light that deepens
the sad tone. Jan Rutger Achterberg, a VARA executive who produced the
film, said it was "about people who remember their loved ones in new
times, in a new era, with new media."

The movie's accomplishment is to capture the way technology, including the
Internet, has permeated contemporary culture. This is our youth's daily
existence. The film's young people communicate through online messages,
play computer games and record their pledge with a video camera instead of
a quill dipped in blood. For them technology is an extension of life. So
it is only logical that cyberspace would play a role in death.

This comfort with the Internet stands in contrast to how technology is
typically depicted in Hollywood films, where it is glorified or, more
often, demonized. Thus for every "You've Got Mail," in which Tom Hanks
cutely woos Meg Ryan over the Internet, there are a dozen clones of
"Birthday Girl," in which Nicole Kidman is a devious Net-order bride. The
James Bond films take both approaches, so that a technological threat
endangers the world until it can be defeated by 007 and his gadgetry.

Although "Necrocam" may seem futuristic, it is grounded in the present.
The Internet has become the home of countless memorials to the dead. A few
funeral homes have started to transmit memorial services over the Internet
so that those who are unable to attend can participate from afar. And
Webcams that have been perpetually focused on everything from a tarantula
to artists' studios dot the Net.

The notion of a Webcam in a coffin still sounds implausible, but
nonetheless it almost came to pass. At the birth of the idea in 1998, Ine
Poppe, an Amsterdam artist, was reading when Zoro, her tech-obsessed
15-year-old son, sat down next her and said, "Mom, when I die, I want a
Webcam in my coffin, and I'm serious about it."

A week later Ms. Poppe saw a newspaper ad soliciting screenplay ideas.
With Zoro's approval she drafted a two-page proposal for "Necrocam," a
word coined by her son. Mr. Achterberg was on the jury and liked her idea
enough to want to produce the film for VARA.

As part of her research process for the script, Ms. Poppe received a grant
from the Amsterdam Art Foundation to study the feasibility of installing a
Webcam in a coffin. After talking to a technical expert and an undertaker,
she concluded that it would be possible, as well as legal in the
Netherlands. She finished the script, and the film went into production in
late 2000.

During that time Ms. Poppe learned that Zoro's father, her ex-husband, the
Austrian artist Franz Feigl, had received a diagnosis of cancer and was
given less than two years to live. Death imitates art. Ms. Poppe said,
"Franz said to me, `If you want to do a real Webcam, you can use my body.'
'` Ms. Poppe seriously considered the idea but resisted, she said,
"because it would put such a strain on the family emotionally."

But the final decision was not made until Mr. Achterberg invited them to a
private screening of the completed film, which ends with a vivid,
horrendous shot of a decomposing face. Mr. Feigl continued to volunteer
his services, even though there were tears all around him as the lights
came up.

Ultimately, his family declined his offer. Mr. Achterberg said, "Ine told
me, `With this film, I have shown what I want to show, so why should I do
it in reality?' " (Mr. Feigl died last year.) For the record, installing a
Webcam in a coffin in the United States is not likely to occur. Robert
Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral
Association in Reston, Va., said that next of kin, not the deceased, are
responsible for the final disposition of a family member's remains and
that most people would probably balk at such a scheme.

Mr. Fells added: "People have always had strange ideas - either for
laughs, or morbid humor or just bizarre thinking - of how they would like
the ultimate final disposition of their remains, only to be overruled
either by family members or legal authorities. This just sounds like a
high-tech version of that."

Still, there are people untroubled by total exposure of their lives, and
one would think they'd be fair game for such a morbid experiment. But that
is not true for Jennifer K. Ringley, a 26-year-old in Citrus Heights,
Calif. Ms. Ringley has spent almost seven years broadcasting her life over
the Internet, at JenniCam.com, through a series of Webcams installed in
her home. Ms. Ringley isn't interested in allowing viewers into her
coffin. "I find that watching a person who's not performing to have a low
enough threshold of interest," she said. "Watching a person who's not even
moving might be pushing it a bit too far."

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