Fake fish and heatless flames

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Last week, when I turned the tv on after cancelling my cable, I discovered that the only channel I still get is a virtual fish tank. I’d rather go to the aquarium, or better yet go snorkeling somewhere warm and sunny, but I have to admit there’s something soothing about watching the fish tank channel. It’s kind of like the fire log channel, only I think I get more out of fake fish than heatless flames. It makes me think about slow tv and what it is that people get out of watching something mundane happen on a screen the same way it would if they were actually there.

Slow tv is basically real time coverage of something, maybe an event or just a location, without cuts, interference or narrative structure. You just watch it happen as it happens, even when nothing is happening at all. It’s not a new concept – in the 1960s Andy Warhol made a 5 hour movie of a guy sleeping and WPIX created the Yule Log program for Christmas Eve, and I remember that in the late 80s one of the Canadian tv channels replaced the standard overnight test pattern with a series of shorts called Night Moves which featured first person footage of someone walking or driving around Toronto – but where slow tv really became popular was in Norway.

In 2009, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation introduced Sakte-TV with a 7 hour program of the train ride from Bergen to Oslo taken from a camera attached to the front of the train. It pulled really high ratings for the network, and depending on which coverage you’re reading anywhere between 25-45% of the population of Norway tuned in at some point. There are a few interviews when the train is in the tunnels and there’s literally nothing to see on the camera, but mostly it’s just 7 hours of scenery. I don’t think I ever want to sit and watch 7 consecutive hours of anything, but it’s calm and really beautiful.

slow-tv-train-ride-wide

They followed it up in 2011 with the 134 hour voyage of a ship from Bergen to Kirkenes, which exploded on Norwegian social media and became a cross-country interactive experience. Since it streamed live, people knew when the ship would be docking along the way and were able to put together welcoming parties and become a part of the video themselves, and more than one couple took advantage of the opportunity to have their wedding proposals commemorated and broadcast.

Both programs are popular enough that Netflix has picked them up, along with several live knitting group sessions, a salmon fishing expedition where I’ve heard it takes several hours to catch the first fish, and a three part Norwegian version of the fireplace program called National Firewood Morning, Afternoon and Night, which seems to involve a fair bit of chopping wood and instructions on wyoming-intersectionbuilding good fires, along with hours of the traditional crackling blaze and some sociable background conversation. It’s also inspired slow tv projects in other countries, including a live stream of a random intersection in a random town in Wyoming. I’ve never seen anything actually happening in that intersection – every time I’ve checked it out it appears to be empty – but it’s there, live, any time you want to have a look.

Slow tv is reality tv, but real reality tv, not staged or artificially manufactured. It’s a vicarious experience in real time. Unlike the slow cinema of directors like Tarkovsky and Antonioni, it’s accessible to anyone and totally unpretentious, designed for everyone to be able to watch and understand it rather than actively pushing the viewer out of their comfort zone. The closest I’d come to this before was probably watching the live cams that zoos set up when they have baby pandas or wolf cubs or something so that people can peek at animals that otherwise won’t come out of their den. Given how much baby animals sleep, half the time when you check the feed all you can see is something vaguely round and fuzzy poking out from under its bedding material.

Slow tv is an interesting juxtaposition to the ever-increasing speed of narrative and visual cuts in American film. As the average attention span for receiving information dwindles and each new social media platform competes for ways to communicate in smaller bites to an increasingly impatient audience, I feel like it’s encouraging that so many people still find it appealing to watch something this slow. It seems odd to do it at a remove, watching real life unfold on a screen rather than participating in the real life outside your own door, but even if there’s something lost in that transition at least it shows that people still place some value on being patient and moving at a slower pace. I think overall I’d rather go sit somewhere and watch an intersection in my own town, but then again different things happen in other people’s towns that are equally worth watching and there’s something to be said for being able to do it from the comfort of my sofa. It can also be an opportunity to really see how people do things in other places and cultures which helps create understanding and build empathy, and the world definitely needs more empathy.

tv-aquariumWhat I wish I had on my tv instead of the fish tank though, is jellyfish. They move so slowly and beautifully, they’re a perfect reminder that being is the central point of existence and moving fast isn’t inherently better. I could sit in front of an aquarium full of jellyfish for hours, and I’m pretty sure there are all kinds of scientifically measurable and immeasurable ways that would reduce my stress levels and make me a better human being, but sadly I do not have regular access to a tank full of jellies. If Netflix decides to create Slow TV – Jellyfish, I’ll be tuning in to watch them drift slowly by before bed.

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It’s a cool video, but alex MacFadyen can’t help thinking that it’s missing the point a little that people have already edited and time-lapsed the 134 hour boat ride into a 5 minute recap.

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  1. People post end-to-end videos of train rides along the NY subway system, usually filmed out the front facing window of the first car, and they are indeed oddly mesmerizing.

    This also reminds me of how much I enjoy sequences in old movies that are really nothing but someone with a movie camera walking down the street of, say, London 1967 or New York 1978, capturing the day to day of fashion, people, and business, unstaged and un set dressed.

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