Over the last month, I've developed a new hobby. I've started making DVDs of ambient television. It started when I visited the Kreuzberg children's zoo in late February and videoed a beautiful roaring log fire they had there. I loved how it warmed the room. I videoed the fire for a minute or so. When I got home I dropped the file into iMovie, took out the original soundtrack (noisy Turkish kids' voices, the clatter of waffle plates) and added a library crackle sound effect. The whole thing took thirty minutes, max. When I dropped the resulting looping DVD into the player, our TV set became a log fire, crackling away peacefully in the background as Hisae and I surfed.
It became highly addictive. "Shall we put on the fire?" we'd say when we came home. "Yes, let's put on the fire." The dry sparky crackle of burning wood filled the room, mixing soothingly with the sound of fingers rattling keyboards. A flickering orange light glowed in the "hearth". Even the rabbit came to bask in the glow. All that was missing was the heat, the smell, the smoke and the mess of a real fire.
This was so much better than television, with its incessant chatter! I decided to branch out, expand our options. Ambient DVD 2 was another fire, which turned out to be slightly less successful because it was less orange, less heartwarming. DVD3 was a squiggle of light dancing on a wall, a projector installation I'd filmed at an exhibition at Kunsthaus Bethanien. It had a nice "projector motor" sound, but had too much going on. DVD4 was a response to a request from Hisae for something more springlike. I filmed a plant on the steps of our favourite Japanese cafe, Smart Deli. The plant flutters in the wind, and every so often a car passes. The motion subtly switches into reverse at one point, making cars and pedestrians glide backwards, and there's one glorious, mysterious moment when a black cat appears in a chink between leaves, pauses, looks around, and moves on.
I still occasionally use my TV for its original purpose. The world's pain and suffering might barge into my house via the news or a documentary on Nazism. I'm also renting DVDs -- early Miyazaki films, or art and design tapes from the American Library. Yesterday I checked out seven tapes (VHS tends to have older, and therefore more interestingly weird, material than the library's DVD stock). One was a documentary about Finnish functionalist architecture (I made this sound piece
from a section about Alvar Aalto), but my favourite was a weird tape about Nobuyoshi Araki which just put a succession of his flower photos on the screen, with romantic piano music (I cut that out). The uncompromising minimalism was admirable; here was TV that knew its place: sois belle et tais-toi!
You can tell which media have been replaced or displaced -- stoned or dethroned -- by the speed you want them to go at. Lately I've been wanting my television and my music to go slow. By "slow" I mean that they should have as few beats or edits as possible, and no vocals or talking heads. I have a new contract with my television set, a verbal contract which goes something like: "Look, you used to be king, a window on the world. But now I give that sort of attention to my computer. I even watch television on my computer. So you need a new role. I've decided to make you a sort of lava lamp or screensaver. On the off-chance that I'm going to glance at you, please be showing something peaceful and attractive."
Let's talk gestalt
. My television has become ambient -- its new job is to be ground, not figure; to provide a backdrop, a field. What I play on it is essentially visual field recordings. The same thing has happened to my music tastes: the two records I play most are so ultra-minimalistic they make the latest offerings by Alejandra and Aeron or Lullatone seem baroque. They're "The Mountain Record" by Yuichiro Fujimoto and Toshiya Tsunoda's air-in-bottle recordings. "What's that sound?" Hisae asks as a low, throbbing air vibration colours the room. "It's music. Well, field recordings of air in a bottle. It's Toshiya Tsunoda."
The reason that television and music have become "ground" or "field" in this way is that only the internet can be figure. The internet is a "pull medium" -- you have to go fishing there. What you find is information, your friends, ideas, colours, music, video, reality, life (but, as yet, no smells or heat or food). Television was a "push medium" -- someone's job was to decide what to push at you, and you had the choice to zap or lap it up.
Now it's been displaced, television can do one of several things. It can try to become a pull medium itself -- by offering hundreds of channels, and allowing you to watch in whatever sequence you like. But it can never quite be the internet, so that's pretty much doomed. It can become an ultra-minimalist ambient medium, as mine has done. Or it can try and kick against the pricks, rage against the other machine, raise its voice, shout, bully and chide, or bang and crash at us like a Hollywood trailer
(good luck with those tinny speakers, television!).
The thing about shouting, though, when you're a jilted lover, is that it seduces no-one. It just gets you jilted even quicker. The people you're trying to seduce just block you out and get on with their lives. And, you know, I've noticed an odd thing. That minimalism and maximalism (the noisy, aggressive approach) boil down to the same thing in the end. They both lead to ambience. If you look at Japanese TV
, you'll see that it's very information rich. Text covers the screen, to get you up to speed on the theme of the show, what's been happening. Little inset boxes of reaction shots help you muster and master your own reactions. At first I thought this was something to do with a Japanese love of complexity, but then the penny dropped. This is television that's designed to be on in the background, on in the corner of a room. It's TV that knows you're not watching, and knows it may well have the sound turned down. So it adds captions, and allows you to catch up if you're just casting the odd glance its way. This, too, is ambient television.
Fast or slow, quiet or loud, it all boils down to the same thing in the end. Television has slipped into the background. In my house, at least, it's made the transition to a shimmering ambient field humbly -- and beautifully.