March 25th, 2009


World-viewing city walking

Let's attempt an axiom. The person who really loves life is wary, in general, of edited highlights -- "the best bits, with all the boring bits edited out". Someone who loves football isn't going to be satisfied with a Best Goals compilation, and someone who loves sex won't settle for a tape of cum shots. It's the indirection, the boring stuff, that makes the highlights, when they arrive, high. If you bypass the boring bits, the exciting bits ultimately get boring too.

For a long time I've been interested in ambient TV, and by that I mean, essentially, TV with all the boring and random and awkward bits -- the bits excluded in the edited highlights -- put back in. Because the television we normally see on television just has too much clutter, too much chatter, too much going on. It's all too interesting, and in the end that gets incredibly boring.

Exactly two years ago I made a DVD of ambient video loops. These were boring but evocative scenes -- an open fire, a plant twitched by the wind -- looped so that they became constants, solid states. In a way, of course, these were edited highlights; the best bits of reality, selected and then looped. Not a goals compilation, perhaps, but the same goal played over and over again until it becomes something calm, formal, a backdrop.

That backdrop idea reminds me of something Eno quoted from Satie on the sleeve of Discreet Music, his first ambient record. Satie had said that he wanted his "furniture music" to mingle with the sounds of cutlery and chatter, the sounds of other activities. That's "backdrop" music, a music self-effacing (and dull) enough to take its place as just one element amongst many in a landscape, and share the space with other sounds, other activities. Eno said such music should be "as ignorable as it's interesting".

Two years ago, blogging about my ambient TV loops, I said "The reason that television and music have become "ground" or "field" in this way is that only the internet can be figure." Older media like music and TV just had to take their place in the background; I was too busy clicking through web pages to pay them much attention. The internet had become the place where I searched for "edited highlights".

But two years on, I find I'm expecting the internet, too, to start falling into the background. I want the internet (and perhaps this is a mark of its mellowing maturity as a medium; it lost its teenage stridency, its me-me-me quality) to get ambient, to get dull. I'm not talking about those 2007 buzz terms "the internet of things" or "everyware" or "pervasive computing" or "ubiquitous computing" or "ambient intelligence". I suppose I'm thinking more of the internet as a medium in which you can go for a daily walk, without really doing, or expecting to do, anything significant. I like the Japanese word hibisanpo, "an everyday walk".

The exemplary 2009 version of online hibisanpo is "going for a walk in Google Streetview". It's something I do almost daily now. I'll drop the little yellow Google flaneur somewhere random and just walk around, with the images bled right to the edges of my screen and the screen turned up bright. It's like a virtual holiday; you really do have a sense of being somewhere and strolling around, and what gives it that feel is the fact that not much happens, and the scenery is altered by your decisions.

The closest old-fashioned TV got to Google Streetview hibisanpo may be the NHK show Sekaimachi (世界ふれあい街歩き), which translates as something like "World-Viewing City Walking". The show airs once a week, from 11.35pm to midnight twenty on Sunday nights. Each week it shows a different city. Last week they were in Singapore. Here (it's the only online video of Sekaimachi I was able to find) is an episode set in New Zealand.

The Sekaimachi formula is that the camera literally walks around a town, encountering interesting things along the way. It's Steadicam, and there's a voice over, a narrator who asks people what they're doing, or apologizes when the camera intrudes or takes too long climbing the stairs, following someone up to an attic filled with whisky barrels. Sometimes Google-type maps appear on the screen, showing the camera's current location and tying the sequences together spatially. Unlike Streetview, though, human faces aren't blurred. And you're on the sidewalk, not out in the road in a car.

Now, Sekaimachi is deceptive. In fact it's a series of "edited highlights" -- setpiece interviews, tours of sites of interest -- strung together by some sequences of seemingly-random live action. I was "walking around New Zealand" in Streetview the other day, and I mostly saw suburban streets that looked like the worst bits of the UK and US put together. If the Sekaimachi team found something more interesting, it's because what they always do is fly into a location, research it for a week, bring back photos and Handicam recordings to Tokyo, discuss it with NHK producers, then fly back to the location with a shooting schedule and all the necessary permissions and interviews set up.

There's something weird about the way this unwieldy Steadicam thing -- you glimpse it ("yourself") in reflections sometimes -- walks into a crowded restaurant and the people there don't really react. There's also something weird about the way this monstrosity approaches an interviewee and "your" voice is just a voice over, whereas the interviewee's voice is there in the actual environment. It's as if you're just thinking your lines, and the other person is somehow reading your mind and responding. It's also weird that "your" voice is in Japanese, whereas the interviewee's voice is in the language of the country you're visiting.

Sekaimachi isn't quite "locative TV", nor "ambient TV", nor "Andy Warhol's Nothing Special". There's too much happening for it to be any of those. It is, though, the closest TV ever came (before being dethroned by the internet) to hibisanpo: a nice, peaceful, relatively random daily walk. As such, it might be the closest TV ever came to loving life.