Travelling over the last year, Henriette Heise and I have made an effort to watch TV with friends and acquaintances living in the cities we have visited. We are interested in exploring the different media landscapes that are found on TV around the world. Sometimes the media geography is continuous from city to city, other times there are conspicuous differences. Asking our local guides to pick up a remote control and show us around the media landscape they live in affords us a look at the images and rhythms and spaces unfolding in their homes via the TV screen.
To compare the different journeys we have been on, the Situationist dérive, a familiar strategy to many, may be a useful tool. “A technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances,” the dérive seems a fitting description of the perambulations we have made through media landscapes by means of a remote control. In particular, the Situationist emphasis on the speed of the passage, in counterpoint to contemplative observation, seems directly applicable to channel surfing, which usually takes place at high speed. The dérive was conceived as a means for unsystematic analysis of urban geography; our journeys into different media landscapes are a corresponding analysis of media geography.
Most people watch TV in the confines of their homes. That is the common situation and for most people watching TV is a private affair. Moreover, the remote as an extension of the hand has increasingly individualized TV viewing. When television was first introduced and caught on after World War II, it was conceived as a domestic gathering point for the entire family, but today many home have as many TV sets as they do people. Even if we sometimes watch TV with other people, we seldom watch TV with strangers. There are exceptions, of course, especially sporting events, when people have been known to transfer the stadium situation and act as if they were at the actual event when watching it on TV with strangers in a bar. Our journeys into different media landscapes were all made in private homes.
A media landscape can be explored with a single local guide, but a group of no more than three people is preferable. In Utrecht, Holland, we once organized a public media landscape with 12 people acting as guides, but the outcome was more generic, as personal attractions and aversions were lost in the overall survey. The landscape was not bad, but it represents a different quality than journeys in private homes controlled by smaller groups. We had actually considered introducing several remote controls to the 12-person group, but for technical reasons we abandoned the idea.
Medialandscapes: New York, London, Stockholm and Vienna
Because of our asking to be guided through the media landscape, our guides have to address the landscapes they usually flip through without much comment. This articulation, this talking, unfolds smoothly along a more or less straight course, relating to our specific route through the media landscape. The talking takes place across a montage of images and sequences created by the movement between channels. In this stream, some images become attractors that make us stay tuned for a while, partly to study what is shown and partly to talk about it, circling the subject or moving tangentially away from what we were seeing. Conversely, some images are repulsive, which may be another reason to stay with the channel, either to study the images more closely or to dress your repulsion in words. Another reaction to repulsive images is quickly zapping away.
The image and sound montage that makes up the journey represents an associative sequence of material that is more or less familiar to our guides and never entirely unfamiliar. Our guides usually maintain an overview of the channels they have available at home, as well as the images, faces, colors and rhythms streaming through them. In a split second, you can tell if you are watching MTV or ZDF or NBC. But the specific content is continually new and, on a journey through media geography, accident is a big factor in the montage of channels. Even our guides sometimes get lost.
In the last 30 years, various ethnographic studies have been made of the behavior and reactions of people watching TV. The studies were made expressly to attack the more structural and ideologically critical condemnation of television as technology that had dominated leftist media criticism. As the Situationists saw it, TV was probably the most abhorrent instance of the spectacle, and it’s far from our intention to deny this. The ethnographic studies indicated that TV was not as hegemonic as thought; viewers had many freedoms in terms of interpreting and using what they saw on TV. The ethnographic angle has a problem, though, in its too-isolated focus on the relation between the program (“the text,” as the studies call it) and how the program is read. It was based on the assertion that people watch the programs from the beginning to the end. Unlike the more contemplative situation of actually watching a program, the rapid passage between channels is more of an associative movement between images and sounds. In our journeys into media geography, we usually avoid hanging on to a program from beginning to end. We do this to avoid any risk of the dominant ideology taking over our nervous system.
Another aspect of the influence of television on us as viewers is that we should not underestimate the role of television as raw material for imagination. Imagination, probably, is always defined by percepts and TV is a powerful medium in that regard, even if it is more mirror than window. As Karl Marx said, “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image: everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.”
A journey through a given media landscape also creates a montage of the different programming genres available: news, sitcoms, commercials, game shows, cooking shows, movies, etc. Newspapers, likewise, don’t just print news but include many different genres and forms. Genre leaps underscore the spatial nature of the journey – international news is one kind of terrain, sports another, nature shows yet another, etc. Often, it’s the transitions between different terrains that create the dynamic momentum, the abrupt tempo shifts and the sometimes absurd drainage of meaning and disorientation that are so useful for dissolving overly ingrown media habits and for finding cracks in the ideological character of the landscapes. To date, we have recorded media landscapes in Vienna, Hamburg, New York, London and Stockholm. Compiling our recordings into thematic programs allows us to reach objective results.
[1.] I specifically have in mind David Morley’s The Nationwide Audience (1980).
Media Landscapes - The dialogues
We produced four episodes of Media Landscapes:
Media Landscape 1: A dream living landscape has been created,
Media Landscape 2: We can only whisper because the big cat might hear us,
Media Landscape 3: You have theworld around you,
Media Landscape 4: I did not know that we have a habour.
Here are excerpts from the dialogue of one of the programmes:
Jakob (off screen): The camera is running and what matters is that you are watching TV and you can comment as you wish...
Markus: Let’s watch something else.
Lisa: Eurosport – that is good fun.
Lisa: Most of the time.
Markus: I am not watching it very often.
Lisa: I watch it sometimes. For example ski jump. That’s what we watch. That’s always good fun. Or figure skating...
Christoph: I am watching televison alone, which I do very rarely... only, but when I am alone I watch a lot of trash.
Jakob (off screen): Yeah we are running.
Marina: Ok, so what is this?
Camelo: Oh this is about a... some type of an alien spaceship... but it is my kind of movie. Sci-fi, monsters and aliens... that’s my kind of stuff.
Marina: So would you... Oh it’s a gorilla... would you be watching it all night?
Camelo: Practically I watch a combination of sci-fi and action movies. And this is me: I just move around from finger to finger, back and forward and this is me.
Nina: That’s how you watch.
Camelo: This is her favorite show. Nina’s favorite show. Raymond.
Nina: It’s about family...
Camelo: Comedy, mainly comedy. They are rated one of the best comedy shows on TV.
Nina: They have finished to run all of them. They just repeat now.
Mike: The problem for me, to be honest with you, I don’t really watch TV with other people.
Mike: TV for me is very much about being on my own in this flat, being like an old granny, just needing voices... It’s like that period when I had... the reason I got this box was because I didn’t have... did I tell you that? My reception got all fucked up from the aerial and they fitted a new aerial to my block and it got interference from the Sky TV satellite, so all of the channels had this giant blue box in the middle of the screen, that said ’your Sky subscription has run out, you need to renew it’. Even just my ordinary terrestrial channels and it was covering like 75% of the screen and at first I was really outraged, but then I just started to watch TV like that anyway and I watched the whole of Fargo or some Cohen brothers film, you know... seeing like just the border of the whole screen. Because when you are on your own, it’s just like... you know like... and especially if you are like working from home... you are not having voices around and radio just seem to be depressing.
Eva: Shall we watch the weather?
Ralo: Yeah. I think weather is really interesting. Isn’t there like all this research on how weather maps look on TV and what that says?
Eva: Christa Kummer... That is on this Grossglockner, this Austrian mountain.
Ralo: The highest Austrian mountain is 3900 ... 907?
Eva: I don’t know actually.
Ralo: We don’t know, we learnt at school, but we forgot.
Ralo: And every night there is a lot of talk about what Christa Kummer wears.
Ralo: Isn’t it always the case?
Eva: Because she is so extraordinary well dressed?
Ralo: No, but like it’s just...
Eva: I think people think she is not good dressed at all. That is why they talk about it.
Ralo: Here my grandfather would say: This is too pink. It doesn’t fit to the yellow.
Eva: So it’s getting warmer in the weekend.
Ralo: But they said it would rain.
Emma: I also think even if... I don’t... because even if you share certain TV programmes... you just don’t... even if you watch them you just don’t want to admit that and even if there is someone else who does admit it, you just don’t want to get into having a conversation about certain programmes that you feel bad enough watching anyway...
Mike: But you would never watch ITV at eight o’clock on a weekday night would you?
Emma: I never watch ITV.
Mike: You never watch ITV?
Emma: I only watch Channel Five... BBC2 and Channel Four. I never watch ITV. Very rarely BBC1.
Mike: See this is the ad break where I normally watch Channel Four news, ‘cause it’s a really long ad break, so I can get most of the ’end of the first big story’ and the beginning of the ’second one’.
Marina: Then you miss all these ads.
TV: Vierzig lange bitte, vierzig lange.
Christoph: Hmmm, that’s boring...
Christoph: Uh, Mister Bean! I like Mister Bean. I look in fact a little like Mister Bean... that’s what people say in Indonesia...
Emma: See this is where I feel more at home.
Mike: What channel is this?
Mike: What BBC?
Mike: Is it?
TV: I am glad to say the wind is slowing down...
Christoph (translates a German voice on the television): You know what’s expecting you... Your husband knows... You are allowed to look at everything.
Christoph: Her T-shirt says: I want to have the most happy time of my life from now on. I don’t know what she is crying about...
Christoph (translates): First I saw the couch, I didn’t dare to go on looking. I just thought, oh, I can’t believe this. I was so happy, because that sofa we had was a catastrophe. I am speechless... Ohh the ceiling is new too, this was a living room in the morning and 12 hours later, completely different picture. From ehhh bricolage to furniture collection: A dream land... a dream living landscape has been created. Now eating and sitting area fluently fall into each other. Mediterranean plants and decorations... White ceiling makes the space much bigger.
Eva: Ralo and me are coming from Hilbilly land.
Ralo: That is where the red arrow is. And the red arrow is the communist danger coming from the east.
Eva: And we are coming from Brunland – which is like the region with the border to the Hungarian border. Like it is this little, little part on the...
Ralo: Where the “10” is.
Eva: And this Brunland, the place we come from, it is like.. how would you describe it?
Ralo: It looks like Denmark, it is very flat, it is not Austrian at all.
Eva: It is very flat and it’s a region, where there are jokes about the people who live there.
Ralo: Like Jutland in Denmark.
Eva: And in Austria you always have the jokes about Brunland. Yeah we are from that kind of area and I think I like it the most actually. But the thing I like in Brunland is that it is so flat and nothing goes on there, because when I go with a car to the other side of Austria, through all the mountains, I really get claustrophobic, when you are going through the streets with all these mountains.
Ralo: You never see the horizon.
Eva: And it is always dark, because the sun can not get through.
Mike: Actually you see, if we where really watching TV, we would be watching Simpsons on Sky One.
Marina and Emma: Ok.
Mike: There is a quadruple bill on weekday’s nights
Marina: Sure, then let’s go and watch that.
Markus: Should we watch..
Lisa: Let’s move on...
Markus: Simpsons, again. That was on earlier today. Now it’s on again.
Lisa: It’s the next episode.
Markus: They show probably three episodes every day. This is Z-TV. They are always funny. I would probably watch this... rather than the literature programme ... maybe.
Emma: Bingo. Here is the Simpsons.
Emma: So we are watching Sky, but I don’t understand how we are watching Sky?
Mike: What do you mean?
Emma: But you don’t have a dish?
Mike: No, Sky One is like a, what do you call it...
Marina: The poor man’s version?
Mike: Yes, it’s like the main Sky Channel they give to other providers as well.
TV (Simpsons): Well, Cadettes, its been a great year. You’ve all worked very hard, developing academic skills and general killing skills. These skills are nothing without courage and stamina. The academy tested these skills by putting you up against each other in a two day battle royal...
Marina: Battle royal!
Mike: This isn’t a very good episode.
Emma: So in the US, would the Simpsons be on at six o’clock? Is that a universal norm?
Marina: Uhm, I can’t remember. I think they just have them, like here, like different times on different channels. So maybe you can always watch the Simpsons.
Emma: Where ever you are in the world... Simpsons will always be on.
Camelo: That is one of my favorite cartoons... the Boy Genius.
Nina: It’s a cartoon. Nickelodeon is a channel for kids.
Camelo: Yeah. Nickelodeon is for kids, cartoons I like. It relaxes me.
Marina: But there is also comedy channels.
Nina: Comedy channel 45.
Camelo: This is another one of her shows...
Nina: One of my shows?
Camelo: Yeah, That you like. This is one of her favorites – Friends – also has to do with comedy.
TV: ... so you are saying ... I have become so ...
Henriette: Do you use the television listings?
Markus: No. In the papers? ... No, very rarely. Sometimes maybe. I look quickly through and I spot something – that one I have to watch, a film or...
Lisa: It is very rarely. Maybe when you are really tired and knows that you are going to lie in front of the TV, that you look... Or someone has told you that something will be there.
Markus: It is mainly zapping and... really lazy, lazy and we take it easy... watching nothing special, I think.
Thanks to: Lisa Torell, Markus Degerman, Christoph Schäfer, Emma Hedditch, Marina Vismidt, Mike Sperlinger, Nina Mendez, Camelo Mendez, Eva Egermann and Ralo Meyer.
Text by Jakob Jakobsen 2006