Essay by Isaac Rooks
It’s a hip yet unremarkable looking coffee shop. Oslo residents might recognize it as the Java Espressobar, designed by architect turned World Barista Champion Robert Thoreson.1 There’s a counter with four stools in front, and behind it are various café accouterments. Black menus on the mottled green walls list the various items for sale, but the feathered patrons already know what they want: seeds. This is Piip-Show, a live streaming Norwegian bird watching program run through state broadcaster NRK.
There are two streams to choose from. One is the aforementioned coffee bar. A camera is trained on a miniature set that blocks out the natural scene within which it is located. Birds fly in from the surrounding environs, but to a viewer it appears as if they have entered an urban café. The other stream shows a nest designed to look like a suburban house. Again, no element of the surrounding natural world is visible.
For a three-month run, until June 2014, viewers can watch these birds 24/7. As the official site promises: “These Tits…Are Suitable For Work.”2 Ornithological double entendres notwithstanding, Piip-Show viewers might not see tits or any other birds. The nest is a fairly safe bet, but café watchers could be in for a long wait. The streaming clock, a small screen of rotating images and text next to the bar, and faint background noise might be the only indication the connection works. The seeds offer an incentive, but the birds have their own lives. It does not help that differing time zones mean US and Norwegian bird-watching schedules do not synch up. Still, an expectation of patience is built into Piip-Show’s genre.
Piip-Show originally aired as an Internet feature in 2003, created by its current mastermind Magne Klann. In an interview with The Guardian, Klann explains that the idea came “before all this minute-for-minute programming, which they call Slow TV … I don’t want to take credit for all the other projects, but in a way we were the first.”3 That fact could be easily forgotten, as Piip-Show returns under the auspices of Slow TV, the unusual program format for which Norway is internationally notorious.
Slow TV began in 2009 with Bergensbanen: Minutt for Minutt [Bergen Line: Minute for Minute]. This seven hour and sixteen minute train POV provided viewers with an “orgy of beautiful nature,” and broadcasters with absurdly high ratings (1.2 million viewers out of a national population of around 5 million).4 Slow TV became a national phenomenon. Subsequently, other similar events have aired. The longest was a live five-day broadcast of a boat sailing north through the Norwegian fjords (Hurtigruten: Minutt for Minutt). These programs’ incredible success resulted in the format being bought by the American production company LMNO, which hopes to translate it to American television.
It’s logical to question whether such a leap will be possible. Norway is a unique country, and its people often cite Norwegian exceptionalism to foreign journalists trying to explain how and why something like Slow TV can be so popular. Sociologist Arve Hjelseth describes it as a “celebration of the Norwegian way of doing things, which we believe to be slightly different.”5 Yet it speaks to something larger than Norwegian idiosyncrasy. Commentators describe it as a form of anti-television, an “antidote” to the popularly demonized medium.6 That sentiment can extend to envisioning Slow TV as an oasis from hectic and homogenized modernity. Lori Rothschild Ansaldi, LMNO’s senior VP of development, explains the format’s appeal: “In a world where everything moves so fast, it was refreshing to find something so captivating that you did not want to look away from it.”7
Slow TV’s programs can be roughly divided into two categories. There are programs documenting culturally significant processes, such as sweater knitting and wood burning. Then there are shows documenting natural landscapes, such as the train and boat broadcasts referenced above. These are landscapes that are beautiful, but also mundane. Viewers do not simply get the amazing vistas; they also get views of the suburban and urban environments scattered along the route. Through watching in real-time, one gets a sense how all these elements are linked and located in relation to each other. Nature is never fully remote. Even when audiences get the classic nature scenes, they are doubly technologically mediated. Not only is the train cutting through that landscape, it is also being filmed and broadcast. Piip-Show represents Slow TV’s foray into wildlife programming.
John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” suggests that capitalist modernity and industrialization resulted in the “historic loss” of the age-old connection between humans and animals.8 Animals have been physically, but not mentally or culturally, displaced. People still need to connect to animals. Berger describes public zoos as an attempt to combat urban alienation from nature and wildlife. However, in his mind those encounters with denaturalized (uprooted and transplanted) animals are bound to disappoint, as there can be no reciprocal gaze, and therefore no real connection. In modern conditions, “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.”9
That unequal gaze characterizes many popular wildlife and nature documentaries. Public zoos curate nature for visitors, gathering into one space an international menagerie of exotic and charismatic animals to consume visually. Traditional documentaries provide a similar function. They showcase nature with the boring bits edited out. They favor spectacular imagery, as was the case with BBC’s Planet Earth (2006), a series that used HD technology to present “Planet Earth as you’ve never seen it.” They also favor drama and action. The Air Jaws trend amply illustrates this development. Great white sharks simply do not cut it anymore. Programs need to show massive sharks launching themselves into the air to truly impress. It’s those astonishing animals that people want to see. When these shows do not rely on a human adventurer to guide the narrative, they often visually efface the presence of humans just behind the camera. It creates the illusion that viewers are getting a rare look at a pristine natural world.
Much as Slow TV differs from popular television, Piip-Show offers a stark contrast to those documentary trends. It is a nature program largely without curation. Piip-Show and its fans might capture screen shots or video footage to circulate, but viewers watching with the actual stream could face long stretches of inaction, punctuated by surprise encounters. It’s a very different mode of engagement from the immediate gratification provided by most wildlife programs. Scholars writing on nature webcams argue this type of spectatorship offers a more authentic sense of and intimate connection with the natural world.10 One gets a feel for nature’s slow rhythms and the quality of animal life. However, most of those scholars consider objects that include the natural landscape. In addition to offering minimal action, Piip-Show also features very little actual nature as its built set obscures the larger scene.
Seeing birds and squirrels interact with a set recreating an urban human environment brings to mind Victorian grotesques. These are anthropomorphic taxidermy displays, where animals are posed in humanoid scenes and postures. Rachel Polinquin discusses this practice, noting it does not offer commentary on either the animals or humans.11 Nothing can be learned from such scenes. They simply highlight human mastery, as disposable animals “become playthings to be looked at by a disconnected, detached observer.”12 Of course, Piip-Show’s patrons are vibrant and do not carry the same unsettling pall of death. Still, could something similar to Polinquin’s statement apply to Piip-Show’s unseen global audience, sitting at their computers and watching unsuspecting animals lured into this scene for their amusement? I argue not, as the mastery so inherent to grotesques, and conventional wildlife programs, is fundamentally undercut by Piip-Show’s format.
The reason Piip-Show evokes such examples is because it plays with their conventions. It’s not just the setting of the show that encourages audiences to view the birds through an anthropomorphic lens. It indulges and encourages reality show style rhetoric when discussing the program. The official site lays out the scene: “Different personalities meet inside the bar. Among others a short tempered nuthatch, a blue tit with the memory of a gold fish, a happy-go-lucky great tit, and a depressed bullfinch [[sic] … Like in any other bar there is bickering, petty theft, fighting and attempts at romance.”13 This plays up the difference between Slow TV’s version of reality TV and the genre’s maligned popular expression. It also tweaks the tendency of people and documentaries to anthropomorphize animal subjects.
The setting’s artificiality does not just indirectly comment on other media. It also performs the Slow TV trick of highlighting mediation. Conventional nature webcams frustrate the desire to gaze at animals by not making them constantly available. However, even if the animals are not present, one can see the landscape in which they live. There is always something natural the visitor gets to experience vicariously. The placement of the camera in an otherwise pristine environment also feeds into the impression of successful and covert surveillance. Piip-Show’s format does not allow the same kind of scopophilic thrill.
There’s a direct acknowledgment of the artificial and constructed setup, where food has been left out to lure birds in front of the camera. The gaze this staged encounter allows is also limited. It restricts viewers’ ability to survey the natural surroundings. Importantly, one can still hear the sounds of that hidden scene. Sometimes there’s tantalizing birdsong in the background, even when no birds are present. Sometimes snow or rain falls in front of the camera. All these things frustratingly point to a larger world that audiences are denied. Its setup blatantly thwarts the desire for a mediated “authentic” landscape. Piip-Show’s novelty and humor can draw in audiences. It offers a level of satisfaction for viewers looking for a meditative experience, punctuated by surprise encounters with the natural world. Yet it offers no false promises. Surveillance of the natural world can only provide so much. It’s the teaser. If you want the real thing, you’ll have to leave your computer.
1. Liz Clayton, “At Java in Oslo, Specialty Coffee is For the Birds,” Sprudge: Coffee News & Culture, last modified March 19, 2014, sprudge.com/java-in-oslo-specialty-coffee-is-for-the-birds.html. ↵
3. Richard Orange, “Feathers Fly in Norwegian Wild Bird Reality-TV Show,” Guardian, last modified March 18, 2014, theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/18/norway-launches-wildbird-reality-tv-show. ↵
4. Akira Okrent, “4 Shows from Norway’s Crazy, Successful Slow TV Experiment,” The Week, last modified June 7, 2013, theweek.com/article/index/245300/4-shows-from-norways-crazysuccessful-slow-tv-experiment. ↵
5. Ellen Emmerentze Jervell, “Norway’s Hit Reality TV: 18 Hours of Swimming Salmon,” Wall Street Journal, last modified June 16, 2013, online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324904004578539110228634592. ↵
6. Stuart Heritage, “Slow TV: the Norwegian Movement with Universal Appeal,” Guardian, last modified October 4, 2014, theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2013/oct/04/slow-tv-norwegian-movement-nrk. ↵
7. Kevin Ritchie, “LMNO to Remake Norway’s Slow TV in the U.S,” Realscreen, last modified November 5, 2013, realscreen.com/2013/11/05/lmno-to-remake-norwaysslow-tv-in-the-u-s/. ↵
8. John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in About Looking (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 28. ↵
9. Ibid., 16. ↵
10. Ike Kamphof, “Linking Animal and Human Places: The Potential of Webcams for Species Companionship,” Animal Studies Journal 2, no.1 (2013). ↵
11. Rachel Polinquin, “Allegory,” in The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2012), 184. ↵
12. Ibid., 181. ↵
13. “About the Piip-Show.” ↵
Isaac Rooks is a Graduate School Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Critical Studies Division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. His research centers on depictions of landscapes and animals in film, particularly in horror fiction. Think: films where animals attack.
www.clawedup.tumblr.com | @Isaac_Rooks