We live in fast-paced times. Our collective attention-span seems gnat-sized, lasting only as long as it takes to swipe left on our phones. But at the same time, practising mindfulness has increasingly become a cultural concern; some would say, survival strategy. The colouring book fad seems to have petered out, but yoga classes and mindfulness apps remain as popular as ever.
So it is interesting that Netflix has recently brought out a new series of shows that are about as slow as television can get. Slow TV (Sakte-TV) is a Norwegian concept that has captivated its native country, drawing in millions of viewers to watch the most mundane of events. The first episode, which aired in 2009, was a seven-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo that was watched by a million Norwegians.
Other shows followed, including twenty-four hours of salmon fishing, six hours of making a fire and watching it burn, and a twelve-hour knitting marathon.
Watching Slow TV is a unique experience. None of these shows, it must be said, are action-packed. Though there is some movement and occasional dialogue and even music and poetry, the vision is primarily atmospheric and naturalistic, focused primarily on the world around the camera. The format does not reward attention, for there is rarely anything exciting happening onscreen. Instead, it’s an encounter with a material world from which it is easy to disconnect in contemporary life. Making a fire and watching it burn is one of humanity’s earliest universal experiences, but it is one that many of us have lost. Fishing or knitting are similarly important, lost, activities – once necessary for survival, then hobbies, now rarely engaged in by large numbers of people.
The journey shows are the most modern of the Slow TV collection, suggesting that travel itself needs to be slowed down. The camera in the Bergen to Oslo show is fixed to the front of the train, suggesting a viewer looking through the window at Norway’s picturesque forests, rivers and mountains. Look around you on the tram or train on your morning commute and count how many people are not engrossed in their phone. Our collective attention is on the fast-paced world of the screen, rather than the material world around us, the landscape we are moving through, our fellow travelers, our own bodies. There is nothing very wrong with this per se – sometimes a train journey is the only time all day we have to ourselves – but as a cultural practice it can be seen to contribute to an erosion of an inner life unmediated by screens.
Slow TV seems slow in part because, unlike our standard experience of the world, it’s unshaped by interior consciousness. Instead of drowning out its viewers’ inner lives, it seems to want to be a backdrop that can give rise to their own reflections. A slow-TV program is like a great view you encounter on vacation: it’s always there, impervious, but it gains meaning and a story depending on what it conjures in your head.
Where most binge-watches relentlessly hit your narrative pleasure centres with one cliff-hanger after another, Slow TV has none of the tropes of regular TV. Instead, it provides nothing more than the slow turning of the world. In the end, Slow TV is a meditative experience that seeks to change our relationship with time, to slow it down. In its choice of subjects, it looks to experiences that seem real, authentic. It is the very opposite of the contrived ‘reality’ TV which still clogs up our screens. There are no celebrities, no scripts, no roses, no competition. Where reality TV can be seen as the ideological counterpoint to the all-against-all social war of neoliberal capitalism, Slow TV seeks to return us to a more authentic and mindful relationship to the natural world.
Yet it is a paradoxical idea whose very nature is wrought with ambivalence, for though it privileges the material world rather than the virtual world of screens, it is itself a mass media product. Instead of directly experiencing the real world in all its slowness, we now watch it onscreen, consuming it as we consume any other product.
In On Belief, Slavoj Žižek has talked about the ways in which New Age practices like yoga and meditation function as the ideological complement to today’s postmodern capitalism, allowing practitioners to participate fully in capitalism but ‘uncouple and retain inner peace’. This, he suggests, is profoundly de-politicising, and it is an argument that most assuredly applies here. Slow TV is an interesting development, one that fits in well with the current vogue for mindfulness, but in the end it is incomplete: individual spiritual practice cannot and will not ever replace collective political organisation, or change the means of production in the world in which we live.