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Welcome to the Peepshow

200907hal.jpg
Illustration by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.


It’s a surreal experience—interviewing a guy about an online “lifecasting” experiment and unwittingly becoming a part of it. But if there’s one lesson we can take away from the hour we spent with Hal Niedzviecki and his surveillance equipment (in his home, no less), it’s this: we should probably get used to it. That is, we should—and you should—probably get used to being watched.


Just a few months ago, Niedzviecki (author and Broken Pencil‘s fiction editor) published The Peep Diaries. Both a sampling of other reali-demics’ theories and a first-person peek into peep culture, The Peep Diaries started a conversation—one that Niedzviecki decided to continue long after he’d sent his final book edits back to his publishing house (San Francisco’s unwaveringly cool City Lights Books—just in case you were curious). Lucky for Niedzviecki, he’d met a few other likeminded, peep-curious Canadians who were just as interested in telling the story of “peep” and exploring and exploiting the culture that has emerged from this no-longer-novel (albeit ever-relevant) phenomenon.
At a reality TV convention in Nashville, Tennessee, Niedzveicki bumped into Chocolate Box Entertainment’s co-producers, Sally Blake and Jeannette Loakman. They were all there to peep the peepers and to peep the peeped; they all wanted to get closer to the reality TV superfans—and they wanted to rub shoulders with a few of the pseudo stars these fans had helped to celebrify. All in the name of research, of course. Indeed, Blake and Loakman were there to research a “reality” documentary they were planning on pitching to the CBC’s now defunct docu-channel, The Lens, and Niedzviecki was, naturally, looking for anecdotal add-ons for his book. So the three misfit peepers got to talking—and what comes next probably won’t surprise you: Blake, Loakman, and Niedzviecki thought, hey, there might be an opportunity for collaboration.
For the man who’d tried—and failed—to become a reality TV star (apparently, reality TV casting agents just didn’t think he was reality TV material), surely being “cast” as the lead in a peep documentary was the next best thing. But it wouldn’t stop there. And by “it,” we mean Niedzviecki’s quest to let others invade his privacy. Outfitting his own West-end Toronto home with mics and surveillance cameras, Niedzviecki took his peep research to the next level; literally turning the camera on himself, he became, at once, the scientist and the guinea pig. And everyone who stepped foot in his living room became a part of his experiment.
And so it was, on an overcast Tuesday morning, that we literally wandered into Niedzviecki’s peepcast. Originally our interview was going to happen in a coffee shop on Bloor, but we received an email that indicated Chocolate Box Entertainment’s producers would rather that our conversation took place at Niedzviecki’s home. In other words, someone thought our interview with Niedzviecki might provide interesting fodder for the peepcast—and maybe some “real” footage for Blake and Loakman’s documentary.

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Screenshots of our “peepcasted” interview with Hal Niedzviecki and Sally Blake.


After we walked through the living room of Niedzviecki’s peepcast-prepped house and into his family’s kitchen, the three of us started chatting—Torontoist, Niedzviecki, and Blake. Oh, and we heard Loakman’s voice over Niedzviecki’s speakerphone; she wanted the password to the author’s Facebook account.
“You can add some new salacious revelations that I don’t actually make,” said Niedzviecki, before turning to Blake. “Never a dull moment here. Want my bank account number, too?” he joked, before ending the call.
And there it was. Niedzviecki’s first performance of the real—in front of us, that is. Sure, Niedzviecki had been “peepcasting” his life over the internet for two days already, and we’d watched a few vignettes online, but this was our first chance to see Niedzviecki try to make the boring things in life—the everyday minutia—somehow more interesting, more palatable for a viewing audience. And Niedzviecki wasn’t the only one feeling that pressure.
“The first day of shooting, I said, ‘I know you like your gardens,’” said Blake. “So we went outside and it was like, okay, ‘cue [taking out] the compost.’ Then we wanted to capture him in the shower. Even though he doesn’t typically shower at two in the afternoon. And we’d say, ‘can’t you lather yourself up a little bit more? We want more lather.’ And as we were saying this I realized: it all sounds so bizarre.”
Bizarre, yes. But was it real?
“It was real, in the sense that we’re not lying: he takes showers, he does like his garden—it’s just that we had to capture it on schedule… Two people on the [peepcast] blog were like, ‘you can’t make stuff up.’ It makes you take a step outside of your own process, makes you realize what you’re doing.”
How much are Niedzviecki, Blake, and Loakman tinkering with reality for the sake of a peepcast and subsequent documentary? How much are they blurring the lines between the “staged” and the “real”—between what is contrived for the camera and what just naturally unfolds on its own? But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Of peepcasting, of lifecasting, of Tweeting, of blogging, of airing one’s proverbial dirty laundry over Facebook. We’re letting people into our lives, we’re asking to be peeped—but we’re also manipulating the data and grooming our digital image before it’s consumed. Maybe this is our new reality.

Comments

  • http://undefined Erin

    Interesting take on things, Karen! Very cool piece you’ve done on the project (which you are now a part of!). Hal is actually peepcasting live from the road this week, as he and Sally travel to LA and Washington for various events and appointments.
    It is Hal’s real life on camera, for sure, as nothing is scripted. As Sally freely admitted, they do like to put him in situations to capture different aspects of his life, and they definitely want to see how far they can push him to expose himself (i.e. putting a livecam in the washroom), but everything you get is pure Hal – he’s no actor or tv star, and it shows.
    I would encourage everyone who reads this to check out the peepcast (www.thepeepdiaries.com) and push him yourselves – let him know how he’s doing, and how he can do better. He’s new at lifecasting, so let him know what he should be doing (chatting more, chatting less – is he too inhibited? Is he giving you a real sense of who he is? Is he awkward on camera, too reserved, too comfortable?). He’s doing this as a social experiment – people should feel free to go online and watch, connect, or push his buttons. Just lurk, or heckle if you must – whatever floats your boat.
    I should also add that the “Can Cam” in Hal’s home is insanely popular – apparently, people want REALLY to see Hal pee. Go figure.
    Anyways, great piece, Karen – thanks!
    Erin from Choc Box

  • http://undefined montauk

    + Manipulated self-presentation or image-grooming isn’t new, technology merely offers more avenues for it. This fleeting pre-technology world that writers interminably allude to – the one where people can’t misrepresent themselves, images never lie, and nobody gets their kicks from sex and violence – is a concoction, not a casualty.
    + Performed self-presentation isn’t inherent in online activity (or even camsluttery) any more than it is in offline self-presentation. I mean, straight chicks can make out with each other in a bar solely for male attention – but present any artifice online and it’s all whoaaa! Editorialized hand-wringing about Teh Artifice Of Teh Intarwebs!
    + Webcams remind me of how women tend to be cast as visual stimuli, i.e., “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” A webcam guy cued to take out the compost is like an off-camera woman cueing herself to walk through Yorkville in a short skirt and stiletto boots. Both are supposed to look unrehearsed and oblivious to audience.

  • http://undefined rek

    The preferred term is camwhoring.

  • http://undefined montauk

    I wanted something that ended in y. I typed camwhorery but it didn’t look right. How things look is important to me. That’s why I spent like fifteen minutes editing that comment so that each point was four lines long. I’m fucking weird.

  • http://undefined Erin

    I like the term camwhoring, and may refer to the documentary as such from now on.

  • http://undefined weekendpictures.ca

    For those interested, here’s some footage of Hal discussing Peep culture and his garden:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNBTNrjVzl4

  • http://undefined Andrew J.

    Nice piece about Hal, Peep culture and the documentary in production (I also like the illustration). However, I just want to correct a small error in the line: “CBC’s now defunct docu-channel, The Lens”. Actually, “The Lens” is a weekly documentary series that features independent Canadian-made docs. It still runs on the television network CBC Newsworld. The film “Peep Me” has been commissioned (by me) for “The Lens” for telecast on CBC Newsworld.
    It’s true that “The Lens” will soon end as a series brand in September, but the films we’ve already commissioned (like “Peep Me”) will still air on CBC Newsworld (under the “Passionate Eye” banner) when they’re completed. We’re really looking forward to this one. It’s going to be a winner!
    Keep watching Hal – and watch for the film when it’s done.
    cheers,
    Andrew Johnson
    Commissioning Editor
    The Lens, CBC Newsworld