I recorded a conversation with Mikhail about his life and the moments TV intersects it. Mikhail has experienced three distinct relationships to viewing TV, that have been formed in three separate countries; Sierra Leone, Guinée, and Australia. Mikhail starts with his birth place, Sierra Leone.
Mikhail grew up with nine siblings in a small house, that required them to all share one double bed. Mikhail recalls his childhood to me with amusement and an awareness of the differences he had compared to mine. “You sleep on a bed, don’t you? I don’t.” Even though Mikhail lives with his girlfriend in Sydney he still feels more comfortable sleeping on the floor or the couch. “My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy” he says. “That’s a little crazy.” I say. Mikhail’s life was crazy. He grew up during the 10-year civil war that periled the country. The thought played in my memories of the movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo Di Caprio. For him, he doesn’t count those years. Mikhail believes he’s still in his 20s, despite the scars across his body inflicted during the civil war. Mikhail doesn’t hesitate to draw upon the fortune he had in his small house. He treats bad memories with sincere passion, but finds the humor in his past.
“I knew the name of my first TV, Paul” he smiles and throws his arms towards me. The family’s Sharp TV was remembered like someone’s first car. It was his job every day to clean the TV before he went to school. His parents expected it to be cleaned regardless of whether the electricity was on. Due to the civil war it was common to not have electricity for 24 hours, and up to 3 weeks. Sometimes it would never come back. But he would still have to polish the TV like it was the most important asset in the house. I laughed at the notion of cleaning a TV. It seemed ridiculous. I try to clean my TV every month, but it’s not a priority. “Don’t you see” Mikhail says. His voice rises with enthusiasm. “It’s a class symbol.” The measure of wealth in a family was defined by the state of their TV.
Mikhail recalled the times when the electricity was working, his Mum’s favourite video Michael Jackson’s Thiller would be playing. “It would always be playing.” Sometimes Mikhail would come home after a game of Soccer. Before he could sit down and watch with his mum he would have to have a shower. Mikhail preemptively shook his head. Having a shower was not the same treatment that I was accustomed to. He would have to go get the water, which would take 10-15 minutes. In Sierra Leone, if your water stopped running (which was not uncommon) you would have to go door to door until you found access to a tap outside. Mikhail highlights that the sign of a tap was another class symbol. Often where you found a tap, the owner would also have a TV.
In this case, Mikhail recalls spending hours watching Soccer through people’s blinds. There was no sound, just the glimpse of a working TV in the other room. This gap in the blinds was often positioned on purpose to display the ownership of a TV. To make it worse, many kids would fight to peep through a 10 cm gap to share in the experience of a mute soccer game. If the owner turned around and noticed you, and they were in a bad mood, Mikhail recalled some throwing boiling water or urine onto them. Owner’s would put a lock on their outside taps to minimise people watching through the blinds. Whatever side of the window you were on defined your class. It was a privilege in Sierra Leone to own and watch a TV.
At one point during the war his family had to escape. In 1999-2000 Mikhail escaped to the neighbouring country, Guinée. Here, Mikhail appreciates how the country uses TV. The TV in Guinee is used as a community basis. He remembers Saturday’s, or Rage day, music videos would play all day. If you have a TV, you bring the TV outside to street and your neighbours would bring chairs and watch Rage together – all day and into the night. His siblings would fall asleep, his mother would fall asleep. But still the community would continue watching.
When Mikhail finally arrived in Australia, he bought a TV. Mikhail never cleans his TV now. He makes a curious remark that his TV invades his privacy, just like he and his friends did to others. Mikhail has experienced a shift in his relationship to his TV. He now chooses what he wants to watch. On reflection, Mikhail wonders if these experiences drive him to create his own community projects.