The Photo Finish

McLuhan describes how Cubism is the modern art form that first branches away from the fixed perspective of visual space, favouring instead a style that depicts the subject simultaneously from a multiplicity of visual perspectives (ie. at one fixed time). McLuhan suggests that Cubism "is one of the painterly forms of acoustic space". The effect is decidedly tactile.

Virilio, on the other hand, is profoundly concerned with an art movement in some ways influenced by Cubism's rejection of earlier artistic practices: Futurism. The Futurists were particularly interested in speed, technology and violence and their work featured industrial forms and movement to demonstrate the technological triumph of man over nature. "Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed." — from Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto.

We might take this opportunity for contrast: on the left, Picasso's Cubist Woman Playing the Mandolin (1909), and on the right, Duchamp's Futurist-influenced Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Note how Duchamp introduces motion by superimposing images one on top of another.


At this point, we turn to the photo finish system used in elite-level track events. As noted earlier, when speeds increase and precision becomes more requisite, it stresses the surveillant gaze and its fixed point of view. Electronic systems are required to aid human control of the event. Photo finishes supplement human perception.

So how do these photo finish systems operate? We find a description at the Seiko Sports Timing web site:

In events like track or short track speed skating events, a number of athletes may cross the finish line at the same time. In order to determine the order of finish, a slit video takes the image of athletes crossing the finish line. As the name suggests, a thin slit of 20/1000ths of a millimeter lined up on the finish line is used to take as many as 2000 images per second (or one picture every 0.0005 seconds). These extremely fine slivers of video data are then used to calculate finishing times. An assembled version of these thin images is instantly transmitted to the stadium scoreboard and TV as the photo-finish picture. Such images are shown on the IAAF's website.

Slit video systems are no longer the exception, but if you think about the previous film-based photo finish devices, it would take at least a minute for the complete process, since exposed film from the finish had to be developed on the spot before it could be viewed and the judgements made. Through the introduction of the slit video system, which dispenses with the process of development, the finishing order can be decided much more quickly. Thanks to the introduction of color systems it has become possible to identify athletes by the color of their uniform.

Photo Finish

Returning to the art world, then, it appears that the contemporary photo finish of sophisticated world-class electronic timing systems inverts the principle of Cubism: instead of the viewer simultaneously observing an object from myriad fixed spaces, the photo finish allows the viewer to experience many different times from one fixed point of view. The effect is distinctly turntablist: by pulling the assembled image back and forth across the needle/camera — a particularly audile-tactile experience — one is able to reconstitute the concluding footsteps of any individual high-speed race. Often the audience has no idea what just happened without its availability. In essence, the "future" of high-performance sporting competitions has caught up to the legacy of Futurist art.


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  1. sportsBabel » Marginal Notes on Notes on Gesture says:

    [...] measurement during the past century, from stroboscopic photography to force plate analysis to high-speed videography. As Francesco Careri suggests, walking is the "first aesthetic act" of humans in that it [...]