Lightness and the Tactile Burden

"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the problem of flow, particularly the movement-flow of bodies. Sport, in its rational industrial form, poses a body that is broken down by disciplinary technology before being reassembled in pursuit of maximal production efficiency and minimal political insubordination. This isn't just in a metaphorical sense: the disciplined sporting body is formed in a process of enclosure, surveillance, spatiotemporal constraint and discursive construct directly analogous to the processes of labour production in the factory.

We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there's a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports - surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding - take the form of an entering into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting into orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort (Deleuze, 1995).

The surfer, on the other hand — surfer of waves, surfer of electromagnetic transmissions, surfer of relational databases and other networked information-constructs — begins to shed the weightiness of the rigid modern body in favour of a light, flowing postmodern body, a body that desires expressivity in its many forms. Skateboarders, concrete kin to the surfers of liquid waves, similarly desire expressivity as emergent from the body. While the control society attempts to herd these surfers into so-called skateparks in the same way that it enclosed athletes from an earlier era into the ludic factory of the stadium, the street skater resists this herd mentality. S/he cuts across the lines of stratification that define a city to open new spaces and opportunities for expression.

Iain Borden refers to the cultural practice of street skateboarding as a "performative critique of the city" in which the skater contours and cantilevers through, over and around the interesting architectural features of a particular urban core. In Shaun Gladwell's short video "Storm Sequence" (2000), the subject is a skateboarder on a concrete platform who performs tricks while pounding ocean swells and grey-skied backdrop signal an impending storm. The video (8:35 in duration) has a washed out appearance, as if reflecting the spray of the surf or the clouds pregnant with rain; the subject's dark clothing completes the atmospheric effect.

Storm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun Gladwell

Given the spartan stage for the piece and the absence of architectural nuance, the skater's potential for performative critique appears to be neutered. But Gladwell slows down the moving image to make the concrete pad a dance floor on which the skater gracefully executes his ballet on a board and accompanies the image with a droning atmospheric soundtrack seemingly slowed down to match its tempo. In turn, the critique becomes a performative response to the ocean waves rumbling in syncopation with the ballet.

The skater experiences the ecstasy of flow in an embodied, haptic sense as the machinic connections form an assemblage: foot-skateboard, wheel-concrete, hybridbody-oceanswell. But for the remote observer, connected only by the gaze of the camera, there is no such ability to comprehend the ecstasy of flow; a radical reduction in the speed of the moving image and the spatiotemporal reconfiguration this implies are necessary to even begin to suggest that embodiment.

To the untrained eye, most skateboarding moves occur too quickly to appreciate the sophisticated interplay between body, board and sporting landscape. By slowing the video down to 40 percent of its original speed, Gladwell at once creates a heavy atmosphere laden with shades of grey while allowing the untrained observer — not uncoincidentally a surfer in the hyperaccelerated cognitive sense — to participate in the corporeality of the skater's lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?

Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.

Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.

(Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

We might borrow Kundera's reformulation of the dilemma between weight or lightness and insert it into our discussion of corporeality and contemporary sporting cultures. If lightness is granted privileged status in the binary, as Parmenides does, then we must logically seek to cast off the weightiness of the body in favour of a (transcendent) lightness. Do we not accomplish this each time we plug into the ecstatic (and narcotic) electronic circuitry of sport consumption (television, radio, videogames, web fantasies, etc.)? Perhaps, but we must ask to what degree we are truly light in doing so. Is it the lightness to experience synaesthesia without ever having to move the body? Or if we do move, are our movements constrained in such a way that obstruct true lightness?

We exist in a hybrid state of here and there. Acceleration to the light-speed of the data networks entails the subordination of a plugged-in carcass made of muscle, fat and bone in favour of an extension of the nervous system into a virtual nexus of connectivity. Interface to non-space. Case, the protagonist of William Gibson's Neuromancer, yearns for such a jacked-in existence as an escape from "the prison of his own flesh". But he is pale, wraith-like, and rolls over to piss in a chemical toilet when in the matrix. Is this the lightness that we desire, the lightness of collective consciousness weighed down by the meat-anchor?

Or should we desire to invert the relationship between the two, and let the heaviness (and immanence) of the body create the potential for lightness to emerge?

One thing is for certain: we will never fully escape from our bodies by uploading our consciousness into the matrix. The matrix is created by bodies. Moving bodies, stationary bodies, shopping bodies, sporting bodies — if the matrix is a global neural net, then bodies are the mitochondria that provide the motor of its sustenance, the deltas that resonate data-constructs, and the multi-sensual fuel for creativity.

We are touched, but we do not touch. Our bodies are imaged, modeled and situated in medical-scientific discourses, but we do not know a kinaesthetic sense of self. Fortunately this sense is only atrophied and not yet vestigial.

In "Storm Sequence," Gladwell attempts to rescue the carcass of the meat-body from its withering state of affairs by making it an active part of the surfing logic of late capitalism. We might consider his challenge to be as weighty as the earlier sporting body that the surfing body obsolesces, or we might flow with the incoming waves and consider it simply as an expression of mere life — the bearable weightiness of being. Even Case accepts his embodiment in the end.

This is a call to embrace our tactile burden.

In The Foothills Of Buda

Nike in Budapest

Danke Schoen

Well, my first year at EGS is over, and it has been the craziest experience of my entire life. We were located in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, a little mountain town that served as a Hollywood backdrop set-piece for the grand social experiment constructed by the school director. There were about 55 students of every stripe in Master's and PhD programs here — artists, filmmakers, philosophers, poets, musicians, etc. We were jammed together in classes with these really cool profs for 6 hours a day: deep political and aesthetic theory. Each night one of the celebrity guest profs made a special presentation of recent work and then had a Q+A with the students.

I wouldn't say that the work is any more difficult or special than anywhere else, but that the 3-week compressed period of schooling jacks up the intensity to a level I'd never been at before. Deleuze would say I was "deterritorialized" in a big bad way, as you can imagine the intellectual and creative ferment that is happening here when you are forced to be sequestered and "on" for 16 hours a day (including meals/social/drinking) with these really diverse people. But it was also very demanding emotionally as well. It seemed that people were having these minor cracking up episodes every day — the highs were very high and the lows were very low.

On our only day off a few of the group decided to take a gondola part way up the mountain and then hike the rest of the way to the top. It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining, the views captured by the mind's camera spectacular, and I was sharing it all with some of my friends. Yet emotionally I was in one of those low points, mired in contemplation about self and others. After making it almost all the way to the top, I didn't really feel like continuing anymore so I stopped in a little clearing to grab some sunshine and then opted for withdrawal and seclusion on the trip back down.

The bodily experience and challenge of eschewing the trails for a free climb down the mountain provided a brief respite from my melancholy, though when I reached the village to find the tiny cobblestone streets devoid of people it returned in a crashing wave. I slowly started back to my apartment and, turning a gentle corner, came across a solitary figure in the street.

It was a little blonde girl, perhaps twelve years of age, kicking a soccer ball by herself. Her actions were deliberate, as if trying to develop some skill that she couldn't quite muster. Since a few of us had taken to kicking a ball around in the hotel courtyard after lunches, I motioned her to send a pass in my direction. We started kicking the ball back and forth a few times, after which she asked me a question … in German. I didn't understand a word she said. I was also trying to ask her a question, and tried to communicate back to her in English, equally to no avail. Our gesticulations couldn't overcome the language barrier either, and I could sense her becoming increasingly frustrated with this inability to make ourselves understood.

Suddenly a woman came around the corner and, seeing our plight, asked if she could be of assistance. I replied affirmatively and the little girl began animatedly expressing herself to the one person that could understand her, who translated for me by saying "She wants to know if you'll kick the ball back and forth in the air [ie. 'juggle' the ball]."

"That's what I was trying to ask her!"

The woman relayed this information to the little girl, whose face lit up in a big smile. After the woman left, the two of us proceeded to juggle the ball for the next five or six minutes — poorly, as both of us lacked the skill to keep the ball in the air for long, but that is neither here nor there. What is important is that (with the assistance of the older woman) the ball had facilitated a channel of communication between us.

Isn't sport great sometimes? I left our random encounter and continued up the cobblestone path, spirits buoyed.

Danke schoen, little German girl, for making me smile as well.

An Elegy

smithers:

[Aside] The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented, delirious sleep of a man with dengue fever. Tortured sleep. Rivulets of sweat flow into tributaries of liquid linen. Shards of disconnected thought mosaic the global electronic conscious and the matrix of the unconscious. Material and immaterial bridge centuries of temporality. Experiences gained and lost.

The athletic body can’t touch his toes. But what does the body have to do with serenity, anyways? Tactile burden. Trembling hands. Don't get burned, whatever you do.

The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented, delirious sleep of a man with dengue fever ://

Flow.

A loaded word. Don't think about product, think about process. Grey areas. Resolve the macro, the micro, the nano.

But does it equal love? The poet maudit might say so, but the sadness lining his eyes suggests multiple interpretations.

Bodies without organs.
Bodies without bodies.
_____ without _____.
Fill in your own fucking theory.

The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented, delirious ://

Writhing mass. Flashes of bright yellow punctuate the deep ochre. Praxis. Be careful now to code what we think, say, archive … control. Writhing neurons envelop all.

Can I get a wit(h)ness?

The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented, delirious sleep of a man with dengue fever. Tortured sleep ://

"Yes."

Who knew the multiplicity that could flow forth from the desert of this 0/1 as if a fountain flowing forth from the mouths of stone goddesses and gorgons in a public pool? Ambiguity ensures a cloak of defense and self-preservation.

Or perhaps insecurity invites a straitjacket of excess signification.

The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented ://

Go do some writing, says the destructive poet, infecting sportsBabel with his dada rap parable, all matrixial psychobabble and encounter events. Asymmetrical. Banal. Cabal.

Shall I cavil?

The hand taught the mouth to speak and the notebook is where the black magic juju is chanted. Rhizomes of blue and brown. Red painted skulls and beauty. Nonlinear meaning percolates to the surface through layers of white noise …

abc …

I muse.

Therapeutic? Hell, I'm burned like a freedom fry.

The sleep comes, but it is the fragmented, delirious sleep of a man with dengue fever. Tortured sleep. Rivulets of sweat flow into tributaries of liquid linen. Shards of disconnected thought mosaic the global electronic conscious and the matrix of the unconscious. Material and immaterial bridge centuries of temporality. Experiences gained and lost.

[Exit]

(To my friends in Saas-Fee.)

Storm Sequence

Storm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun GladwellStorm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun GladwellStorm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun Gladwell

Storm Sequence.
Shaun Gladwell.
2000. Video. Duration: 12mins
Videography: Técha Noble
Sound: Kazumuchi Grime
Commissioned by Peter Fay

This was one of the very first works of art I saw yesterday at the 52nd Venice Biennale and was immediately mesmerized. Later in the afternoon I decided to return to the Italian Pavilion to see it once again. My thoughts on Gladwell's work of art, recorded — freestyled — as the video played:

wet concrete
pounding surf
skater looks to camera
and the dance begins.
tender relationship to the machine
wheel: ancient technology of motion
letting go, then returning to the board
just living.
atmospheric music …
you don't hear melody when in the flow
crouch, extend, pirouette,
the line the skateboard draws
not horizontal, not vertical
but curvilinear
like the ocean waves he embodies.
death spiral on wheels
spiral of life?

See also: Lightness and the Tactile Burden