Rauschenberg - Open Score (1966)

When discussing the human-machine connection in sport from a media/communications perspective I have tended thus far to privilege the technical component. For example, I keep reiterating how the techniques of videogame production and consumption have to an extent subordinated the role of the human agent in sporting practice. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn this summer from European Graduate School artist-in-residence Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) about Robert Rauschenberg's 1966 performance piece titled "Open Score".

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

As the Media Art Net site describes:

Open Score, Robert Rauschenberg's piece for 9 Evenings, began with a tennis game on the floor of the Armory. Bill Kaminski designed a miniature FM transmitter that fit in the handle of the tennis racquet, and a contact microphone was attached to the handle of the racquet with the antenna wound around the frame of the head. Each time Frank Stella and Mimi Kanarek hit the ball the vibrations of the racquet strings were transmitted to the speakers around the armory, and a loud BONG was heard. At each BONG, one of the 48 lights went out, and the game ended when the Armory was in complete darkness.

Thus we have a situation in which tennis provides the engine for this improvisational theatre art. I had an idea similar to this a few years ago in a post called Gymprov; in a hastily sketched outline I suggested the game would re-tell a classic tale of binary opposition, such as the temptation of Jesus by the Devil, through the engine of pickup basketball. Game play would inspire thematic dialogue, while lighting would have to intuitively follow the appropriate speakers.

Rauschenberg was clearly ahead of his time: in Open Score, by contrast, the "dialogue" is not between the athletes and offstage voices, but rather between the athletes and the technical infrastructure of sound and lighting itself, via the material sporting apparatus (tennis racquet) and immaterial channels of communication (FM radio waves). As Rauschenberg writes: "The unlikely use of the game to control the lights and to perform as an orchestra interest me. The conflict of not being able to see an event that is taking place right in front of one except through a reproduction is the sort of double exposure of action. A screen of light and a screen of darkness."

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

(It is worth noting that Rauschenberg attended the experimental Black Mountain College in the late '40s and early '50s, where he met, among others, John Cage. The parallels between Black Mountain College and the European Graduate School have been suggested to me more than once.)

sportsBabel 4.0


[Aside] Well, I am a little over six years into the world of blogging and it was time for a change. So I unveil a new design for the site, sportsBabel 4.0.

It's come a long way from sportsBabel 1.0, that's for sure:

sportsBabel 1.0

A short tour through the 2.0 and 3.0 series, during which I moved from Blogger and Haloscan to Wordpress:

And here we are today with the official launch of sportsBabel 4.0, with cake and hats for everybody. The new design features include:

  • a new, more dynamic-looking masthead image
  • a clean new stylesheet that highlights content better
  • a Creative Commons license updated to version 3.0
  • fixed rss feeds
  • the removal of the Flash-based post headers
  • the addition of Michael Woehrer's Tag Cloud plugin to navigate categories
  • the addition of GNot's Simple Recent Comments plugin
  • the addition of a latest five posts box to single post pages

I hope that you enjoy the new look … I had fun putting it together.


Resisting an Epistemology of the Instant

In my work here at sportsBabel, I have discussed (following Eichberg, Guttmann and others) the tyranny of timing that arises as we measure sporting performance in pursuit of the linear record. Athletics sprint races are measured to the thousandth of a second and ratified as conclusive to the hundredth, a situation similar to that found at the velodrome, swimming pool, bobsleigh track and other sites of sporting speed.

We may trace a genealogy of the timing systems used in high performance athletics that increasingly discards the mechanical in favour of the digital and photoelectronic. To measure these absolutely precise times — or more correctly, to maintain the illusion of acceleration and linear progress — we move from the hand-held mechanical stopwatch (with human operator) to the electronic stopwatch (more precise, though still with human operator) and autonomous photo finish camera to the fully automated timing system and its modular photo finish system. We eliminate the visible smoke from the gun report as the referent to begin timing on the stopwatch in favour of electronically-integrated timing (a flow, or vector through space), and we eliminate the substrate of film and darkroom chemical development techniques for the digital image (a stock, or vector through time). Sporting time becomes a part of the electronic network, what I have referred to as a panhaptic technique of control.

But it is this will to speed that should cause concern. Jean-Marie Brohm refers to this will in sport as facilitating a "prison of measured time." I'll say that it fosters a sporting epistemology of the instant.

Can we resist such an epistemology, not only in sport, but in society? If yes, what sort of timing system would be required to do so?

If, for example, in the era of planned obsolescence we are to build a clock to last 10,000 years, what sort of materials do we need to use? Certainly not the cheap circuitry found in common digital timepieces today. For that matter, nor can we likely count on even the more complex electronics required in cutting-edge precision timing systems discussed above — how can we presume that our systems of electrical production and distribution are sustainable for 10,000 years?

No, we need something more durable and reliable, with an energy source that is likely to extend deep into the future.

The Long Now Foundation has been working on such a problem for a while now. Following a proposal by computer scientist Danny Hillis to build a monument-scale, multi-millennial, all-mechanical clock as a symbol to promote long term thinking, the Long Now have built two prototype clocks and are currently working on the full-scale monument.

But this is just the technical apparatus of measuring time; what about the measurements themselves and the epistemological shift they may imply/catalyze? Well, if contemporary high-speed timing systems can allow us to "authoritatively" discuss the hundredth and thousandth of a second — that is, to extend the zero in a rightward direction — then the clock of the Long Now similarly allows us to extend the zero in a leftward sense: the year 2007 becomes 02007 when measured on a 10,000-year scale.

It's not that we are incapable of fathoming such a time scale — indeed, temporal units of analysis in paleontology are of the order of millions of years — but that we fail to think on such a time scale in everyday practice as we navigate the society of the instant. The work of the Long Now is an attempt to have each of us think beyond the society of the instant in a quotidian sense; following the example of friend and colleague Stuart Candy (author of The Sceptical Futuryst and himself a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation), I will endeavour to write years from now on in 5-digit format.

It is seemingly a simple or trivial gesture, but it gets me thinking about resisting the epistemology of the instant, and for that reason alone is sufficiently complex.

Newspeak: "Sample Specimen"

Any biological material collected for the purposes of doping control through surveillance, tracking, and laboratory testing.

Solid and Gas

Manuel DeLanda, in interview:

The metaphor they use is solid, liquid, gas. If the system is solid, too crystallized, its dynamics are completely uninteresting. If it's gaseous, it's also uninteresting — all you have to do is take averages of behavior and you know what's going on. Liquids have a lot more potential, with all kinds of attractors and bifurcations. Now what they're coming to believe is that the liquid state in nature — not just actual liquids, but liquidity in the abstract sense of being not too rigid or too loose — these liquid systems "poised on the edge of chaos" are natural computers.

We are beginning to think that every liquid in nature can compute, and perhaps consciousness can be an emergent property that can skip the organic and go into silicon — perhaps via us. We might just be insects pollinating machines that do not happen to have their own reproductive organs right now.

In an earlier post on Global Village Basketball, I subconsciously wove the solid-liquid-gas metaphor into my description of the game's emergence. After learning more from DeLanda (one of my professors at EGS this summer), I have a better idea of how this actually works in a basketball context. I am suggesting that basketball as a linguistic system currently exists only in solid and gas phases (preliminary notes below) that shift back and forth in processes of sublimation and deposition — a phase change from solid to gas or vice-versa in which the liquid phase cannot be observed. Global Village Basketball then becomes my attempt to actualize the liquid phase of this linguistic system.

League Basketball (solid) Pickup Basketball (gaseous)
played 5-on-5, as encoded in official rules variable number of players on each team, up to a maximum of 5; usually equal number on each side
playing space and time are (theoretically) fixed across all games time is usually variable across different pickup games; space may be variable as well; often constrained (in a temporal sense) by score
rigid rules concerning uniformity; different coloured uniforms, usually light vs. dark; numbered bodies for administrative purposes not uniform; different coloured shirts or perhaps shirts vs. skins (which throws the question of skin colour into new light, since an equivalence is formed, based perhaps in texture rather than colour)
totally centrally organized in a bureaucratic fashion into league, tournament, or exhibition ("friendly") matches self-organizing in a limited sense; once a space and time are determined, then invitations, phone calls/emails, etc. are used to bring the game together; however, sometimes fully emergent and self-organizing at a public sporting space
coaches run plays and sets on offence and defence; scout opponents; manage a hierarchy for the scarce resource of playing time, etc.; it could be said that the fundamental role of the coach is that of stratification no coaching; sets and patterns emerge from moving bodies and different histories (of de/stratification and representation) commingling on the court

Globalization and/or Mondialisation

The preface to Jean-Luc Nancy's The Creation of the World or Globalization:

"The creation of the world or globalization": the conjunction must be understood simultaneously and alternatively in its disjunctive, substitutive, or conjunctive senses.

According to the first sense: between the creation of the world or globalization, one must choose, since one implies the exclusion of the other.

According to the second sense: the creation of the world, in other words globalization, the former must be understood as the latter.

According to the first sense: the creation of the world or globalization, one or the other indifferently, leads us to a similar result (which remains to be determined).

The combination of these three senses amounts to raising the same question: can what is called "globalization" give rise to a world, or to its contrary?

Since it is not an issue of prophesizing nor of controlling the future, the question is, rather, how to give ourselves (open ourselves) in order to look ahead of ourselves, where nothing is visible, with eyes guided by those two terms whose meaning evades us — "creation" (up to this point limited to theological mystery), "world-forming" [mondialisation] (up to this point limited to economic and technological matters, generally called "globalization").

I am interested in this passage (and the book generally) for two reasons: first, I had the opportunity to meet M. Nancy this summer in Switzerland at the European Graduate School. While I had trouble focusing on the paper he was presenting in an English-translated form he clearly wasn't comfortable with, I was captivated by his delivery — regardless of what he was saying I could sense the conviction of his words and the gravitas of his philosophy.

While that provided the impetus for me to learn more about his work, it was the contrast he introduces here between globalization and mondialisation that I wanted to explore further in the context of my proposed Global Village Basketball project. I desire GVB to be about more than economic and technological matters — that is, not strictly about an instrumental globalized sporting event but rather a world-forming in which athletes come to understand both their singular and plural identities through the physical act of playing basketball.

But is this what I am actually creating?