wii would like to play // we don't have tickets

wii would like to play // we don't have tickets was a critical urban intervention run by sportsBabel during HomeShop series one: GAMES 2008, an investigation of public and private space in Beijing hosted by artist and designer Elaine W. Ho. A number of activities have occurred at Ho's shopfront residence during the series, "minor practices [embarking] from the crossing points of the local community and the world spectacle of the 2008 Olympic Games," including a public screening of the Olympic opening ceremonies and a Loser's Party celebrating all of those who didn't make it to the podium. Many of the activities that have taken place at HomeShop have in some way engaged themes of blurring public and private space, the temporality of the neighbourhood as opposed to that of the Olympic timetable, speed and slowness in a changing China, or the blending of communities that otherwise share little in common.

Smith vs. Zheng
The man on the left speaks no Chinese. The man on the right speaks no English.
The screen and their mediated gestures become the vehicle of communication.
(Camera: Tan Zhengjie)

Thousands watched at the Beijing National Stadium and millions more watched on TV the night of August 16 as Usain Bolt crossed the finish line to win the signature event in athletics, the 100-metre final. Meanwhile, at the HomeShop series one: GAMES 2008 critical space, the television had long been turned off in favour of an embodied experience during the wii would like to play // we don't have tickets urban intervention; 36 people volunteered to participate in and dozens more watched a Wii videogame version of the 100-metre sprint — Mario and Sonic at Beijing Olympics — on an outdoor projection screen in the hutong. Located in the interstices between Chinese and English language, the flat surface of the screen and the embodied volumetric Wii-motions provided a vehicle of communication between erstwhile Others.

Given this particular form of translation, it was ironic that the Mario and Sonic at Beijing Olympics game interface was in Japanese, a language understood by nobody at the party. But a combination of trial-and-error and mnemonic device forged a path through the semiotic flows of navigational menus in order for the group to play and function rather smoothly.

The game was in Japanese due to the peculiar economies of counterfeit videogame culture: unlike a music CD or movie DVD, which may be copied by simply cracking the software encoding its content, console videogames require a hack of the firmware, that is, at the material level of the console itself. Once hacked, these so-called "modded boxes" may play any videogame disc created for that particular brand of console, thus sending the prices of both plummeting and radically disrupting "normal" market efficiencies. Much of the work towards hacking new iterations of videogame consoles such as the Wii takes place in Japan and thus the Japanese release of Mario and Sonic at Beijing Olympics, available 10 months before the opening ceremonies, quickly circulated through the samizdat of sports videogames for consumption in Beijing at prices radically discounted from retail.

Loser\'s PartyLoser\'s PartyLoser\'s Party

Though it was part of the HomeShop project's Loser's Party, simply awarding the prize — two Olympic tickets — to the worst participant of the 36 contestants would have provided an incentive to deliberately lose the Wii Olympics 100-metre dash and proven counterproductive. The solution? Find the most average runner — the Everyperson — by calculating the median time of the group and then locating the individual time closest to that median.

The initial winner of the tickets was Ren Bo, who was almost exactly on the median time but unfortunately already had other commitments on the same day and was unable to accept. After another quick calculation we were pleased to find that the next closest contestant was Yu Xiao Feng, an older woman from the hutong who had only shyly come forward to participate in the first place. She was initially quite bewildered when her name was announced, but got quite excited when my words were translated to Chinese and it was explained to her exactly what she had won. Since the HomeShop project at its core was about blurring the boundaries between public and private space, or between the new urban China and the traditional cultures of Beijing within an Olympic spatiotemporal and semiotic context, we were particularly pleased that she had won the tickets and would actually get the opportunity to attend the Olympics.

After that I spoke with Yu Xiao Feng's 13-year-old daughter, who was learning English in middle school. I was moved during our conversation by this strange blend of new and old in contemporary Beijing: a young girl timidly trying out her English with a laowai and growing more confident with each successful word, while her mother, though not able to understand any of what was being spoken, beamed with pride nonetheless. During a night in which language, translation and mistranslation were so central to an intervention at the nexus of sport, media and the body, my hope is that this minor practice portends a prophecy as metaphor for the China perceived as emergent by the west: growing more confident with every successful step while retaining links to the traditions that have allowed the myriad Chinese cultures to persist for thousands of years.

Tickets for the Saturday evening session of athletics competition at the National Stadium were reselling at ten times face value, certainly beyond affordable for many Beijingers, not to mention expats and foreign tourists. And that's if one could even find a ticket to be had. But the projection from within the private inner space of HomeShop outside to the hutong similarly allowed the private space within the Bird's Nest to be inverted such that privileged access to the track surface proper (not even those with tickets can access the track) was available to all participants in the urban intervention.

On the same night that a Jamaican man won a gold medal in a world record time of 9.69 seconds, a Chinese woman won a pair of Olympic tickets and gained a different level of access to this space of sporting privilege in a closest-to-the-median time of 10.854 seconds. The first, a singular performance against seven other competitors; the second, a singular-plural performance abstracted from databases of archival information and merged with prosthetic devices to contest against one other competitor via the gendered, cartoonish characters from the Mario and Sonic universe.

Which setting was more real and which more virtual? How does the issue of embodiment problematize this question? Can we even consider the stadium space, television space and videogame space as discrete, bounded spaces? Finally, which event/space/time contributed to a more enduring sense of community? wii would like to play // we don't have tickets provided tentative first steps — hesitations of thought, perhaps — towards answering these questions for the researcher, but also hopefully provided the same in a somewhat more intuitive fashion for the unasked questions of those who simply wanted to play together.

(Thanks to Elaine Ho for providing the HomeShop space, Tan Zhengjie for the video, Pauline Doutreluingne for spinning the tunes and setting the mood, and Hailey Xie for helping translate the concept into Chinese for the local guests.)


9 responses to wii would like to play // we don't have tickets

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  1. encounters and leftovers says:

    [...] "wii would like to play // we don't have tickets", Sportsbabel, 22 August 2008 (English) [...]

  2. laura says:

    slightly off topic and on something maybe a bit pedestrian, what'd you think of bolt's showboating at the end of his run? i'm sure you saw a replay at some point, no?

    i've been very anti-sport lately, especially the non-game sort (track, swimming, etc.) but it seems like elaine enabled some amazing moments. have you read much batailles? his discussion of potlatch and the contemporary state of sports go very well together, and would be interesting to think about in relation to the question of which event contributed more to community.

  3. sportsbabel says:

    i think that the mainstream discussion and propagation of "showboating" is consistent with a racialized discourse that has different standards of achievement and behaviour for blacks and whites. bolt won the gold medal, set a world record … what was he supposed to do, break the record more? he has done something that literally nobody else in human history has done, which the rest of us should bear in mind when we discuss over- or under-celebrating.

    elaine did enable some amazing moments….she worked her ass off and i'm glad that it all worked out for her. it was neat for me to be at an interesting intersection of sport, art and chinese culture.

    haven't read bataille, but will check him out with regards to these questions for sure.

    don't be anti-sport!! just anti-certain-things-about-sport… ;)

  4. Brad says:

    Sean …

    This is a really interesting intervention. It seems to me that it goes some way towards disrupting the political economies of 'real' (i.e., the Olympics) and 'virtual' (fitness video games) athletics. This in addition to contributing to the blurring of boundaries between public/private space, as you discuss in your post.

    I was wondering if you could comment on the motivations (or at least your perceptions of motivations) of those participating. Did they see their participation as a form of resistance (material or symbolic)? Did they see it as part of a project towards confusing spatial boundaries? Perhaps they were motivated to take part in the spectacle of the Olympics? (Or, maybe all or none of the above?).

    Anyways, as I said this work is incredibly interesting. I think projects of this kind foster a fascinating dialogue between 'real life' engagements and critical academic thought. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work!

  5. sportsbabel says:

    There was definitely a motivation to win the tickets and be part of the spectacle-in-attendance at the Games proper. From my understanding, about 95% of those at the Losers' Party had not and would not be attending any of the events in person, which was disappointing considering the collective sacrifice that had been made in Beijing (and indeed all of China) for the prior seven years. There was a fine line I was treading on personally by coming in and so easily handing out two tickets for my project, if one wanted to read it through such a neocolonial lens.

    As to disrupting the political economies of "real" and "virtual", if there is anything I learned during my time in Beijing, it was a complete disregard for these as mutually exclusive concepts. I would suggest instead that physical and mediated spaces were topological in nature, and that one mutated into the other and back quite fluidly. Did that come through during the intervention? Again, not sure, but the question of embodiment as it relates to this topology is something that definitely needs to be investigated further.

  6. sportsBabel » spectacle, enclosure, togetherness says:

    [...] of a common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason the spectacle retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it." — Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, p. [...]

  7. sportsBabel » Unlayering says:

    [...] examples, different though interrelated, might include Global Village Basketball, HomeShop, and wii would like to play // we don't have tickets. While these works were "framed" with more or less well-defined spatiotemporal [...]

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    [...] — indeed, these were the first fully indoor Opening Ceremonies. Rather, they were used as the screen on which the purveyors of sporting spectacle projected various images to mark the Olympic [...]

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