a sportsbabel multimedia experience
listen: kode9 and spaceape — "9 samurai"
before continuing to read, please press play on
the soundsystem of your mind
there's a big upcoming sports event in vancouver!
sit still in your stadium seats and listen.
"he shoots, he scores!"
intertext, hyperdub, replication.
difference and repetition.
"did you understand?"
If we are to give full consideration to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the body without organs we cannot allow our analysis to remain simply in the domain of those organ systems responsible for intelligence (brain, networked server farm), circulation (heart, stock market), or filtration (kidney, casino). We must also consider the largest organ of them all, at least as far as humans are concerned: the skin, that surface which is folded and wrapped from the two-dimensional so as to enclose a particular volume.
The skin is part of the integumentary system, designed to protect the interior of the volume as well as regulate the exchange of flows through its enclosing membrane. It also has an expressive role that is bound in a nexus of power relations: whether we are discussing the human dermis, clothing and fashion, the social networking profile page, or the buildings of the city, the skin constitutes the primary locus of organization for the body situated in a system predicated upon the optic (as with identification), even if this optic is based in touch (as with inscription).
The integumentary system of our artificial living consists of a series of interconnected layers, from the subcutaneous, dermis and epidermis; to hair, nails, horn and pelt; to clothing and architecture; to that vast and mostly invisible network of communication protocols we call the internet. Indeed, as McLuhan suggests, "in the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin." But these layers do not sit neatly upon one another, sedimented in neat parallel striae; there is rather a slippage between layers, a series of foldings and touch points emerging from the integumentary movements and flows. Call it skin tectonics: the shifts and rumbles between various layers that may at times rupture or crack the "surface".
come to daddy
still from music video (dir. chris cunningham)
The disciplining of the sporting spectator during the 19th and 20th centuries (as outlined by Bale) serves to render this mass of individuals a temporary layer or component of the stadium architecture. When the spectators flowing into the stadium come to rest in their grid of seating coordinates, they form a layer of skin on top of the architecture of the building. They, too, comprise a part of its surface. The skins of the audience members present covering the architectural form of the stadium suggests a rejection of the anthropocentric view that all media are necessarily extensions of our human bodies, as with McLuhan. They appear instead to be remixable components of our always already living artificially. And as the stadium card stunt suggests, they are programmable components as well.
The disciplined spectator-body has a constrained set of opportunities for free movement in the x- and y-axes of the stadium's seats — the striated space that allows for the card stunt to function. One may traverse prescribed conduits of flow (eg. to concessions or lavatories), but expressive movement is certainly curtailed. Spectators are, however, able to move more expressively in the z-axis: rising to one's feet, jumping up and down, standing to offer an ovation. These are responses to some important moment on the field of play, though, responses to an event. What about embodied expression — understood as movement in the z-axis — during the interval between these moments of intense response?
This is the domain of the Wave, that collective audience gesture in which successive groups of spectators (understood vertically along the y-axis of the seating grid) briefly stand and raise their arms, slightly following in time those adjacent to them so as to achieve an oscillating wave that flows through the sports stadium. The Wave disguises itself as a blast whose shockwave ripples out from some epicenter and travels in circular fashion around the building, but each instance begins rather as a contagion, at least when catalyzed "spontaneously" by fans. This contagion has a two-fold function: first, to signify the beginning of what will ultimately become an asignifying multiplicity and communicate that information in a micro-relational sense to those in adjacent seats; and second, to introduce a vector of transmission for the gesture as it flips from contagion to blast — either clockwise or counterclockwise around the stadium.
(By way of contrast examine the micropolitics of stadium contagion when not transformed into the waveform blast rhythm, as with the chaos that was the Heysel Stadium disaster. Baudrillard suggests in The Transparency of Evil that Heysel confirms precisely "why the public must simply be eliminated, to ensure that the only event occurring is strictly televisual in nature. Every real referent must disappear so that the event may become acceptable on television's mental screen" [p.80].)
Although the exact origins of the Wave are uncertain — as if one could pinpoint the precise evolutionary moment that a meme "begins", particularly one that is gestural (unless of course it had been engineered in a laboratory) — its emergence can be located during the 1970s and 1980s, which is to say the era when the society of spectacle most fully realizes the analysis offered by Debord. Its relationship to the image, then, merits closer attention.
Recall that the spectator becomes part of the skin of the stadium building — a stippling perhaps, or a texture map. While the Wave begins with the same logic of enclosure and partitioning that enables the pixelated card stunt, it breaks out of this visual field of resolution to undulate around the stadium: the screen refresh of the card stunt yields to an orbital revolution that is asignifying except as an expression of its own existence, the gesture as pure mediality (cf. Agamben).
Two interrelated problems confront the Wave, however, in any consideration of it as a collective (even if not consciously so) act of resistance against sporting capital and its disciplinary subject positions. The first involves the question of agency as it relates to each individual in the multiplicity of audience bodies that rise in waveform at the stadium. Antonia Hirsch's Vox Pop is illustrative in this regard. While the work expresses the uncanny nature of the Wave gesture when decontextualized from its normal collective formation, it also forces us to consider the opposite: What sort of agency does the individual have to refuse as the mass tide of movement comes bearing down?
still from 2-channel video installation
While the catalysis of the Wave's apparent spontaneity at one time belonged to certain highly identified fans, today it is just as likely to be started by stadium operations as part of the total spectacle. Agency is further compromised by the foldings of vision — lenses and screens, both organic and technic, that contribute to the discursive production of "good fan" subjectivity. Does this not already hint at a capture of the gestural deterritorialization into the z-axis? And is this not in a certain way the story of the control society: eliminating mandatory, top-down protocols when the micropolitics of local relation will accomplish many of the same goals? As Deleuze and Guattari propose, fascism "involves a war machine … [it] is constructed on an intense line of flight, which it transforms into a line of pure destruction and abolition" (ATP, p. 230). The volumetric line of the z-axis, the vectoral line of the waveform — both must answer to this line of questioning.
Which leads us to the second problem of the Wave as gestural micropolitics: the relationship between surfaces and volumes (a corporeal lacuna that haunts the thought of Flusser). While the Wave today is indeed an affair often deliberately coordinated by stadium personnel, it most certainly retains the possibility of being a purely positive expression triggered by an individual cluster of fans. But if we follow Agamben and Deleuze to understand that the element of cinema and the pellicule of film is gesture rather than image, then it must follow that the inverse is true as well: while it may indicate some other set of spatiotemporal coordinates, either indexically or otherwise, gesture as such remains ultimately bound by the skin.
still from film
The myriad forms of perspectival gaze merely adjust their focal depth, so to speak, such that the integumentary function is lifted in relief to capture the Wave as but another surface phenomenon. Purely positive expression or no, the gesture of the Wave ceases to fulfill what Agamben would refer to as a means without ends — "the exhibition of the media character of corporal movements" — and becomes instead the finality without means that sustains this project of integrated representation. Put differently, the praxis of the wave-as-gesture is emptied of its political significance as it folds back into the produced pellicule of sporting spectacle.
Or is it? The gestural body is a moving body, and is thus always already a political one as well. The logic of skin tectonics suggests that such a moving body will never be fully captured by the tightness of its spectacular skin, for there will always be a slippage between integumentary layers. And it is this slippage that constitutes the contemporary zone of opportunity, of resistance, and of indifference.
The role of the spectator at large scale sporting events is one that has been examined sporadically in critical theory by the likes of Baudrillard, Virilio, Bourdieu, Barthes and others. And in the sport literature, much of the existing work emerges from John Bale and his investigations of the spaces and sites of sporting competition. But one facet of spectator involvement that I do not remember receiving much attention in either domain has to do with the large-scale communication productions involving the spectators themselves holding up sheets of coloured paper to produce some image viewable from a remote perspective. Known as "card stunts," these productions are the spectacular outcome of Bale's developmental model of the modern stadium: each seat equidistant from the next in a neat disciplinary grid of rows and columns that is then conscripted to produce subcomponents of the final pictorial message (see example here).
No spatial limits; uneven terrain; spatial interaction between "players" and "spectators"; diversified land use.
Limits of pitch defined; players segregated from spectators.
Embankments, terraces, grandstands; payment for entry; segregation of spectators by social class; start of segregation within crowd; specialized land use.
Enclosed ground; synthetic pitch and concrete bowl; TV replay screen; total segregation within crowd; panopticism; diversified land use.
RULES OF EXCLUSION STRONG
a four-stage model of the evolution of the modern stadium.
lines refer to possible freedoms of movement for players and spectators.
(from bale, 1993)
In viewing the card stunt unfolding at the stadium one immediately thinks of both Pointillism and its eventual transition to the field of picture elements, or pixels. Indeed, Seurat's famous Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 could be understood in terms analogous to the card stunt: an orthogonal view of "non-partitioned spectators" becoming abstracted into coloured points of representation as they watch the leisured pursuits (rowing, sailing) unfold along the river.
un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la grande jatte - 1884
oil on canvas
Paul Virilio appears to be following a similar trajectory in his analysis of twentieth-century media technology. In The Information Bomb he notes:
Extending the dislocation of the figure, which we saw at the beginning of the twentieth century with Cubism, and its disappearance into forms of abstraction, geometric or otherwise, de-localization — the product of the age of the virtual — leads today to an art of interactive feedback between the artist and his/her visitors, along the lines of those infographic paintings which change and metamorphose as you contemplate them, doing so from the particular viewpoint of each of the actors/spectators. Moreover, the decomposition of figures in Pointillism or Divisionism leads today, thanks to fractal geometry, to another type of deconstruction: the dismantling of the space-time of the work.
In the age of the sudden electronic motorization of the artwork, dislocation of forms and de-localization of the art object go hand in hand and accompany the acceleration not in this case of history, but of the reality of the plastic arts. This represents, on the one hand, a questioning of the roles of actor and spectator, and, on the other, an interrogation of the notions of author and viewer. And it is a calling into question of the site of art, after the questioning of the site of the theatrical scene. These are all so many harbingers of an unprecedented change — premonitory signs of the new time scheme within which culture will operate in the era of the emergence of cyberculture (p. 129).
Interestingly, the card stunt predates the personal computer revolution of the 1970s-90s, and thus the popular introduction of computer monitors and pixel resolution from the world of corporate industry and into the home. Instead we must go back earlier, through the era of the Rubik's Cube, through the era of mainframes and computer punch cards, through the era of split-flap displays on clocks and train departure boards, to locate the card stunt in American college football as early as 1910.
In other words, the card stunt predates the introduction of televised sports and therefore must be considered a message system with an audience different from that of the TV spectator at home: it was originally designed for those players, coaches and fans who were present at the stadium. But once the football stadium is connected to the broader apparatus of television and sponsorship capital (and eventually to the jumbotron screen), the problematics of signal production are opened to newly consider the intensified subroutine loop of screen and subject relation.
One requires three elements for a card stunt to function successfully: the dissemination of a program code beforehand (the paper handout of instructions stating which card to display at what time); a set grid of stadium seats (the field of resolution) for visual output; and the activation of the program through a coded routine of command prompts.
Of course, the direct human agency involved to trigger the commands and activate the card stunt emerges as a fourth required element to follow the first three, which during the history of college football is a responsibility that has fallen to the cheerleading corps. Given the gendered histories of cheerleading in football, we might inquire into the specific ways that women were involved with triggering these program activation commands. It seems not a stretch to read the figure of the card stunt leader in resonance with both Kittler's figure of the typist and Ronell's figure of the switchboard operator — that is, one (woman) who can both inscribe a new flow of coded data as well as one who can connect an existing flow-in-potential, suggesting further that the history of technotext is always already a feminist one.
Further, if we continue to follow our suggestion that football models the American military-industrial complex in a sort of evolutionary version of chess, then these cheerleading women appear early on to play an important role in coordinating messages of support from the home front to the battle lines. But they are coded messages, and as such are susceptible to being intercepted or hacked by the enemy. This is precisely what occurred in the "Great Rose Bowl Hoax" of 1961: supporters of the California Institute of Technology, frustrated by a lack of visibility relative to Washington, their more famous opponent, pulled a prank in which the coded instructions were switched so that the visual output from the Washington fans ultimately communicated a very different message than the one originally intended.
If we can locate the card stunt at the modern stadium as a genealogical precursor to the pixelated bitmap computer display, we might consider the increasingly cramped seat and leg room at the contemporary stadium, then, as both an intensification of its capital productivity and a process toward becoming more high resolution. All surfaces become screens, it appears. And as Agamben notes, following Deleuze, the age of the cinema is also the age of a generalized catastrophe of gestures. If that is the case, can we flip the question of embodiment experienced by the increasingly cramped stadium spectator and ask: what implications do high resolution screen displays have for the human body watching at home today?
It appears that we are always already auditioning for spectacular capital (see 0:45).
clone 1: and i was all, like, the *basketball players* were, you know, forgetting and everything. but if you put them together they could kinda remember, or something like that.
clone 1: (snaps gum)
clone 2: LOL
clone 2: true
clone 1: 8-)
narrator: only then did i learn that brian massumi had in fact already written quite beautiful philosophy addressing this very question. it's called "the bleed: where body meets image".