Pixel

Card Stunt

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).

STAGES

ENVIRONMENT

PERMEABLE BOUNDARIES
WEAK RULES OF EXCLUSION

No spatial limits; uneven terrain; spatial interaction between "players" and "spectators"; diversified land use.

ENCLOSURE

Limits of pitch defined; players segregated from spectators.

PARTITIONING

Embankments, terraces, grandstands; payment for entry; segregation of spectators by social class; start of segregation within crowd; specialized land use.

SURVEILLANCE

Enclosed ground; synthetic pitch and concrete bowl; TV replay screen; total segregation within crowd; panopticism; diversified land use.

RULES OF EXCLUSION STRONG
IMPERMEABLE BOUNDARIES

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.

Courtesy of Georges Seurat

georges-pierre seurat
un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la grande jatte - 1884
1884-1886
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.

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

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.

Great Rose Bowl Hoax

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?

Comments

7 responses to Pixel

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  1. Greg J. Smith says:

    A great contemporary consideration of the pixel is Daniel Rozin's mirror projects. eg. http://www.smoothware.com/danny/woodenmirror.html

    They have the same language of a "card stunt" - but play out at a much smaller scale.

  2. Mitchell Whitelaw says:

    Great post - another interesting counterpoint, especially re. the programming of the human pixel, is Matthew Fuller's "Human Cellular Automata" (2000): http://www.spc.org/fuller/projects/the-human-cellular-automata/

  3. sportsbabel says:

    i remember his "trash mirror" from a few years ago — loved it and it still remains with me to this moment. great juxtaposition between his works and the card stunt, g.j.s.

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