Marching Across Time

Courtesy of Adam Magyar

"If 'everything is ruled by lightning', as Heraclitus suggested, the PHOTO-FINISH imposes the instantaneity of its violence on all the various 'artistic representations' and modern art, like war — BLITZKRIEG — is no more than a kind of exhibitionism that imposes its own terrorist voyeurism: that of death, live." — Paul Virilio, Art and Fear, p.43, emphasis in original

* * *

The photo finish. One might argue that the precision demands of high performance sprinting are such that one requires exactly this apparatus to adjudicate the race winners. But what happens when the same technological diagram is lifted from the sports stadium and brought to the public square, as with the Urban Flow artworks produced by photographer Adam Magyar?

Courtesy of Adam Magyar

adam magyar
#1600 (detail)
new york
2009
recorded time: 46 sec. (26×240 cm)

If one is standing at the finish line in the official capacity of determining a race winner in the 100-metre dash, one's perspectival gaze sees a pack of disciplined sprinters approaching, each partitioned into their own lanes — in other words, how we might understand Deleuze and Guattari's striated (sports) space. As the race continues one is constantly modifying the embodiment of this perspective, turning the head and shoulders ever-so-slightly to match the changing relation between adjudicating body, approaching runners, and finish line proper — the latter of which constitutes the "true" object of everyone's gaze.

One is practically an extension of the finish line at the penultimate moment (or climax) of the race, the minute difference in radians between one's optical line of sight and the white marking of the terminus barely distinguishable over the final split seconds. Indeed, as the race comes to its conclusion one's body is almost perfectly still: to ensure the best possible result for the tracking shot we attempt to stabilize the optical field, only the eyes moving side-to-side in tandem with the nearly-orthogonal flux of runners crossing the finish line (cf. Brian Massumi's notes on "mirror-vision", Parables for the Virtual, p.48).

The axis of rotation has moved from shoulder+neck+skull to eyeballs: this new origin and its shorter radius allows us to sharpen the image as if we were describing a gestural microscope zooming in to a higher level of resolution. A threshold has been reached in the geometry of competition. Ontogenesis, or recomposed bodies in a reconfiguring athletic space (cf. Erin Manning, Relationscapes, p.15).

Even with this higher resolution available, however, as the runners increase in speed it becomes more apparent that the body-as-camera vibrates too much to function with a high degree of precision as a solution for adjudicating sport. Eventually we use a string or ribbon held across the finish line by two witnesses to complement the strictly visual determination of the race victor. That is, the ocular appraisal is confirmed with a visceral tug on the fingers as the string rapidly contours the breast of the first runner to cross the finish line. The hapticity of close vision, the affective tonality of the competition environment, and the increase in both absolute and relative speed all contribute to the intensity of this very temporary smooth sprinting space.

Or more precisely, a striated space that has become smooth in a pre-programmed yet emergent fashion.

Courtesy of Beijing and Berlin Marathons

samuel wanjiru (ken, beijing olympics) - paula radcliffe (gbr, new york city) - qi shun (chn, beijing paralympics)

But speed and progress move on. Even the ribbon or string is no longer adequate for high-performance racing, its obsolescence and retrieval marked poignantly by the ceremonial status it carries today at the finish line of the much slower marathon. In fact, if we make this ribbon a wider surface we can actually leverage this slowness as sponsorship inventory for vectoral capital.

And the question of adjudication is complicated when we introduce timing to the technological diagram of the sporting competition. As we have noted earlier:

The act of timing … brings a particular and peculiar violence upon the sporting body, since the disciplining ceases to be a local disciplining of the self and crosses a threshold to become a general formula for efficient production by imposing the tyranny of the clock. Put another way, timing a race serves little purpose if it is only done once. In the absence of other times with which to compare, this temporal measurement becomes a number without context and therefore meaningless.

No, the purpose of timing is to create an archive for comparative purposes: times of past performance, benchmarks for future performance, markers of record performance. Optimal time becomes the alibi for a most brutal violence to the sporting body that goes beyond a self-discipline to broader networks of power and economy constraining the self (November 2008).

We introduce a genealogy of stopwatches and other electronic timing devices to complement the photo finish mechanisms that are rapidly replacing the human eye in adjudicating race winners. Eventually the two forms — time+image — merge in the fully automated electronic photo finish system, which uses slitscan photography to dilate the minute spatial differences between runners that have been obscured by speed.

The slitscan system freezes the image as if it was an instant in time, though it is in fact of a duration: the elements to the right of the frame are "older" in time relative to those on the left. This should not be understood as duration in the Bergsonian sense: we are describing contiguous slices of time laid to film one after the other — 2,000 every second, to be precise.

Photo Finish

In addition, the slit photography system used at the sports stadium appends what we might refer to as a chronometric ruler to the photo finish image produced by the sprint race. This graduated edge allows one to apply spatial principles to the fixed durational segments of time on film, measuring how long apart the runners were given the fixed point in space of finish line+camera lens. The "truth" of the performance shifts from the track to the scoreboard, just as the contouring of the breast by the ribbon cedes to the hard perpendicular line of time.

Though this chronometric ruler is absent in Magyar's photos, we recall its lesson well: as the blurred backdrops to his public tableaux visually confirm, high-speed slit photography smooths space in the service of striating time.

Courtesy of Adam Magyar

adam magyar
#292 (magnified detail)
hong kong
2007
recorded time: 1 min. 32 sec. (26×240 cm)

Though the imagery itself is quite beautiful, this quote from Magyar in the project documentation is key to our investigation:

With the slit-scan technique, a fraction of a moment is recorded through a 1-pixel wide slit several hundred times per second. The time and space slices recorded this way and placed right next to each other generate an image without a perspective; it is the passing of time itself that turns into space by moving forward in time from the right side toward the left in each image.

In other words, the events recorded on the right side of the image took place earlier than the ones on the left, also meaning that the people in the photos never existed together in the form shown by the image. So the people in the right-hand side of the image had grown several minutes older by the time the people seen in the left side passed my camera.

As a result of this time-space connection, all the people and vehicles in the photos are heading in one direction (emphasis added).

Three questions:

1. By re-aligning the variation of every moving body to the side-view mug shot, has "art" created the process that makes databased identification within smooth open spaces more reliable and efficient? Or was the "military" already there first?

2. How do we understand the "sense of solidarity" proposed by the Walking As One project, for which Magyar's work was commissioned?

3. When Agamben calls us "to link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated, and thus to forge the whatever body," is he asking for the rich diversity of kinetic poiesis that is gesture to be rendered a march across time to the camps?

Courtesy of Adam Magyar

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