Studies in Urban Gait Surfing

Urban gait surfing is the first project by the Department of Biological Flow, in which Sean Smith and Barbara Fornssler explore the concept of the moving body as it is integrated into broader information networks of signal and noise. We seek to reclaim the agency of the human subject in our consideration of biological flow and its negotiations with economic and political structures both material and immaterial.

Studies in Urban Gait Surfing, No.1 - December 1, 2008

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Introduction: Gait Surveillance and the Total Communication Infrastructure

For the State, a person's gait is a marker of difference. Consider the myriad factors that constitute an individual subject's gait: height, weight, age, gender, centre of gravity, periodicity of stride length, number of legs, number of arms, material composition of prosthetic limb, indications for arthritis or other joint disease, prior accidents, access to health care, symmetry of body, footwear, style, cultural norms, curvature of spine, strength of core stabilizer muscles, and many more that could be added to this list.

The dizzying permutations and combinations of these myriad factors constitute the code or DNA — the metasign system — of each of our individual gaits. These factors — some biological, some social, economic or political — blend together to create the unique gait of individual animal locomotion, which can then be quantified and analyzed in a dissolving of the particular into the abstract-yet-precise.

When the particular is dissolved into the abstract-yet-precise, it becomes of the archival domain and the individual subject becomes integrated into what Jordan Crandall refers to as the body-machine-image complex. With the case of gait-based biometric analysis and security, this integration continues Foucault's project of creating docile bodies, the difference being that the mode of observation is a haptic-made-optic rather than the strict remote optics of the surveillance apparatus.

The Surfer

"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the question of bodies and flow. The surfing, flowing body finds its rhythm in a whole continuum of matter-states, from the gaseous waves of the hang-glider or skydiver to the concrete waves carved by the street skater, to the frozen in-between waves of aqua and terra shredded on the slopes by the snowboarder.

But we must remember that surfing has its origins in the smooth space of the ocean, with only the logic of the tide and the deep swell accompanying a hybrid of body and board on its path of creative potential towards the beach. From the very beginning then, despite its forays into other matter-states, the surfing body has always been a liquid body.

Today we are all becoming surfers — surfers of waves, surfers of electromagnetic transmissions, surfers of relational databases and other networked information-constructs. One need not have a board to be a surfing body. But one does need a body. The question today has become one of embodiment. Does the body sense? Does the body move or create?

Is the body liquid?

The surfer is equally comfortable navigating between signal and noise. Slight murmurs and adjustments made by the finely attuned body maintains an optimal position while riding the liminal edge between the two. For the waves that surfers call home are nothing if not the pure signal of the cresting swell in its becoming-noise, before crashing to shore at the feet of the masses lying recumbent on the sand: aqua meets terra where the noisy wave hits the beach.

The relationship between the two becomes more distant when moved to the urban context, though there is still a connection in noise. Today, aqua and terra are the noise to the constantly throbbing signal of dwelling and commerce. The tree, the pond, the park, the rain: all are noise to the decaying spaces and shiny interfaces of the contemporary city, connected in signal through the boulevards and underground conduits of the city, as well as the fluxes of people navigating the urban everyday. Though they, too, will eventually become part of the total communications infrastructure, for now they remain the playground of the surfer.

Gait Surfing

a memetic splice of parkour that constitutes a "performative critique" (cf. borden) of the moving bodies along an urban conduit.

the foldings of kinesis within a particular taxis.

finding smooth space within gait surveillance and the fluxes of the striated.
finding a shifting temporality of the several within a flow of multiplicity (cf. ettinger).

Deleuze and Guattari weren't totally correct. Surfing is not necessarily about entering into an existing energetic system in and of itself, as much as it is riding the turbulent, frothy edge between signal and becoming-noise. In the case of gait surfing, there is an entering into the energetic system of the flow of pedestrian traffic, but this traffic is itself produced by the muscular energies of the individual body. We are still exerting a force within the striations of the urban environment, that is, the biomechanical leveraging of the musculoskeletal system towards a particular linear vector of production. But when examined intensively, this linear flow-in-theory has different internal paces, rhythms, deviations from normal gaits, errors, noise, speeds, purposes and objectives, cultural histories — and indeed, an entire erotics in its relationality to the unfoldings of the several.

It is these anomalies that constitute the minor perturbations in a flow that may thereafter become chaotic attractors and create turbulence (cf. DeLanda). We find in the aggregate from these perturbations in bodily locomotive style the corporeal jetwash or break point between signal and becoming-noise of the urban gait surfer. Like a television picture in which one can see the dopplered images of visual signal and snowy static noise.

Haptic Space

Acoustic Space

Mixtape of instrumental music. Shared playlist, personal music player. Match the music to the motion. An aesthetic headphone science. A psychogeographical hybrid of surfing logic and audio walking tour.

It is not new to suggest the importance of the relationship between musical rhythms and the rhythms of the body in motion. Furthermore, it is not new to suggest that our personal music players may help us to create a bubble of acoustic privacy in the predominantly visual crush of public space. Iain Chambers does not view this as an isolationist tendency, however:

In the manifest refusal of sociability the Walkman nevertheless reaffirms participation in a shared environment. … Each listener/player selects and rearranges the surrounding soundscape, and, in constructing a dialogue with it, leaves a trace in the network ("The Aural Walk").

Urban gait surfing changes the stakes of sociability and the potential traces located between bodies and in the network. By sharing and synchronizing a playlist, one might create an umbilicus between these bubbles of acoustic privacy and refashion the parameters of dialogue with the surrounding soundscape. This does not simply reduce the affects and sensations produced to a replicated movement experience among the participants, for the unfolding of the flow as it relates to each musical note will be topologically unique for each individual. Rather, we create the potential for a shared becoming or co-emergence through this differential unfolding in synchronized musical time.

Fashion and Signification

Wear technologies that are comfortable for you. Shoes, clothes, signifiers, mp3 player, headphones, camera, and whatever else is of comfort.

Cannot ride completely with the flow or against the flow, as this would be more "floating" than "surfing". The idea is to find the liminal edge between the two as best as possible and ride it. This means that you should be a little faster than the flow moving in the same direction as yourself — thrust forward to the crest.

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