Studies in Urban Gait Surfing, No.1

The following is an in-progress documentation for the inaugural study in urban gait surfing, an empirical investigation theorized and practiced by Sean Smith (aka sportsbabel) and Barbara Fornssler (aka the Switch) of the Department of Biological Flow.

"Gait surfing" is proposed as an everyday life practice and/or event in which we haptically "ride" flows of pedestrian traffic as a political response to the optical, individualizing aspects of ubiquitous cameras and gait-based detection and surveillance methods.

The research methodology, in which the two participants oscillated between registers of performance, documentation and reflexive discussion, could be described as co-emergent autoethnography. While their field notes are one layer of abstraction removed from the embodied performance, this documentation page should be considered an abstraction of the abstraction, but hopefully one in as expedient a fashion as possible such that the body still retains a memory of its movements through urban space and time.

Date :: Location

Dec. 1, 2008 :: Toronto, ON


To create a shared acoustic space within the public/private space of the surf, a playlist appropriate for the rhythms of the activity was created and playback was synchronized between the participants. Sean created the playlist and thus knew the songs going into the study. Barb did not know the songs ahead of time and thus her first experience hearing them was embodied during the actual surfing process.

1. Wehowsky and Wollscheid - Happy Deterritorializations [4:15]
2. Headphone Science - Cityscape Tracer [5:39]
3. Herbert Weixelbaum - Bathyskaph [5:41]
4. 833-45 - Amethyst [4:02]
5. Le Peuple de L'Herbe - The Fall [4:29]
6. Bacalao (8-Bit Operators) - The Robots (Die Roboter) [3:29]

(special thanks to purple, elaine ho and jean-christophe plantin for the various mixtapes and suggestions over time that ended up in this collection … brian massumi: "the past and future of any particular node have already unfolded elsewhere in the network")

Field Notes: Tracks Two and Three

The Switch at Kindred CafeKindred Cafe and into Yonge Street
(Happy Deterritorializations + Cityscape Tracer + Bathyskaph)

Unfortunately, the project got off on the wrong "track" right from the get-go. Somehow Barb's playlist did not have the "Happy Deterritorializations" track by Wehowsky and Wollscheid from the Gilles Deleuze: In Memoriam album, but rather the track right before it featuring speech fragments from Deleuze himself.

Sean gave Barb a short listen to "Happy Deterritorializations" so that she could prepare for her own deterritorialization, and the two made the decision to substitute tracks two and three from the gait surfing playlist for the ride from the Kindred Cafe up Yonge Street to the Yonge and Bloor intersection, the unofficial centre point of Toronto.

The Switch on Yonge StreetThe pedestrian traffic flow was relatively light on Yonge Street, possibly due to the cool weather, possibly due to the time of day and day of the week. So the initial surf became a sort of warm-up process in which each participant began to get a sense of self as walking subject and embodied, acoustic/proprioceptive part-subject.

As the two participants got closer to the Yonge and Bloor intersection, Sean recognized that there was still a fair amount of time left on track three, Weixelbaum's "Bathyskaph." On a dime, he decided to divert from the planned route, foregoing the (admittedly light) potential of the gait surf in favour of a more traditional drift. As it turned out, the atmospherics of the improvised journey (poor lighting, partial construction zone) were quite complementary to the atmospherics of Weixelbaum's up-tempo track with its down-tempo mechanized breathing sample.

Like surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and parkour before it, urban gait surfing requires its own set of trick maneuvers to articulate a particular aesthetic quality of semi-goal-oriented body movement. And by chance, Sean stumbled upon the first "trick" of gait surfing during the first run, which we might call a blind hairpin. There was still a little time left in track three when the two arrived at the west entrance of the Hudson's Bay shopping mall on the northeast corner of Yonge and Bloor, so Sean kept walking north on Yonge. But the left-hand side of the sidewalk was fairly devoid of pedestrians, while the right-hand side had a rather heavy flux of oncoming traffic, so all of a sudden Sean took a tight hairpin turn directly into the vector of the flow and was taken on a southerly course back to the mall entrance.

Cartography+Fragility /// With these tools that are always traceable by global satellites and are dependent on global temporalities, there is no common and possible community between the tracers and the traced. Global time is not a 'common time' and the satellite is not a 'close presence'. — Doina Petrescu, "The Indeterminate Mapping of the Common," p. 92

But Barb was navigating more fully through the haptic than the optic at that moment in time, so despite being only a few feet behind Sean, she totally missed the turn and kept heading north before the visual demanded a moment to take bearings. The blind hairpin: as fluidly as possible attempt to throw off the other(s) by reversing the vector of the surf.

The reliance on the visual for documentation purposes became immediately apparent to both participants during this initial run, despite the fact that gait surfing was meant to be a more embodied, haptic exercise. The question was immediately begged of how to document the embodied in the future. Perhaps the answer is to document everything but the embodied, such that the lacuna in the archive provides the reason why one would even begin to engage in such a kinesis.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps documentation is the poverty of tracing.

Field Notes: Track Four; Track Five

Concourse Level, Hudson's Bay Centre, 2 Bloor Street East
(Amethyst; The Fall)

Once indoors, Barb and Sean were able to attempt gait surfing in a more dense flow of pedestrian traffic situated on the shopping concourse at the Hudson's Bay Centre. Track four thus became the first true attempt to put the theorized principles of gait surfing into practice.

Hudson\'s Bay Concourse Mall

As with much empirical work, it is often the errors, mistakes, anomalies or unexpected outcomes that are of most interest. And it was certainly these things that stood out as significant for the two participants.

Shooting Back at Hudson\'s Bay CompanyShooting Back /// We are being recorded, all the time, every time. How should we respond to a surveillance society? We can deny all knowledge of what is happening, or we can equip ourselves mentally and technologically with the tools we need to respond to an ever-expanding surveillance network. In disseminating our own private information on our own terms, we do not just assert our right to a place in the entertainment cyborgspace continuum, we also raise the awareness of surveillance by no longer continuing to deny the fact of ongoing systematic privacy violations. We become what we hate and even fear. But in doing so, are we conquering our fear and channelling our anxiety into possibility? — Steve Mann, Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, p. 145

Once again, an over-reliance on the visual bias stymied attempts to fully get into the flow of the gait surfing exercise. Originally it was suggested that the surfing subject should direct one's gaze about 45 degrees below horizontal and abstract the focus of the gaze to about 5-6 feet in front of one's face. But this still made the exercise too visually-oriented: even if the flow of traffic was moving beyond the abstracted focal point, it was enough to stimulate the eye into refocusing, locating and tracking particular moving objects, thereby reducing any sort of dependence on the strictly haptic and proprioceptive aspects of negotiation and navigation.

Instead, Sean suggested to direct the gaze to 75 degrees from horizontal, such that the visual was deferred for as long as possible before encroaching upon the body's ability to move affectively through the flow. This definitely worked better for track five, but the continual struggle against the visual remained poignant for both participants.

Much like surfing on the ocean is a life practice in which one is continually seeking the perfect wave, gait surfing should be considered an ideal practice for one's movements through and within the pedestrian fluxes of the urban everyday. It should at once be an exercise in co-emergence with whom one shares a playlist as well an exercise in embodied self-awareness. In this latter sense it would also be the functional opposite of projects like the large-scale freeze at Grand Central Station in New York: while its frozen bodies alert passing spectators to their own participation in the flux, the practice of gait surfing situates one's own body relationally within the flux.

But finding that ideal frisson between vectors of pedestrian traffic — the "perfect wave" — is a challenging affair. Traffic can be too light (gaseous), too heavy (solid), too mixed together and turbulent (noisy) thus frustrating the quest for liquidity. However, it also makes those moments of found liquidity that much more rewarding. In the meantime, the participants noticed that they intuitively cut across the vectors of flow to keep things interesting when the traffic was lighter, or contorted their bodies to maintain velocity and liquidity when the rest of the space became increasingly solid.

Field Notes: Track Six

Bloor-Yonge TTC Station, Bloor-Danforth Line Subway Platform
(The Robots - Die Roboter)

The first thing to notice about track six was the lengthy discontinuity between its beginning and the end of track five. Sean and Barb decided to stop for a coffee, and given the abstracted statistical profile of this particular pedestrian flux the most readily available concourse coffee bar was a Starbucks franchise, where they decided to break.

We can read this in several ways. First, a session of gait surfing need not be a continuous activity: breaking for coffee (or lunch, fresh air, etc.) does not disrupt the flow such that it precludes it from being comfortably resumed at a later time. This suggests, for example, that gait surfing might provide an embodied form of social networking woven in with other communal activities enjoyed by teenagers at the shopping mall, perhaps offering new potential for pedagogy and praxis.


A second lens through which to read this text is through the lens of privilege. Despite choosing to wear particular signifying technologies (clothing, footwear, mp3 player+headphones, camera) that would render the two participants as unique or singular within the flow, as a total text (those same signifiers, age, skin colour, etc.) the two were still similar enough to the statistical model such that they did not raise any suspicion in being there. Naturally, this was not hindered in the slightest by the fact that they had the discretionary income with which to consume.

This resulted in a distinct sense of escape or shelter from the surveillant gaze that was present out in the "public space" of the concourse. Sean had internalized the presence of the surveillant gaze to a degree, though this should be understood not as a singular locus in the panoptic sense but rather as an assemblage of visioning technologies operated by the property owners, individual store tenants, Toronto Transit Commission, etc. Though the gait surfing exercise was to some degree a willful subversion of normal disciplinary protocols, one was nonetheless cognizant at all times about claiming the right to not move in this public conduit, and further, about asserting the right to possess and use visioning technologies not for the spectacular (as with the tourist) but to record the lived everyday and glimpse the power structures supporting this quotidian way of being-in-the-world.

Gaze Collage - TTC

Engaging the surveillance apparatus in the context of documentation can add a daunting and intimidating element to empirical fieldwork, particularly since it is further understood that the desired outcome for the pedestrian-object is to either circulate on the prescribed vectors or stop and consume — loitering is not to be tolerated. So both participants acknowledge the sense of ease that accompanied their excursus for coffee, but also recognize the privileged subject positions that ensured the fluid exercise of this relief.

Finally, the question of synchronicity proved very nettlesome even through this last run. The two participants had a great deal of difficulty getting playlists synchronized at the outset, making sure each was on the same song for each run, and then making sure each was temporally aligned to begin the song. It offered a glimpse of just what an act of power the ability to synchronize subjects can be, as well as the scale of apparatus required to synchronize certain movements and processes every day.

Total Pedometer Reading

3,278 steps

Osmotic Theory

Each person was to bring one book of theory in a carry-bag that they wanted to keep in mind, per se, during the study, without telling the other person the book in advance. At the end, the book was revealed as well as its perceived significance to that day's fieldwork.

Sean: Drive by Jordan Crandall (2003)
Jordan Crandall - DriveCrandall is interested in the body-machine-image systems that track the movement of human objects through space and time, but he refuses to concede a state of total oppression in the process of his investigation. Through his theoretical and artistic practice he seeks new opportunities for subjectivity and resistance within the mechanisms of surveillance, security and militarism. For those reasons it seemed like the perfect book I wanted to think about before, during and after my surfing.

Barb: Slingshot: 32 Postcards by Eric Drooker (2008)
Eric Drooker - Slingshot"Disguised as a book of innocent postcards, Slingshot is a dangerous collection of Eric Drooker’s most notorious posters. Plastered on brick walls from New York to Berlin, tattooed on bodies from Kansas to Mexico City, Drooker’s graphics continue to infiltrate and inflame the body politic." — synopsis on back cover

Drooker’s work first came to my attention during a seminar on the gendered body. His images inspire a sense of awe, demonstrating and magnifying the intense relationality between urban spaces and embodied experience. This relationality, the noise created at the edge of flow, is what the urban gait surfer seeks to ride, sense, feel, and embrace in this sport of process. She can never grasp, hold, or contain this sense any more than one can bottle the wind, she must sail - playing in symbiosis via affective movement. At the edge of liminal being, the surfer rides the flow of urban spectacle. This is not Baudelaire’s flaneur, she is Switch embodied, ex-isting in the between-space of a noise-wave created by the flow.

(documentation page edited by sportsbabel)

4 responses to Studies in Urban Gait Surfing, No.1

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  1. David Ker Thomson says:

    This just in from the gait surfing front up on Yonge south of Eglinton::

    At yoga this afternoon some guy’s passing around pictures of the Himalayas in the locker room, like it’s porn. A pool of exotic green in the foreground and a snatch of darkness in the distance. “That’s Everest,” he says. Our teacher has trained with the great man himself, and speaks sacroiliac. “Anal mouth down,” she says, and adds impossibly, “sit bones up.” I am stretched, then flung out into the city. Gusts to sixty are smacking scud upside the head of the new Quantum towers. Anal mouth down and sit bones launched, I see the north tower tilt riotously to the south, and in the parallax view the whole city rears joyously back. Left heel strikes dogshit but I never waver, shards of sunlight are zeusing in after ten cloudy days and we’re all in for it now.
    –DKT lives near the Oz subway station on Bloor

  2. sportsbabel says:

    get off my sacroiliac dkt…

    It's a throwdown, I'm conducting it
    Because like a highrise, I'm constructing it
    Was once thoughts, pen, and paper
    Now it's a tower of soul, a skyscraper
    It's getting out of hand, I've created a monster
    My musical monologue makes you wanna
    Move with the Maestro
    You feel hot so you set the blend, the crescendo is nice yo
    I'm the guide, the rhythm is the ride (the rhythm is the ride)
    To the fresh side, and let your backbone slide

  3. doug winspear says:

    It's a strange feeling I get when reading this piece. It is as if it was written by Jordon, originally from Vancouver, but now residing, at night, inside the Bank of Montreal all night ATM on the corner of Laurier and St. Laurent. He lugs around two garbage bag's and a backpack that looked like it belonged originally to Gary Snyder back when he hiked the Cascades with Kerouac. And they are filled with typewritten pages on vectors, flow, velocity and such. Now, Jordon is a soft-spoken, sensitive sort, except when it comes down to the personal level. I'd been coaching him on the art of Montreal bumhood. He'd fished a pretty good leather jacket out of the trash, and, I coaxed him to stick the ratty red, white and blue down vest under the leather jacket. Bulk up a bit, since he's skinny as a stick. I even lined him up with a desperate woman friend with an apartment, but he fled to the bank machine after two nights. She suspected him of having relations with the waitress at the cafe where he'd spend the days in the corner, nursing the buck thirty-five, refills free mocha java-occasionally bumbing a smoke from a customer. I tried to talk her out of those dark thoughts, seeing as how the waitress, now off burning a CD in Amsterdam, has a German boyfriend whose a cross between Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenneger; likewise,that car with one headlight isn't being driven by an Arab women that is out to kill all of Montreal's inhabitants of the Jewish persuasion.
    Now I realize, like a flash of satori during a mushroom trip at sunset above a cloud forest in Oaxaca, is that what Jordon needs most, is an agent. Or maybe a Canada Council Grant.

  4. sportsbabel says:

    this jordon character sounds fascinating, doug, and so interesting you talk of the agent, as *that* character seems to pop up time and again around these parts…

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