Nomads of the Urban Everyday

Nomads of the Urban Everyday: Gait Surfing and Micropolitics

(submitted by s.smith and b.fornssler to the 2009 international sociology of sport association conference in utrecht)

Gait Surfing

The nomadic wandering subject has a rich history in modern and postmodern leisure and physical culture, from the flânerie of Baudelaire to the psychogeography of the Situationists to the transurbance of the Stalkers. Traces of this subjectivity may also be found in cognate sporting cultures, from surfing to street skating to parkour. In each of these examples the subjects have discovered, investigated and critiqued their surrounding environments by using their own bodies as the locus of movement and sensation, an act at once aesthetic and political.

In post-9/11 societies, particularly those in urban centres, the aesthetic and political stakes for sensing bodies in movement have escalated dramatically. Surveillance cameras and screens have proliferated as the meshworks of state authority attempt to adjudicate fluxes of human movement in public and quasi-public spaces. To this security arsenal has been recently added gait-based analysis and detection, which can use the markers of an individual's walk as the basis for identification in surveillant spaces.

This paper introduces a new incarnation of the nomadic wandering subject, one who emerges in those spaces where the flux of collective flesh is most pronounced. Gait surfing is proposed as an everyday life practice and/or event in which one haptically "rides" flows of pedestrian traffic as an aesthetic and political response to the optical, individualizing aspects of ubiquitous cameras and gait-based detection and surveillance methods.

Gait surfing can be considered an attempt to refashion psychogeography at the scale of nanosociability: an engagement of the vibrations and resonances with other bodies, experienced by walking in what we consider the liminal space between public and private. While the spatial field of gait surfing experience is much smaller at any given moment and thus is more intensely bodily, it is also temporally far more dynamic with each step and thus requires a more precise calibration or attunement to affect in order to be detected. And while the lessons drawn from the dérive enabled a greater understanding of the macropolitics of the city for the Situationists, so perhaps the nanosociability of the gait surf can offer insights into the micropolitics of the lived everyday.

surfing, waves, forms

A person lying face-down on a long board paddles out over a series of waves to reach the break. Hard work, to be sure, but not surfing work. Though the surfer exists discursively on the beach and in fashion and in the pages of magazines and on highlight reels, as well as in the physical preparations for the surfing session proper, we are still primarily discussing the surfer in its potential. It isn't until the surfing body starts to catch a wave and stands up on the board that it emerges from the virtual into the actuality of surfing sensation. As I have mentioned before, the surfer turns potentiality into actuality by contouring the liminal edge between signal and noise, for the wave on which she expresses herself can only be considered the pure signal of the cresting swell in its becoming-noise.

urban gait surfing waveforms, viewed in audacity

We move inland to the city. Instead of a completely liquid ocean we find (social) matter existing in various states (solid, liquid, gas) and in processes of relation between states (melting, solidification, vaporization, condensation, deposition and sublimation). Perhaps we can say that complexity increases in the city, but the aesthetics of the surfer continue to adapt and thrive?

At least, that is what the gait surfer hopes to explore: the aesthetics of the surfer, adapted to the politics of the city. Dérive and thrive, only if the visual dominated and sound wasn't such an important consideration.

But sound is important. It is part of the built environment, emerging organically from the technical apparatus of the city, or technically from our organic processes existing within its folds and dynamism. As Lotringer, Kraus and El Kholti point out in the foreword to Baudrillard's In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, "Félix Guattari may have answered that it is no longer necessary to maintain a distinction between material and semiotic deterritorializations and that there is no more absolute primacy of one system over another." That is, the semiosis of sound and its recordings is part of an architectural form, and the deterritorialization of the body as it relates to this architecture is something that demands consideration.

The graphic above shows the waveforms for the six songs on the playlist of the first urban gait surfing study, the micro-architecture of the shared acoustic space within the public/private space of the surf. Notice the difference in each song's individual shape. What lies outside that shape? What lies on the edge, the threshold?

urban gait surfing waveforms, viewed in audacity

This is the same playlist zoomed into 1.3 seconds of detail. Notice how the shapes change, expand, offer a different threshold of potential.

Gait surfing can be considered an attempt to refashion psychogeography at the scale of nanosociability. An engagement of the vibrations and resonances with other bodies, experienced by walking in what we consider the liminal space between public and private. While the spatial field of gait surfing experience is much smaller at any given moment and thus is more intensely bodily, it is also temporally far more dynamic with each step and thus requires a more precise calibration or attunement to affect in order to be detected.

Reframe the question. How do we as sensing subjects respond at the level of nano-aesthetics? Ideally, and borrowing from Iain Borden, can we call gait surfing a performative critique of the sound architecture?

Only in part. There are multiple simultaneous critiques at play, most notably those of the sound architecture and the pedestrian flux. It is at the moments of greatest resonance or accord between these two critiques that we approach the surfer's eternal quest for the perfect wave.


Physical dislocation. Temporal dislocation. Psychological dislocation. All easily accomplished on a macro scale if one boards a plane and travels to the other side of the world, or even if one hops in a taxi and ventures to the other side of the city.

Nation-states, municipal boundaries, unofficial neighbourhood delineations. Planes, trains and automobiles. Such blunt instruments, though, for detecting the flows and rhythms of the everyday and its micro scales of sociability. The psychogeographical project of the Situationists was just such an attempt to refine and recalibrate our tools for perceiving location and dislocation — for understanding ambience — particularly as our awareness of the spatiotemporal environment (as politics) has increased (and the stakes have gotten higher).

Every new visioning technology invented pushes the vectors of perception forward, and so we discover new stars in the nether reaches of the universe or new particles of matter at the subatomic level. And while we haven't yet exhausted the potential of closer interstellar objects or larger-scale particles, the insights they have already provided point us in new directions for investigation.

We should understand the Situationist dérive in similar terms. While it is true that the broader aims of psychogeography in general and the dérive in particular have not been fully realized (because the sociopolitical terrain has shifted underneath, as much as any other reason), they suggest new tools for affectively understanding beyond the micro to what could be considered the nano scale of the social.

Gait surfing can be considered an attempt to refashion psychogeography at the scale of nanosociability. An engagement of the vibrations and resonances with other bodies, experienced by walking in what we consider the liminal space between public and private. While the spatial field of gait surfing experience is much smaller at any given moment and thus is more intensely bodily, it is also temporally far more dynamic with each step and thus requires a more precise calibration or attunement to affect in order to be detected.

And while the lessons drawn from the dérive enabled a greater understanding of the macropolitics of the city for the Situationists, so perhaps the nanosociability of the gait surf can offer insights into the micropolitics of the lived everyday.

Asymmetrical Relations

Almost exclusively, the modern sport project is founded upon the principle of symmetrical relations between competitors. We can understand this desire for symmetry along many dimensions, all of them instrumental. First, we can understand symmetry in terms of body composition, as in weight class, gender, disability, etc. This usually has to do with the question of produced force: in combat sports we separate by weight class so that the "weaker" opponent does not get hurt, while males and females usually do not play together due to perceived differences in strength. A useful contrast may be made here with the Japanese sport of sumo, in which all weight classes compete against one another in combinations of power and speed that do not privilege one over the other.

In theory, symmetrical relations also means that the same equipment is used by each athlete or team, though in practice this is a highly contentious area of sport. For example, the controversy over asymmetry in the 1988 America's Cup sailing regatta regarding what boats could and could not be used resulted in a New York State Supreme Court challenge. On a less dramatic scale, we might consider the new swimsuits developed by Speedo, which may only be available to certain athletes for the Beijing Olympics this summer, giving them a decided advantage in the pool.

And as the instrumentality of technology physically integrates with that of the body, things become even more problematic. Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee sprinter from South Africa, had to take his case to the world Court of Arbitration for Sport in order to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners, since the International Olympic Committee had previously ruled that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair biomechanical advantage in terms of energy return per stride. But David Howe of Loughborough University makes the interesting case that Pistorius' eligibility to compete against able-bodied runners in Beijing and beyond is immaterial; the real travesty, rather, is that as a double amputee (and thus possessing a smooth, symmetrical stride) Pistorius has been able to hone his skills in competition against single amputee sprinters (and their awkward asymmetrical gait).

As we further delve into into the question of symmetrical athletic bodies, we find the World Anti-Doping Agency. Any asymmetries arising in athletic competition must be grounded within the unitary athletic body in its genetic predisposition, refined through aptitude and hard work, and expressed through the poiesis of sporting performance. Substances, methods and other enabling technologies are permissible in this ethic of sport so long as they are supplementary to the organic unity of the athletic body and do not penetrate or pollute. And WADA claims the sovereign right to penetrate athletic bodies to make sure that such a symmetry persists.

Finally, we might understand symmetrical relations in terms of the number of athletes competing against one another in team sports. Every modern sport form first codifies in its rules the exact number of athletes that may compete for each team. In ice hockey, rugby league and other sports, one of the gravest threats is to have a player taken off the field and sent to the penalty box (or "sin bin") for their transgressions, forcing a numerical asymmetry. Here, useful contrasts may be drawn with the postmodern form of professional WWE-style wrestling, in which two or three wrestlers will routinely gang up against another. More grounded in modern sporting forms, the Situationist Asger Jorn critiqued this very principle of symmetry and its basis in binary thinking with his three-sided soccer.

In basketball, there is no such thing as a penalty box, though it is not impossible for there to be a numerical discrepancy in players. Once a player earns five fouls (six in the NBA), they are ejected from the game and a different player may substitute in their stead. But if there is no substitute available, either because too many players have fouled out, because of injuries, or because the roster was incomplete in the first place, then the offending team is forced to play at a numerical disadvantage. This happens rarely in major, sanctioned league competition, but occurs quite often in less formal men's and women's recreational leagues since a team might only begin a game with 5 or 6 players.

This is not to suggest that it is necessarily better to be the team with the numerical advantage in such a situation. In fact, quite often it is the opposite since the team with extra players over-passes the ball in order to get a perfect shot, and ends up thinking rather than reacting. I can recall winning a game in men's league with three healthy players and one playing on one leg due to a severe hamstring pull, since the other team couldn't figure out how to take advantage of the situation.

But all of this is all about a particular structural form of competition. In pickup basketball, on the other hand, competition can be equally as valued, yet not as obsessive about symmetrical relations. The pickup game is always already asymmetrical by virtue of those who participate on any given occasion.

6:45 a.m., New City YMCA, Chicago
No one in this gym knows I'm keeping a "diary."
No one knows what I do for a living.
No one knows how old I am. Unless someone checks to see whether I wear a wedding band — and guys don't generally look for that kind of thing — no one knows whether I'm married.
No one knows if I have kids. Or siblings. They don't know if my parents are still alive.
What kind of car do I drive? Or do I walk to the gym? Where exactly do I live?
No one has asked. No one cares. We don't talk about it.
And that's just fine.
If we were to talk, I'm sure we would find that some of us have a lot in common — kids, jobs, interests. Some of us might become permanent friends. Happens all the time, on the court and off.
But we don't talk.
We share one interest, intensely, for about one hour, twice a week. We talk about as much as we need to. Some friendly greetings before the game, and then the chatter of the game — "nice pass … check … ball's in … foul! …"
We generally try to learn our teammates' first names before a game starts, but we don't always remember them or use them. "Good finish, Jimmy" is about as personal as it gets. Over the weeks and months, faces and names tend to become more familiar, but that doesn’t mean we’re friends.
Not every pickup game is like this. But this one is. And I like it.

(Royce Webb, SportsJones)

In modern sport, despite the best efforts of authorities, relations can never be fully symmetrical no matter how much they are codified in language. But in the case of pickup basketball, a temporary community in which the only thing in common is that the players have nothing in common, the community is entered into freely as an act of mutual consent (cf. Nancy). As the basketball player has recently come to understand though, the resultant asymmetrical relations aren't too asymmetrical and that he will cherish always.

Three-Sided Basketball

Last summer my friend Stuart (of Sceptical Futuryst fame) introduced me to the work of Asger Jorn and his concept of three-sided football. I was quite taken with Jorn's idea, as it seemed to challenge the type of binary (and symmetrical) thinking that mano-a-mano, home vs. away, favourite vs. underdog, white hat vs. black hat modern team sport fosters.

It is worth noting that Jorn was a founding member of the Situationist International, and a colleague of Guy Debord, since sport was certainly emerging during the post-war period as an important contributor to the society of spectacle. Jorn's Marxist roots and subsequent attempts to move beyond Marxist dialectical thought are apparent in his challenge to the game of football.

Courtesy of Dr. PinkyCourtesy of Dr. Pinky

The diagram on the left shows the hexagonal football pitch, while the diagram on the right shows how out-of-bounds situations (throw-ins, goal kicks, corners) are allocated when the α team touched the ball last. Importantly, the addition of a third team in Jorn's football matches includes the addition of a third goal as well. This bifurcates the possible directions of forward progress or vectors of force that are appropriate at any one time (though this obviously doesn't include the voluntary decision to reverse course and convert excess space into scarce time): which direction does one attack?

Beyond the intersection of critical theory and sport, I was really interested to learn about Jorn's three-sided football because I had theorized a form of three-sided basketball many years ago. (This was before I began sportsBabel; however, a sketch from an old notebook is reproduced below.) As with Jorn's game, there were three goals to correspond with the three teams competing — each team defending a particular goal and creating a sportscape resembling a triangle inscribed within a circle (a hexagon with an infinite number of sidelines?). I, too, sought to challenge the binary of modern team sport though at the time I didn't understand it as such. The difference between Jorn's game and my own, however, is that my game added an extra ball to the field of play.

3-Sided Basketball

If we understand the ball (green circle) as a source of energy or gravitational pull within a sporting space, then what does the addition of a second ball to the three-sided sporting event accomplish? Clearly it serves to divide attention for the hypothetical players, coaches, spectators, referees and media (presuming the latter four parties are present, of course) as any one team must simultaneously be on offence and defence.

The other notable characteristic of my proposed game — given that there are two balls involved — is that each team has an even number (4) of players. This means that to get an advantage when attacking offensively a team has three basic options: use 3 players to attack while only leaving 1 back to defend the goal; send 2 players out and hope to outmanoeuvre the defence while leaving 2 behind to defend the goal; or send 2 players out and form a temporary alliance with a player from the third team to try and gain a numerical advantage on the offensive attack.

This begs the question of how to address score. In Jorn's three-sided football, a team does not count goals they have scored but rather those they have conceded. In my three-sided basketball,

AB AY AR Total
Blue -6 4 2 0
Yellow 4 -5 3 2
Red 2 1 -5 -2

on the other hand, both scoring and defending are important, hence the points conceded are deducted from the points scored against each of the other two teams (AB = against Blue, etc.). Since offensive points as well as conceded points are being tallied the problem of temporary alliances that Jorn was interested in exploring via his triolectic philosophy changes. No longer do we simply form an alliance with a second team in order to score against a third team — the question of who scored matters. If Blue and Yellow form an alliance to score on Red, with Blue ultimately scoring the point, then the trivalent logic suggests that Blue = +1, Red = -1, and Blue has an outstanding debt to Yellow. When Blue and Yellow form an alliance again at some future point, it is expected that Yellow will be afforded a better than even opportunity to score in return.

The actual dynamics of these obligations are dependent upon who has the numerical advantage in players within any particular alliance. For every time Blue sends out 2 offensive players that are joined on the attack by a Yellow player, approximately two-thirds of the points should be scored by Blue; and vice-versa if Yellow is the team that initially sends out 2 players. This requires a sort of real-time game theory calculation in which athletes balance the relative merits of competition and cooperation against historical outcomes while running at top speed towards a goal.

I am really excited to learn more about Jorn's triolectic philosophy and how he applied it to football. But my initial thought is that Jorn didn't go far enough in his deconstruction of binary team sport. The addition of the second ball might be a step further in the triolectic approach. More to follow.

Privileging Sight

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, #18 (boldface emphasis mine):

For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings — tangible figments which are the efficient motor of a trancelike behavior. Since the spectacle's job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society's generalized abstraction. This is not to say, however, that the spectacle itself is perceptible to the naked eye — even if the eye is assisted by the ear. The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule.