The Knot

The urban gait surfer locates traces of itself throughout the archives of the city and the annals of its moving bodies. This city is understood as a history of structures and flows, each interplaying with the other, constraining the possibilities of the other, and creating the other anew. But these are by definition only partial traces, gratuitous appropriations from an ever-changing trajectory of nomadism (the flâneur, the psychogeographer, the surfer, the street skater, the parkour athlete) to situate a particular social, cultural and political moment, as the twisted plaits of a braid form a beautiful (and communicative) knot in a macramé pattern before separating to become elsewhere and when.

Sporting Discipline and Kept Time

The thought occurs to me in a public square outside the train station in Köln:

I am fascinated by skateboarders and their sporting ilk.

Skateboarding is a skill that I was never able to easily grasp as a youngster and today it eludes me completely, though I am even more intensely aware of the sport's aesthetics and politics. All of which is to say that skateboarding requires a disciplined body in order to execute its skills, a particular form of discipline not immediately subsumable under a blanket label of athleticism, and a discipline that I lack and envy in others.

But hasn't sportsBabel become an extended polemic against the disciplining of bodies for sporting purposes? I suppose to some degree that it has, so perhaps I ought to begin delineating a personal ethics of sporting discipline.

As a starting point, we turn to Debra Shogan, who points out that there can be no sporting performance in the absence of a disciplined body. Any sporting skill requires a sophisticated coordination of muscle groups major and minor; an articulation of this motor potential with ground, ball, board, or other technical apparatus; and an ability to pass through space and time in a fashion appropriate to the sport question.

Here we face our first challenge: what should we consider an "appropriate" sporting movement?

To determine what is "appropriate" we must begin to look at the sport's formal requirements, its purposes and goals. Dare we settle on something so binary as objective and subjective sport classifications to construct our argument? For now we shall, though I suspect we'll find these categories limiting in the end.

Once again, we are beginning with the premise that there can be no sporting performance without the prior existence of the disciplined body. But once we divide sports into objective and subjective categories, the character of the disciplined body is divided as well. In the case of objective sport performance goals are fairly clear cut and there usually can only be one winner in an athletic contest.

Take the sport of running, for example. Humans have always been runners, whether to catch a quarry, escape from a predator, transport from one place to another, or contest Olympic championships. Running is a very naturally-learned physical activity even though it is very distinguishable biomechanically from accelerated walking. The pumping of the arm opposite the leg that is being lifted and propelled forward is necessary for this skill to occur, and should be considered an appropriate form of bodily discipline, one that is self-learned and imposed.

What, then, constitutes an inappropriate form of discipline in running? It is the discipline imposed on a body by another. It is when we cease to describe a discipline of the self and begin to describe the diagram of power that disciplines the self. If there is a turning point to be found in running, it comes with the introduction of timing to the race process.

When two or more people have a footrace, in the majority of cases the runners themselves can determine the winner; even when the race is close, the kinaesthetic sense of being-in-body is enough (if the contestants are honest with themselves) to determine the winner. If not, they turn around and race again.

Even when the gaze of an "impartial" third-party judge is introduced, we have not yet crossed a barrier into an inappropriate disciplining of the sporting body since, generally speaking, this judge simply confirms what the running bodies already know but are perhaps unwilling to admit in their competitiveness.

The act of timing, however, 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. This must be considered an inappropriate disciplining of the sporting body, even though it leads to body movements that are appropriate for the formal requirements of the sport in question.

Cresting Signal and Noise

"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.

This urban playground, however, remains largely unused. For too long our sport has resembled the factory production model and for too long our surfing has been that of the data-net sort. Sport can be the anti-work, but only insofar as one is embodied and creative, or as one is a playmaker.

Interestingly, Deleuze describes the runner as the sporting figure obsolesced by the emergence of the contemporary surfer. We should not be surprised by his diagnosis, since the sprinter and marathoner seem increasingly to be products of the industrial laboratory, while the surfing body remains largely unchanged, except for the growing variety of energetic systems in which it realizes its potential. But obsolescence is not an entirely accurate diagnosis, however, for the dynamism of the surfer has folded back upon the runner, as we see embodied in the parkour athlete who contours and traces the asphault, concrete, bricks and mortar of the urban cityscape. In other words, a body can change.

Traditionally, the playmaker has been the figure in sports who makes plays, that is, who manufactures positive outcomes in the clutch, who embodies drill, discipline, execution and repetition. But everywhere surfing has replaced the older sports. Instead of making plays, one must now embrace the challenge of making play, rescuing it from the seriousness of industrial manufacture and the factory production model. To make plays, one blocks out the noise of the crowd and visualizes the task at hand. To make play, by contrast, one embraces and engages the noise of the crowd, sensing one's self in space as an affective body, athletic and full of creative potential.

Make play. Surf. This constitutes the tactile burden of all playmakers, regardless of their material habitat: to feel the heaviness of the body at the same moment one feels the lightness of its liquidity. To move, perform, create, liberate.

Perception and the State

NASSS 2008: Hybrid Bodies and Social Change in Popular Culture

"One of the fundamental tasks of the State is to striate the space over which it reigns, or to utilize smooth spaces as a means of communication in the service of striated space. It is a vital concern of every State not only to vanquish nomadism but to control migrations and, more generally, to establish a zone of rights over an entire "exterior," over all of the flows traversing the ecumenon. If it can help it, the State does not dissociate itself from a process of capture of flows of all kinds, populations, commodities or commerce, money or capital, etc. There is still a need for fixed paths in well-defined directions, which restrict speed, regulate circulation, relativize movement, and measure in detail the relative movements of subjects and objects." — Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p.385

Lightness and the Tactile Burden

"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the problem of flow, particularly the movement-flow of bodies. Sport, in its rational industrial form, poses a body that is broken down by disciplinary technology before being reassembled in pursuit of maximal production efficiency and minimal political insubordination. This isn't just in a metaphorical sense: the disciplined sporting body is formed in a process of enclosure, surveillance, spatiotemporal constraint and discursive construct directly analogous to the processes of labour production in the factory.

We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there's a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports - surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding - take the form of an entering into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting into orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort (Deleuze, 1995).

The surfer, on the other hand — surfer of waves, surfer of electromagnetic transmissions, surfer of relational databases and other networked information-constructs — begins to shed the weightiness of the rigid modern body in favour of a light, flowing postmodern body, a body that desires expressivity in its many forms. Skateboarders, concrete kin to the surfers of liquid waves, similarly desire expressivity as emergent from the body. While the control society attempts to herd these surfers into so-called skateparks in the same way that it enclosed athletes from an earlier era into the ludic factory of the stadium, the street skater resists this herd mentality. S/he cuts across the lines of stratification that define a city to open new spaces and opportunities for expression.

Iain Borden refers to the cultural practice of street skateboarding as a "performative critique of the city" in which the skater contours and cantilevers through, over and around the interesting architectural features of a particular urban core. In Shaun Gladwell's short video "Storm Sequence" (2000), the subject is a skateboarder on a concrete platform who performs tricks while pounding ocean swells and grey-skied backdrop signal an impending storm. The video (8:35 in duration) has a washed out appearance, as if reflecting the spray of the surf or the clouds pregnant with rain; the subject's dark clothing completes the atmospheric effect.

Storm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun Gladwell

Given the spartan stage for the piece and the absence of architectural nuance, the skater's potential for performative critique appears to be neutered. But Gladwell slows down the moving image to make the concrete pad a dance floor on which the skater gracefully executes his ballet on a board and accompanies the image with a droning atmospheric soundtrack seemingly slowed down to match its tempo. In turn, the critique becomes a performative response to the ocean waves rumbling in syncopation with the ballet.

The skater experiences the ecstasy of flow in an embodied, haptic sense as the machinic connections form an assemblage: foot-skateboard, wheel-concrete, hybridbody-oceanswell. But for the remote observer, connected only by the gaze of the camera, there is no such ability to comprehend the ecstasy of flow; a radical reduction in the speed of the moving image and the spatiotemporal reconfiguration this implies are necessary to even begin to suggest that embodiment.

To the untrained eye, most skateboarding moves occur too quickly to appreciate the sophisticated interplay between body, board and sporting landscape. By slowing the video down to 40 percent of its original speed, Gladwell at once creates a heavy atmosphere laden with shades of grey while allowing the untrained observer — not uncoincidentally a surfer in the hyperaccelerated cognitive sense — to participate in the corporeality of the skater's lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?

Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.

Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.

(Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

We might borrow Kundera's reformulation of the dilemma between weight or lightness and insert it into our discussion of corporeality and contemporary sporting cultures. If lightness is granted privileged status in the binary, as Parmenides does, then we must logically seek to cast off the weightiness of the body in favour of a (transcendent) lightness. Do we not accomplish this each time we plug into the ecstatic (and narcotic) electronic circuitry of sport consumption (television, radio, videogames, web fantasies, etc.)? Perhaps, but we must ask to what degree we are truly light in doing so. Is it the lightness to experience synaesthesia without ever having to move the body? Or if we do move, are our movements constrained in such a way that obstruct true lightness?

We exist in a hybrid state of here and there. Acceleration to the light-speed of the data networks entails the subordination of a plugged-in carcass made of muscle, fat and bone in favour of an extension of the nervous system into a virtual nexus of connectivity. Interface to non-space. Case, the protagonist of William Gibson's Neuromancer, yearns for such a jacked-in existence as an escape from "the prison of his own flesh". But he is pale, wraith-like, and rolls over to piss in a chemical toilet when in the matrix. Is this the lightness that we desire, the lightness of collective consciousness weighed down by the meat-anchor?

Or should we desire to invert the relationship between the two, and let the heaviness (and immanence) of the body create the potential for lightness to emerge?

One thing is for certain: we will never fully escape from our bodies by uploading our consciousness into the matrix. The matrix is created by bodies. Moving bodies, stationary bodies, shopping bodies, sporting bodies — if the matrix is a global neural net, then bodies are the mitochondria that provide the motor of its sustenance, the deltas that resonate data-constructs, and the multi-sensual fuel for creativity.

We are touched, but we do not touch. Our bodies are imaged, modeled and situated in medical-scientific discourses, but we do not know a kinaesthetic sense of self. Fortunately this sense is only atrophied and not yet vestigial.

In "Storm Sequence," Gladwell attempts to rescue the carcass of the meat-body from its withering state of affairs by making it an active part of the surfing logic of late capitalism. We might consider his challenge to be as weighty as the earlier sporting body that the surfing body obsolesces, or we might flow with the incoming waves and consider it simply as an expression of mere life — the bearable weightiness of being. Even Case accepts his embodiment in the end.

This is a call to embrace our tactile burden.

Storm Sequence

Storm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun GladwellStorm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun GladwellStorm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun Gladwell

Storm Sequence.
Shaun Gladwell.
2000. Video. Duration: 12mins
Videography: Técha Noble
Sound: Kazumuchi Grime
Commissioned by Peter Fay

This was one of the very first works of art I saw yesterday at the 52nd Venice Biennale and was immediately mesmerized. Later in the afternoon I decided to return to the Italian Pavilion to see it once again. My thoughts on Gladwell's work of art, recorded — freestyled — as the video played:

wet concrete
pounding surf
skater looks to camera
and the dance begins.
tender relationship to the machine
wheel: ancient technology of motion
letting go, then returning to the board
just living.
atmospheric music …
you don't hear melody when in the flow
crouch, extend, pirouette,
the line the skateboard draws
not horizontal, not vertical
but curvilinear
like the ocean waves he embodies.
death spiral on wheels
spiral of life?

See also: Lightness and the Tactile Burden