Card Stunt

The role of the spectator at large scale sporting events is one that has been examined sporadically in critical theory by the likes of Baudrillard, Virilio, Bourdieu, Barthes and others. And in the sport literature, much of the existing work emerges from John Bale and his investigations of the spaces and sites of sporting competition. But one facet of spectator involvement that I do not remember receiving much attention in either domain has to do with the large-scale communication productions involving the spectators themselves holding up sheets of coloured paper to produce some image viewable from a remote perspective. Known as "card stunts," these productions are the spectacular outcome of Bale's developmental model of the modern stadium: each seat equidistant from the next in a neat disciplinary grid of rows and columns that is then conscripted to produce subcomponents of the final pictorial message (see example here).




No spatial limits; uneven terrain; spatial interaction between "players" and "spectators"; diversified land use.


Limits of pitch defined; players segregated from spectators.


Embankments, terraces, grandstands; payment for entry; segregation of spectators by social class; start of segregation within crowd; specialized land use.


Enclosed ground; synthetic pitch and concrete bowl; TV replay screen; total segregation within crowd; panopticism; diversified land use.


a four-stage model of the evolution of the modern stadium.
lines refer to possible freedoms of movement for players and spectators.
(from bale, 1993)

In viewing the card stunt unfolding at the stadium one immediately thinks of both Pointillism and its eventual transition to the field of picture elements, or pixels. Indeed, Seurat's famous Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 could be understood in terms analogous to the card stunt: an orthogonal view of "non-partitioned spectators" becoming abstracted into coloured points of representation as they watch the leisured pursuits (rowing, sailing) unfold along the river.

Courtesy of Georges Seurat

georges-pierre seurat
un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la grande jatte - 1884
oil on canvas

Paul Virilio appears to be following a similar trajectory in his analysis of twentieth-century media technology. In The Information Bomb he notes:

Extending the dislocation of the figure, which we saw at the beginning of the twentieth century with Cubism, and its disappearance into forms of abstraction, geometric or otherwise, de-localization — the product of the age of the virtual — leads today to an art of interactive feedback between the artist and his/her visitors, along the lines of those infographic paintings which change and metamorphose as you contemplate them, doing so from the particular viewpoint of each of the actors/spectators. Moreover, the decomposition of figures in Pointillism or Divisionism leads today, thanks to fractal geometry, to another type of deconstruction: the dismantling of the space-time of the work.

In the age of the sudden electronic motorization of the artwork, dislocation of forms and de-localization of the art object go hand in hand and accompany the acceleration not in this case of history, but of the reality of the plastic arts. This represents, on the one hand, a questioning of the roles of actor and spectator, and, on the other, an interrogation of the notions of author and viewer. And it is a calling into question of the site of art, after the questioning of the site of the theatrical scene. These are all so many harbingers of an unprecedented change — premonitory signs of the new time scheme within which culture will operate in the era of the emergence of cyberculture (p. 129).

Interestingly, the card stunt predates the personal computer revolution of the 1970s-90s, and thus the popular introduction of computer monitors and pixel resolution from the world of corporate industry and into the home. Instead we must go back earlier, through the era of the Rubik's Cube, through the era of mainframes and computer punch cards, through the era of split-flap displays on clocks and train departure boards, to locate the card stunt in American college football as early as 1910.

In other words, the card stunt predates the introduction of televised sports and therefore must be considered a message system with an audience different from that of the TV spectator at home: it was originally designed for those players, coaches and fans who were present at the stadium. But once the football stadium is connected to the broader apparatus of television and sponsorship capital (and eventually to the jumbotron screen), the problematics of signal production are opened to newly consider the intensified subroutine loop of screen and subject relation.

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

One requires three elements for a card stunt to function successfully: the dissemination of a program code beforehand (the paper handout of instructions stating which card to display at what time); a set grid of stadium seats (the field of resolution) for visual output; and the activation of the program through a coded routine of command prompts.

Of course, the direct human agency involved to trigger the commands and activate the card stunt emerges as a fourth required element to follow the first three, which during the history of college football is a responsibility that has fallen to the cheerleading corps. Given the gendered histories of cheerleading in football, we might inquire into the specific ways that women were involved with triggering these program activation commands. It seems not a stretch to read the figure of the card stunt leader in resonance with both Kittler's figure of the typist and Ronell's figure of the switchboard operator — that is, one (woman) who can both inscribe a new flow of coded data as well as one who can connect an existing flow-in-potential, suggesting further that the history of technotext is always already a feminist one.

Further, if we continue to follow our suggestion that football models the American military-industrial complex in a sort of evolutionary version of chess, then these cheerleading women appear early on to play an important role in coordinating messages of support from the home front to the battle lines. But they are coded messages, and as such are susceptible to being intercepted or hacked by the enemy. This is precisely what occurred in the "Great Rose Bowl Hoax" of 1961: supporters of the California Institute of Technology, frustrated by a lack of visibility relative to Washington, their more famous opponent, pulled a prank in which the coded instructions were switched so that the visual output from the Washington fans ultimately communicated a very different message than the one originally intended.

Great Rose Bowl Hoax

If we can locate the card stunt at the modern stadium as a genealogical precursor to the pixelated bitmap computer display, we might consider the increasingly cramped seat and leg room at the contemporary stadium, then, as both an intensification of its capital productivity and a process toward becoming more high resolution. All surfaces become screens, it appears. And as Agamben notes, following Deleuze, the age of the cinema is also the age of a generalized catastrophe of gestures. If that is the case, can we flip the question of embodiment experienced by the increasingly cramped stadium spectator and ask: what implications do high resolution screen displays have for the human body watching at home today?

Maria Schad

Courtesy of Maria SchadCourtesy of Maria Schad
Courtesy of Maria SchadCourtesy of Maria Schad
Maria Schad
selected works
oil on canvas, each 30cm x 30cm

In response to Max's lament that hockey has not been featured often in the work of serious artists, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to present some of the work of Swedish artist Maria Schad, whom I met in Copenhagen this summer during an afternoon of flânerie. It was one of those really neat, unexpected encounters when two individuals from very distinct backgrounds find they share a great deal of common interest — in this case, art, critical theory and sport. Growing up in Sweden, Maria had always been captivated by the speed of hockey, and that fascination occasionally resurfaces in her work — the first thing I remarked when I saw these works was how fast they were.

"To play hockey is constantly to repeat that men have transformed motionless winter, the hard earth, and suspended life, and that precisely out of all of this they have made a swift, vigorous, passionate sport." — Roland Barthes, What is Sport?

Perfect Day

"Muscle does not make the sport … . Muscle, however precious, is never anything more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This idea is that man is fully defined by his action, and man's action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things." — Roland Barthes

The 100-metre sprint: crown jewel in the sport and science of human performance. National track and field championships. Eight bodies coil at one end of a corridor to glory. A stillness overcomes the crowd, as if a herd anticipates some furious storm is about to be unleashed.

. . .


. .




A pistol report shatters the electric anticipation.

Eight bodies explode into motion.

Racing spikes pierce synthetic flesh. (The old familiar sting.) The crowd recedes in an aftward directional blur. Over one hundred metres, the fastest men in the world are on the quicksilver side of ten metres per second; his time, 10.07 seconds, leaves him in seventh position, failing to qualify for Beijing.

The bright green LEDs providing stark relief from the black scoreboard, his finishing time looks so radically different than those of the qualifiers despite the few hundredths of a second that separate them. The extra digit tacked on to his outcome, scourge of a prefix, hovering there like a skinny awkward girl at the periphery of a grade school social clique.

They wouldn't even ask him to piss in a bottle.

In that moment of realization comes a dilation of time and a shower of thought fragments siphoned from past and future. Thousands of kilometres accumulated in the databanks of muscle memory. Years of linearity. Fibres and bundles and striations, all aligned to twitch in concert and exert maximal force. Progress.

10 INPUT "How many reps? ", R$
20 PRINT "Okay "; R$; "reps."
30 INPUT "What distance should I run? ", N$
40 PRINT "Okay "; N$; "metres per rep."
50 R = R$
60 N = N$
70 FOR I = 1 TO R
100 END

Endless practice repetitions and loops, distinguishable only by minor perturbations in heart rate, lactic acid formation and related physiologica. The familiar laying of hands over thousands of hours — productive, not libidinal — to keep those muscles in a continuous state of supple potential. He knew as much of veal as he did of commercial grade steer.

And what now? What of other use-values for the body athletic? Would he coach? Could he create shadows of his legacy from the fading twilight of his career? Or could he reinvent his running (and his body)? He was, after all, only thirty!

Rhizome: "Giorgio Agamben claims that the most important political goal is to find new ways to make the human body inoperative, in the sense that poetry makes language inoperative, to find new uses for the human body."

Unshackled from the prison of measured time, where does the newly free man wander? Anywhere but along the straight path, no? Could his muscles propel him forward in curves and skips and bends and leaps and mellifluous rhythms? Could his running body caress the objects around him as it moved through space? Remixing one's Self, could he run in communion with a multitude of bodies, moving with them in unison if not in reason?

He imagined he could, but a thought and a body are often irreconcilable by their very intimacy.

(Gone, gone, the damage done.)

A few words announcing the obvious to the chattering classes. The klieg lights dim. The cameras go dark. The gaze goes cold.

Number as Punctum

French artist Pierre Alferi asks: How we might incorporate text and image on the same screen?

He offers three possibilities:

  1. the text becomes an object, composition-wise, in the video image
  2. the text is embedded or camouflaged as part of the image
  3. the text is subtitled or intertitled to the image

This got me thinking about administrative numeration as a text form in high performance running.

In the era of hand-timed races, the official timers would concentrate first on the corpus of the moving body as it crossed the finish line and then record the bib number of the runners (who remained locked in their lanes) thereafter. With the photo finish on the other hand, the number does not play such a subordinate role. In fact, Rule 143.9 of the IAAF rules manual states that "Where Photo Finish equipment is in operation, the Organising Committee may require athletes to wear additional number identification of an adhesive type on the side of their shorts."

In the photo finish, the camera is fixed at the point of the finish line and shifts the focus of the viewer (race official, audience member watching scoreboard) away from the aesthetic of the moving body to the inscription of the numerical text on that bodily object. To borrow the language of Barthes, it is the moving bodies themselves that become the studium of the image in a photo finish, while in serving its administrative purpose, the number (as text) inscribed on the athletic body acts in concert with the graduated clock-ruler at the bottom of the image to form its punctum.