The Phantastic Four

With the film-based photography of Benjamin's era, the technical apparatus required light-sensitive chemical reactions to take place in order for the original image to be reproduced in its negative state. To create a positive print from the negative image one would further submit the film to various chemical reactions and light sensitivities, inverting the colours and spatial coordinates in the process. To continue producing copies of the image — that is, to move from the chemical to the mechanical reproduction of which Benjamin analyzed — one must always return to the original negative print.

It should be noted that one could create a new negative from the positive, and then a positive from that new negative, and so on, but only at a substantial loss of fidelity in the process: +1, -1, (+1 * error), (-1 * error), (+1 * error^n), (-1 * error^n) … the introduction of this exponentially-increasing error coefficient (loss of fidelity, artefacts, etc.) becomes unacceptable after a certain point in the series. There is a binary value judgment introduced that privileges signal over noise. Thus, there must always be a filial relationship between the original negative and any successive print that is (mechanically) produced.

This genealogical bond is obsolesced in the age of the digital. The file replaces the filial. The technical imaging apparatus encodes and stores points of light as pixels in some compression format that tells the representing apparatus specifically how a grid was created on the plane of representation. Also included with this pixel mapping is a rich stream of meta-data about the image (eg. camera model, resolution, and increasingly, GPS coordinates). In other words, every digital photograph (and other computer file for that matter) contains within it all of the information required to make a perfect copy of itself without a loss of fidelity. A digital image is actually a precise hierarchy of languages ultimately resolvable to the ones and zeroes of binary computer bits: machine code describes these bits, the code of the file format tells how to compress these bits, human language is embedded in the file as meta-data. Many layers of representation are implied by a digital camera before the first photo is ever taken.

Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V: the new formula, not for mechanical reproduction, but for digital replication. If, for Benjamin, the cameraman was a surgeon to the painter's magician, then the digital photographer is a geneticist, detachedly creating new memes and replicating them throughout the network.

Where do we locate our ethical compass when the oedipal structure of filiation is replaced by replication? Wolfgang Schirmacher's Mother Di hybrid may be the symbolic heroin(e) of media culture (in both demagoguery and narcosis), but there are four figures that loom large as ethical models in media culture, in the age of hyper-signification, information architectures, fragmented subjectivities and contested language. These four are the real heroes, the ones who do all the "real" "work", while Mother Di replicates through the net like some campy God(dess), or perhaps Elvis. These four figures are the Translator, the DJ-Archivist, the Radical Cartographer, and the Hacker. Though each is endowed with particular superpowers, they share a similar ethic that emerges from their always-already technological. As a group these four figures span past and future, material and semiotic; in other words, they are the bubbling cauldron of resistance to a vectoral class effort to appropriate the whole potential of space and time.

Of Heroes, Trebles and the Performative Underclass

A long time ago I decided that sports videogames were the karaoke of the sportocracy, but over time I have come to modify that opinion. It's not that I have eschewed the belief that both karaoke lovers and sports videogame aficionados desire to engage in acts of post-celebrity culture, but that the material specificities of each communication medium as well as the conditions of their production demand a more nuanced analysis.

A sports videogame is not just about supplying the missing body motions for a complete sporting performance, as karaoke is about supplying the missing vocals to complete a musical performance. Looking at the underlying materiality of the latter medium, karaoke first substitutes out the vocal performance for a recorded song so that an instrumental version may be used, which requires the recording technique of laying multiple audio tracks that are subsequently mixed into a final product. For the instrumental karaoke version of the song, the vocal track is deleted from the final output; or, more correctly, it is translated to textual form, adding yet another term in the oscillating recursion between spoken and written signifier.

Second, if we view the final karaoke performance as the "finished product" we note that production is completed at a location remote from where it was begun, what we might consider a spatial-axis manipulation of the performing body that parallels Kittler's observation of the time-axis manipulation properties available with recordable electronic media. This should be qualified, however, by recalling Deleuze and Guattari's assertion that there is no alpha and omega to the production process ("the law of the production of production"), and hence we cannot look at the karaoke performance dogmatically as a finished product. Nonetheless, the very real effects on the human body of this deferred and recombinant performativity force us to consider such a spatial-axis manipulation; not only does technical reproducibility negate the aura of the live performance, as Benjamin points out, it also negates the requirement for a single unitary body to produce this performance.

Courtesy of NOW magazineThird, there is the question of the "finished product" itself. When karaoke singers perform a tune they are only as good as their own voice. In other words, there is no mechanism at work here that can improve talent. For many participants, much of the experience consists in being bad at singing!

Contrast this with the smash hit videogames Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The player of the game doesn't need to be able to play the guitar as well as the original guitarist — or even at all — in order to complete the performance or finish the product to a relatively decent quality standard. Simply by pressing an increasingly complex sequence of buttons on a plastic guitar-resembling interface, the aspiring gamer-musician may approximate the guitar riffs of real-life rock gods. This is what we might describe as prosthetic talent.

From where is this prosthetic talent generated? We should recall an earlier discussion on sportsBabel about body trebling. In sports videogames, which are modeled after the exploits of professional sports leagues, the athletes themselves serve two purposes: first, their league play provides a steadily growing archive of statistics and other metadata — what I originally termed I3, the images, information and identities of immaterial sportocratic production; second, athletes perform "signature moves" for motion capture assemblies, which are then programmatically inserted into the videogame engine.

But the professional athletes are not the sole motile source in videogame production. In order to get "authentic" movement patterns of athletes in unscripted situations for the game NBA Live, for example, publisher EA Sports brought in a number of anonymous athletes to play improvised pickup basketball in a motion capture studio. In other words, much of the musculature required for the production of these virtual identity-vehicles was outsourced to cheaper labour, from which patterns of movement were abstracted and programmed into the game.

Motion Capture Collage - Courtesy EA Sports

Why is this relevant to a discussion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Because a similar economic arrangement is taking place in the production of prosthetic talent for the wannabe home music legend. While most people new to Guitar Hero revel in the opportunity to reprise rock classics that come bundled with the game, such as Foghat's "Slow Ride," the game publishers are increasingly extracting profits from the sale of downloadable expansion packs that are produced and distributed at low marginal cost and high marginal profit. And some of these expansion packs, as an article by Evan Davies for NOW magazine elaborates, are being used to break new talent to the market.

A little while before Protest the Hero's show at the Kool Haus on February 8 in front of a packed all-ages crowd full of the kids you'd expect to find sitting around trying to master GH with their buddies, I board their tour bus. The up-and-coming spasmodic prog-metalcore crew from Whitby recently joined the envied ranks of bands with songs featured in the game.

For a young, hungry band, that's no small beans. In fact, it's a whole lot of big tasty beans, possibly mountains' worth, when you translate the exposure into the lovely, filthy, beautiful corporate cash that comes with it.

. . .

For a smaller band without the resources of the big rock monsters, inclusion in a bonus downloadable three-song pack that includes their song with ones by Atreyu and Trivium bestows the kind of publicity you only get otherwise after your sex tape is leaked online or you bone the governor of New York at 4,300 bucks a pop.

"We're the smallest band of the three, so the fact that their fans are downloading our song because they have to is great exposure," says Miller. "And I've met people who've discovered our band because of GH. It's brilliant, because it forces you to listen to a song until you master it. It's playing in your head whether you like it or not. It's funny how you can get a better relationship with fans and people will like you more because you're in the game."

Interestingly, the intellectual property rights for many of the songs available in expansion packs are not being acquired on a royalty model by the game's publishers. Instead, the publishers purchase the rights to the song and then pay a session band to re-record the music.

Dimitri Coats, singer and guitarist with the hard-rocking Burning Brides, beams with pride when he talks about walking into a store with his mom to show her a demo of his band's song on Guitar Hero.

"The whole thing is hilarious to us, because the version of Heart Full Of Black on the game isn't ours," he says. "They paid to use the song but re-recorded it. That isn't me singing or us playing. It's someone else covering the song. I guess they saved money doing it that way."

In addition to music that is format radio friendly (ie. 3:30 long, vanilla lyrics), future bands wishing to break into the business via the videogame channel will need to develop rock-god guitar riffs that are easily translatable to the Guitar Hero interface — what we might describe as audio signature moves. Ultimately, it is these memes that are purchased by publishing companies and that will persist in the detritus of future music culture.

Much like karaoke before it, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are seductive in their suggestion of carnival-like opportunities to reduce the level of risk required to shed otherwise reticent personalities or repressed exuberance and somewhat make a fool of one's self. The prosthetic talent available in the videogames further reduces the barriers to entry and allows more people to temporarily test drive a new identity-vehicle. But these are not carnivals, at least not in Bakhtin's sense of the word, but rather carefully controlled opportunities for consumption crafted by transnational capital that involve new and very real relations of economic exploitation.

The story [on blogs and tech news sites like kotaku.com] asserts that studio session players re-recording the wailing guitar solos and accompanying instruments, some of them only getting $100 to $150 an hour, are getting scammed. Bear in mind that Activision recently announced an 80 per cent rise in sales for the holiday quarter, translating into sales of $1.48 billion and profits of $272.2 million.

In short, though they share a common basis in desiring-celebrity, sports videogames are less like karaoke and more like music videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band: both sporting and musical forms of videogame use the material capabilities of motion capture and console technology to split the performing body across space in its real and virtual formats; and both rely on a barely visible performative underclass to keep production costs at a minimum.

High-Speed Photography and Time Dilation

A few notes comparing two of Eadweard Muybridge's offspringbullet time photography and the high-speed photo finish system — more than a century after the godfather of biomechanics kickstarted a new science.

The camera

Muybridge pioneered the technological visioning of human movement by having a single fixed-location camera take a motion and strobically break it into individual segments for analysis.

Muybridge

With bullet time photography we take many photos at once to dilate a moment of action/time and create a fluid movement of the "camera" during that dilated moment. In other words, we have multiple cameras shooting from multiple points to create a "virtual camera" that moves on any line that the photographer desires. Although the "virtual camera" is moving, the spirit of Muybridge's technique remains the same. Crucially, however, computer software interpolates between the photographic data points to re-create fluid movement (of the camera) and reconstitute the moving object (though relatively static compared to the camera), thus dilating time.

In the sprint photo finish, on the other hand, Muybridge's technique is exactly the same, except accelerated by a camera taking 2,000 photos per second. Instead of the act of interpolation uniting the discrete image (data points) together, as with bullet time, the computer software removes all images not required to determine the exact moment that a body crosses the finish line — one camera shooting from a single point.

Event-occurrence

In the case of bullet time photography, time is dilated by the "movement" of the virtual camera, as the sub-component cameras fire sequentially or simultaneously. Through interpolation, we have a particular form of produced spectacle in which we create that which does not occur. Becoming is controlled by a software algorithm.

Photo Finish

In the case of the photo finish, time is dilated with the assistance of the graduated clock ruler at the bottom of the layered image. By eliminating all images save the ones in which a runner crosses the finish line, we effect the erasure of that which did occur. Motion is arrested.

Edge detection

MJ - Bullet Time - Courtesy MJ to the MaxBullet time usually requires the concurrent use of chroma key (greenscreen) techniques in order to construct its spectacular outcome. At that point, colour serves as the means of edge detection such that contours may be traced and the individual subject separated from its environment. Contra Benjamin, it is not so much the aura of the actor's individual performance that is lost, but rather the entire lived spatial environment that is forcibly removed by fiat of computer software.

The edge detection of the photo finish system is more powerful and insidious in that it doesn't require a special background from which to isolate objects and trace their contours relative to the finish line. Although no background is being substituted in producing the final representational output, the ability to detect edges in spite of this becomes all the more impressive.

Sensory Inter/Play

Not long ago I suggested that, in contrast with the striated space of the gridiron football field, the association football pitch constituted a smooth space free of most constraints on athlete movement. If this is the case, one can imagine the challenges created in trying to describe the game action — to code it — for someone in the absence of corroborating visual support: how to know where the moving bodies and, more importantly, the ball are at any given point in time?

Quite unexpectedly, I learned the answer to that question this summer at the International Association for Media and Communication Research conference in Paris while watching a presentation by Richard Haynes of the Stirling Media Research Institute titled "Seymour de Lotbiniere and the Formative Years of Modern Sports Commentary." Eighty years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the first live soccer game by radio. Prior to the game, the BBC published a plan of the field divided into numbered squares in the Radio Times magazine, which made a great deal of sense as an affective solution since the new radio era was vectoring away from the print era. When Teddy Wakelam called the action on the radio that weekend, he would refer to athletes in various grid sectors as the play moved around the pitch — in the process coining the phrase "back to square one."

Courtesy of BBC/Radio Times

Radio coverage of sport still exists today, albeit to serve very different purposes. While radio once extended the geographical reach of the game in real-time well beyond the stadium walls, television has supplanted radio as the medium that best serves this capacity. Radio survives primarily for those applications in which one's visual acuity is absent or required for some other more important purpose, such as driving. Though I don't really want to enjoy my time driving a car, and I generally despise radio with its bland formulaic approach, frequent commercials, and occasional program content, I will flip on FAN 590 if I'm in the car to catch Toronto Raptors basketball telecasts with Paul Jones and Eric Smith. Jones, the play-by-play man, has a quirk in his delivery with how he attempts to assist the listener in creating a conceptual impression of direction during games: "The Raptors bring the ball up the floor, moving left to right on your radio."

Why is this significant? It has to do with the fixed coordinates required to establish such a conceptual impression.

With the 1927 BBC telecast, the fixed references for the grid system printed in the Radio Times were the east and west sidelines of the stadium and the compass in the bottom-left corner of the map. No matter where one was "sitting" in the mind's eye, one could always orient to the action by understanding traditional map directionality. But remember that today the radio vector exists after the advent of television. While there is no published grid to orient action conceptually, Jones resolves this by fixing the television camera as the benchmark point of reference; the centre court wide-view camera with its back and forth pan shots becomes the "natural" perspective from which to construct a conceptual impression in the mind's eye. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the radio audience's identification with the athletes is really an identification with the camera.

Form and Content, Revisited

A hyperlink: If sport ends up being the proving ground, so to speak, for a technological approach to athletic representation that separates form from content, then what might this suggest outside the confines of the stadium? If we can take any "television" footage and revision its form by changing a single appearance file — the CSS file for this new 3-D visualization — do we not open a variety of problems for the average citizen? Could video footage of you or me be given new form to suit a political or economic purpose?

While the analysis of the cinematic image undertaken by Walter Benjamin is completely blown away in such a brave new world of the archival post-image, the tendency towards fascist ends still has the potential to hold true and is perhaps heightened. Put another way, while the form of Benjamin thesis may have changed, the content remains the same and is as relevant as ever.

Keeping Pace With Sight

For Benjamin, lithography was a visual technique of representation that allowed for an acceleration — for the visual depiction of daily life to keep pace with printing. Similarly, he saw photography (and later cinema) as a subsequent acceleration that allowed visual depiction to keep pace with speech.

NFL Sunday Ticket

Following Benjamin, we might suggest that the multiplex television viewing experience (in concert with its accompanying stream of meta-data), such as that offered with DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package, allows the visual depiction of sporting life to keep pace in real-time with flashpoint events at distributed geographical locations. In other words, for visual depiction to keep pace with sight.