Marginal Notes on Notes on Gesture

Motion capture. Captured motion.

It is no coincidence that in his essay "Notes on Gesture" Giorgio Agamben only provides the reader one concrete exemplar of what actually constitutes a gesture, and that is gait. Recall that Muybridge and Marey became godfathers of not only the art of cinema but also the science of biomechanics, the relation becoming more apparent over the course of the twentieth century insofar as both serve to capture motion. Or, more specifically, as they both serve to capture gesture: walking and gait have become as important to the processes of consumption as they have to those of production.

It is gait that provided the basis for some of Muybridge and Marey's early cinematic works, but is also the foundational human movement that has driven most innovations in biomechanical measurement during the past century, from stroboscopic photography to force plate analysis to high-speed videography. As Francesco Careri suggests, walking is the "first aesthetic act" of humans in that it assumes a "symbolic form" shaping our very being in the world and our relationships to landscape and architecture. Gait is integral to this symbolic form and thus integral to our built environment both real and virtual. While Careri argues convincingly that the built environment of humans emerges from nomadic walking peoples, eventually it comes to mark the character of the sedentary city in both material and immaterial fashion: the polis and the walking subject enter biunivocal relations of naming the other. Walking is not simply an aesthetic act, then, but a political one as well.

Courtesy of Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco
digitally-manipulated photographic print

And while Agamben devotes his attention to cinema for the remainder of the essay, perhaps we ought to follow the twin genealogies created by Muybridge and Marey to consider parallel developments in biomechanics as well. Extending an argument from Deleuze's book on cinema, Agamben suggests that "the element of cinema is gesture and not image." If Agamben and Deleuze are correct, then the reason gesture has been obscured in cinematic analysis appears to be simple, as it is literally a matter of appearances. Until recently, cinematic scenes were always shot from a single perspective at a time, from a single camera, and many of these single shots (perhaps from different cameras) were edited together to form a final filmic image — with the audience member, as Benjamin points out, assuming the position of the camera and the gaze of the director.

With this flattening of the perspectival gaze to the two-dimensional surface it appears that the image constitutes the foundational element of cinema, but this is due to the technical limitations of the input device rather than to any truth of the form itself — if we can consider "cinema" to be an assemblage of bodies and technologies that produces the final filmic image. Given such an input, one can never see all sides of a volume from a single point in Euclidean space — and gesture is volumetric.

What technical vision wants is to see the subject from all directions at once — in other words, to become omnidirectional or omnipresent (and here we can explain the "replacement" for an idea of God, in a technocratic sense of becoming-secular). Following Agamben and Deleuze, this is because technical vision wants to represent gesture rather than simple image.

The goal of omnidirectionality had been accomplished to some degree in biomechanics with motion capture technology, an apparatus that features multiple simultaneous camera angles synthesized together to identify the position of markers located on key anthropometric sites of the body. In doing so, it became possible to create volumetric models of gesture for the purposes of measurement, analysis and optimization.

But omnidirectionality has truly taken off with videogames, which took the practical fruits of biomechanic research and made them profitable for the industry of integrated spectacle. Financial gain may now accrue by capturing and expropriating the gestures of athletes and actors to create identity-constructs that are tried on like well-made Armani suits. While playing these games the user reduces one's own gestures to a programmed and nearly-pure electromagnetic impulse almost unrecognizable in comparison to those movements taking place on the screen.

Motion Capture Collage - Courtesy EA Sports

And since it is the integrated spectacle we are describing it is no surprise that innovations in the videogame medium were fedbackforward into cinema, as with the bullet time effects in The Matrix. It is perhaps most impressive, then, that Deleuze recognized cinema's gestural character without ever having seen Trinity levitate to raise holy hell on two units of simulated police.