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.


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.


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.

Hybrids, Mutants and Replicants

In The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism, Arthur Kroker remarks:

"If molecular biology can adapt so quickly to the epistemological possibilities of the order of the transgenic, it may be because the spectre of transgenics originates less in the order of science than in culture" (p.30).

And has sport not contributed to this epistemological awakening? As a site of cultural (re)production, is sport not implicated in this normalization of the will to technology?

The hybrid, the mutant, the replicant: transgenic variants all seen in the crucible of the high performance athletic arena or dreamt of in the sportocratic laboratory.


Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion Plate 99, 1887

Ever since Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion photos and the subsequent dawn of biomechanics, the body athletic has been considered a problem in Newtonian physics: forces, levers, torques, velocities and accelerations, each describing a specific movement. As a result, of course, the athlete comes to be viewed as belonging to an Erector Set of body parts, from which ideal collections and assemblages are regularly imagined, particularly in the context of high performance sport. "If only he had an arm to go with those legs." Or, metaphorically: "I wish I could put this guy's heart in that guy's body."

In the absence of such an Erector Set, however, we seek out the mutants. Forget standard endo-, meso- and ectomorphs. Instead, sport offers the hyperexaggeration of bone, fat and muscle: vomiting pygmies bouncing prettily around gymnastics apparatus, or the wraiths of endurance racing, bodily annihilated, trudging inexorably toward the finish line to a drumbeat cadence of footsteps; hypermuscular bodybuilders, football players and wrestlers straining at the skin; and the lipidinal masses that have accelerated to the point of polar inertia,

best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed.

Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka.

It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Or by voting in presidential elections.

(Gibson, Idoru)

Replication has also long been manifest in the sportocratic imagination, its genealogical roots reaching back at least to the mechanical reproduction of baseball cards and bubblegum. But these flattened, lifeless representations lack sufficient dynamism for a culture hell-bent on its own immortality, and so we begin to animate the images by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated as a derivative of baseball's industrial production process. At the cusp between biomechanics and the age of simulation, Strat-O-Matic becomes the link in the helical chain connecting Branch Rickey and scientific management in baseball with Billy Beane, the sabermetric revolution and the third wave eugenics of baseball performance.

In that time, a whole industry has emerged around so-called "fantasy sports". But the fantasy these games deliver isn't to be like the pros, as is purported. It is rather a fantasy of cloning, a fantasy of pro athletes, Sea Monkeys and Monopoly recombined into one alluring hybrid, a fantasy of ownership. Play capitalist and own your own sports team, though the vectoralist still retains class power.

The "authentic replica" sports jersey offers another example of the "spectre of transgenics" in a hyperreal sportocratic culture: replication of the star athlete via an equivalence embedded in the code of the extended skin – all in the context of a post-industrial capitalism of signs and symbolic exchanges. In this case, the fantasy is of becoming-clone, the successful and particular cloning of a purebred stock.

Presumably, then, the inauthentic replica of a cheaper jersey carries an equivalence to the bastard laboratory experiments that preceded the birth of Dolly the Sheep?

Finally, we may discuss sports videogames and virtual worlds, which also allow us the potential of becoming-clone. As with fantasy sports, this is once again made possible by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated during games, but the stakes have increased, since no longer do we rely on static photographs but rather advanced body-xeroxing technologies such as motion capture, green screen, and biometric scan.

It seems appropriate, then, to conclude my thoughts with a sample from Baudrillard, who, in his "The Clone or the Degree Xerox of the Species", writes:

Multiplication is positive only in our system of accumulation. In the symbolic order, it is equivalent to subtraction. If five men pull on a rope, the force they exert is added together. By contrast, if an individual dies, his death is a considerable event, whereas if a thousand individuals die, the death of each is a thousand times less important. Each of two twins, because he has a double, is ultimately just half an individual — if you clone him to infinity, his value becomes zero (Screened Out, p.199).

Notes From Gattaca


[Aside] I rewatched Gattaca last night and wanted to post a few notes:

  • according to society, identity is less bound by personality, etc., than by one's genetic profile and the probabilities contained therein, which are established by a blood test at birth
  • the knowable body: Jude Law's character prepares the data samples that allow Ethan Hawke's character to assume the "Jerome Morrow" identity — urine, blood, hair samples, fingernail clippings, skin cells — while Hawke must scrub himself to the point where his own body literally disappears and he becomes a "de-gene-erate"
  • quote: "And that's the way it was. Each day I would dispose of as much loose skin, fingernails and hair as possible to limit how much of my 'in-valid' self I would leave in the valid world."
  • I missed this the first time around, but the title Gattaca is actually composed of letters that form a nucleotide chain: Guanine-Adenine-Thymine-Thymine-Adenine-Cytosine-Adenine

    (I came up with that one myself, but then found that it and other pieces of Gattaca trivia could be found at IMDB.)

    Courtesy of National Museum of American History

  • while late-19thC/early-20thC art such as Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times or the Animal Locomotion photography studies by Eadweard Muybridge (see "Lawn tennis" above) visions the human body and its cyborgian interaction with machines as strictly biomechanical, Gattaca — and pop culture forms such as sports videogames — vision the body in terms of code/information, a shift examined by Bruce Grenville's exhibition of cyborg culture, The Uncanny
  • resample:

    The reality of the cyborg body in the popular imagination is that it emerges during the post-industrial shift from a metallurgic society to a semiurgic society. In other words, the cyborg lives in a society of information, of pattern, of code. Thus, the "machine" half of the cyborg is also likely to be one of code: recombinant DNA sequences, organic chemistry chains, electrical positives and negatives, digital zeroes and ones, disciplinary technologies, and collective consciousness will all be leveraged in the realization of a cyborg body. This is not to suggest that the metallurgic will cease to be part of such a body, but rather that it will assume a subservient or relegated role.

  • the movie was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote The Truman Show.
  • unlike The Truman Show, which was entirely about the theme of surveillance, I cannot recall one instance of a surveillance camera in Gattaca


Cyborgs and Sport

Well, I can definitely say that this was one of the most unique days I've had in some time. I spent the first part of the afternoon at the Edmonton Art Gallery viewing an exhibit I had planned to see for a while — The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, which was curated by Bruce Grenville. After that, it was off to see the deciding game of the Canada West Mountain Division basketball finals, between the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, where the Bears prevailed 83-82 in overtime.

There's overlap between the two events, honest. But I'll come back to that later.

As the show noted, "The Uncanny provides a unique opportunity to explore and address the long history and complex nature of the cyborg image in the 20th century imagination. It shows how the image of the cyborg has provided our culture with a visual metaphor for the anxiety that accompanied the growing presence of the machine in western culture."

And so I found it interesting that the first piece to greet me as I hit the top of the stairs leading to the main gallery was an old iron lung that had been used at the Vancouver Pearson Hospital for the past fifty years to help polio patients with their breathing. I was reminded of Radiohead — a band that has always had a dark relationship with technology — and their song from The Bends, "My Iron Lung".

That set the tone, and Grenville's anxiety confronted me for most of my tour through the exhibit. Personally poignant moments follow, which are laid out in approximately chronological order (as was the exhibit):

Henri Maillardet, Automaton, 1810: This was a documentary video showing the operation of the automaton that Maillardet had created. According to the story, it had been taken apart, lost to its original owners, and eventually dropped off on the doorstep of a gallery, where nobody knew its purpose or origin. Eventually it was put together, cranked up, and the automaton wrote a poem that ended with the writing of the artist's name; in essence, the automaton came to life to tell its own story. Cool … and creepy.

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion (Plates 46, 84, & 109), 1887: Muybridge was a photographer best known for his studies of human movement, which can best be described as an artist's interpretation/analysis of biomechanics. It reminded me of The Wormhole Laboratory.

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936: Everyone has seen the clip of Chaplin riding through the gears of the machine, but I had never really known much else about this movie. Despite the dark message that Chaplin intended for his audience, this was a genuinely funny movie. It reminded me of a quote I once read from George Bernard Shaw: "If you tell people the truth, make them laugh or they'll kill you."

Survival Research Laboratories, clips from Virtues of Negative Fascination, 1979-82, and 7 Machine Performances, 1985-86: I was transfixed by this work the first time I strolled through the exhibit, and returned twice more during my stay. Survival Research Laboratories creates elaborate performance pieces where machines battle and otherwise interact in extremely violent fashion. Think Junkyard Wars meets Robot Wars, since SRL's work is basically the precursor to both shows.

Survival Research Laboratories was conceived of and founded by Mark Pauline in November 1978. Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators.

I haven't decided exactly what to take from this as of yet, but there is no doubt that it was compelling.

Gary Hill, Conundrum, 1995-98: In this piece, Hill gives us a horizontal bank of six black and white televisions, showing images of body parts floating through the screens, predominantly giving the illusion of being connected, as if the body were one whole. Strobe lighting during photography gave the illusion of motion, though in reality the body moved very little, and appeared as if trapped within the mediaspace. This kind of reminded me of playing basketball at the Panopticon.

George Bures Miller, Imbalance 2, Simple Experiments in Aerodynamics, 1995: Miller's piece is a television hanging within a metal frame, attached to a weight and a motor. On the television is a video showing a human from the shins down, trying to balance on their toes. At intervals, the motor will turn on, causing the weight to rise or fall, and causing the television to sway gently back and forth. Which is causing the imbalance: the human or the machine?

Mariko Mori, Play With Me, 1994: This is a large photograph of the artist dressed in a highly feminized robot/anime costume, standing next to a Sega videogame, looking expectantly at passers-by. The figure conveys a tragic sense of stillness in an otherwise busy Japanese shopping district.

Play With Me, 1994, 305 x 367cm, Fuji super gloss print

Lee Bul, Cyborg W5, 1999: Some feel that cyborg culture offers a chance to eliminate the patriarchal dominance that exists in the human world, and The Uncanny offers a room full of gendered interpretations of the relationship between humans and machines. Cyborg W5, a very aggressive female form replete with some sort of metallic exoskeleton. What's interesting to me is that the sculpture hangs from the ceiling and does not have a head or left leg. Yet you are definitely left with the impression that this female form is technical, competent, and could kick your ass for looking at her the wrong way — missing leg or no.

Other assorted artifacts of cyborg culture that stood out for me: clips from RoboCop, Terminator, and Videodrome; a Nintendo Virtual Boy and Power Glove; a copy of William Gibson's Neuromancer; and merchandise from Astro Boy.

In the resource room at the end of the exhibit hung a bulletin board for audience participation, which asked me: "What is human? What is cyborg?"

My response: Cyborg is about rejecting the limitations of the human body. But it is also about forgetting the magic, mystery, and miracle of human existence. It is positivism taken to its logical conclusion.

So, what of the purported overlap between a university basketball game and cyborg culture?

It became clear when a University of Alberta player was hurt early in the game and came out of the locker room after halftime on crutches. The crutches served as a walking aid for this player, which reminded me of The Uncanny, though this is certainly by no means the only way that athletes use technology to surpass the limitations of their own body — think, for example, of knee braces or steroids.

Anyway, it gave me pause to reflect on Andy Miah's work, which started out in a new media/virtual spaces vein, but has really taken off in the direction of genetic modification. If Grenville's exhibition were to include a room dedicated to cyborgs in sport, Miah would definitely have been tapped as a resource. I look forward to his upcoming book, Genetically Modified Athletes.

I personally don't think that cyborgism is the sole postmodern interpretation of sport, but given the alternatives I have proposed (prosumerism, virtual sport, the metagame) it could be argued that with the high degree of media involvement required for each, they are also in fact cyborgist interpretations.