Recombinant Football

(the following is from a proposal for idensitat [iD#6], Sport, Arts and Social Inclusion project laboratory, spain)

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"The [field] becomes configuring as the body recomposes. … What this means is that both body and space are experienced as alive with potential movement. … The body-[field] stratum is therefore neither object nor form, but infinite potential for recombination" (Erin Manning, Relationscapes, p.15).

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Phase One: Recombinant Play

1-Sided Football: How do we understand the sport of football in the absence of a willing community of competitors?

2-Sided Football: The traditional, binary form of football competition. What happens, though, when we add a second ball to the game? What happens when we remove the ball from the game and it must be collectively imagined in order for play to continue?

3-Sided Football: A reprisal of the three-sided football version proposed by Asger Jorn and the Situationst International to be played on a hexagonal pitch. In this version, however, we will also include the variants performed earlier: adding a second ball to play as well as removing the ball altogether, forcing the collective imagination to complete the game.

Phase One: Recombinant Play

Phase Two: Recombinant Skin

Registered Skin: The sports uniform is a particular semiotic technology designed to discipline or homogenize athlete identity, as well as allow fans to easily register members of "their" team on the field of play and cheer accordingly. Sport is also one of the few social domains in which numbers are directly inscribed to one's individual clothing.

Surgical Skin: Athletes will form groups of 3, one from each team. They will then collectively cut up their football jerseys into pieces, from which the three players will sew together 3 "new" jerseys as material artworks from the event.

Recombinant Skin: The new artworks become wearable, and the athletes return to the field of play for one final match of three-sided football. Strict visual identification is challenged and athletes become more reliant upon gesture.

Phase Two: Recombinant Skin

Phase Three: Recombinant Vision

To complement the first two analog phases of the project, which could be considered a performance followed by a material artwork or archival artefact, the third phase proposes a digital communication component that may be disseminated through various media channels (eg. gallery, web site, school). This will be a two-channel video that offers different, though "subjectively" interrelated, perspectives of the same event. The two channels, which we shall describe as "spectacle" and "kino-gait", are synchronized temporally but toggle back and forth between first- and second-channel positions on the screen.

Spectacle: The traditional camera angles that comprise professional sports television — sidelined, orthogonal, perspectival, fixed, panned. As closely as possible approximating the typical visual narratives of football.

Kino-Gait: What would happen if the skin-as-volumetric-construct could "see back" in surveillant space — in other words, if gait-as-skin-in-gesture became our method of seeing rather than the eye? Kino-gait should have multiple cameras functioning together to create a single omnidirectional volumetric vision. Its goal is to have the whole surface of the body function as an eye: the entire skin-as-camera becomes a preliminary limit of kino-gait. This is not to replace or diminish the flesh as a means or locus of knowing, but rather to complement or enhance it.


(thank you to icarus for the balls e-idea)

On Massumi's Logic of Relation: Field

Courtesy of Priscilla Monge, Liverpool Biennial

priscilla monge
outdoor installation

Continuing our translation of Massumi's soccer ball to sportsbabel's basketball with a brief discussion of the space of play and how it conditions the field of emergence before any retrospective coding by official rules.

So what is the condition? Quite simply, a field. No field, no play, and the rules lose their power. The field is what is common to the proto-game and the formalized game, as well as to informal versions of the game coexisting with the official game and any subsequent evolution of it. The field-condition that is common to every variation is unformalized but not unorganized. It is minimally organized as a polarization. The field is polarized by two attractors: the goals. All movement in the game will take place between the poles and will tend toward one or the other. They are physical limits. The play stops when the ball misses or hits the goal. The goals do not exist for the play except tendentially, as inducers of directional movement of which they mark the outside limits (winning or losing). The goals polarize the space between them. The field of play is an in-between of charged movement. It is more fundamentally a field of potential than a substantial thing, or object. As things, the goals are signs for the polar attraction that is the motor of the game. They function to induce the play. The literal field, the ground with grass stretching between the goals, is also an inductive limit-sign rather than a ground in any foundational sense. The play in itself is groundless and limitless, taking place above the ground-limit and between the goal-limits (Parables for the Virtual, p.72).

Here I would like to emphasize Massumi's point about play taking place above the ground-limit, for it is important not to allow his analysis (or our understanding of it) to privilege a planar perspective of the field of potential. Some time ago I mentioned how a shift in the dimensions and trajectories of certain sports consequently shifted the strategies used to excel in competition and hence the types of athletic bodies that were desirable for competition purposes.

Perhaps in no sport was this more true than in basketball, whose goals that charged the field of ludic potential are located ten feet off the ground, by dint of James Naismith's balcony-affixed peach baskets over a century ago. As arguably one of the first modern sports to be invented wholly indoors, basketball was from the outset intimately bound to the built architectural environment in which it emerged.

For the longest time the primary skill required for success in basketball was a certain marksmanship that allowed one to quickly determine trajectories and shoot the ball into the basket. Height was certainly favoured, but only insofar as it allowed those shot trajectories (and corresponding rebounds of missed attempts) to be shorter and more precise.

Dunking, however, changed the sport forever. While a genealogy of the dunk as a particularly Afrocentric form of cultural expression needs to be accounted for here, suffice it to say in the meantime that while it originally favoured the extremely tall player the athletic skill set changed to favour the quick, explosive leaper: Earl "The Goat" Manigault, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins, and Herman "The Helicopter" Knowings. Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, and Vince Carter. James White, Justin Darlington, and Guy DePuy, to name but a few of these artists.

With dunking, the athletic body itself assumed a ballistic trajectory in order to stuff the ball into the goal both efficiently and emphatically. Any understanding of the dunk as an expressive art form in its own right must acknowledge this a priori corporeal basis of the athletic agent. Afrofuturism?

Young Basketball Court - Global Village Basketball 2009

Put two teams on a grassy field with goals at either end and you have an immediate, palpable tension. The attraction of which the goals and ground are inductive signs is invisible and nonsubstantial: it is a tensile force-field activated by the presence of bodies within the signed limits. The polarity of the goals defines every point in the field and every movement on the field in terms of force — specifically, as the potential motion of the ball and of the teams toward the goal. When the ball nears a goal, the play reaches a pitch of intensity. Every gesture of the players is supercharged toward scoring a goal or toward repelling one. The ball is charged to the highest degree with potential movement toward the goal, by its position on the field, by the collective tending of the team homing in for a score. The slightest slip or miscalculation will depotentialize that movement. When that happens, a release of tension as palpable as its earlier build-up undulates across the field (Parables for the Virtual, p.72).

The "field" of basketball is the court, or at least that space of play in the proto-game that may be deemed a court. It, too, is a field of potential that is induced by the opposing goals at either end of the rectangular enclosure. But basketball, in a fashion far more pronounced than in soccer, can be played in more informal variations on a single goal or basket (or with three goals for that matter).

This does not negate Massumi's point about the inductive potential of the polarized goals to catalyze the field of play, but rather underscores its very importance: when opponents play pickup basketball on a single basket, they are able to do so precisely because the second basket is imagined to exist for both offensive and defensive players alike.

And once one can imagine the existence of a second basket, it becomes less of a stretch to further imagine the existence of baskets elsewhere around the world.

Asymmetrical Relations

Almost exclusively, the modern sport project is founded upon the principle of symmetrical relations between competitors. We can understand this desire for symmetry along many dimensions, all of them instrumental. First, we can understand symmetry in terms of body composition, as in weight class, gender, disability, etc. This usually has to do with the question of produced force: in combat sports we separate by weight class so that the "weaker" opponent does not get hurt, while males and females usually do not play together due to perceived differences in strength. A useful contrast may be made here with the Japanese sport of sumo, in which all weight classes compete against one another in combinations of power and speed that do not privilege one over the other.

In theory, symmetrical relations also means that the same equipment is used by each athlete or team, though in practice this is a highly contentious area of sport. For example, the controversy over asymmetry in the 1988 America's Cup sailing regatta regarding what boats could and could not be used resulted in a New York State Supreme Court challenge. On a less dramatic scale, we might consider the new swimsuits developed by Speedo, which may only be available to certain athletes for the Beijing Olympics this summer, giving them a decided advantage in the pool.

And as the instrumentality of technology physically integrates with that of the body, things become even more problematic. Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee sprinter from South Africa, had to take his case to the world Court of Arbitration for Sport in order to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners, since the International Olympic Committee had previously ruled that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair biomechanical advantage in terms of energy return per stride. But David Howe of Loughborough University makes the interesting case that Pistorius' eligibility to compete against able-bodied runners in Beijing and beyond is immaterial; the real travesty, rather, is that as a double amputee (and thus possessing a smooth, symmetrical stride) Pistorius has been able to hone his skills in competition against single amputee sprinters (and their awkward asymmetrical gait).

As we further delve into into the question of symmetrical athletic bodies, we find the World Anti-Doping Agency. Any asymmetries arising in athletic competition must be grounded within the unitary athletic body in its genetic predisposition, refined through aptitude and hard work, and expressed through the poiesis of sporting performance. Substances, methods and other enabling technologies are permissible in this ethic of sport so long as they are supplementary to the organic unity of the athletic body and do not penetrate or pollute. And WADA claims the sovereign right to penetrate athletic bodies to make sure that such a symmetry persists.

Finally, we might understand symmetrical relations in terms of the number of athletes competing against one another in team sports. Every modern sport form first codifies in its rules the exact number of athletes that may compete for each team. In ice hockey, rugby league and other sports, one of the gravest threats is to have a player taken off the field and sent to the penalty box (or "sin bin") for their transgressions, forcing a numerical asymmetry. Here, useful contrasts may be drawn with the postmodern form of professional WWE-style wrestling, in which two or three wrestlers will routinely gang up against another. More grounded in modern sporting forms, the Situationist Asger Jorn critiqued this very principle of symmetry and its basis in binary thinking with his three-sided soccer.

In basketball, there is no such thing as a penalty box, though it is not impossible for there to be a numerical discrepancy in players. Once a player earns five fouls (six in the NBA), they are ejected from the game and a different player may substitute in their stead. But if there is no substitute available, either because too many players have fouled out, because of injuries, or because the roster was incomplete in the first place, then the offending team is forced to play at a numerical disadvantage. This happens rarely in major, sanctioned league competition, but occurs quite often in less formal men's and women's recreational leagues since a team might only begin a game with 5 or 6 players.

This is not to suggest that it is necessarily better to be the team with the numerical advantage in such a situation. In fact, quite often it is the opposite since the team with extra players over-passes the ball in order to get a perfect shot, and ends up thinking rather than reacting. I can recall winning a game in men's league with three healthy players and one playing on one leg due to a severe hamstring pull, since the other team couldn't figure out how to take advantage of the situation.

But all of this is all about a particular structural form of competition. In pickup basketball, on the other hand, competition can be equally as valued, yet not as obsessive about symmetrical relations. The pickup game is always already asymmetrical by virtue of those who participate on any given occasion.

6:45 a.m., New City YMCA, Chicago
No one in this gym knows I'm keeping a "diary."
No one knows what I do for a living.
No one knows how old I am. Unless someone checks to see whether I wear a wedding band — and guys don't generally look for that kind of thing — no one knows whether I'm married.
No one knows if I have kids. Or siblings. They don't know if my parents are still alive.
What kind of car do I drive? Or do I walk to the gym? Where exactly do I live?
No one has asked. No one cares. We don't talk about it.
And that's just fine.
If we were to talk, I'm sure we would find that some of us have a lot in common — kids, jobs, interests. Some of us might become permanent friends. Happens all the time, on the court and off.
But we don't talk.
We share one interest, intensely, for about one hour, twice a week. We talk about as much as we need to. Some friendly greetings before the game, and then the chatter of the game — "nice pass … check … ball's in … foul! …"
We generally try to learn our teammates' first names before a game starts, but we don't always remember them or use them. "Good finish, Jimmy" is about as personal as it gets. Over the weeks and months, faces and names tend to become more familiar, but that doesn’t mean we’re friends.
Not every pickup game is like this. But this one is. And I like it.

(Royce Webb, SportsJones)

In modern sport, despite the best efforts of authorities, relations can never be fully symmetrical no matter how much they are codified in language. But in the case of pickup basketball, a temporary community in which the only thing in common is that the players have nothing in common, the community is entered into freely as an act of mutual consent (cf. Nancy). As the basketball player has recently come to understand though, the resultant asymmetrical relations aren't too asymmetrical and that he will cherish always.

Hexagonal (Pitch) and Orthogonal (Sight Line)

The hexagonal (or circular — the hexagon is just a circle with fewer sidelines) pitch of the three-sided sporting contest makes it quite impossible for the normal wide angle sideline camera and its orthogonal view to be the primary (dominant) camera (mode of representation) for televising such an event. In a rectangular sportscape the sideline wide angle camera view is essentially the same from both sides of the field (simply reversed), and thus only one camera is necessary to fulfill this function. Not so with the hexagonal pitch. In 3-sided sports, the vectors of force at work are multiplied and thus the orthogonal approach is no longer appropriate — the sideline wide angle camera approach must multiply as well to at least three.

MJ - Bullet Time - Courtesy MJ to the MaxWhat is perhaps more likely, however, is the introduction of a haptic solution to the problem of spectacle production in three-sided sport. Like the technique used to create bullet time imagery in The Matrix or with Michael Jordan's recreated foul line dunk, expect multiple cameras to create a three-dimensional, manipulable picture of the action in real time. The technique already exists to accomplish this visual effect, but requires optimization to improve its price point as well an appropriate "killer" application to drive market penetration.

In this aspect of covering the entire space of play, it is somewhat like the CableCam, but with two key differences: the CableCam works generally on the grid principle of movement along x- and y-axes (though the camera may also move up and down slightly in the z-axis), while the bullet time system dispenses altogether with camera movement in favour of simulation to create an illusion of movement. In doing so, it removes control of the camera from an operator (singular) and grants it to the viewing public (plural).

Three-Sided Basketball

Last summer my friend Stuart (of Sceptical Futuryst fame) introduced me to the work of Asger Jorn and his concept of three-sided football. I was quite taken with Jorn's idea, as it seemed to challenge the type of binary (and symmetrical) thinking that mano-a-mano, home vs. away, favourite vs. underdog, white hat vs. black hat modern team sport fosters.

It is worth noting that Jorn was a founding member of the Situationist International, and a colleague of Guy Debord, since sport was certainly emerging during the post-war period as an important contributor to the society of spectacle. Jorn's Marxist roots and subsequent attempts to move beyond Marxist dialectical thought are apparent in his challenge to the game of football.

Courtesy of Dr. PinkyCourtesy of Dr. Pinky

The diagram on the left shows the hexagonal football pitch, while the diagram on the right shows how out-of-bounds situations (throw-ins, goal kicks, corners) are allocated when the α team touched the ball last. Importantly, the addition of a third team in Jorn's football matches includes the addition of a third goal as well. This bifurcates the possible directions of forward progress or vectors of force that are appropriate at any one time (though this obviously doesn't include the voluntary decision to reverse course and convert excess space into scarce time): which direction does one attack?

Beyond the intersection of critical theory and sport, I was really interested to learn about Jorn's three-sided football because I had theorized a form of three-sided basketball many years ago. (This was before I began sportsBabel; however, a sketch from an old notebook is reproduced below.) As with Jorn's game, there were three goals to correspond with the three teams competing — each team defending a particular goal and creating a sportscape resembling a triangle inscribed within a circle (a hexagon with an infinite number of sidelines?). I, too, sought to challenge the binary of modern team sport though at the time I didn't understand it as such. The difference between Jorn's game and my own, however, is that my game added an extra ball to the field of play.

3-Sided Basketball

If we understand the ball (green circle) as a source of energy or gravitational pull within a sporting space, then what does the addition of a second ball to the three-sided sporting event accomplish? Clearly it serves to divide attention for the hypothetical players, coaches, spectators, referees and media (presuming the latter four parties are present, of course) as any one team must simultaneously be on offence and defence.

The other notable characteristic of my proposed game — given that there are two balls involved — is that each team has an even number (4) of players. This means that to get an advantage when attacking offensively a team has three basic options: use 3 players to attack while only leaving 1 back to defend the goal; send 2 players out and hope to outmanoeuvre the defence while leaving 2 behind to defend the goal; or send 2 players out and form a temporary alliance with a player from the third team to try and gain a numerical advantage on the offensive attack.

This begs the question of how to address score. In Jorn's three-sided football, a team does not count goals they have scored but rather those they have conceded. In my three-sided basketball,

AB AY AR Total
Blue -6 4 2 0
Yellow 4 -5 3 2
Red 2 1 -5 -2

on the other hand, both scoring and defending are important, hence the points conceded are deducted from the points scored against each of the other two teams (AB = against Blue, etc.). Since offensive points as well as conceded points are being tallied the problem of temporary alliances that Jorn was interested in exploring via his triolectic philosophy changes. No longer do we simply form an alliance with a second team in order to score against a third team — the question of who scored matters. If Blue and Yellow form an alliance to score on Red, with Blue ultimately scoring the point, then the trivalent logic suggests that Blue = +1, Red = -1, and Blue has an outstanding debt to Yellow. When Blue and Yellow form an alliance again at some future point, it is expected that Yellow will be afforded a better than even opportunity to score in return.

The actual dynamics of these obligations are dependent upon who has the numerical advantage in players within any particular alliance. For every time Blue sends out 2 offensive players that are joined on the attack by a Yellow player, approximately two-thirds of the points should be scored by Blue; and vice-versa if Yellow is the team that initially sends out 2 players. This requires a sort of real-time game theory calculation in which athletes balance the relative merits of competition and cooperation against historical outcomes while running at top speed towards a goal.

I am really excited to learn more about Jorn's triolectic philosophy and how he applied it to football. But my initial thought is that Jorn didn't go far enough in his deconstruction of binary team sport. The addition of the second ball might be a step further in the triolectic approach. More to follow.