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.

gesture, intellect, virtuosity?

Building upon the work of Varro and Aristotle, the central thesis of Giorgio Agamben's essay "Notes on Gesture" is that gesture — a means without an end — stands separate from production or poiesis (a means to an end) and action or praxis (an end without a means), and in the process opens a new dimension of the political. This is no trivial observation for Agamben: "means without end" serves as the title of the book in which the essay appears, both in its English translation and the original Italian ("mezzi senza fine"). Clearly this idea of the "being-in-language" that is gesture is somewhere near the crux of his political thought.

Nothing is more misleading for an understanding of gesture, therefore, than representing, on the one hand, a sphere of means as addressing a goal (for example, marching seen as a means of moving the body from point A to point B) and, on the other hand, a separate and superior sphere of gesture as a movement that has its end in itself (for example, dance seen as an aesthetic dimension). Finality without means is just as alienating as mediality that has meaning only with respect to an end. If dance is gesture, it is so, rather, because it is nothing more than the endurance and the exhibition of the media character of corporal movements. The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such (p.58, emphasis in original).

It behooves us to consider Agamben's thesis in resonance with Paolo Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude. In the second day of the seminar that constitutes the basis of the book, Virno outlines a similar triad that informs his potential politics: labour, action and intellect.

Let us consider carefully what defines the activity of virtuosos, of performing artists. First of all, theirs is an activity which finds its own fulfillment (that is, its own purpose) in itself, without objectifying itself into an end product, without settling into a "finished product," or into an object which would survive the performance. Secondly, it is an activity which requires the presence of others, which exists only in the presence of an audience (p.52, emphasis in original).

The two analyses, which do not refer to each other in any way (Agamben's original appeared in 1996, while Virno's seminar took place in 2001), are in fact so remarkably similar that I feel a need to address the following questions in the context of Global Village Basketball and any project of sporting multitude:

  1. how does gesture relate to intellect?
  2. how does Virno's hybridization of labour and political action in the post-fordist age complicate Agamben's analysis?
  3. how do we locate virtuosity relative to the sphere of gesture?
  4. is Virno's language and virtuosity of the speaker actually commensurate with Agamben's pure mediality and being-in-language of gesture?
  5. can networked pickup basketball realize both Agamben's and Virno's politics insofar as the emergence of a sporting multitude is concerned?

(a work-in-process between elaine w. ho and sean smith towards "unlayering the relational: microaesthetics and micropolitics," a text for the mediamodes art and technology conference in new york)

walking with lygia (stealth playbook sketch no.1)

Stealth Playbook Sketch-1Stealth Playbook Sketch-2

caminhando com lygia

" … has a built-in camera next to the writing tip. when you write, the camera sees tiny dots on the [special] paper, which are printed with reflective ink in a very subtle pattern. the camera takes a series of fast snapshots of the dots, reads the pattern, and finds the action assigned to those dots."

yasunao tone:
"to fight with smart machines you have to be very primitive."

lygia clark, walking, striated space, camera, moebius, intersubjectivity, bodies, cut, plastic surgery



Spy Mission

On Performing the University of Disaster (an interlude)

Mission Orders from the Colonel

If you think the Spy should accept the mission, click here.
If you think the Spy should ignore the Colonel, click here.

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.

Rectus Femoris (Kino-Gait Sketch No.2)

Sketch No.2: Anterior aspect of right leg, rectus femoris.