17776: Native Internet Art

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.
The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson
 
I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.
But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.
From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.
 
When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.
Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.
I regret not being more experimental myself.

To Win, and To Win Fairly

Oh, the twists and turns of the Democrats Primary season! Now its Hillary’s turn to feel the heat, after she invoked the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in a discussion over the lengthy nomination process:

My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don’t understand it.

The implication from many quarters is that Senator Clinton is hanging in there on the off-chance that Senator Obama is murdered. However, if you watch the YouTube of her interview (with the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader) its clear that is not what she is saying. The operative word here is quite obviously ‘June’ and not ‘assassinated’.
Now, I’m an Obama fan, and wish Clinton would drop out of the race. The controversy a few weeks ago surrounding comments from Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, was ruthlessly exploited by the Clinton campaign. If this comment about Bobby Kennedy sinks her, there would be a real sense of schadenfreud, reap-what-you-sow and (to borrow a phrase from Wright) chickens coming home to roost.
However, Obama is really supposed to be above all that. He is running on the rhetoric of change, to wash the disingenuity from Washington politics. For the knock-out punch to be landed so unfairly would be a shame. It would show that such dirty politics is still legitimate. Victory, for Obama, would be less sweet.
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party as to whether the Florida and Michigan delegations, previously banned for breaking the DNC’s rules governing primaries, should be seated. Clinton argues that they should, and of course stands to benefit if that happens. Obama argues that they should not, because they broke the rules, and everyone agreed not to campaign there. Currently, Obama has the moral high-ground here, and the consensus is that this view will prevail.
However, a little piece of gossip threatens this claim. It is rumoured that 40 or so Super-Delegates are planning to defect from Hillary Clinton, and endorse Barack Obama. Over at The Field, Al Giordano hints:

Cardoza is one of the leaders of this effort (which includes not only superdelegates, but here’s something that should set off some paranoia in Camp Clinton: there are pledged Clinton delegates in “The Cardoza 40,” too).

Emphasis mine. Obama should not be welcoming other people’s pledged delegates into his fold. These people, unlike the super-delegates, have been awarded their position on the basis of a popular vote in favour of Senator Clinton. To condone her delegates to vote instead for Obama is profoundly undemocratic, and unworthy of the Illinois Senator’s inspiring rhetoric. Let us hope he distances himself from this possibility.
Winning makes history, and confers power. But winning in the right way is just as important, because it generates goodwill and political capital.
All this reminds me of Manchester United’s Champions League victory on Wednesday evening. Yes, they won, and lifted the trophy. But their achievement is sullied by the manner in which it came about. The previous win, in 1999, will be more highly regarded, and will be more fondly remembered.

Update

Via the Dish, xpostfactoid highlights the ways in which Obama has maintained his integrity, and killed Hillary with kindness.

The Art of the Run-up

John Terry’s angst

Following last night’s drama in Moscow, I can only reiterate how important the run-up is to penalty-taking. Over half of the spot-kicks taken last night were actually quite shoddy, with both Van der Sar and Cech getting their fingers to most of the shots. However, a strong run-up from the shooter meant that the power was enough to carry the ball into the goal.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo, Terry and Anelka were all hesitant.

There’s probably a Gordon Brown metaphor to be found somewhere in all this, but I really can’t be bothered to pick it out.

Alisher Usmanov

While the We Can’t Turn Them Away campaign gathers pace, here’s some news of another campaign – this time regarding freedom of speech. I am very “late to the party” on this one, but as Justin says

This isn’t a race, this about sharing views and showing solidarity.

So, who is Alisher Usmanov? Is he, perhaps, a detained blogger in Egypt? Or an activist in Burma? Nope – he is an Uzbek billionaire who owns part of Arsenal Football Club. When Usmanov sought to increase his stake in the club to 21%, Craig Murray (a former ambassador to Uzbekistan) posted some articles about Usmanov on his website www.craigmurray.co.uk. The businessman threatened to sue Murray if he did not retract his articles. Since Murray believed his allegations to be true, he refused and invited the legal action.
Usmanov responded by threatening legal action against not only Craig Murray, but other blogs which had republished Murray’s articles. Crucially, they also threatened legal action against the web hosting company, FastHosts. The result was that several blogs were temporarily taken offline, and some remain unreachable. Tim Ireland, relentless blog stalwart and one of the victims of the hostile action, has the full timeline.
Tim also cites the ‘cross-spectrum’ outrage at the action of Usmanov and his solicitors, Schillings. Defending freedom of speech tends to unite bloggers like nothing else. As expected, there are plenty of succint quotes out there. Mr Eugenidies says it in his own style:

I don’t give a shit about this character, or Arsenal FC (no offence to any Gooners out there); nor do I share all or even most of Tim Ireland or Craig Murray’s politics. But that’s far from the point. If you can be silenced for calling a businessman a crook, then you can be silenced for calling a politician a crook, too. Then it’s everyone’s problem.

That bloggers should be crusading for free-speech is to be expected. In fact, I would say it is the normal state of things. That a blogger and his web host are being sued is not a unique occurrence. Given that blogging still has a reputation as a fringe pursuit for obsessives and activists, I imagine that news of the legal action is something that the population at large would find unremarkable.
For me, the ‘hook’ is Usmanov’s involvement with Arsenal. I am a fair-weather fan myself, although my family are much more dedicated supporters. They particularly dislike the methods of Roman Abramovich, such as the tapping up of Ashley Cole. The meddling of Vladimir Romanov at Hearts is well documented. Let us hope that the prospect of yet another post-Soviet Croesus ripping the heart out of yet another Premiership Football Club inspires a viable campaign against this podgy, anti-democratic thug.

Cult footballers and followings

Dave Hill amusingly plugs his book 33 times over at Comment is Free. The novel is called The Adoption and is of course available online. I fear this plug may be too late for Christmas, however.
I do enjoy Dave’s blog – especially his thought on such slippery subjects as multiculturalism and political correctness – and I recommend his novel on this basis. It is interesting to see many others do the same: This is not merely a case of blogger-boys-club-back-scratching, but recommendations based on sincerely held beliefs about the quality of a writer’s output. Having said that, a novel is a very different type of writing than blogging, and there may not be a correlation between lengthy fiction, and pithy political opination.
Elsewhere, I hear that Highbury cult-figure Perry Groves’ autobiography is massively outselling Ashley Cole’s offering, due in no small part to the campaign for that very thing over at Arseblog. Dave Hill bemoans the focus in the book-trade in pushing a few bestsellers, leaving the less high profile authors to fend for themselves. The alternative model he suggests – that of bloggers bypassing the marketing hype and recommending alternatives – seems to be working in Groves’ favour, and at Cole’s expense.
Ashley now earns more in a week than Perry’s transfer fee to Arsenal twenty-years ago. He may be more famous at the moment, but will be remembered amongst the Arsenal fans for his involvement in the ‘tapping up‘ scandals, and being married to someone from Girls Aloud. In 2006, it seems an online campaign has snowballed, as readers come to realise that actually, Cole is a less interesting character than someone who has been out of the game for a decade.
To find that it is Perry Groves who has benefited from this phenomenon is unsurprising, as he was always a cult figure anyway. Often on the bench, he never reached the stratosphere of later stars such as Ian Wright and Tierry Henry, or even team-mates like Charlie Nicholas (for whom he set up the winning goal in Arsenal’s 1987 League Cup win). Nevertheless, Groves’ work ethic, bionic throw-ins, and an odd appearance (his nickname was ‘Tintin’ which is why I remember him so well) made him a Highbury favourite.
To come full circle: All this talk of cult figures (and of footballers marrying C-List celebrities) reminds me of the essay by digital artist Momus, which I quoted in my article on the Impact of Blogs for Writer’s News earlier this year. Momus’ point was that the new, digital media could allow people to by-pass the bottleneck of the mainstream outlets. The online world promised to be fertile territory for the unadulterated cult-figure. From my article:

Pandering to the lowest common denominator in the ‘mainstream’ can be a debilitating process … Through online publishing, an idiosyncratic writer can find viable target audiences, without diluting their work.
Attaining this niche-fame – a kind of cult following, perhaps – becomes increasingly attractive to the serious writer. As the digital artist Momus said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” We live in an era where mainstream celebrity seems entirely unrelated to talent. Finding a small, dedicated audience online may be a better measure of success, than C-list recognition in the mainstream.