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.

Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That

My social media stream is full of people praising Google for taking a ‘brave’ stand against the Russian state.  Why?  Well, today’s Google Doodle is a rainbow themed Winter Olympics Graphic.

The Russian Government has recently passed blasphemy laws and other measures that restrict freedom of expression.  They have also passed a ‘gay propaganda’ law which bans discussion of homosexuality around minors – an attack on the already embattled homosexual community in Russia.
Continue reading “Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That”

British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year

David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge
David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, ExCel, 16th December 2012

I want to draw attention to something particular regarding the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2012. It’s best encapsulated in this tweet from Sunder Katwala, who is director of the British Future thinktank:

I love the suggestion that sports people might ‘bid’ for the Sports Personality of the Year trophy, as if it is an Oscar nomination or Presidential campaign that must be plotted and strategised years in advance. The humour lies in the idea that winning a world championship or a gold medal is simply a false peak, a means to an end, with the ultimate pinnacle actually being that little trophy of an old-style TV camera, on a polished wooden stand. Continue reading “British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year”

How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports

Fleet Half Marathon
Fleet Half Marathon 2010. Photo by yrstrly on Flickr.

One thing that should be analysed when thinking about success of the Olympics is the broadcast. We should remember that for most people, the entire Olympic experience was mediated by the BBC. I think there is general agreement that they did excellent job – at least, a much better performance than during the Jubilee celebrations! This is obviously because it plays to the BBC’s strengths, reporting breaking news as it happened. Listening to the Olympic coverage on Radio 5 Live was not that different from listening to their usual Saturday afternoon coverage of Football League matches – and I mean that as a conpliment. That broadcast team in particular are already very experienced at juggling several outside broadcast units and reporters on location.

The corporation also did a good job at explaining the rules of many of the obscure sports to novice viewers.

Let us not forget that the BBC did have help from the Olympic Broadcast Service. This is a group of international broadcasters who together deliver the actual Olympic coverage (i.e. making sure we see people cross the line, not making sure Clare Balding interviews them afterwards).  Apparently the BBC was directly responsible for the rowing coverage, but the athletics was actually project managed by the Finnish broadcasters!

All this coverage was enhanced by some fantastic advances in digital technology. There were under water cameras in the swimming pool, boom cameras sweeping over action in the stadia, and cameras on wires tracking the action from above. There were ultra slow motion replays too, all of which led to an immersive experience.

So, what should we learn from all this? Well, obviously we can hope that TV sports coverage will improve across the board. Many of the clever techniques used during the Olympics should be deployed in other, domestic coverage.

But that is not what interests me. I am more interested in how the BBC (as by far the biggest broadcaster in the UK) can help to facilitate grassroots sport. If we accept the premise that much of the enthusiasm for previously obscure sports has come due to increase broadcast exposure, then the BBC could give those same sports a permanent structural boost by simply devoting more coverage to them all year round.

They can do this in two ways: first they can simply send cameras and reporters to cover major sporting events (they may need to do this anyway, to fill the airtime gaps left in the schedules as Premiership football and other highly popular sporting events are snapped up by Sky, Setanta, and ESPN).

Second, they can also do this by improving their online presence, to allow greater crowd sourcing and audience reporting of sporting events. This would enable them to provide coverage of regional and local sports – not just athletics and gymnastics, but non-league football and youth football as well. This will link the broadcaster’s output with communities and the localities that BBC is meant to serve, and should also inspire greater participation, and more people coming out to spectate. In this way, the Olympic spirit that the BBC generated over the past two weeks may be bottled and disseminated to local sports fields and even schools. Continue reading “How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports”

Thoughts on the Olympics II: Legacy and Grassroots

https://twitter.com/account/suspended

Another popular comment on the London Olympics is the idea that we should host them every year! That would certainly give a boost to team GB athletes but I am not sure other countries would agree!

this sentiment actually misses the point. The Olympics are about internationalism. Part of the reason London 2012 has been so delightful is because the event is part of a larger narrative: We are sandwiched between the might of Beijing and the sexiness of Rio.

We do host major international sporting events every year, for example, the Premier League or the London Marathon. These contests are televised globally and draw an audience, but the particular atmosphere generated by the Olympics is founded on the fact they are a one off.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Olympics II: Legacy and Grassroots”

The Fate of My Namesakes

Tia Sharp Missing Poster

It’s Wednesday evening and we’re on the Victoria Line. A young man strums a guitar and sings while his friend harmonises. Their refrain is “You mean the world to me” and I don’t know whether that’s a popular song in the charts that I have never heard, or of it is their own composition. I hope the latter.

The train pulls into Stockwell Station, where Jean Charles De Menezes was shot dead by CO5 officers. It is also the interchange with the Northern Line, so we get up to leave.

In quick succession, two images drift into my eye-line and draw my attention for the same reason. First, there is a photograph in the Evening Standard of an athlete in Team GB colours, her surname pinned to her chest. It is Lynsey Sharp, the Scot who has qualified for the final of the 800 metres.

Lynsey Sharp at Loindon 2012
Lynsey Sharp at Loindon 2012, after qualifying for the 800 metre final.

Then, as I step off the train and walk towards the tunnel to the other platforms, I double-take at a crude A4 photocopy taped to the tiles. It announces the disappearance of 12 year old Tia Sharp. She is a Londoner and has been missing for six days, but these facts have not penetrated my consciousness until now.
Continue reading “The Fate of My Namesakes”

On The Censorship of Cricket

The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.

This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.

In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.

But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?

The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.

This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.

Evolution of Skydiving Videos

In my youth, I would go skydiving at weekends.  My take-up of the sport was round about the time that digital video was coming onto the consumer market and into the world of freefall.  Most electronics shops sold high-end mini-DV units for four figure sums alongside VHS camcorders.  All units were relatively bulky and you required a homemade helmet with a camera-mount bracket on the front.

The films we produced then were rudimentary.  They were washed out and a bit shaky, and any that were edited were typically very basic montages set to some kind of dance-music sound-track.  Here’s an example I made earlier.

Compare that with this beautiful thing from design studio Betty Wants In, advertising a skydive centre in Melbourne. Its in a different league to what I saw being produced a decade ago, even from the professionals. Chief amongst its virtues is the focus on stillness and calm, and the relative stasis that you achieve in freefall (relative being the operative word). By contrast, when I was doing this sort of thing, the entire culture revolved around speed and the iconography was all cliched lightning bolts and flames. It shows how the practitioners of this relatively new genre have evolved, helped of course by the reduced price and size of HD video.