Monday, December 19, 2011

Vale Kim

Alas, the "great mental and physical strain" of repeated "high intensity field inspections" has finally done for the world's sexiest dictator.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Australia vs Wales

I went to Millennium Stadium in Cardiff yesterday to watch Australia play Wales. My first live rugby international. Even though it was a one-off post-World Cup match (with little to play for really) there was still a great atmosphere, aided by an 1,800-strong male voice choir and the usual excessive pyrotechnics that accompany the introduction of the Welsh team onto the field and leave the rest of us gasping for air in a cloud of burnt paraffin. The Aus 24 - Wales 18 scoreline gave the impression that the match was a bit closer than it actually was, with the Australian team putting the match out of reach with three quick tries following the sin-binning of the Welsh fullback, Leigh Halfpenny, early in the second half. Shane Williams crossed to score the final try of the match in his last appearance for Wales. A fittingly romantic ending to the game.

 [Pre-match excitement]
 [A little choir]
  [Preparing for the National Anthems]


Techniques of the foot: barefoot running as an alternative aesthetic regime

Here's an abstract for a paper I am yet to write. I proposed it for a special issue of a journal a few months ago, but it wasn't accepted. This afternoon I read this blog post by Anton Krupicka in Running Times which reminded me of this 'shelved' abstract:

When I wake and head out the door for a run I pull on my shoes almost without thinking. As extensions of my body proper, snug to my feet and laced tightly, my running shoes recede from conscious attention in what Drew Leder identifies as a process of ‘focal disappearance’. Accepted through habit as augmentations of my body, I feel the world from my shoes, the ground beneath sensed as it unfolds before my advance.

While frequently forgotten in the action of running, the shoe also has a marked tendency to ‘dys-appear’, suddenly presencing itself as a source of pain and distress. As shoe and foot move independently of one another – exacerbated by faulty design, poor choice, or lack of fit – repetitive impacts and adhesions can dangerously re-shape and re-work the foot, deforming it, fracturing it, eroding it. ‘Why does my foot hurt?’ asks the author Christopher McDougall at the opening of his influential book Born To Run (2010). Perhaps the culprit, he surmises, is not the foot, nor the basic action of running, but the running shoe itself. The running shoe is, after all, a relatively recent development, particularly the so-called ‘technical’ shoe with its combination of padding, hi-tech materials, and ability to control and correct movement.

In this article I will explore recent debates and controversies relating to the design of running shoes and the emergence of ‘barefoot’ running celebrated by McDougall. But, rather than conduct this within the existing frames of sports injury, biomechanics or evolutionary anthropology, I will approach these debates in terms of aesthetics. If, as John Dewey has suggested, connection with the environment is the foundation of aesthetic experience, then an investigation of the mediating function of shoes between the body and the physical world is, at root, an aesthetic one. ‘Barefoot’ running can therefore be considered as involving an alternative aesthetic experience to that of shod running, one which is centred on a more pronounced tactile and sensory engagement between the foot and the ground, along with a foregrounding of the autotelic aspects of running itself.

This article will draw on the phenomenology of the body developed in the work of Drew Leder to examine the differences in sensory perception between shod and barefoot running, set against Alison Gill’s analysis of the rhetoric of running shoes and John Bale’s examination of ‘running cultures’. My aim is to argue that the divisions and debates over running shoe design and barefoot running are more fundamental than marketing, fitness and biomechanics, but involve the intersection of radically different aesthetic regimes founded in differing conceptions of the engagement of the human organism with its environment. The practice of ‘barefooting’ is revealed as a means by which its practitioners seek an experience of the world that is more grounded, vital, dexterous, and perceptive.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Walking Gateholm

Last weekend I visited south west Pembrokeshire, staying at West Hook Farm. While the highlight of the trip was visiting Skomer Island and seeing its profusion of bird life (especially its Puffin colonies) an intriguing part of the weekend was a quick visit to Gateholm Island.

[Gateholm Island viewed from the mainland]

Gateholm is a tidal island or 'half tide islet', accessible only at low tide. We were there at just the right time for a visit, with the tide going out, and so we scrambled down to the exposed rocks and then up via a large inclined slab of rock on the eastern side. Across the level summit of the island is a thick cover of grass and a trail of sorts, visible from the mainland, which leads to a cairn at the far end. But my main experience of this small island was its emptiness, its sheer lack of observable features, and the exposure it affords to the weather. On this day the sun was out, but there was also a strong northerly wind. Underfoot the grass was thick (no rabbits!) and the weave of vegetation had a number of hidden hollows and holes, making walking an unsteady experience.

[Gateholm Island]

The Ordinance Survey map for the area indicates a 'settlement' on the island in the gothic script used to denote the presence of historic features. But, walking across the island we just couldn't see it. The island is deserted, empty, unless you look much more closely for physical traces or, conversely, from much further away. In aerial photographs the evidence of buildings is clear, and the suggestion is that there was a settlement here in the late-Roman/early medieval period with the isolation of the island and its steep sides providing the inhabitants with a naturally defensive position.

[Gateholm Island, aerial view:]

I like to think of myself as observant, taking Henry James' exhortation - 'Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost' - as a personal motto. But sometimes I just can't see what's there, it simply isn't sensible, because I haven't developed the competence to see it.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Performance, architecture, construction

[London Olympic Stadium under construction]

What are the intersections between performance, architecture and construction? Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam provide a useful orientation in the introduction to Creativity and Cultural Improvisation (2007: 3-4). Here they write:
A famous modern architect designs a building, the like of which the world has never seen before. He is celebrated for his creativity. Yet his design will get no further than the drawing board or portfolio until the builders step in to implement it. Building is not straightforward. It takes time, during which the world will not stop still: when the work is complete the building will stand in an environment that could not have been envisioned when it started. It takes materials, which have properties of their own and are not predisposed to fall into the shapes and configurations required of them, let alone stay in them indefinitely. And it takes people, who have to make the most of their own skill and experience in order to cajole the materials into doing what the architect wants. In order to accommodate the inflexible design to the realities of a fickle and inconstant world, builders have to improvise all the way. There is a kink, as Stewart Brand writes, between the world and the architect's idea of it: 'the idea is crystalline, the fact fluid' (Brand 1994: 2). Builders inhabit that kink.
I've often heard it said that the backstage areas of theatres are like building sites, in that the sort of labour that goes on in both involves similar skills and practices, similar working conditions and dangers. Both sites of labour necessitate precise timing and scheduling, the meeting of deadlines and the skillful handling and processing of materials. Would it be productive to think further about the intersections between theatres and building sites or, more specifically, between the act of performance and the act of construction? It strikes me that approaching construction from the perspective of performance might shed light on why construction and building are so little considered or discussed in wider culture. Building sites are often treated as eyesores, simply necessary pains, rather than sites of becoming that are a central means through which we organize, arrange, mark and distribute the world in which we live. Perhaps the 'ontological queasiness' that Jonas Barish has identified as a part of what he dubs the 'anti-theatrical prejudice' might also influence our dominant views of construction and building.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Anne Bogart on attention

Here's a quote from Anne Bogart that I came across today. It's taken from a longer blog entry on her SITI Extended Ensemble website:
What we pay attention to creates our experience of the world and this experience, in turn, determines who we become. You see what you look for. We are always surrounded by a myriad of stimuli and information. Any given moment presents a great deal to chose from, multiple aspects of the world vying for our attention. Using the tool of our attention, we hone in on what is useful in the present moment. We have to because we cannot take everything in. Without limiting our attention, we would be afflicted by an overwhelming information overload. This is why each person experiences the same situation in vastly different ways; we each pay attention to different aspects of the world around us. Our attention can be habitual or scattered but it is possible to guide attention consciously via the brain’s executive function: the frontal cortex. Without consciously guiding attention, we are victim to our habitual perceptions of the world. Via habit, for example, we may zone in on the defeatist negative attractions around us, our sense of failure and ineptitude that multiplies and then becomes our reality. But, on the other hand, we can train ourselves to attend to the beautiful things waiting to be noticed. We can become curious and push the perceptions outward towards the surrounding world and society. We can see the miracle of life around us. We can be altered and saved by the situation in which we find ourselves.
In classes I find I'm constantly asking students to practice noticing and attending to aspects of their experience, and to attempt to describe or account for what they notice in as much detail as possible. What is it? What did you see? How was it done? This is based, in large part, on Al Wunder's 'Philosophy of Positive Feedback,' and it is, as Bogart explains, an attempt to train students (and myself) to be attentive, to notice, and to thereby seek out and focus on that which is most interesting, most intriguing, most beautiful.

It's also an important ethic when seeking to be sensitive to the impact and consequences of one's actions in the world. Drew Leder, writing in The Absent Body, explains how, in perceiving the world around us, our sensing bodies disappear, being ecstatic in nature and therefore absent, away from us. He finishes his chapter 'The Ecstatic Body' with a wonderful paragraph:
As I go through the day, my extended body ebbs and flows, now absorbing things, now casting them back onto shore. I do not notice my body, but neither do I, for the most part, notice the bed on which I sleep, the clothes I wear, the chair on which I sit down to breakfast, the car I drive to work. I live in bodies beyond bodies, clothes, furniture, room, house, city, recapitulating in ever expanding circles aspects of my corporeality. As such, it is not simply my surface organs that disappear but entire regions of the world with which I dwell in intimacy. (35)
The art I value most is that which reminds me of those regions of the world with which I dwell in intimacy and yet never seem to notice.