Possible Bodies

No Ground

Item number: 012
Item title: No Ground
Author(s) of the item: mojoDallas, Hito Steyerl
Year in which the item emerged culturally or was produced industrially: 2008, 2012
Entry of the item into the inventory: 5 March 2017
Cluster(s) the item belongs to: Disorientation

[this text is part of a larger article, forthcoming in Inmaterial Journal (Bau, Barcelona, 2017)]

Motion capture systems typically do not record any information about context, and orientation is relative to an arbitrary point of origin ('The World'). This rendered example has guessed the floor 'wrong' but the software adds a naturalistic shadow nevertheless.

"A fall toward objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorializing, and always already unknown. Falling means ruin and demise as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender, decline and catastrophe. Falling is corruption as well as liberation, a condition that turns people into things and vice versa. It takes place in an opening we could endure or enjoy, embrace or suffer, or simply accept as reality." (Hito Steyerl, 2012)

This item follows Hito Steyerl in her reflection on disorientation and the condition of falling, and drag it all the way to the analysis of an animation generated from a motion capture file. The motion capture of a person jumping is included in the Carnegie-Mellon University Graphics Lab Human Motion Library [6]. Motion capture systems, including the one at Carnegie Mellon, typically do not record information about context, and the orientation of the movement is made relative to an arbitrary point of origin (see item 007: World).

In the animated example, the position of the figure in relation to the floor is 'wrong', the body seems to float a few centimeters above ground. The software relies on perceptual automatisms and plots a naturalistic shadow, taking the un-grounded position of the figure automatically into account: if there is a body, a shadow must be computed for. Automatic naturalisation: technology operates with material dilligence. What emerges is not the image of the body, but the body of the image: "The image itself has a body, both expressed by it's construction and material composition, and (...) this body may be inanimate, and material." (Steyerl, 2012).

'No ground' is an attempt to think through issues with situatedness that appear when encountering computed and computational bodies. Does location work at all, if there is no ground? Is displacement a movement, if there is no place? How are surfaces behaving around this no-land's man, and what forces affect them?

The found-on-the-go ethics and “path dependence" that condition computational materialities of bodies worry us. It all appears too imposing, too normative in the humanist sense, too essentialist even. What body compositions share a horizontal base, what entities have the gift of behaving vertically? How do other trajectorialities affect our semiotic-material conditions of possibility, and hence the very politics that bodies happen to co-compose? How can these perceptual automatism be de-clutched from a long history of domination, of the terrestrial and extraterrestrial wild (Haraway, 1992), now sneaking into virtual spheres?

We suspect a twist in the hierarchy between gravitational forces. It does not lead to collapse but results in a hallucinatory construction of reality, filled with floating bodies. If we want to continue using the notions of 'context' and 'situation' for cultural analysis of the bodies that populate the pharmacopornographic, military and gamer industries and their imaginations, to attend to their immediate political implications, we need to reshape our understanding of them. It might be necessary to let go of the need for 'ground' as a defining element for the body's very existence, though this makes us wonder about the agencies at work in this un-grounded embodiments. If the land is for those who work it, then who is working the ground [7]?

"Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach" (Ahmed, 2006, p.160)

The co-constitution of bodies and technologies shatters all dream of stability, the co-composition of foreground and background crashes all dreams of perspective. When standing just does not happen due to a lack of context or a lack of ground, even if it is a virtual one, the notion of standpoint does not work. Situation, though, deserves a second thought.

The political landscape of turning people into things and vice-versa recalls the rupture of 'knowing subjects' and 'known objects' that Haraway called for after reading the epistemic use of 'standpoint' in Harding (1986), which asked for a recognition of the 'view from below' of the subjugated: “to see from below is neither easily learned nor unproblematic, even if 'we' 'naturally' inhabit the great underground terrain of subjugated knowledges” (Haraway, 1998, p. 584). The emancipatory romanticism of Harding does not work in these virtual renderings neither. The semiotic-material conditions of possibility that unfold from Steyerl’s above description are conditions without point, standing or below.

What implications would it have to displace our operations, based on unconsolidated matter that in its looseness asks for eventual anchors of interdependence? How could we transmute the notion of situatedness, to understand the semiotic-material conditionings of 3D rendered bodies, that affect us socially and culturally through multiple managerial worldlings?

The body in this item is not static nor falling: it is floating. Here we find a thing on the 'situatedness' of Haraway that does not match when we try to manage the potential vocabularies for the complex forms of worldmaking and its embodiments in the virtual. What can we learn from the conditions of floating brought to us by the virtual transduction of modern perspective, in order to draft an account-giving apparatus of present presences? How can that account-giving be intersectional with regards to the agencies implied, respectful of the dimensionality of time and ageing, and responsible with a political history of groundness?

Floating is the endurance of falling. It seems that in a in a computed environment, falling is always in some way a floating. There is no ground to fall towards that limits the time of falling, nor is the trajectory of the fall directed by gravity. The trajectory of a floating or persistently falling body is always already unknown.

In the dynamic imagination of the animation, the ground does not exist before the movement is generated, it only appears as an afterthought. Everything seems upside down: the foundation of the figure is deduced from, not pre-existing its movement. Does this mean that there is actually no foundation, or just that it appears in every other loop of movement? Without the ground, the represented body could be understood as becoming smaller and that would open the question on dimensionality and scaleability. But being surface-dependent, it is received as moving backwards and forwards: the modern eye reads one shape that changes places on a territory. Closer, further, higher, lower: the body arranges itself in perspective, but we must attend the differences inherent in that active positioning. The fact that we are dealing with an animation of a moving body implies that the dimension of time is brought into the conversation. Displacement is temporary, with a huge variation in the gradient of time from momentary to persistent.

In most cases of virtual embodiment, the absolute tyranny of the conditions of gravity do not operate. In a physical situation (a situation organized around atoms), falling on verticality is a key trajectory of displacement; falling cannot happen horizontally upon or over stable surfaces. For the fleshy experienced, falling counts on gravity as a force. Falling seems to relate to liquidity or weightlessness, and grounding to solidity and settlement of matters. Heaviness, having weight, is a characteristic of being-in-the-world, or more precisely: of being-on-earth, magnetically enforced. Falling is depending on gravity, but it is also - as Steyerl explains - a state of being un-fixed, ungrounded, not as a result of groundbreakingness but as an ontological lack of soil, of base. Un-fixed from the ground, or from its representation (Steyerl, 2012).

Nevertheless, when gravity is computed, it becomes a visual-representational problem, not an absolute one. In the animation, the figure is fixed and sustained by mathematical points of origin but to the spectator from earth, the body seems unfixed from its 'natural soil'. Hence, in a computational space, other 'forced' directions become possible thanks to a flipped order of orientation: the upside-down regime is expanded by others like left-right, North-South and all the diagonal and multivortex combinations of them. This difference in space-time opens up the potential of denaturalized movements.

Does falling change when the conditions of verticality, movement and gravity change? Does it depend on a specific axis? Is it a motion-based phenomenon, or rather a static one? Is it a rebellion against the force of gravity, since falling here functions in a mathematical rather than in a magnetic paradigm? And if so, 'who' is the agent of that rebellion?

At minute 01:05, we find a moment where two realities are juxtaposed. For a second, the toe of the figure trespasses the border of its assigned surface, glitching a way out of its position in the world, and bringing with it an idea of a pierceable surface to exist on ... opening up for an eventual common world.

In the example, the 'feet' of the figure do not touch the 'ground'. It reminds us that the position of this figure is the result of computation. It hints at how rebellious computational semiotic-material conditions of possibility are at work. We call them semiotic because they are written, codified, inscribed and formulated (alphanumerically, to start with). We call them material since they imply an ordering, a composition of the world, a structuring of its shapes and behaviors. Both conditions affect the formulation of a 'body' by considering weight, height and distance. They also affect the physicality of computing: processes that generate it pulses in electromagnetic circuits, power network use, server load, etc.

When the computational grid is placed under the feet of the jumping figure, materialities have to be computed, generated and located "back" and "down" into a "world". Only in relation to a fixed point of origin and after having declared its world to make it exist, the surrounding surfaces can be settled. Accuracy would depend on how those elements are placed in relation to the positioned body. Accuracy is a relational practice: body and ground are computed separately, each within their own regime of precision. When the rendering of the movement makes them dependent on the placement of the ground, their related accuracy will appear as strong or weak, and this intensity will define the kind of presence emerging.

Thinking present presences can not rely on the lie of laying. A thought on agency can neither rely on the ground to fall towards nor on the roots of grass to emerge from. How can we then invoke a politics of floating not on the surface but within, not cornered but around and not over but beyond, in a collective but not a grass-roots movement? Constitutive conditioning of objects and subjects is absolutely relational, and hence we must think of and operate with their consistencies in a radically relational way as well: not as autonomous entities but as interdependent worldlings. Ground and feet, land and movement, verticality and time, situatedness and axes: the more of them we take into account when giving account of the spheres we share, the more degrees of freedom we are going to endow our deterritorialized and reterritorialized lives with.

The body is a political fiction, one that is alive (Preciado, 2008); but a fiction is not a lie. And so are up, down, outside, base, East and South (Rocha, 2016) and presence. Nevertheless, we must unfold the insights from knowing how those fictions are built to better understand their radical affection on the composition of what we understand as 'living', whether that daily experience is mediated fleshly or virtually.


[6] http://mocap.cs.cmu.edu
[7] https://vimeo.com/45615376