In a recent conversation, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz said: “I played baseball as a kid. I played it regularly almost every day in the spring and summer time, and I played it in college for a while. The field is a fixed graphic space, and everything occurs with a kind of geometry. The grasp of this physicality, this total space, and the understanding of where everybody else is in the game, is part of the mystery and poetry of the game. I learned to read the space.” Baseball’s spatial legibility to Meyerowitz contributed to his artistic practice, but his sense of play with the rules of photography altered the field. For artist Mitchell F. Chan, baseball encodes a different tract, a statistical field we all traverse: one of odds, long shots and safe bets.
On August 16, Chan launched a wry and ambitious work that used baseball as a vector through which we might better understand the statistical presumptions of our datafied existence. The incisive socio-political and economic critique wrapped in the trojan horse of gameland’s choose your own adventure makes The Boys of Summer a revelatory experience. Sure, data determines your online filter bubble, but in Chan’s able hands, The Boys of Summer revels in and illuminates the complexity of how data contains and constrains the potential for self-actualization. Ironically, for the on-demand attention span of 24/7 internet culture transferred to so much digital art, the key to this work is patience and readiness to play.
Chan’s work always exhibits great wit, cleverly pushing art to engage with arenas it often rejects—like sports, video games, weird technologies (gasp, blockchain!)—while also taking stock of its riotous forms of capital, that is economic, cultural, social, political, hey, even linguistic-rhetorical: going beyond Bourdieu’s astute twentieth century analysis, Chan materializes the overlapping, interrelated and entangled algorithmic expressions of systemic oppression as a gordian knot of neoliberal, late-capitalist externalities. A Proustian syntax unfurls to match the Borgesian associations in his practice. His sunny, lo-fi graphics, and chipper banjo or chiptune soundscapes disarm, though these have complicated politics in their histories… and thus, down the rabbit hole with Chan we go.
Entering a game, we presume we stand a chance. Games depend on choice and possibility, though those are often illusions. We step up to the proverbial plate, ready to swing. As James P. Carse notes in Finite and Infinite Games, “…unless we believe we actually are the losers the audience sees us to be, we will not have the necessary desire to win.” And thus we enter, having abandoned no hope whatsoever (this morphs as Boys of Summer goes on). We continue with the early confidence of someone at a penny slot machine in Vegas, only to lose and lose and lose.…
The Boys of Summer begins by having you adopt a baseball player whose choices about college and pro-league pursuits lead to decisions about student loans, sexual partners, jobs, investments, mortgages, sleep, healthcare, fitness regimes, with each choice updating the invitations in the dialogue box for fun, new choices! Opportunities galore! Clicking along with the same narcissistic excitement of completing personality quizzes suddenly reveals the psycho-social strength of avatars and the presentation of self in everyday online life, to tweak Erving Goffman’s all too relevant text from 1956.
It’s as we play that we begin to suspect something else may be amiss. We are under the illusion that we are puppeteers. We make choices. We are the deciders. But, casual selections become weirdly uncomfortable as things go awry and those heedless choices start to irk. Statistical injustices creep in. How is it possible that if I, the player, put in extra hours at my Amazon job, focus on my health and reduce my social time, I lose money? Suddenly presented with six figure debt, attempts—too late—to increase productivity make no difference. And after all that, only to get laid four times! The Boys of Summer indulges in such tantalizing details. It’s funny, but also reminiscent of reports from OkCupid a dozen years ago about the impact of things we can do nothing about… things Chan has coded behind the scenes as your “luck.” Our choices have consequences, but with structurally biased design that mirrors systemic inequities, the rules of the game undermine autonomy and the very essence of choice. This is part of the project’s sly genius. And, without giving away how Chan delivers the ending, everyone, ultimately, loses in the game of life, algorithmic or otherwise. This existential truth complicates the otherwise all too easy moralizing that a similar project might present, and therein Chan’s artistic mastery.
One of the feats of The Boys of Summer is to materialize something otherwise so abstract and complex that it is largely limited to scholarly journals and the work of social scientists. In Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (2019), a key source of inspiration for Chan, Jacqueline Wernimont examines the role that metrics and quantifying data have long had in the history of eugenics. Today, we are sanctioned by our numbers, surveyed and measured by any number of data-extracting technologies and devices. The sources of such valorization are anchored in imperialist regimes and Christianity where “accounting and the presentation of religious or moral standing have long been connected.” What may have begun as a means of ensuring social and religious hierarchies has today morphed into a voracious algocracy.
With each choice, a new stats box appears on the screen alongside your baseball player avatar. As the statistical screens arise, they encroach on the face. The eclipsing of the self as data accrues gets evinced in the quiet and gradual erasure of the body into data points. By the end, data is constitutive; you are the sum of your data, disfigured by numeric constructs. But it was always thus: the players’ eyes, from the start, represent binary code, as 0’s housing 1’s. Wernimont observes, “We might think of ourselves as made up of fleshy matter, or perhaps hopes and aspirations, but our media count our steps, lives, pounds, heartbeats and value. We are everywhere enumerated…” The danger is that we begin to see the world in quantifying terms… and, truly, how many of us can claim that we don’t, not a bit? It’s a vision of the world that forgets numbers are symbols, a very particular kind of representation, one that is culturally designated.
Algorithms function with something like an aperture– an opening that is simultaneously a narrowing, a closure and an opening onto a scene.[...] As an aperture instrument, the algorithms orientation to action has discarded much of the material to which it has been exposed.
—Louise Amoore, Cloud Ethics
What is selected, made opaque and transparent, to whom and what, are choices. As a final critical and inversive coup de grâce, Chan subjects his players’ avatars to what he termed the “cruelties of markets,” deploying the transparency of blockchain to reveal the player’s statistics and force collectors to choose if that will determine the market value of each PFP (profile picture). Who’s hot, who’s cold product? The winner, in late capitalism, is simply the one who anoints the winner.
Baseball nicely anchors this process as a sport that has used statistics since the nineteenth century to determine a player’s value, which was revolutionized by computation—see Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003). The same has been done in our educational profiles, our financial projections, and our love lives. The indignation of being reduced to the sum of data points, the subsequent inner protest (but surely THIS can’t be quantified), and the annihilating understanding that it doesn’t matter to the systems such data is intended to serve, becomes an ironically human and embodied position. The Boys of Summer is profound, its technical complexity matched by its conceptual intricacy—made accessible through the essence of the game and the rather significant difference of play. As Carse aptly affirms, “Culture is likely to break out in a society not when its poietai begin to voice a line contrary to that of society, but when they begin to ignore all lines whatsoever and concern themselves with bringing the audience back into play—not competitive play, but play that affirms itself as play.”
Gamification is a common feature of user design and meant to keep participants hooked into the system as it is designed and designating. Its presumptions encode biases into predictions of who you are and what you want. A kind of purposive purposelessness produces play, quite impossible in the world wide game derived from Fordist and Taylorist “scientific management” that absorbs every action into an economizing labor schema. A scroll is not a stroll, as algorithmic behavioral modification has aptly proven. Someone passingly curious about alternative coffees, for example, might not be someone seeking to avoid the stringencies of body-conforming fabric and so want loose robes, made of fabrics in fast fashion factories with devastating environmental and human labor implications, shipped halfway around the world at a cost in total denial of the price that continuous transportation of product presents the planet. And this example avoids the greater plagues of predictive algorithms in carceral, education, insurance, and other life-altering contexts.
This game is rigged. It’s what scholars Danielle Citron and Frank Pasquale call a scored society. Tamara K. Nopper explains, “It is this social context of ‘the scored society’ in which being scored in some way is part of the design of inequality and the cost of living, that serves as the condition of possibility for marketplace lenders to narrate themselves as anti discriminatory while targeting those most at risk of being socially punished for having no or low credit scores.” The answer isn’t that the algorithms need to improve. Forfeiture isn’t possible, despite our assorted efforts to do so; evasive action requires play to upend this endless game.
If at this point you want to fall off a cliff, LEAP 180 (2022) by Aaron Huey might perfectly encapsulate how this all feels. An intrepid photographer, long associated with National Geographic, Huey has ventured to the far edges of various cyber and VR chat spaces, the place where the “land” falls away, and jumped. LEAP 006 (wave) (2022) is a photograph of him waving, the excitement palpable as he arrives at his first edge in Somnium, a virtual reality environment that is also the title of Johannes Kepler’s 1608 science fiction novel about looking at the Earth from the moon. In a humorous overidentification with the tools of his trade, for LEAP 320 (test island 1), Huey transformed his avatar into an 8×10 plate camera for a head with tripod legs and arms. The blue toned landscape and violet foliage, along with the high angle capture of his presence on a sharp corner overlooking a gray void, forecasts the failed attempt that subtitles LEAP 423 (failed attempt) (2022); an invisible wall blocks him in the multiplayer online virtual world, Second Life.
The playfulness in Huey’s photographic project belies the significance of what he captures about the systems design of these virtual realities. What do we see where no one is expected to go? What limitations? What creative surprise? In the video, LEAP 656 (infinite hole, time suspended) (2023) Huey peers into a black hole that becomes a never ending well, the walls sparkling, reflecting his transformation into something luminescent. Carse writes, “Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities… Who lives horizontally is never somewhere, but always in passage.”
Huey’s curiosity about edges become excursions to the outer limits. PERIMETER 001 (sunrise) (2022) is a 28-second video taken in Decentraland that shows a flickering green box and flashing grid stretching towards a purple mountain majesty landscape, peachy dawn light reflecting off clouds floating in a new day… it’s the linework of a world yet unbuilt. Though this company’s cyberspace environment indulges in corny visions of future horizons, the choice to make the underlying design grid evident can be interpreted iconographically as indicative of an ethos. Huey is reporting from the edges not of some virtual fantasy space but an actualized design that impinges on what we expect of these realities. It’s not just what we see in one webspace, but the choices hidden at the outskirts of all these spaces that reveal an iconology, one we ignored across the rapidfire build-out of browsers and user-generated online environments. We didn’t know the game Web2 designed, or the terms we were tricked into accepting, which Chan’s The Boys of Summer deftly exposes.
Some curators and galleries, collectors and platforms, are also showing a sense of play. Huey’s works are placed on a new platform zeroone.art, a project launched in August to encourage creative rather than monetary exchange. No fees extend the participatory power of creators and collectors, since differential economic conditions around the world limit many from entering art world markets. For those who associate blockchain with crass financialization, zeroone offers a truly playful creative community. Despite the NFT market downturn for North American and European participants, it remains an opportunity for many around the world, and committed participants are still finding ways to imagine new ways of extending art. Feral File launched a new model where the works in every exhibition are sold as sets, in recognition of the significance that every artist contributes to a group exhibition. Encouraging an even greater level of collector trust, curators Kaloh and Casey Reas open Vistas Edition, an exhibition of generative landscapes where none of the artists are known until a “grand finale,” produced in partnership with, and in the spirit of, the Blind Gallery. All the games of the art market aside, art thrives on play.
If we acknowledge that despite repeated warnings, painting really just isn’t dead, then neither should we expect that of NFTs. Artists and those passionate about art will keep finding ways to escape a means-end rationale. We might even become suspicious about who wins from having others believe that a death knell tolls. Hamlet can be playfully reinterpreted here, as we face the tech overlords of our day: “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” May the odds be ever in your favor.