Sport and digital creation: when athletes and artists share the same playground

Pascal Bauer

In the wake of the new modes of creation from digital cultures – and of the big principles of hybridisation it highlights – the sport and technological creation recently operate a singular coming together, as much around shared pedagogical and social emulating experiences (MOOC, hackhaton, fitlab) as for the definition of the latest tools proceeding from gaming and virtual reality devices: new configurations that even attract professional athletes and in which digital artists have obviously their say.


As an important element of social connection, sport does not escape to the growing digitisation of our society. Besides regular platforms and websites dedicated to practices and structures (clubs, federations, associations, etc.), its way of teaching gets up to date of new digital tools, notably with new online courses embodied by MOOC (Massive  Open Online Courses). This is what is brought out for instance by the sport digital project carried out by University of Valenciennes – named MOOC Num e-Sport – and that has for main target “to retain organisers, coaches, coordinators and sport directors with new tools and customs to optimise their activities of organisation, teaching and performance”.

FUN MOOC : Num e-Sport. Le numérique sportif par fr-universite-numerique

This logical – because societal - digitisation of access to sport practices is not one-way oriented though. The sport itself – of rather its expression – influences some new digital practices, often themselves coming from the hacker culture. This is for example the case of the hackhatons (associating the terms hacking and marathons) that want to establish a kind of festive competition gathering participants during a short time to work together around innovative projects. Team management, designing of software, game or other application: this creative race is aimed mainly at developers, designers and gaming fans. And behind the finishing line symbolised by the allocated time and the vote of a jury, it warrants a grant with incubation of the best project. First initiated by the corporations of web and Silicon Valley, on both internal and external ways, the hackhatons have recently come bigger. In France, several important business groups such as Orange or the railway company SNCF, the Société Générale, Pernod Ricard or Axa have organised one. In 2016, Museum of Louvre Lens has even set up the first Culturathon on this model, praising this way all the prospective pertinence of the process and its adaptation to the cultural sector.


Connected sport, health sport and gaming culture: Sportmania at MAIF Social Club

As a matter of fact, this idea of sport practiced in a hacking way, in a Lab approach, is gaining ground and is growingly appearing in events as much intended for digital culture fans as for a general audience. This is the case for instance of the Sportmania event, organised from 21st of April to end of July at MAIF Social Club in Paris, a recently open venue dedicated to artistic interventions but conceived itself like a real innovative social Lab. Sleep workshop, nutrition workshop, Fitlab entitled Un Esprit Sain Dans Un Corps Sain (A Fit Mind In A Fit Body): all well-being activities involved during Sportmania hang together with an environment of sport practices directly inspired by a Lab culture merging technological and participative spirit.

To refine this link, some artists have been invited to include in the menu hybrid propositions– like the Bookfightings of Yves Duranthon and the Philosophical Aerobics of Pascal Lièvre – and installations more specifically digital, drawing a natural technological connection between gaming culture and augmented sport culture.

This connection can operate in a very symbolic way as it appears in the Phi Sport device of Édouard Sufrin, in which the interaction principle stressed out by digital culture expresses itself in an ergonomics both retro-technological and street-art-related: a simple button to press looking like a basic video game knob set on a pillar and triggering sound diffusion of philosophical quotes with potential sports interpretation. Both playful and mysterious, Donald Abad’s L’Irrésistible Ascension, which allows to observe through a tablet several digital characters climbing a heap of stones set in the physical space of the gallery, combines tribute to escalade – and to his top star Patrick Edlinger, hero of the movie Opéra Vertical -, land-art aesthetics and virtual reality of the Cloud!

L'irrésistible ascension from donald abad 

The stone, the rocks are materials I use, on which I climb, materials I work with and I play with. With them, I let my thoughts go freely”, the artist explains. “This is the association of the spirit world and of the terrestrials’ world. Each stone can potentially be inhabited. With the use of new technologies, I can imagine the Cloud, this virtual entity, like the new world of spirits. This way augmented reality creates this path between the reality and the virtuality.

Other installations of Sportmania refer more distinctly to this open line between gaming and digital art, in where sport would act as a new potential vector. In his piece of work Dribble, Pascal Bauer readjusts his previous “walking” installations such as La Foule in the shape of a rail-guided football player/screen going for dribbles…under functional influence. According to the artist, sport and video game join indeed in this idea of contents created for being popularised - and then commercialised? - by functional devices.  “I have been thinking for a certain time to create a new version of La Foule or Le Marcheur by using a football player character dribbling around. I was interested in the idea of transforming the installation, the artistic device, into a machine, a simple diffuser of media contents, like a TV for instance. It gives to the art work a new functional dimension, because as a simple gear, its way of functioning, with the screened character going back and forth, surely becomes a little bit superfluous and reasonless.” And it gives more fun as well when Bauer’s football player celebrates his skills in a very Super Mario style. “These are his moments of glory, his states of euphoria after shooting the ball”, he continues. “And these are effectively dealt in a way of video game characters like Super Mario when he catches stars, does pirouette on himself, the hand in front of him, or when he starts Christlike ascension all the way up.

More based on the participative category of video game and digital art devices, the platform Half Times created by the Visual System collective connects all the installations of Sportmania on a curious field looking like “a double sports arena, stylised and luminous, inserted at medium height of the exhibition space” as Julien Guinard, one of its creator, says. “The modularity of the installation is not physical but sensitive. It lives differently according to the various temporalities of the day, notably in accordance with the natural luminosity of the place and with the programme of the period of activities.” Here as well the connotation is rather symbolic. “The artistic projects are always like fighting a battle”, he playfully recognises. “But here, the topic is more a symbolic wink of the representation of sport with this luminous ‘field’. Turned off, it doesn’t exist anymore and reveals oneself when active and in motion.”
Quite evidently, the project the most representative of the permeability between sport and culture remains though on the scale of the exhibition the Playground device imagined by the Orbe collective (lead by Xavier Boissarie and Tomek Jarolim): a transformation of the whole area of the MAIF Social Club – including this one – in a dedicated playground for one-hour sessions. A transformation broadcast live – like in the main sport events – as, while the participants play, the audience is invited to follow the game on a real-time 3D map of the area called cartographic dataviz.

Orbe Presentation from Orbe 

A way to also reconnect these new approaches sport/digital creation with an historic, the one of pervasive games linking game and public space, virtual and physical dimensions, like imagined by pioneers such as British collective Blast Theory, which game/performance Can You See Me Now induced a communication between players connected on internet and players hidden in the urban environment, or such as the other British collective Active Ingredient, that proposed in 2008 with Heartlands a playful path connecting a nearby urban space cartography, accessible through your personal mobile, and a biosensitive reception of your own heartbeat. “Since its start, Orbe collective conceives and experiments devices that modify, distort, build our relationship to public space and other people”, Xavier Boissarie clarifies. “This way, our goal is to emancipate the player from his social character in order to allow himself to discover hidden dimensions of everyday’s life, by favouring the coming up of vertigo or performance situation.

Can You See Me Now?, Blast Theory

The exergaming, the new matrix of virtual reality

This idea of performance is crucial because it is at the centre of the technological – and then financial – stakes implied by this recent overlapping between sport practices and digital creation. Logically, the development of all the virtual reality gears and mostly the one of the headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR by Samsung or Sony PlayStation VR), currently on top of the hi-tech communication and of the financial investments in new devices of digital entertainment, represents then a new market for the virtual sportsman. A market that takes place in the wake of the video game but that makes it more physically complete thanks to a whole principle of sport activity included and a brand new name: the exergaming. 
Rowing machine, treadmill, but also fitness open up more and more to practices of virtual reality. With enterprises that make investments, like Runstatic or Pure Fitness, but also researchers that develop tools of virtual moving not only concerning the eyes but all the rest of the body and mostly the legs: this is the case of the famous 3D Rudder, awarded at CES 2015 and now commercialised, that allows to play a video game and lets the hands of the player free.

3D Rudder, Trailer

In this field, where the use of the VR headset is still the preferred medium, the bike is the sport device the most appreciated by corporations and developers. With the help of an Oculus Rift and a movement sensor, the Italian start-up Widerum was among the first ones to imagine a machine allowing an immersion in virtual reality while gently pedalling from his living room! Following the scenario of the artwork The Legible City by interactive art pioneer Jeffrey Shaw, where the use of a real bike permitted to explore an urban landscape advancing in real time on a giant screen just in front, the user can here set his own bike directly on a base equipped with a microcontroller and receiving all the signals sent by the bike and by a dedicated informatics program.

This program moreover works on a community way as the augmented bike rider is invited to connect to an online platform when he can check all the statistics, chat with other “cyclists” and try new challenges among a series of virtual race.
Easier again, the traditional exercise bike can become too a wholly interactive machine when connecting VR software like did experiment the Englishman Aaron Puzey who crossed, in his Cycle VR project, the entire Great Britain in 85 hours by linking his Gear VR to scenery coming from Google Street View – and then broadcasting it on his YouTube channel. 

A way to stimulate virtual races that used to be develop, before VR headsets, by some special equipment like the Proform Tour de France bike whose integrated iFit technology allowed to make simulations of real stages of the Tour de France. Now with the VR technology, this capacity of transposing oneself on this kind of stages has almost turned into reality. The German brand Kettler recently demonstrated it with its bike set connected to an Oculus Rift and allowing, thanks to a Kettmaps application, to ride the Tour…since home!

As a proof of their efficiency, these new innovative technologies sport/digital creation incidentally interest professional athletes. In Montreal, in the Art/Science institution of the Concordia University, the virtual reality and 3D screen coaching program Neurotracker, conceived in the laboratory of the researcher in optometry Professor Jocelyn Faubert, allows to measure the cognitive and perception capacities of top level athletes and to enhance their performances through playful games.

Getting Started With NeuroTracker Training

The national leagues of ice hockey and soccer have experienced themselves a device that, apart from increasing the concentration, also enables to reduce injuries risks. Specialist in neuroscience of the vision, the researcher Thomas Romeas has proceeded to a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise confirming that professional footballers having tested Neurotracker “had enhanced from 15% their accuracy of passing the ball, a very important phase of the game”. 
But, like very often, this is the motorsport that stresses out the most impressive connection as the first racing car without driver, the Roborace, is already announced: an electric hot rod able to reach 320 km/h, full of detection digital technology, with laser and radar to make real-time cartography of the track, with optical cameras and powerful processors to analyse the curves.


From now on, a bit like for the close and comparable principle of artificial intelligence, the human factor is no longer in the cockpit, but mostly in the engineering laboratory that, behind the safe image of sport, draws a first technological sketch of million of autonomous cars for the general public that are likely to come next.

The artists take care of …human values

So here as well, exactly like in the case of the dangers that can be potentially raised by artificial intelligence applications (see the article When Digital Artists Take Up the Challenge Of New Stakes in Artificial Intelligence), the role of the artists stays essential to keep in mind the primacy of the human – and of his values – in these new possible interactions between sport and digital creation. “I do not obligatory share all the values from popular sports, but I keep looking for a certain form of adrenalin in my way to work my pieces, for pushing my limits further or for stressing out an idea of performance, an approach that can be found at the same time in sports and in the domain of thinking and creation”, Édouard Sufrin says to express this point of convergence.

Unexpected process, détournement and experience of transgression then become the artists’ required ingredients to highlight the necessary understanding of the risks of an all-technological power and their role to intervene like a grain of sand in the machine, as Xavier Boissarie explains about his Playground platform and one of its games, No Border. “This proposition comes in contradiction with a certain approach of current urbanism, influenced by design and modern engineering, in which there is a will of making the functioning of the city more fluid to integrate inhabitants in a well-oiled machine”, he tells. “No Border is the grain of sand in the machine, an experience of transgression that keeps us awake.

A resistant approach that is shared by other artists like Pascal Bauer when he evokes anew the consuming symbolic of the Dribble’s football player and the danger of a technological sport participating to the formatting of the individual/citizen. “Dribble cuts with the deeper reflection that went along with La Foule, this idea of human enslaved by the machine, and entering a mechanical symbiosis with it through all these absurd ways back and forth”, he explains. “But the image of a football player dribbling around is not taken by chance, even if you can of course imagine thousands of contents to feed this new approach of the device as a diffuser of media contents. It sets back to the idea that a machine – and its norms – is just as ridiculous as the society that has created it”. And it underlines as well that the sport must stay before all a playful and accessible-to-all practice, just simply as that.

Laurent Catala