Before The Wall: Body & Being

Snow. An old man. A stick. A little boy.

Using the stick, the old man slides on the snow. The boy asks, “Can I try that?” The old man hands the stick to the boy, who begins to play with it, on his own.

Movement and play. The chapters that follow these opening minutes try to look into what might constitute, within a larger athletic field, some basic territory: 1) basic in the sense of being perhaps “prior” to a more finely articulated (elite-oriented) athletic practice; 2) basic in the sense of being a kind of distillation, drawn from already experienced practices, not too tied to any particular discipline, still 3) basically open to a range of possibilities, exacting as well as playfully untried.

Human movement, whatever its form, necessarily has its places of birth and ancestry, its horizon of inspiration and choices. Here, ground (birth, ancestry) and inspiration are: various ways of the ball, taken toward some everyday settings. And one of the choices: working within an approach different from the martial (arts) tradition.

Athletics, everyday living, an in-between. Pertaining to such a territory, still undefined, what could be a series of moves or steps, in an area between, say, playing ball and waiting for the bus?

The ensuing chapters, then, try to look into a ground that is both specific and open. As such, they’re to be seen less as intending to be instructive (something to be followed, mimicked) than proposing perhaps a more radical approach: exploring, re-exploring, on one’s own.

The Five Chapters


Aligning movement and position. A sequence of situations, counted as twelve, serves as a layout for exploring various linearities — horizontal, vertical, muscular, mental, etc. — without losing the sense of an ultimate indivisibility

Framed in colors (relating to the elements in Chapter 5, Fireworks), three base-forms make up the full sequence (3 x 4). In the first, body and stick together approximate the letter A (positions 1, 4, 7, 10), referring to a sense of larger Awareness, expansive, embracing, physically anchored in a wide base, being on the outer edges of one’s feet, stick held with a broad grip, hands pulling outward, chest open, eyes wide, easing breath, finding steadiness, maintaining (the stick’s) horizontal alignment.

With the letter I (2, 5, 8, 11) a more vertical Intensity is implied, the body narrowing its alignment, heels coming together, toes angled out slightly, a leaner tension felt in the eyes, arms pushing down on the stick, torso musculature contracting.

The H (3, 6, 9, 12) points to Hereness, an openness for what’s precisely there, feet and hands about shoulder width, knees bent, weight slightly forward, stick held loosely, still alert: a middle tension between the A and the I, breath and body lighter, an all-directional readiness, sensing the angles (of body/stick), incorporating their lines.


Clarifying, re-defining. The second chapter looks into the dynamics of pressure: getting a feel for how resistance per se may be helpful in articulating a lane within a larger pattern or within a particular flow-line; then integrating such a lane or line into the still larger movement and balances of the body.

Taking such an approach (a hand or a racquet pressing against another hand, a second racquet, some playground equipment) may be helpful to delineate or further define, for instance, a range of actual strokes. The film shows a twelvefold set, three possibilities each of a serving motion (sliced, flat, kick), a volley (forehand, backhand, close to torso), backhand (sliced, flat, topspin), and forehand (cut or sliced, flat, topspin).

Likewise, giving attention to the line of action when cutting a tomato, turning over in sleep, raking leaves, opening mail.


Leaning, moving, stopping, starting. With the traces of the twelve forms from Stickworks, turned into steps then speeded-up, some possibilities are spelled out as ground for investigating a variety of timings and rhythms, some planned, some less so; practiced in place, transferred to the road; different counts, a threefold, a fivefold, applied to a sequence of steps, going left and right, testing for ease, asymmetrical shakiness, etc. Then, after a breath: inviting invention, playfulness.


Ball meeting strings. Taking off from a concrete setting, this more theoretical chapter looks into the idea that at any given moment, in any given situation, our actions will express themselves completely, bearing witness to the whole of our being (our physical disposition, cognitive resources, emotions, memory, imagination, etc.). At the same time, this completeness may never be fully accounted for or made accessible, given the limits of language, concepts and our constant inclination to objectify, hence dualize.

Nevertheless, the vertical and horizontal strings of a racquet, seen as a vibrant, vibrating grid, is used here to illustrate or help consider this wholeness in terms of “two sets of interweaving economies,” the horizontal accounting for the more individual, even idiosyncratic, the vertical pointing towards the larger rubrics of the bio-physical, the social, the cultural, etc.


Forming form, spacing space. A fairly elaborate movement (the motion of a serve in tennis, the sense of its rhythm and upward/forward thrust) is played through in terms of what tradition calls the five elements — Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space — suggesting a correlation with the athletic components of strength, flexibility, speed, endurance, co-ordination.

Taking up again this feeling of the elements, one may accentuate their respective qualities, here in sequences of nine steps (three steps per breath): in turn, the firmness of Earth, the fluency of Water, the heating-up of Fire, the continuity of Air, the dynamics and equilibrium of Space — the nine steps thus taking the entire body-complex through each of these five modes.

Then, possibly, the interplay: firming up of fluidity, heating up of continuity, etc.


Relocating, re-inscription. Seen setting ink to rice paper, an activity he’s carried on since the early 1970s, Torben Ulrich has worked with a kind of trans-formative, sometimes alchemical approach based on the indivisibility of awareness, breath and the elements (rather than continuing within the traditional colorations of winning and losing).

The process involves, for instance, rope and ball, dipped in ink: with the rope, skipping an initial improvised pattern onto the paper (under foot); then later, in a horizontal line, volleying the ball (rather than placing it) onto the same paper, “a sealing of play” in which play itself remains open. Later still, some written lines are usually added: In one of the works shown (and heard), they deal with alertness, balance and timing “finding their own”; in another, they follow the elemental facets of a serve, its thrust of energy, into “... what comes.”

Turnings & Returnings

Single stroke, field of pitches. The final section documents the making and recording of the non-ambient sounds weaving through the film. All come from a singular source: a ball meeting racquet strings, one hit, establishing (in pitch and music terms) a kind of tonic. In the computer, this single stroke serves as a base for situating a field of multiple octaves. Within a middle range of this larger field, a scale with variant pitches is generated for each of the film’s five chapters. Through the throwing of dice, minute pitch variations are temporarily set into play in each chapter. Together, these different notations set up a dynamic, as in Networks, between two sets of fives: the richly fluctuating and the somewhat stable, slightly more enduring.

The initial hit was made by Lars Ulrich — outdoors, to let the sound resonate. Lars then went into the studio, where his drum kit was connected, by triggers, to the ten ensuing computerized pitches. From his improvisations, the entire additional soundscape was created.

* * *

Before The Wall is dedicated to Gil de Kermadec, whose extensive work in print, film and video — his way of framing technical detail with poetic sensibility — has been a constant inspiration. Growing out of a promise, made soon fifteen years ago, to try for a sequel to his film The Ball And The Wall, this film then attempts to take one more step back (from match/court/ball, etc.), and in that sense comes “before” The Ball And The Wall (original title: La Balle Au Mur, Paris, 1988, co-edited with T.U.)

This digital film, consisting of an introduction, five chapters and two epilogues, was made in Seattle from 1996 to 2001. The main location was a park called, when we were there, The Lid over I-90, later renamed Smith Park. Downtown Seattle was a secondary location

For many years Torben had wondered what the imprint of the ball would look like, and so when asked in 1971 to make a painting of a blue elephant for a charity exhibition in Copenhagen, he played balls dipped in paint onto a canvas to make his contribution. In the lower right corner is a video screen re-playing the making of the painting.

For a stick, Torben uses an ordinary wooden closet rod, 1 1/4 inches thick and 6 feet long. It helps to use one about 6 inches taller than you are, especially when doing #8, and to have one thick enough to hold your weight when doing, say, #10. However, some people have used a broomstick, a tennis racket, a cane, a towel, or even nothing, holding just an imaginary stick, which can be even more difficult.

Sounds (non-ambient) recorded at Bob Rock’s Plantation Mixing and Recording, Maui, Hawaii.

Some of the transition sounds are those played by Lars’ son Myles, who was then a year old.

Reading of texts: Molly Martin

Camera work by Rick New, on mini-DV with a Sony VX-1000. Edited by Rick New and Torben Ulrich on a Mac 9600 and G4 using Adobe After Effects. Output to DVD using Apple Final Cut Pro