PRINT May 1989


FRIEND AL: . . . He says All you need is experience . . . . I will win some games if they give me any support and I will get back in the big league and show them birds something. You know me, Al.
Your pal, JACK.

—Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al, 1914

Dear Murray, . . . we’re looking forward to our show, and at the same time aware that it’s going to be a very “in progress” event . . . . One of the interesting problems that we’ve been dealing with here is a wide variety of weights sizes skill levels speeds histories and so forth . . . . A good half of the people that I’m working with here have had limited experience in sports. This is both men and women . . . . HELP! Charlie

—Charles Moulton to Murray Smith, sports psychologist, October 1988

TIME IN That choreographer Charles Moulton should decide to invent a new sport, to redefine and restructure a genre in terms of its formal elements, does not come, entirely, from out of left field. Since leaving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1976, he has consistently chosen specific preexisting models as a departure point for his work. Step Wise Motion, 1982, for example, a collaboration with composer A. Leroy and painter/filmmaker Power Boothe, evolved from a multimedia study of 16th-century court and social dance, and a 1984 piece made with the same team was organized in the style of a variety show. The recent Dance/Songs, 1988 (composed by Steve Elson), and Dangerous Glee Club, 1989 (composed and co-conceived by Steve Elson), similarly focus on nonillusory theater and the very process of composition. Among other activity, repeated movement and sound patterns work contrapuntally to generate an almost strobelike rhythm—building up, breaking down, and going through numerous transitions.

Moulton’s ongoing “Ball Passing” pieces, begun in 1979, further the idea of exposing structure, once more revealing, through the weave of form, pattern, and repetition, how single gestures and sounds can develop into a phrase, and how these phrases can play off one another. Moulton has talked of “this thing about human beings . . . breaking the illusion of theater magic by manipulating objects visibly.” In Eighteen Person All-Star Ball Passing, 1988, the participants are initially divided into three tiers of six, on risers, as if posing for a group portrait; to music by Bill Obrecht, they hand off Nerf balls to each other in intricate predetermined sequences and at an accelerating pace, so that the colorful balls seem to paint streaky wakes, a Larry Poons-like space realized in motion, as they are passed, used as extensions of the arm in domino effect-like passages, or tossed into the air—especially then. “Ball Passing,” says Moulton, “allows lots of people to participate—it’s not exclusive. It’s a team activity, working together to create patterns; there’s a classical, limited, prescribed vocabulary and frame; it’s spatial, visual fields of movement and shape, circular and flat. ‘Ball passing’ is a picture of a sense of purpose—you can’t perform ‘Ball Passing,’ you have to do it.” With this pragmatic, team approach to movement, and given the particular objects and actions the piece involves, “Ball Passing” easily slides, albeit dancingly, into the realm of sport. And so, when in early fall I received a flyer announcing not a dance piece but Moulton’s New Sports Project, I was warmed up for observing the development of this game—for following the bouncing ball.

On October 1st, 1988, in the gym of New York’s United Nations International School (UNIS), over 60 men and women in their 20s and 30s, each with some sort of sports and/or dance/performance background (although not necessarily professional), tried out (rather than auditioned) for the approximately 25 spots on the team. After running them through a series of drills, and having outlined the sport for them—at least as it existed at that point—Moulton had them scrimmage. Afterward he spent about a week studying a video he had had made of the tryouts, then chose his team, basing his selection on attitude, past experience, energy, and learning ability as well as on exhibited skill. Practices were held at the UNIS gym for four hours every Saturday from October 15 through November 12, and slowly, painstakingly, intelligently, and enthusiastically, the game evolved.

Scramball, as Moulton’s sport was postpartumly dubbed (the name came from the suggestions of spectators), is played for approximately one hour, with a half-time, on a basketball court. It comprises a main game and several spin-off “inserts” that either interrupt the main game for a few minutes (as umpire, Moulton signals them with a duck call) or interact with it while it remains in progress (also on Moulton’s call). Like basketball, the main game is played by two five-person teams, and the action moves similarly up and down the court. There are two goals to be attacked and defended, and accordingly there is offensive and defensive play (with the defensive strategy being more zone oriented than man on man). One scores, generally, by throwing the ball (or serving it volleyball style) into a netted goal that is raised off the ground, in a kind of cross between a soccer or hockey goal and the above-the-crossbar space of a football field’s goalposts. The ball (a volleyball) is moved through passes (volleyball and basketball style, but no dribbling, and no kicking). When a foul is called (usually for roughness), the ball is “hiked” (football) back into play through “corner”-type positioning (soccer/hockey). The main game is not in fact as derivative as this synopsis might imply, but to describe it in terms of existing sports may suggest an overall sense of the way it is played. It is the insert games, however, and, just as important, the attitudes and ideas of the players as they are reflected in the game’s rules, that ultimately make scramball a new sport.

_TIME OUT: Golden Rules. Play . . . creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless.

—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 1944

[The process of evolution in baseball] has produced a code that seldom demands change because it is beautiful in its fairness and balance. If you don’t know a rule governing a certain situation, give it some thought; when you have arrived at a decision that is fair to both sides, you will have the rule as it is written. Tested, altered and adjusted over a century, the rules . . . become a triumph of checks and balances.

—Red Smith, 1980

[Baseball] is about boundary and rule and law, which we love in all phases of our life. . . [The sport can evolve] as long as you don’t violate the game’s fundamental trinitarian magic— the symmetry of three strikes, three outs, nine innings—as long as you don’t change the field and the beauty of 90 feet . . . baseball can adapt.

—A. Bartlett Giamatti, 1988

TIME IN Initially Moulton wanted to work with the idea of a three-team, two-ball sport, confounding the more conventional team-game framework. The third team, the “stinger” team as he calls it, would play on both sidelines, running with its own ball in parallel to the main game, waiting for the right moment to “sting.” Suddenly, the geometry of up-court/down-court action would be intercepted by a lateral kind of counterpoint, an animated perpendicularity (compositionally reminiscent of Dance/Songs and Dangerous Glee Club), as the stingers would use their “stinger ball” to hit the main-game ball—the necessary first step in this third team’s progress toward scoring. In theory, this was the ideal scenario. But in the first practice (the “testing”), what happened instead was an aggressive-bordering-on-violent, ball-slamming-into-players pileup. There was a group discussion: the process, the collaboration (the “altering” and “adjusting”), began.

Skill drills, a scrimmage, and a discussion made up each practice. Although Moulton defined the sport’s goals, and made the final decisions on the codifying of its rules, he also noted,

I have no feeling of ownership, or of it being my creation at all. . . . a lot of the great ideas are coming from the group, those people that are . . . playing it each week. [As the umpire, Moulton does not play.] . . . I may be giving them ideas to respond to, but I’m not working them out; they’re working them out . . . everybody gives their input and then I go home, think about it, look at the tape, work out the next version, and bring it in . . . . It’s not an abstract thing—it’s a very real thing, and it’s either fun to play, or it’s not; it’s either interesting, or it’s not. Ideas, conceptual things, do come into it—obviously—but their practical application overrides any abstract value that they may have.

None of the competitive team sports I can think of were initially designed in terms of men and women playing together, but scramball is coed. The issues that came up during the discussions, then, were often related to gender, and the result was a constant balancing act to ensure, through rules and the positioning of the players, that the sport wouldn’t inherently favor either sex, and to promote everyone’s fair and safe play—especially since almost all the women in this particular group were short, and almost all of the men were tall. At first, both men and women were permitted to locate themselves anywhere on the court, and to pass the ball around by catching and throwing it. Soon, however, the men began making high full-court passes that hindered any kind of team play, since they virtually excluded the women from reaching the ball. And so the rules changed. It should be noted here that many of the players, both male and female, as Moulton comments in his letter, seemed rather inexperienced at playing team sports. At first, they barely communicated with one another while playing, and had little idea how to find each other on the court, making wild passes to no one. Some of the rules that developed, then, might not even have come up for consideration had the players been more experienced. Yet the interest here is not in some future Olympics but in the players’ invention of a kind of community in the name of Moulton’s New Sports Project, and, as such, in their invention of scramball—a manifestation of that community.

The group’s initial solution to the size issue put women at such an advantage in terms of their positioning that they in their turn became the only ones to score. Thus the rules had to be further refined: as of now, no full-court passes are allowed, except on a hike; men can grab the ball and travel three steps with it before passing it volleyball style (no throwing), whereas women are permitted to throw, though they too can take no more than three steps with the ball; and so on. Moulton recognizes that this separate treatment of men and women could be read as sexist. (Some of the issues that were determined by criteria of gender, in fact, might have been settled otherwise; there are size discrepancies in most sports.) But he does not see it this way, and neither, I think, do the players, since they established the framework; nor do I, although I’m not convinced the approach was the most efficacious one, especially since the players of this sport will not be a fixed group. Given Moulton’s take on the male/female dynamics within this particular team, however, perhaps it was crucial that the sport evolve in this way: “The psychological mind-set of men being humiliated in front of women is very strong here—that’s what you really don’t want to happen . . . . I think that the reason men and women often don’t play sports together is as much psychological as not.”

TIME OUT: The Gap between Sport and Life.
Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection . . . .There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it . . . .It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity . . . . Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.

—Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes, 1968

TIME IN To consider sports as a testing ground for integrity—integrity being measured by one’s voluntary adherence to consensually agreed-upon rules (a system of justice), doing one’s best, and playing fair—attributes a kind of sanctity to them (which may or may not be warranted). Ideally, scramball encourages honest and competitive play, and, as Bart Giamatti writes, “individual achievement in the context of a team.” As one of the players advised the group, “We are trying to develop a sport without negatives—trying to play skillfully, nonviolently yet aggressively. Let your opponent do the best he or she can do, and still have fun and play well.” Some players felt that rules should secure this happening; others that, as one remarked, “it’s a human thing, and we don’t need rules to treat each other with respect and trust.” The players talked about the purity of sport, but the issue of hostility and overaggressive behavior persisted, and a system for calling fouls was established to abate players’ fears of getting hurt. Still, Moulton asserted that “this is a competitive game, and people should be prepared to get knocked a bit—it’s not a perfect world. People bump into each other.” Later, he added, “‘noncompetitive’ tends to not be rigorous, it tends to be flaccid and flat.”

When the “knocking” appears deliberate or gets dangerous in a game of scramball, a foul is called. Moulton, who both by design and by necessity was the only referee during these practices, stressed the honor system, asking that the players call their own fouls. Some still felt that the rules should be more specific, and the penalty for fouling was also much debated: at an early practice, the “punishment fits the crime” notion was suggested, so that when a player was called for roughness, he or she would have to go through a “spanking machine.” At the final practice, this issue was still not resolved. Pushups were suggested as a penalty, but one player responded, “That smacks of private-school corporal punishment and all of us have had enough humiliation in our lives.” Other players asked that the individual who fouled would have to sing, and still others argued that the solution should somehow be more visual.

Surprisingly, not until the final practice did the topic of keeping score come up. Earlier in the process it had been suggested that by keeping the players constantly in circulation from one team to another, the group could maintain itself as a group, undivided by partisanship. If a substitution bench served as a pool from which all the teams (distinguished by colored pinnies) drew, and through which all the players rotated, everyone would end up playing both with and against everyone else, and in a sense there would be just one team. Although Moulton felt that this approach would “keep the skill level down,” as well as the level of competition, he supported the idea because the group wanted it. The consequence was that as the teams constantly changed, keeping score seemed almost a gratuitous exercise. Or, rather, since a goal reflected good play, scoring as process was important, but scoring as a quantitative measure of results was not. Stage one of scramball is competitive only rather abstractly—not much is at stake, at least in the traditional sense of winning and losing. One question, then, becomes whether a sport motivated not by the black-and-white terms of victory and defeat, but by a utopian, peaceable-kingdom kind of notion can sustain itself. Moulton doesn’t think so, and as he develops scramball he plans to incorporate an arrangement of set teams and of keeping score. The teams may still have to join forces in the insert games, however, reducing the polarizing effect and preserving the group.

As for me, as much as I respect scramball in its present state, as a spectator I want it to be more riveting. I want to be able to follow a team, identify with it, support it, begin to recognize its moves, and so on. As a player within this rotating framework, I think I’d eventually miss the opportunity to conceive, work out, and practice various strategies in isolation from my opponents—the possibility of outwitting and being outwitted, of surprise, as well as of the intuitive understanding and camaraderie it’s possible to gain with one’s teammates over time. The motivation —inventive, skillful, fair, fun play— need not change, but the possibility of winning, the frustration of losing, could make the game more exciting, perhaps even more ideal: it could encompass a larger spectrum of emotion and behavior and still remain good-willed and unsentimental. The addition of set teams and a score might also help clarify scramball’s rules, its structure, making it more accessible, more playable, without systematizing its free-spiritedness.

_TIME OUT: Out of Bounds. Risk is everything . . . auto racing is like war—a self-invented war. My art [which, among other activities, encompasses building and running racing cars on dirt tracks] becomes my life. The car becomes the depersonalization of my own ego; I’m there with the driver . . . .I identify totally with that car, and when it wrecks, and the driver is safe, I still am left with its helpless body and suffer an almost unbearable loneliness. Racing is brutal and violent—and the purpose is so simplistic. In this materialistic society, the poetry comes out in gasps. It is there in the tracks. I know the stories of the track, the human events that have transpired, the physical endeavors . . . . If you could cut a cross-section you’d see the layers of vanity, useless bravado, cold-blooded courage, almost insane desire, all left like human residue, smeared like oil between layers of clay . . . . Unless you’ve been out of control, you have not touched the outer edge of your possibilities. With the racing, people always ask me if I’m afraid. I’m afraid of not being excited enough, in love enough, involved enough, alive enough.

—Salvatore Scarpitta, 1989

TIME IN The feeling of urgency, anticipation, open-endedness, the feeling that at any minute the situation might change, which vitalizes both Scarpitta’s and Moulton’s works (however different they may be from each other) is probably intrinsic to all sports. And many other individuals have addressed the field—in projects such as Steve Paxton’s Contact Improvisation, Bill T. Jones’ recent D-Man in the Waters, Laurie Simmons’ swimmers, Nic Nicosia’s football photographs, Nancy Holt’s Time Outs book, Fluxus festivals and games, Don Celender’s Artball Playing Cards, Georges Perec’s novel W or the Memory of Childhood, Meredith Monk’s and Ping Chong’s The Games, Jeff Koons’ basketballs, Kim MacConnel’s gouaches of boxers and runners, and so on. These works suggest the possibility of a kind of metaphoric pinch-hitting between sport and art and life. But Scarpitta’s and Moulton’s projects actually are sports as well as art and spectacle (and metaphor). Accordingly, on November 18, 1988, scramball was presented to its first audience. The players came out, did some warm-up drills; Moulton, in ringmaster/umpire regalia, offered an abridged explanation of the sport; and the play began.

Despite Moulton’s qualms about the competitiveness of the sport as it was then structured, the practices turned out to have nurtured a zealous intensity, rivaled only by the sophisticated, sometimes goofy, often eccentric antics most visible in the inserts, which reached heights of ham—to the point that Moulton called a “showboating” foul on one of the players. During a version of an insert game called “spud,” said player, designated “It,” virtually willed the rolling ball around the court, wishing it as close as possible to the other players before picking it up and throwing it to hit them. Though they couldn’t move their feet, they could dodge with the rest of their bodies. With each hit, “It” gained a letter toward the spelling out of the word “spud.” If he had won, he would have become ceremonial royalty, and would have been carried on the other players’ shoulders (regally waving arms to adoring fans, Evita style) for a few seconds. If, however, he had lost, he would have been booed. (In this team’s play, such boos were never nasty—their facetious, histrionic exaggeration drained a potentially humiliating situation of any hurtful repercussions.)

Interestingly, spud is perhaps the only moment of scramball as it now stands when attention is given to winning or losing, and it is also the only moment when an individual is singled out and, at the same time, clearly pitted against others. At any rate, since a foul was called during this particular play, a penalty was required—the nature of which had been a topic of so much deliberation just a week before. The day of the presentation game, Moulton decided to introduce a literal penalty box, a cardboard carton for the player who fouled to wear/inhabit for a period. Extraordinarily successful both visually and conceptually, this solution not only forced some unpracticed moves and compositional rethinking, but also appropriated, utilized, and at the same time teasingly subverted a traditional sports convention.

Unlike spud, two of the other inserts, “war” and “slow-motion relay” (a race executed in slow-motion), evolved serendipitously and organically out of practice pranks. In war, the goals are rolled in toward center court; a goalie perches inside each one, in a pose iconographically reminiscent of a crucifixion, and grunts “war noises” while the opposing teams try to score with a barrage of Nerf balls. Spud and war are captivating only as one-liners, no matter how clever their delivery, but the recomposition that occurs when the goals shift position in war, as well as the slow-motion movement of the relay, could be further explored. Perhaps the most interesting of the inserts are the two involving the stinger team (initially conceived as part of the main game, but now an intermittent call-in activity). In one, the stingers, donning party hats, burst onto the court from the bench (the stingers are always the bench team) and, passing around their ball, try to make a kind of touchdown (they must cross the lines at either end of the court where the goals are sited) before being tagged by the players of the main game. Only the stinger holding the ball can be tagged, which makes for some mean passing, but should this happen, the stingers are all relegated to the bench, where they must face the wall, all the while buzzing and fluttering their hands. The other insert they play, “stinger tag,” essentially reverses the passage just described; this time, the stingers must tag as many main-game players as possible before the players reach whatever goal they are defending. If stung, the players shriek or moan, fall down, and play dead. When the ever-changing bench team is not stinging, it occasionally participates in another insert, which, like the stinger games, is also intrinsically connected to the main game: Moulton calls “Count passes,” and the on-court players shoot the ball around to their teammates, while the bench team counts. The action is quick, concentrated, and hypnotic. “Count passes” is finished when the ball is dropped, breaking the rhythm and the spell.

In 1949, as part of his discussion of the “land ethic,” the wilderness philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).” Scramball is clearly a sport about community—the building and the preservation of one. Although the game is kind, especially in its desire to be equitable, its issues, no matter how emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually tackled, must ultimately be resolved pragmatically, realistically, as in most other sports. (“Baseball,” remarks Annie Savoy, the perspicacious fan played by Susan Sarandon in Ron Shelton’s recent movie Bull Durham, “may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time—but it’s also a job.”)

Perhaps the idea of inventing a new sport occurred to Moulton because of his restlessness with the New York dance situation; perhaps it grew from his involvement with athletics while growing up (like Scarpitta’s fascination with car racing as a child), or perhaps he wanted to work with a new model — a model whose outlines were familiar but whose rules, structure, and nature he and his team were free to devise for themselves, in an experiment in cooperation and interdependence. Thus he could reconsider the foundation of that model, sport — “its own medium”—as a way into another kind of spectacle that would, like a community, be grounded in yet would transcend its origins. Sport can provide a context for an elevated, idealized experience—an arena for chance, for extremes, for order, epiphany, disaster, catharsis. Hence the frequent analogies made between sport and childhood, religion, sex, and war. Though most sports have finite resolutions, a real sense of the “enemy,” and often hinge on gut-level instinct, scramball, at least in its infancy, is more about competitive coexistence. I suspect its future will be even more passionately played out.TIME OUT.

Melissa Harris is an assistant editor of Artforum.



All statements by Charles Moulton are from interviews with the author, or were made during the practices for the New Sports Project. Salvatore Scarpitta’s statements are from an interview with the author, winter 1989.

On the scramball team were Brook Adams, Tim Anderson, Stephen Athineos, Robert Bauta, Bruce Bell, Doug Bender, Dominika Borovansky, Brenda Connor, Catherine Danielle, Carolyn Dobbe, Richard Epstein, Martha Gioumousis, Ellen Markowitz, Lisa Nicks, Jeremy Proctor, Don Prosch, Michael Rock, Amy Schwartz, Dawn Woodard, and Eileen Walsh. Sarah Laird videotaped the entire process.

The author wishes to thank Wendy Setzer for her collaboration on the photographing of New Sports Project, as well as Elizabeth Berger, Eunice Bet-Mansour, Frederick Kaufman, and Nicole Potter for discussing their reactions to the sport after the presentation game.

Charles Moulton’s Eighteen Person All-Star Ball Passing will be presented on May 10-11 as part of the World Professional Squash Association Championships at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, New York. The next presentation of scramball is planned for April 1990 in New York