The Choric Slam Tilt: Unpinning the Table

Sarah J. Arroyo, Bahaerh B. Alaei, and Amy K. Loy
California State University, Long Beach


"Better to describe 2 or 3 Things as a machine that morphs the colliding meanings of words and objects with dazzling speed, and generates an astonishing array of metaphors, paradoxes, digressions, and, above all, dialectical relationships, between idea and action, word and image, sound and picture, interior and exterior, microcosm and macrocosm."

--Amy Taubin "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her: The Whole and It's Parts”


Recent interest in acquiring mid-century technologies has re-developed a niche market for out-grown technologies; typewriters, lomography cameras, daguerreotypes, and even chalk tablets have been popping up in trendy boutiques as heralds of the DIY community spirit. Yet, such objects are also emblematic of a simulacra-like nostalgia, since many who clamor to purchase them have no memory of them functioning as ubiquitous household objects. Rather, they are like aesthetic garland signaling membership in a hip culture which finds novelty and utility in the “old.” Perhaps the interest is fueled by a desire to reanimate the wild spirit of individualism and ingenuity which Americanness has culturally projected since the heydey of technicolor. Perhaps such a resurgence is a collective re-examination of the desires which have propelled us--sometimes in blind white fervor--into more and more opaque relationships with the machines that make our lives more convenient and more interesting, with these object that often externalize our desires in ever more convenient packages.

Pinball, however, is an oddity. It’s a machine that never really receded from public view, albeit in the background in movie theatre game rooms, arcades, restaurants and seedy dive-bars. Nor was it reduced to an adornment. A smaller but committed community of enthusiasts have emerged who buy, restore, maintain and display pinball machines, and many clubs and local game rooms continue to offer an outlet for playing them. Considering that, like cameras, they too have more technologically advanced cousins--and video-games are certainly a thriving industry--the question remains why these expensive, and frankly somewhat cumbersome machines continue to draw in so many devotees and why, in some sense, they have they never entirely receded from view? Such dedication requires a strong desire to play.

When Geof Carter challenged us to create an installation for the 2013 Modern Language Association, we had only two parameters: pinball and the digital humanities. After several sessions wherein we toyed with every possible iteration of tables as objects of philosophy, rhetoric and pedagogy, we turned to footage on YouTube and Vimeo for ideas. Our inspiration for The Choric Slam-Tilt arose from a single lever pull on a particular pinball machine: Python Anghelo’s Cyclone (1988). In the footage a young woman feeds a few quarters into the machine. The scene cuts to her hand releasing the lever and propelling the pinball into play. The camera then follows the small metal ball through a kaleidoscopic maze of lights, imagery, barriers, and pathways.

That initial enactment of desire serves as a visceral reminder that the relationship between our desires and the resulting technology is not always seamless and smooth, but also jagged and turbulent. The reverberations of our interactions echo in our ears and flash before our eyes. Pinball machines, and their inner-workings, do not exist as abstract ones and zeros. We do not need to rely on invisible translators that communicate how we can interact with them. What occurs in these machines may be inaccessible, veiled in glass and metal, but the machine impresses the appearance of translucence.

In its early days, pinball was illegal in many states. As Laura June reports in “For Amusement Only; The life and death of the American Arcade,” legislators argued that it was a form of gambling, that its outcome was determined by chance. Players argued that it was a game of skill, and prior to the addition of the flippers, they would shake and bump the machine to chart the ball’s path in accordance to their desires (June). Years later, a slam tilt switch was devised to shut down the game when players attempted to game the machine (June). But players continue to bump the table, slam the glass, and tilt its sides. The ball will bend to the gravitational tricks or start over. It was here that the “Choric Slam Tilt” came to life, in the disturbance; the slam tilt rocks the foundation, the status quo. It is in these interruptions, these ruptures and in-between spaces, where desiring-production absolves to regenerate. (It’s a space of connection that calls to mind the rupture and in-between spaces of the films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things That I Know About Her (1967) that Amy Taubin reviews and serves as our opening quote.) This is a space where we play with the elements we are given then slam-tilt the table to begin again and again as our desires serve as catalysts for ever different production and productions.

That we ceaselessly interrupt and replicate iterations of the objects of our desire--machines which permeate every facet of our lives--into evermore invisible backgrounds, does not change the fact that we do touch, and are touched by them; that we, too, are machines and that this production is symbiotic. And desire invents. Desire works as production; continuous making and remaking. As we become less and less certain about how technology functions exactly, maybe there is comfort in rewinding the objects a bit to manipulate the fundamentals and reimagine possibilities.

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