Performance on an edge

Dan Shipsides describes his practice.

Without being dismissive, I can find myself being cynical about predictable and consensual audiences within performance art festivals and arty gatherings (as necessary as they are), but of course this extends to many art forms and their specific audiences and I can be cantankerous.


Working to a brief of context and opportunity, I sometimes do make non-climbing performance, live with an audience, but here I shall focus on my climbing-art practice which often isn‘t live in that sense. In many ways the climbing work developed in a sort of stand-off, parodying and comparative relationship to how I encountered and perceived much performance art. That relationship has resulted in me trying to challenge pre-conceived and accepted models of performance practice (also in a wider scheme, art and research practice) and find forms which shift the context of how, where and for whose interest the “event” happens.

I instigated performance within my own work initially as a way of making the process apparent and valuing that over the static thing. I do not propose the actual actions of climbing as essentially a way of communicating. It’s not story telling. But climbing as form does plays a convenient role of analogy to recognised art forms (performance art, dance, sculpture, drawing etc.). As the process of anything becoming an aesthetic object or event is problematic (possibly skidding into something self-conscious and vain) I adopt certain strategies or methodologies which I will outline below.


I, somewhat idealistically, think of performance as something that happens all the time – we are performing our lives – but being realistic, to interface with cultural discourse and to function in the art world (as a valuable flexible arena in which the experimental can be given space – albeit with particular contexts and histories) I am aware that a form of framing is needed to make it apparent, to be able to quantify, appreciate and bring ideas out into a viable realm. So I employ methods which perform without “performing” so that the activity is less self-conscious and the creative dynamic is focused on a functional application.

Climbing as art My interest lies in how non-art activities may be used experimentally (often mutating into hybrids) with and without the context of art or economy of the exhibition to see what that might offer us in terms of new ideas, understanding and perspectives. It might be described as part anthropology and part cultural engineering. Rock-climbing suits this enquiry. Though I argue that it is highly creative (and very visual) and that it contributes something akin to an artwork (in the concept of a route) and has dance-like attributes (Trish Brown used climbing techniques in choreography), rock-climbing isn’t usually thought of as an art activity. Whilst it might relate to performance art (along with other art forms in different ways) in terms of; body and space, extending out of the norm, exploring risk and being live (real) it, importantly for me, it is an un-theatrical activity. Its creative dynamic is not essentially for show or for communicating meaning. The (climbing) performance is essentially about problem solving and existing within and without established boundaries.


If the audience isn’t restricted specifically to the art world then “art” is a flexible field in which to use climbing and apply it in new ways, locations and derive new forms from it. I present work in climbing and art contexts and of course in many overlapping contexts. It is funny how translation is often required, an aspect that I find interesting and often motivation for work – as a critique I enjoy the possibility of someone being flummoxed by climbing terms as equally as one might be by “art” terms. Our narratives and representations are of the activity that creates them but new ideas can be found when the framework is made apparent or frameworks can be overlapped or mutually expanded.

My “performance” work now, generally isn’t done as a performance in terms of it being live to audience – I often make it to video or it becomes text (e.g. Gorro Frigi, transcribed mini-disc recording of running commentary as I climb), image, construction or something else (partial documents of the ephemeral), so it is further mediated. Essentially though, the relationship to performance is that it is performative – it comes from a direct experiential activity. I remember Slavka Sverakova once called it “user friendly performance” which I enjoyed in the sense that I hope my work isn’t self consciously “performed” in the theatrical sense and that it bridges the space between art and non-art audiences. You may not know the climbing terms for specific actions or equipment but you know what the activity does and might be able to stab at the question of “why”.


A climbing based piece under a frogs arse @ the bottom of a coal mine (1997) was live to an audience (and has been shown as video since). Here I constructed a climbing installation in Catalyst Arts – with a route which circumnavigated the space. I was scheduled to climb at specific times every other day during the exhibition. My intention was to use it as a training place – but as an audience began to come I became more and more self conscious and I found myself performing – climbing differently than I would usually climb and finding a definite beginning and end to the activity. The actual route became the performance and as it was circular I could climb it repeatedly until I became too tired and fell. It gave it a flexible but particular time length.

Many of my video-climbs (mostly urban or non-natural locations) play with ideas of art, context and location – encouraging the elasticity of art and its audiences. The Stone Bridge (1998) was essentially a video climbing-installation – the performance (other than the opening night) being made to video. Abstract no.3 (1999) a climb made on a large abstract public sculpture, is also a video as there was no-one there to see it live. In these climbs I look for a concept (of context and activity, for example, Made in HEDAH (2004) climbing a space to create the letters of the name of that art space, or The Stone Bridge which 3-dimensionalised a Chinese drawing to the sound track of Al Green…) and a beauty. I find a beauty in a particular relationship through the physical spatial interaction with the structure – body in space. Certain climbing actions in relation to the specific spatiality of the structure, rock, sculpture, building etc. can be very beautiful. Frieze Revolution (2004) is a simple video climb made on a public sculpture in Maastricht. The climb is low and circular and is quite intimate. The conceptual aspect of the act and how and where it is shown can also bring further discourse with cultural, political and contextual concerns. But mainly I do it for fun.

San Lorenzo direct (2004) was climb made on a wrecked freight ship off the coast of Istanbul. It is typical of how this way of working is now very simple. I go to a place, seek out what would be fun to climb, climb and video it and then show the video. How I determine what is interesting and fun (and what is not) comes from a sensibility which is informed through being a climber and an artist and also through whatever makes up my personality – my own sense of fun and desire, my pleasure of moving in a particular way and engaging in a act of spatial physicality. I half jokingly/seriously call it spatial erotica. They are gleeful projects.

Video for me is a valuable tool. It has massive limitations in terms of relating an experience – but in differing ways my work often concerns filtering and thereby reducing the experiential into the art-form – allowing another experience to come from that. The experiential “landscape” is not attainable away from the actual and we all know a map is not faithful to reality. So I have partial faith in video to capture the performative aspect of my activity, at least from certain perspectives, and enabling it to be brought to an audience. My video technique is purposely low-fi, direct and with minimal choreography or planning – often using untrained colleagues as camera operators. Of course experience tells me what works visually and this may affect what I think worth climbing or not.

I found it useful to use the “less-selfconscious” performance of others in gallery based projects such as; Blood Cell Sequence (2002), a set of interactive climbing constructions given over to local climbers in Amsterdam, Gecko Roof (2000), an installation on which local climbers could climb a reconstruction of a famous (but banned) Sydney Harbour climb, Rochers à Fontainebleau (2004), which included drawings and videoed “performance” of noted French climbers and Pioneers (2003), an audio and photographic project involving the pioneer climbers of Ireland. These works, I hope, may enable new ways of thinking about particular activities by allowing them to be viewed within a particular cultural framework.

So is it art?…is it performance art?

Dan Shipsides is an artist based in Belfast and research fellow at the University of Ulster