Why Risk Theory?
Reflections on the Performing Mountains Symposium
Paul Evans April-May 2018
Old English understandan “comprehend, grasp the idea of,” probably literally “stand in the midst of,” from under + standan “to stand” (see stand (v.)). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning “beneath,” but from Old English under, from PIE *nter- “between, among.
In the opening panel of the Performing Mountains symposium Doug Scott presents and describes a snapshot. The snapshot is of a climber, ice axe raised. His shape is clearly defined against a background of pristine, blue-tinted snow.
The shape of the snow is itself sharply defined against a clear, cobalt sky in a crude triangular shape. This shape is of the kind that defines ‘mountain’ in our visual lexicon – like a child’s drawing of a mountain. Scott describes the precariousness of loading his camera with film to take this photo – and the urgency that drove him to capture this image. Straddled on another apex of snow, opposite to and a few tens of metres away from the climber, Dougal Haston …
… On the roof of the world, torso jutting out into the jet stream, hand fumbling in his rucksack in an effort to locate the canister of film.
I take in the photo and I draw breath. I feel the intense fear allied to the wild, wild beauty of the situation. I ‘understand’ the moment. This image, created by exposure of light onto coated film, is a record of a sublime experience. I think of similar photographs brought to Earth by astronauts. As a climber I understand this feeling; I also recognise the self-effacing language in which Scott describes the sublime moment. Like the words of the astronauts, awkwardly carrying their Sisyphean load of meaning from a cold lump of rock over 200,000 miles from home, language struggles to perform under such extreme pressure.
“There is a pleasure, sure, in being mad/That none but madmen know.”
John Dryden, The Spanish Friar
The idea of climbing has, for me, always represented a romantic activity conducted on the margins of ‘normal’ human activity. You must be mad, people say, shaking their heads … so how is it possible to understand such an activity if you have never climbed, when you have only ever seen images of people in situations that appear to be terrifying, irrational, irresponsible, insane?
This led me to consider the notion of ‘understanding’ in three performances based on the activity of climbing that I encountered or took part in during the symposium.
The first performance, Vertical Dance by Kate Lawrence connected directly with my lived/loved experience of climbing: I drew breath at the visceral jolt of the climber’s fall, I was moved emotionally by the roped-together intimacy that I shared with my own wife for many years while climbing together. Sitting in such close proximity to the performance (almost amongst it) the emotional impact was immense.
Everest in Translation, by contrast, was a lot harder for me to understand.
The conditions of reception were markedly different, markedly more formal, seemingly more distant … even though the performance was laden with the kind of factual content or data that, our culture insists, should lead to understanding, I felt lost. I feel like I recognised the mise en scène – perhaps from Beckett – but I didn’t really recognise the cartoon climbers …
… perhaps something was lost in translation?
… perhaps there is a terrain that demands further exploration – a space between the physical and the intellectual apprehension of the climbing experience.
One last performance to consider …
wind tip scrape paper ground wind fibres spread grit paint
the Stanage material
is going to evolve
skin scour breath edge layer dab grit stroke pressure
kind of view
point I’m going
From Stanage Volumes by Mark Goodwin
Risk is the potential of gaining or losing something of value.
The performance Paint :: Poetry :: Rock :: Motion a combination of poetry and drawing that Mark Goodwin and I previewed the Performing Mountains symposium had no rehearsal. It had, therefore, something of the qualities of an on-sight ascent (this, for the benefit of non-climbers is a style of ascent where the climber approaches the climb with no prior knowledge of the moves required for success). *
In the lead up to the performance I was anxious. I felt a strong intimation of the risks involved – although the consequences of failure were not altogether clear. What, of value, might I lose? I guess it is hard to avoid the sensation of doubt when exposing your practice to the possibilities of judgment – especially a practice as intimate and personal as drawing.
Thankfully Mark had more confidence and there was a reassurance in being roped together through the meter of his words. Even so I apprehended a certain pressure to delve into resources of technique gained from previous drawings, into a felt knowledge of the subject of climbing, to embody and externalise the abstract nature of my understanding.
… I was elated by the experience and I experienced a clear sense of having gained something by exposure to the anxiety.
Just now I have checked the word origin of ‘perform’, which seems to suggest the idea of taking something through to completion. In fact, far from being complete, it feels like this performance is the start of something that has only just begun, an exploration of new ground.
Both Mark and I are very grateful to the organisers of Performing Mountains for the opportunity to bring this experiment into reality, and to offer us the chance to ‘stand amongst’ such a wide range of ‘understandings’ of the mountains and the people that climb them.