Earlier this year, we randomly stumbled upon the existence of Erin Coates whose passion for climbing overlaps extensively into her artwork, as seen in her remarkable film, Thigmotaxis — a term used in biology and behavioural studies to describe a response to the touch of the external surface of an object. Be sure to check out her website and see her latest work at PSAS and High Tide Freemantle in Perth.
Erin, your project Thigmotaxis is one of the THE best sports action films I’ve seen, both for the buildering and the parkour. The shifts in speed are really distinctive and the movement is stunning. What is your background?
Thanks. I’m an artist and creative producer living in Perth. I’m very interested in the built environment — architecture and particularly the relationship between the body and built space.
It’s interesting how your vision changes depending on your area of speciality or your particular field. Rock climbing biases your view of your immediate surroundings to a focus on forms, shapes, lines, sequences. This can extend to the built environment as well — buildering is a unique way of interrogating architecture.
It’s a way of understanding your urban environment, of having this relationship through your body to built space, and of claiming something of that.
On a personal and political level, there’s something compelling about doing that to your own city. It’s a way of understanding your urban environment, of having this relationship through your body to built space, and of claiming something of that.
The film isn’t intended to just be ‘isn’t climbing the built space fun?’, although it is a fantastically cheeky way of interacting with the environment, it is a question of what public space means in Perth. Especially public art: who is it for, and what are the limits of its use and how we are meant to appreciate it? Climbing is a really lateral way to interrogate this.
Also, we’ve got a limited amount of rock climbing around Perth, which boosts my interest in buildering!
I find public art quite frustrating. Cities plonk all of these interesting shapes in cities and then tell people to keep off.
I doubt the artists are opposed to people climbing their artworks, but it’s this utter paranoia that the authorities have about us hurting ourselves and public liability which is really sad. It shuts down the potential for physical movement in cities, outside of designated ‘sports and leisure’ spaces. We’ve become these really dumb, sheep-like creatures in a city.
Although we were definitely being pretty irreverent, it could also be understood as simply another form of appreciation.
The Thigmotaxis project was really about trying to understand another way to move through space and open up those possibilities again. It looks at our kinesphere — our immediate surroundings that we can reach out and touch – and how our senses expand to the limits of that.
There is a parallel between climbing and art, particularly the formalist approach to modern art — each have their own lexicon and specific terms, focussing on form and movement when examining the quality of a piece. So when we were climbing the artworks, although we were definitely being pretty irreverent, it could also be understood as simply another form of art critique and appreciation.
Being really organised is the only way to not get arrested.
There’s a lot of action, it must have taken a long time to film.
Oh, we went nuts. We just spent an entire summer. It was like this campaign where every weekend, we’d get up before sunrise and we’d have a location scoped out, whether it was parkour or climbing. I didn’t do any of the parkour but I’ve got friends that are really good at it.
We were super organised in how we approached this. I think people have this idea that it’s this crazy, spontaneous action, which it can be. But to create this film, we applied near military level strategy. We knew exactly where we were going, what each person’s role was, and how to exit quickly.
Being really organised is the only way to not get arrested as well. We were in and out before security could even get to us.
Early on in the project, we’d wear high vis’ vests and we’d have traffic cones with us. People would assume that we’re there to maintain the structures. It’s a strategy, gaining some kind of passport to do something illegal.
It actually really works. I think also, often, because we were wearing athletic gear, people thought we were undertaking some sort of weird boot camp. [laughs]
You seem to have quite a head for heights.
Yeah, I’ve done quite a few highball ascents, climbing public art and architecture. It’s always a calculated risk; it’s knowing that I’m capable of doing a route, and doing it quickly so that you don’t have time to really think through the lunacy of what you’re doing.
Your work reminds me of the American artist Alex Hartley. He’s an established, high end, fine art artist exhibited at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, but then he also produces this book of irreverence, LA Climbs. Was that an influence?
Absolutely. It was interesting ‘cause it was actually partway through this project that I became aware of that book and then immediately ordered it online. Straight away I felt that if we met each other, I would want him to be my best friend.
And what I love also is the way that he’s integrated the language that you use to describe routes in climbing. He’s woven in all of these in-house jokes and the terms that we use, as well as this anecdotal nature of how naming routes comes about — it’s all in this art book. I also appreciate his relationship to drawing. For me, it’s very much the same: before I start any film project, I always start with drawings. Climbing in a way is drawing with your body, making this line across space. So I love drawing out the routes and I’ve made a whole series of drawings that go with these films as well.
What is the story behind the route named ‘Beer Economy’?
That’s from a zine I put together called Arête. It’s a speculative guide to buildering Sydney. I didn’t actually climb the routes — it’s a guide as to how I would approach them. Beer Economy is the name of a route that goes up the side of a university building designed by Frank Gehry that has all these curves in it. It’s an economics department and the route is about climbing to the tavern on the roof. Hence ‘Beer Economy’.
I hope to make a road trip to Sydney to try some of these. We’ve run out of stuff to climb in Perth — we’ve climbed every public artwork we can.
I feel that buildering is ultimately silly — which I quite enjoy. You used the word ‘cheekiness’ earlier which seems to reflect this. Is silliness something that you also find in buildering?
Yeah, absolutely. You can’t take this too seriously. For me, it goes back to my childhood and climbing trees and fences and school buildings and anything that we could. It was always a bit naughty and often we weren’t supposed to, but it was just this way of making our own fun with what was around us.
It’s naughty but never in a malicious way.
No, the only person that’s really at risk is yourself which I find fascinating because it’s about understanding how you judge danger and risk. It’s about discovering the limits of your own body of what you can and can’t do with it. And it’s yourself that you’re putting in danger. It’s no-one else.
Absolutely. I love those photos of the students in the old Nightclimber Guide To Cambridge book — you look at them and think, “they just haven’t thought this through. This idea has just come into their head and they’re doing it.” It’s irrational and hilarious, sometimes it ends poorly, I’m sure.
I think that’s one of the interesting differences between buildering and parkour. People really invest in parkour as means of creating an identity, whereas buildering is different from that. Climbers are climbers, not builderers, so no-one’s really setting out to become a builderer as such.
No, exactly. It’s this little side project that some climbers have. The general public have no idea what buildering is. But people know what parkour is. And I like the fact that it’s this strange little practically unknown weird thing that people do. It’s not a real — it’s not a recognised activity, even.
You almost said ‘it’s not a real thing’. I’ve just written an article about buildering entitled ‘Barely even a thing’ for an academic journal.[laughs] I love it. And that sums it up, doesn’t it.
I love the fact that it leaves no trace. I don’t think there are any organisations for it. It’s just something that happens and disappears and there’s no evidence of it except for when someone wants to take a photo.
I noticed that one of your pieces is called “The Last Climber Alive Must Keep Herself Fit and Ready”. I was wondering how much gender plays a role in your work.
She’s alert and capable, and she’s owning that space, and she doesn’t need a male hero to help her out.
I’m particularly interested in dystopic science fiction where you have this ‘last person alive’ scenario and it’s almost always a man. Sometimes there’s also a woman but often she’s only present as his Eve or perhaps as a muse. Instead of the man being the last one standing, I wanted to recast this character as a female, and to make her very adapted in that space, very deliberately there. She knows what she’s doing. She’s alert and capable, and she’s owning that space, and she doesn’t need a male hero to help her out. I think audiences are really responding to seeing more of these Jessica Jones-style characters in film and popular culture. It’s about time that women were not just being cast as these characters but the ones making those films as well.
Climbing contributes to that as it is quite gender equal in terms of its elite level athletes. Would you agree?
Yeah, I can list as many strong female climbers as I can men that are operating at that competitive level. I also think that there’s this amazingness to what a strong female body can do and the specific properties of it, and the kinds of moves that women can do that sometimes men can’t. I find that really interesting in climbing. I think of how some of the best crack climbers are women because their hands can fit into these holds where men’s fingers can’t. So I’m definitely interested in gender in relation to climbing, and I do see it as field where I’m optimistic about the equality of it. There was another unexpected advantage with some of our urban climbing. Sometimes it was only women in our little team of spotters, filmers and climbers, and you can really get away with a lot because people just assume that if you’re a women, you’re not doing anything violent or illegal. You’re assumed less likely to be getting up to criminal activities for some reason.
You’ve got a few exhibitions.
I do. It’s been a pretty busy year. I had a solo show at Firstdraft in Sydney called Open Water – one of my other approaches to art making involves going underwater. The main work from this will be shown in High Tide, Fremantle’s inaugural Biennale of Art starting in late October. And I’ve just finished a new work called The Pact, shown in Perth at PSAS and hopefully interstate next year. It involved two days of endurance climbing inside a black void with my best mate and climbing partner, while wearing custom-made unitards. Yep, fun times with art and climbing. Stills available here: www.erincoates.net.
I love a unitard, especially when it’s custom made. We’ll definitely give those exhibitions a plug — for our three or four readers.
Quality not quantity.