Monday, November 10, 2014

Passion for Terrain

One of the most famous propositions made by Spinoza is that we don’t know what the body can do. The practitioners of wingsuit flying reveal that we didn’t know that the human body could fly. Wingsuit flyers stand at the top of a mountain on the edge of a cliff and calmly jump off, head on, toward the abyss. After an initially precipitous fall, they smoothly glide away thanks to the lift created by the surface areas that their special suits have under the arms and between the legs. The boldest practitioners of this extreme sport do not simply fly; they engage with terrain in what they call “proximity flights”: speeding at 220 km per hour very close to mountain walls, rock formations, and forests and artfully adapting their trajectories to the forms of terrain. After gliding in some cases for several kilometers almost caressing the surface of rocks and the tip of trees, they release their parachutes to land in a valley below. This sport’s practitioners declare that this dramatic engagement with terrain is the most exhilarating experience they could ever go through, so intense and visceral that’s impossible to describe with words. This is, they say, what humans have long dreamed of: flying using their bare bodies, without recourse to self-propelled engines. But what interests me here is what this perplexing practice reveals about the affective geometry that defines the body’s mobility in relation to the three-dimensional materiality of the spaces of this world: that is, of terrain.
Mountain climbers, skiers, snowboarders, trekkers, or mountain bikers often agree that they feel addicted to the thrill of making their bodies navigate the multiplicity of forms, textures, angles, and volumes that make up the crust of the planet, especially where the verticality of mountains highlights the force of gravity on the body. In the late 1990s, this passion pushed new generations to test what the body can do amid rugged terrain onto uncharted territory and led to the birth of wingsuit flying, which blended skydiving with BASE jumping, the practice of parachuting from fixed structures such as buildings, bridges, or mountains.
Wingsuit flying is skydiving on steroids. Skydivers jump off an airplane and experience for a few minutes a marked spatial distance between their bodies and the ground toward which gravity inexorably pulls them. The most devoted practitioners of wingsuit flying, in contrast, dislike being far from solid terrain; they prefer to jump off the edge of mountains in order to face rock formations at close proximity, and at a speed in which a split second could mark the difference between life and death. For this reason, those devoted to proximity flying are very sensitive to the forms, angles, and heights of the objects around them and refer to “terrain” regularly in the depiction of their trajectories. When they fly at high speed they are well aware that what their bodies face is terrain's crude materiality, which will kill them upon impact irrespective of how that particular space is socially organized or perceived (the video below, the preview of the documentary Birdmen, captures the physical salience of terrain in these flights' trajectories).
In this intense engagement with terrain, some wingsuit flyers sought to explore even further what their bodies could do. Shaun McConkey was already hailed in the 1990s as the best extreme skier in the world when he discovered wingsuit flying and became addicted to it. His passion for proximity flying was such that he was permanently looking for mountains with particularly vertical walls from where to jump off, from the Artic to the Alps. In seeking to push the limits of what he could do, he decided to add his talents in extreme skiing to the mix. He came up with a technique to ski down the slopes of particularly treacherous mountains, release his skis upon jumping off the edge of the cliff, and glide away. He did it many times and, as the documentary McConkey shows, he became overconfident. In 2009, in a jump in the Italian Alps, one of his skis failed to disconnect and the extra weight made him lose his balance and spin uncontrollably. Pulled by the unrelenting power of the planet’s gravity, Shaun fell hundreds of meters to meet his death, to the horror of the crew that was filming him from a helicopter. 
In order to fully appreciate how the body is affect by terrain we should revisit Spinoza’s famous proposition, and reread it negatively. That is, while it is true that we don’t know what a body can do, we do know what a human body cannot do: escape the physical force that the planet imposes on it through gravity and survive the impact of a fall, as in this case, from a height of hundreds of meters. The human body, after all, is not anatomically designed to fly. The passion of proximity flyers for their craft is proportional to the extremely dangerous nature of this sport, which every year kills about 20 people whose bodies collide with the cold hardness of the ground. This tension between what a human body can and cannot do amid the materiality of actually existing spaces is at the core of a theory of terrain. Much can be said, certainly, about the elitist eccentricity of extreme sports such as this, which commoditize intense “experiences.” But what interests me here is a strictly physical-affective problem central to an understanding of terrain, which in my book in progress Opaque Planet: Outline of a Theory of Terrain I’m exploring further in situations of conflict and warfare: the fact that it’s in the geometry that a body creates in relation to tangible spaces such as cliffs and ridges that we can best appreciate what terrain is. And terrain is powerfully structured by gravity, for as Einstein argued a century ago, what we call "space" (a term he disliked for being too vague) is nothing but fields of gravity. The exhilaration experienced by wingsuit flyers gliding next to granite walls at high speed —and the perplexity that these flights creates on us as spectators— are not simply, in this regard, about this newly-discovered human skill to fly. These aerial trajectories bring to light the physical presence of terrain: the fact that in swiftly moving through the smoothness of the air, fragile bodies confront an unforgiving spatial vastness that has preceded human life on Earth and is always-already indifferent to its passions.


  1. Would love to know more about the apparel technology, which mediates the body's mobility, and therefore ability to navigate terrain in new ways. It's not just the body, but the body in clothes! Great article.

  2. Very inspiring article!
    Technology here is not "technological" in the strict sense, but rather a process that forms a subjectivity, a becoming other, as Being in art.

  3. Denise, Ina, many thanks for your comments. I don't know much about the apparel technology used in these suits, but the documentary Birdmen briefly shows how the first suits were designed in the late 1990s. Also, Léopold Lambert at The Funambulist just just wrote a post on this same topic, commenting on the ways in which the flying suit extends the boundaries of the body, for it's certainly true that these flying bodies are inseparable from the clothes.