Highlining, a subdiscipline of slacklining practiced at heights, is conventionally categorized as an “extreme sport” alongside rock climbing, sky diving, or freestyle skiing (to name just a few activities that involve some risk-taking). However, practitioners and researchers of the sport often prefer other terms, such as “alternative” or “lifestyle sports,” which highlight dynamic aspects of highlining that popular media depictions overshadow (Robinson 2). As sports theoretician Belinda Wheaton suggests, the term “extreme” can itself be related to other aspects of the sport, such as the practitioners’ “extreme commitment” (qtd. in Robinson 2). Rigged in both natural and urban landscapes, highlines can be viewed as artivist pieces that redefine landscapes and inspire values that promote freedom, co-operation, connectedness, and environmental protection. As we constantly walk and travel through places that are controlled and regulated, highlining provides an opportunity to interact with spaces where human movement is naturally limited, and therefore, unexpected and unregulated. Highlining, read as artivism, promotes free movement and challenges this biopolitical control over bodies and regulated movement through space. This piece presents highlining as a new form of collaborative outdoor counternarrative that questions the dominant notions about the outdoors, nature, and borders.
The “Extremeness” of “Slacklife”
When compared to sports such as BASE jumping or mountaineering, highlining is a fairly safe activity. In contrast to other “extreme sports” where the greatest risks are undertaken during the activity, most of the risks of highlining are taken not on the highline itself, but when it is being “rigged” — a process involving other activities and skills, such as rock climbing, or even mountaineering. When the line is rigged correctly and all other safety measures are taken, the flat, dynamic, and light, two-and-a-half centimeter wide nylon or polyester webbing is “extreme” in a different way. Anna Hanuš Kuchařová, one of the first women to ever walk highlines, explains that for her, the extremeness in highlining lies in the “extreme feelings” a highliner experiences when they are walking the narrow line in space to which a human mind is not naturally adjusted; an experience she likens to flying (Kuchařová, 8:07). Highlining is also a very time-consuming activity, where planning a project, preparing the gear, organizing the team, scouting the location, and rigging the line often consumes more time than the act of highlining itself.
Following on Wheaton’s reasoning, what further categorizes highlining as an “extreme sport,” then, is the necessary extreme dedication — and tremendous effort — of its practitioners. The process of rigging and creating a new highline project brings the community closer together and establishes unique connection between individual members of the rigging crew who may otherwise have very little in common. The days spent planning, preparing, and rigging are all part of an activity that is less about each individual and more about the slackline community. Highlining is a lifestyle sport whose community values often follow what has been termed “slacklife”.
Slacklife is both a way of life and life philosophy that centres around slacklining and the attitudes it engenders. Coined and popularized by Andy Lewis (an ambassador of the sport and multiple-world-record-holder), slacklife began as “a system based upon using the metaphors built from learning to walk a slackline to improve, advance, and motivate my life — on and off the line” (Lewis, qtd. in Weglin, n.p.). Lewis went so far as to compare the role of slacklife in his life to religion: the time he spent on the line translated into all other aspects of his life. Lewis’s analogy later inspired Kimberly Weglin, a Californian highliner and the author of The History of Slack, to establish the International Church of Slacklife, which highlights and communicates the profound meaning and primary role of slacklining in many slackliners’ lives.
The term “slacklife” aptly captures the essence of the activity and is now in worldwide use within the slackline community. In Lewis’s words, slacklife is “synonymous with freedom; physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally” (Lewis, qtd. in Weglin, n.p.). Slacklining is all about balance, both physical and mental, and therefore offers the slacklife community a therapeutic “mindfulness meditation that puts us in the present moment and helps us see into our unconsciousness” (Balansa Slackline). Through connection with our inner selves and our surroundings, highlining can help us “feel one with nature and to prevent further alienation from our true self” (Balansa Slackline).
Dominant Notions on the Line: Slacklife as Resistance
Slacklife philosophy is characterized by a set of values that are also important for the creation of a sustainable future. The international slackline community is growing and creating a network that “shares sustainable values, connectedness and slacklife philosophy” (Balansa Slackline) — one which prioritizes life, equality, and co-operation over the capitalist values of conquest, extraction, competition, individualism, hierarchy, and economic profit. Lifestyle sports have always been considered “sites where norms and boundaries are transgressed,” (Robinson 1) and thus are counter-cultural activities.
Highliners have unique interactions with the environment not only because they construct novel, unique paths through nature-spaces, but because the objectives of the slacklife community can be juxtaposed to harmful historical legacies. Eighteenth century of Western mountaineering plants its roots in ideas of conquest and of “mastery – or sovereignty – over the environment” (Rak 5). In her book, Julie Rak provides a critique of the false dichotomies which pervade in mountaineering: success to be celebrated only among those climbers who reach the mountain’s summit. When the experience of the climb is sidelined (or completely disregarded), and the value of a climb itself is contingent upon a single factor, settler-colonial narratives of conquest are reaffirmed and dragged into the present age. By contrast to these problematic attitudes, highlining requires complete surrender, humility, vulnerability, and connection with the surrounding environment as well as with your team. Rak’s argument that “it is time for other stories of achievement to matter as well” (6) highlights Slacklife’s potential to serve as a counternarrative: its objectives are not to conquer, but rather, to experience.
Indeed, many highliners within the “Slacklife” community recall aural, visual, and other-sensory experiences from the line that inform and deepen the highliners’ intimacy with environment. Profound interspecies encounters, too, be it with beetles or spiders who also use the line as a bridge, or with birds who want to become part of the playful act, are also intensified by the highliners’ heightened focus. On the traditional lands of the Squamish Nation on a midline over the water in a place called Seal Cove my own most magical moment came. While not my first encounter with a whale, catching a glimpse of this magnificent being directly from the line was somehow more transformative and meaningful. My friends and I watched as the sea lions and seals became especially interested in the midline, playfully interacting with me from below, seemingly, having as much fun as I was. As climate change and environmental degradation increasingly endanger life on Earth, a more comprehensive appreciation for our surroundings can help encourage people to use their privilege wisely.
Artivism on the Highline
Highlining was applied as a form of outdoor artivism to protest social injustice in 2019 as the Trump’s administration triggered a government shutdown over the then-president’s plans to “build the wall” along the Mexico – United States border. In protest to Trump’s divisive, racist policies, highliner Corbin Kunst and filmmaker Kylor Melton organized a multinational team to rig a highline across the Río Grande, creating a 90 metres long, 150 metres high literal bridge over one of the most militarized borders in the world. As Corbin Kunst crossed from the Texan side, and Jamie Maruffo from the Mexican side, Melton captured the artivist act in photographs and film, from which he created The Imaginary Line, a fitting title for a documentary that effectively questions the Western social construction of borders as both physical and metaphorical barriers which divide and stir conflict.
Having teams of highliners from both countries collaborate together on a sports artivist piece and sharing the intense moments of slacklife joy during times of an intensified political turmoil on the border constituted a powerful peaceful protest as it showed an alternative to the life and society Trump’s administration was trying to establish. The Imaginary Line also underscores the significance and potential of art as a form of resistance and inspiration: highlining can thus be seen as collaborative art that is co-created by the photographers and highliners. As Melton commented, “I don’t know if there could be a more powerful symbol of connection between two people, between two lands, than I could ever imagine” (qtd. in Cascone).
Highline artivist pieces can be effectively and compellingly rigged to express solidarity, to contest borders, to challenge the biopolitical control of human and nonhuman bodies, and to unite and connect transborder communities. Creating transcultural networks of solidarity through slacklife embodies the power in a shift in perspective as a radical, or “extreme” act of decolonialism. Highline artworks underscore the connection between humans and nature when the highliner becomes part of the landscape and part of their artwork. These artworks highlight the connection between people: to appreciate those who co-operate in order to create a new highline piece that they then enjoy together. Non-highliners can also appreciate and feel this connectedness when they witness a highline artwork, or consider its impacts. Like any other art that touches us emotionally, highline pieces also have the potential to have a transformative effect on both the highliners and highline-afficionados as they highlight both human vulnerability in nature and our place in it.
Balansa Slackline. “Slacklife Philosophy.” Balansa Slackline association. https://balansa-slackline.com/slacklife-philosophy.
Cascone, Sarah. “Photographer Makes a Political Point With a Death-Defying Highline Walk Between the US and Mexico Border.” Artnet news, 27 Aug. 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/slackline-walk-us-mexico-border-1633552.
Kuchařová, Anna, H. “Od Slackline k Tiché Radosti.” Nastav duši, podcast, https://www.nastavdusi.online/index.php/2022/07/21/od-slackline-k-tiche-radosti-anna-hanus-kucharova/
Rak, Julie. False Summit: Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2021.
Robinson, Victoria. Everyday Masculinities and Extreme Sport: Male Identity and Rock Climbing. Berg. 2008.
Weglin, Kimberly. The History of Slack: From Ancient Greece and Rome to Today. HowNot2Highline, n.d. PDF, https://www.hownot2.com/_files/ugd/c990e4_ffad2a18d47e4062b2579d6a030369bc.pdf.
Feature image: Yosemite, Taft Point, subject: Denisa Krasna, by Alena Rainsberry, photographer, shared with permission.
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