Performing Sport

In Part 2 of the Moving Bodies takeover, Véronique Chance and Claire Warden explore the border crossing between sport and art practice

Before and after the Medical Humanities and Sport & Exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue event in September 2023, we began to unpack the way that our individual research might resonate. For both of us, our research sits in the liminal space between sport and arts practice. However, we approach this between-space, and its implications, through quite different optics. Véronique imagines it through her own body and as a practice-based artist, while Claire initially addressed this through scholarly research and then through the bodies of others with whom she collaborates. This difference is vital to our conversation, enabling a deeper dialogue between the autoethnographic and more detached models of scholarly research, between the body of the artist and the spectated body. 

We begin this article by explaining our individual research areas to provide context but, more than this, to detail our individual negotiation of the fluid barrier, as we see it, between sport and art. It takes seriously the project’s initial provocation to dialogue emerging from these discussions of individual research to navigate a vital theme that emerged as a joint provocation: the somewhat paradoxical tensions in risk, injury and care. Indeed, we noticed it was a central area of interest for several of our colleagues in the dialogue from discussions of the suffering body in outdoor adventure cultures, to dealing with race trauma through dance, to the innate sense of vulnerability which always lies at the heart of worthwhile interdisciplinary enquiry. 

An invitation to think about risk enables a border crossing between sport and art practice, we suggest. But it also compels us to think about how risk might be reduced (if we want it to be reduced, of course), the way risk acts as a generative, creative element, and the potential that shifting to aesthetics rather than (or more accurately, in addition to) competition make for our understanding of what sport might be. In addition, as we explain in the final section, considering risk also compels us to think about care, a vital issue for contemporary medical humanities (Kristeva et al. 2018). We are convinced that uncovering a shared language of sport-art practice might contribute to on going debates about care and cures, objectivity and subjectivity. 

Running as an Artful Practice 

Photograph of the artist following the completion of the live artwork ‘Thames Run: Source to Sea.’ 2021. The artist is female with fair shoulder-length hair and blue eyes. She is wearing a black cap on her head and a blue t-shirt, black shorts, long socks and trainers. Several mobile phone devices are strapped to her upper body.
Photograph of the artist at the Isle of Grain, following the completion of the live artwork ‘Thames Run: Source to Sea.’ 2021. Photograph by Richard Allen (with permission).
Over the last 13 years, I (Véronique) have developed an endurance running artistic practice as part of a larger inquiry into the performative nature of human physical activity. This is linked to a growing number of artists who are engaging with running as a mode of enquiry and creative expression and led to the development and launch of the Running Artfully Network (RAN) in 2021 (Tan 2021). 

Developing an art practice using long-distance running has enabled me to work with concepts of endurance by engaging with an activity that is self-governed and physically demanding. Running is difficult and challenging but it also makes me feel attuned to my senses and to the limits of my body. For me, it is a fundamentally human activity that is not about competition or ‘personal bests’, but about human experience (Whelan 2012). By pointing to the limitations and inefficiencies of the body, I see running as a productive mechanism that is not just aligned to achievement, but to an awareness of the vulnerability and fallibility of the human body. Like performance art, running is about bodies and action and also a means of self-expression through its engagement with empathy, emotion, and risk (Filmer 2015, 79-80). 

Between 2014 and 2016, I experienced cartilage injury and received a diagnosis of early onset osteo-arthritis, both which put running on hold. I turned to the cameras and tools of medical intervention. Videos and photographs of the inside of my knees led to the creation of new artworks and to a contemplation of image and of viewing practices that I had not previously considered (Chance 2019).  

I returned to running in 2016, albeit more slowly. Running doesn’t need to be fast. Recent research suggests that running more slowly is not only more beneficial to one’s health but also more inclusive (Friedman 2022). In a recent running workshop I led at the ELIA Academy 2023 conference, I posited that running more slowly could be a means for more considerate attention, not only to one’s body, but to what is and to those around us. 

Image shows a cropped detail of a sequence of colourful circular still images taken from the video footage of a knee arthroscopy.  From the artwork In the Absence of Running Part 1.
In the Absence of Running Part 1 (cropped), Inkjet on Agwami Paper 110 × 155 cms; whole image: 110 × 490 cms, © Véronique Chance 2016

Wrestling’s Physical Risk 

We co-founded Wrestling Resurgence in 2016. Since then, under the leadership of John Kirby and Sam West – and through the collaborative energies of many artists and academics – the organisation has secured four Arts Council grants and produced shows across the East Midlands. Resurgence has given me (Claire) the opportunity to work with wrestlers, enabling privileged access to this community and allowing me to move from the theoretical to the live and corporeal. This has been a joyful, energising experience. But it has also burdened me with a duty of care. While wrestlers largely love what they do and take pride in their creative practice, there are risks to physical and mental health alongside an everyday economic precarity. The more I worked with wrestlers, the more I felt an ethical imperative to offer some intervention to support their health and wellbeing.  

Two wrestlers in the ring. One leaps above the other in motion. The other is crouched on the ground.
Wrestling. With permission from photographer Rob Brazier.

Alongside Dominic Malcolm and Anthony Papathomas, who are leading scholars in sociology of sport and sport mental health respectively, I set up the British Academy-funded Health and Wellbeing in Professional Wrestling project. Using a semi-structured interview technique, we spoke to many across the industry to gauge, for the first time, the specific issues, including the prevalence of concussions, the cause of injuries, the responsibility of the referee or promoter, the role of medical professionals (if they are or should be on site), and strains on mental health. Participants provided diverse and complex responses to these issues, which we have begun to make sense of in recent writing (Warden, Malcolm, Papathomas, & West 2022). 

Serendipitously, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Professional Wrestling was set up in the same year. I contributed written and oral evidence to their 2021 report which acknowledged our highlighting of ‘the absence of qualitative or quantitative data on the impact of wrestling on physical and mental wellbeing’. One of the outcomes from this Parliamentary Group was the recognition of our work ‘with medical experts and others towards educational and policy driven efforts to address this deficiency which we welcome and strongly commend’. Since then, we have worked closely with the APPG, co-organising a November 2022 symposium at Parliament. We have also held an event specifically focused on concussion, contributed to a Westminster Hall debate on wrestling licensing, and are currently collaborating on a new policy document. 

In the end it comes down to wrestling’s classification. The debate about whether wrestling is a sport or art (or both, or neither…and what are ‘sport’ and ‘art’ anyway?) always felt like an academic musing to me. But, through my work with the APPG, I realised that how we classify liminal practices like wrestling make a profound difference to the real-world context in terms of funding (or lack thereof), profile, safety standards, licensing, medical provision, training structures and payment. 

Risk, Injury and Care 

As we began to discuss these profoundly different practices we realised that a single characteristic defined (or conventionally defined) both running and wrestling: a desire to push the body’s limits. This, we both noted, revealed the potential for injury. Testing one’s physical limits is a vital characteristic of both practices, whether that be the endurance to go one more mile or a jump from the top turnbuckle through a table. The paradoxical desire to test limits illuminates the joy of these sports as much as highlighting bravado. 

In this competitive apporoach lies the risk. Our practices, and indeed dialogue, have invited both of us in our different contexts to consider how far one should push the limits of one’s (or another’s body) and to reflect on how, in the midst of risk, one could uncover an effective means of understanding and caring for bodies involved. In ‘Technologies of the Self’ (1984) Michel Foucault takes on the concept of the body as an autonomous subject, towards a practice of self-empowerment that is based on the self-knowledge and care of one’s own body. We can learn from this in the importance it places on the mode of action that an individual exercises upon oneself, that is self-imposed, rather than imposed by others. Here, in the interaction between bodies, lies the potential to care for oneself and for others. In this sense, the risk increases the need for and intensity of the acts of care. An example is in Broderick Chow’s assertion that wrestling work ‘can be thought of as a practice of trust and care’ (Chow 2014, 79). The artist-athlete also needs to develop a self-knowledge and care for one’s own body as a preparation to undertake a particular physical task and as a means of minimising injury. Important in this is the development of the body’s ‘limits, capabilities, and capacities’ (Chance 2009, 100). Care in risk, therefore, has an inward and outward-facing version and these two versions of care may parse together or may clash. 

This is not to avoid the problematic tensions that can emerge in these activities. These sports may appear to be ableist and only accessible to some individuals and sectors of society (Jacquette Ray 2009; Tainio 2022). In a wrestling context, this can be mitigated with access to effective and safe modes of training and also to medical support available when needed. One of the key areas of concern emerging from the Health and Wellbeing in Professional Wrestling project was the profound discrepancies between different schools and promoters. This leads us to consider how our respective practices might be reimagined to break down ableist assumptions. While, we propose, the sense of care coexists within the risky activity and is even increased by the levels of risk, this also does not negate the conflict that may emerge with the desire to win (a race or fight), or to achieve a particular status or goal. Even in wrestling, ostensibly a performative rather than competitive activity, there is competition between wrestlers to catch the eye of promoters or to have a ‘5-star match’.  

Arguably these conjoined notions of risk and care emerge even more potently when we shift these practices from sport to sport-art, or, perhaps more accurately, into the realm of aesthetics, embracing the intrinsically interdisciplinary optics of the medical humanities. Running artist and academic Matti Tainio, asserts an aesthetic relation to practising sport, through the body’s direct, sensory engagement with its environment pointing to the significance of the emergence of terms such as ‘Post-sport’ to provide to alternative understandings of physical activity through aesthetic, moral and play-based values’ (Tainio 2022, 3). Socially led activities taking on a more recreational approach – such as such as ‘Parkrun’, ‘GoodGym’ and ‘RunTalkRun’, in relation to running, and the innovations of, say, Playfight in relation to wrestling –  are good examples of this that advocate holistic, inclusive approaches to the active body. These approaches emphasise the significance of the activity itself through frameworks that are inclusive and enabling rather than enforced (Tainio 2022). This holistic reading of sport has the potential to drastically alter the accepted associations of sport with competition and risk, and shift into a register that has an innate sense of care embedded within it. 

While there is a disconnect between the solitary aspects of running and ‘models of care, of collaboration’ (Litherland, Phillips, & Warden 2021, 224) in wrestling, we gradually realised that these complex ideas of risk and care defined our respective practices and provided a way for us to talk about profoundly different activities.  

This article is published as part of the ‘Medical Humanities and Sport and exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue’ takeover series, which is guest edited by Cassandra Phoenix and Rebecca Olive. 

About the authors 

Véronique Chance is an artist and academic based in London. She completed her PhD at Goldsmiths’ College in 2013. Since 2014, she has contributed to the RUN! RUN! RUN! (#r3fest) Biennale, instigated by artist Kai Syng Tan and is a member of the interdisciplinary JSIC Running Cultures Research Group. She is also a founder member of the Running Artfully Network (RAN) and is the Course Leader of the MA Fine Art course at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). Twitter/X: @verochance Instagram: @chanceveronique 

Claire Warden is Professor of Performance and Physical Culture at Loughborough University, UK. Her research focuses on interdisciplinary modernisms, performance practices, and the intersection of sport and art. She is the author of three monographs and co-editor of Performance and Professional Wrestling (2016) and the Edinburgh Companion to Modernism in Contemporary Theatre (2023). She is also the co-founder of the Arts Council-funded Wrestling Resurgence collective. Twitter/X: @cs_warden and Instagram: @profclairewarden 

References 

Chance, Véronique. 2009. “On the Production of the Body Ideal.” Performance Research 14 (2): 96-102. 

Chance, Véronique. 2019. “In the Absence of Running: From Injury and Medical Intervention to Art.” Journal of Medical Humanities 41: 65-80.

Chance, Véronique. 2020. “The Great Orbital Run (or the M25 in 4000 Images).” Arts 9 (1): 8.

Chance, Véronique, Jane Boyer, Kai Syng Tan, and Matti Tainio. 2022. “Thames Run: Source to Sea: A Multimedia Exhibition & Installation by Véronique Chance.” Exhibition leaflet. ISBN: 9781912319046. 

Chow, Broderick. 2014. “Work and Shoot: Professional Wrestling and Embodied Politics.” TDR: The Drama Review 58 (2): 72-86. 

Filmer, Andrew. 2015. “Motion Capture.” Like the Wind 7: 79-80. 

Foucault, Michel. 1984. The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality: Volume Three. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Foucault, Michel. 1994. “Technologies of the Self.” In: Ethics: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, edited by Paul Rabinow and translated by Robert Hurley, 223-251. London: Penguin.

Friedman, Danielle. 2022. “How I Learned to Love Finishing Last.” The New York Times. 2 Jun. Accessed: 28 Feb 2024.

Jacquette Ray, Sarah. 2009. “Risking Bodies in the Wild: The ‘Corporeal Unconscious’ of American Adventure Culture.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 33 (3): 257-284. 

Kristeva, Julia, Marie Rose Moro, John Ødemark, and Eivind Engebretsen. 2018. “Cultural crossings of care: An appeal to the medical humanities.” Medical Humanities 44 (1): 55-58. 

Litherland, Ben, Tom Phillips, and Claire Warden. 2021. “Scholarly Grappling: Collaborative ‘Work’ in the Study of Professional Wrestling.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 36 (1): 213-228. 

Tan, Kai Syng. 2021. Innovation: 7 hours of running artfully. Blog post. 7 Mar. Accessed: 28 Feb 2024.

Tainio, Matti. 2022. “Difficult Activities-Difficult Experiences.” In: Somaesthetics and Sport, edited by Andrew Edgar, 20-231. Leiden: Brill.

Warden, Claire, Dominic Malcolm, Anthony Papathomas, and Sam West. 2022. “When was the last time that you hear of Ian McKellen blowing out his knee? The performance and practice of risk in British professional wrestling.” Survive and Thrive: A Journal for Medical Humanities and Narrative as Medicine 8 (2): 1-17.

Whelan, Gregg. 2012. “Running Through a Field: Performance and Humanness.” Performance Research 17 (2): 110-120. 

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