Student rises above to get his message across

By Samuel Charles

Chip Duggan, a 25-year-old interdisciplinary arts graduate student, wasn’t used to city life before he moved to Chicago from his hometown in Alexandria, N.H., a town with less than 2,000 residents. The drastic change in environment drove Duggan to reconsider his decision to come to Chicago, but he was able to find his version of peaceful wilderness by climbing city structures and documenting it through his ongoing project “The Urban Quiet.” Using no equipment except chalk on his hands, climbing shoes and a crash pad, Duggan climbs up to 30 feet on different walls, building facades and bridges across the city after learning to climb seven months ago.

The Chronicle: How did you find out about urban climbing?

Chip Duggan: It wasn’t my idea to start climbing stuff. I was asked by another indoor climber to climb the LaSalle Street Bridge [across] the [Chicago] River. But in the midst of climbing, there was one of those “A-ha” spiritual moments, and the city made sense to me. Everything became so quiet and still, even though there were cars driving right above me. I gained this sense of peace I find in nature.

The Chronicle: How are you documenting your climbs?

CD: I’m trying different ways to show and share my experience. I started taking clay with me and molding parts of the buildings that no one has ever seen. I’ll bring [the mold] back [to my studio] and fill it with concrete to create—what I call, “The Urban Holds.” It’s the sculptural element. I also always have a professional photographer with me.

The Chronicle: How did you feel about Chicago before you started climbing?

CD: I had serious anxiety about the city. I was about to leave [Columbia’s] grad school because I thought this was not the place for me. I just couldn’t take the city. It’s so flat here and so different than what I’m used to.

The Chronicle: How do you incorporate climbing into what you do at Columbia?

CD: It’s not easy. I’m taking an extreme sport, adding a little twist to it and trying to make it my artistic practice. So my strategy is basically “How can I share this with someone else? And who is my audience?” My hope is this stuff is awe-inspiring, that it could inspire someone to look at a space a little differently. What’s already latent in the city landscape can be brought out. I’m trying to share my experience with these holds. That’s what gives it the artistic flavor. Someone can literally take this away from my experience.

The Chronicle: Where does the project’s

name come from?

CD: It comes from me being at peace with the city. When I’m engaged with my body, the past, my resentments and the future all just vanish. My head becomes so still and quiet that not even the train going above me is going to distract me. I feel the vibrations, and it’s not overwhelmingly loud. I’ve spent months in the wilderness hiking the 800-mile Appalachian Trail. I’ve found that peace and quiet in the city.

The Chronicle: Where have you climbed in the city?

CD: All over. McCormick Place, the business district, the LaSalle Street Bridge, the 18th Street Bridge and a lot of places on the South Side, like Jackson Harbor.

The Chronicle: What’s the biggest challenge you face while doing this?

CD: Bringing this into some sort of academic context and [trying] to share this in the correct way. So I’m struggling with how I can share it and capture the peace and spiritual experience I’m having. I’m still trying to figure that out.

The Chronicle: What’s your thought process during a climb?

CD: Most of my thoughts happen before and after; there’s not much going on in between. That’s why I like it. I mostly think about how my hands are feeling. I’m concentrated on my body. When I’m climbing and I have that adrenaline rush, everything becomes about my body. My theory is when everything becomes about your body you can’t care about anything else. I can only pay attention where my hands and feet are. I’ve fallen a few times, and it hurts falling from 20 feet.

The Chronicle: Are there any legal issues you have to look out for while doing this?

CD: Yes, I’ve run into many cops and have been kicked out of many places, but they never arrest me. They usually just tell me to leave. Once a man started screaming at me because he thought I was going to kill myself, and he was really freaking out. I had to climb down and explain to him it doesn’t help that you’re screaming at me while I’m up there. That was the one residential building I climbed. After that I decided no more.

The Chronicle: Do you have any more plans to share your work?

CD: An exhibition is going to consist of 25 holds from different locations. I’m actually going to climb the holds in the gallery space It’s still in the planning process.