A few thoughts on my position: Swimming Position (position in swimming is actually really important!)
To watch a ‘good’ swimmer (there is a potential debate here, but let’s not go there) is to witness an act that looks effortless. The body ‘fluidly’ (apologies) moves through the water. The body causes minimal disruption of the surface of the water, slicing through it with ease, almost part of it. Water can be dense and to cut through it requires some coordination.
Swimming is incredibly technical. Usually (I will say this, as no doubt there are exceptions to the rule out there) ‘good’ swimmers were trained as children. Their muscles and limbs remember what to do as it is encapsulated within their ‘muscle memory’. Even if they give up swimming as children and return to it in adult life, their technique never leaves them. The feel for the water is part of their being. I envy these swimmers that have this embedded within them.
Each part of the body in the sport of swimming makes a difference to the swimmer’s stroke…right down to the fingers and feet. Having each part of the body at the ‘right angle’ (not literally, but as in correct) makes moving through water easier. If you learned to swim as an adult or weren’t a particularly ‘good’ child swimmer… perhaps a child that wasn’t afraid, but preferred to do handstands and cartwheels in the water, then you have to consciously think about all these body parts and their relationship to the water until it becomes ‘natural’ or as close to natural as you will ever get.
On good days when the mechanics are aligned, you feel like your body is slipping through it, you feel your hands catching the water and propelling your body forward through it. You can push off a swimming pool wall and feel that you have travelled a reasonable distance. You can also, while learning to flip turn off the aforementioned wall, end up surfacing in the wrong lane… it happens.
Wearing a wetsuit and swimming outdoors is a whole different ball game (well, sport). Wetsuits are great (I could be asked to leave the room in certain swimming circles for that last sentence). Wetsuits keep you warm, in a kind of slightly strangled, squashed fashion and most of all they make you buoyant. I rarely kick my legs when I swim in a pool, usually just occasionally to keep them afloat. In a wetsuit they stay afloat without even trying… so does my whole body. I am lying on a thin rubber raft and using my arms as oars. Swimming is so much easier in a wetsuit, I am proven to be faster in one. That’s why in certain swimming sports (channel swimming being one) they are the devil’s work. They are ‘cheating’. They are a great invention that made swimming easier.
All these descriptions of swimming are completely at odds with what it feels like to be strapped into a hard constructed machine. A machine that originally was meant to make swimming easier (once you got in the water). This machine gives an impression of swimming, it is constructed as a trick, the viewer might be fooled into thinking this is swimming (albeit a strange adapted doggie paddle, renamed the ‘Stansbie Paddle’ by the machine’s maker Joe Hancock). Visually, it resembles swimming but things are amiss (aside from the lack of water).
I am suspended slightly diagonally, so as to keep me from slipping and my legs are strapped into sections of the sculpture with Velcro straps – they are not free-floating at all. My shins are also against hard metal and wood, measured to fit my own legs.
All the power comes from the adapted cross trainer arm sections that my arms push and pull. It is rare in swimming to push (OK, there is a 'push' in backstroke)… you are usually pulling, pulling yourself through the water. I did once ‘push’ in swimming; in the early days of learning Butterfly I somehow managed to go backwards… a skill in itself I think.
There is also strength needed in your arms to hold onto the hand sections, to hold, to a degree, the weight of my body. Hence the performance photographs where my arms resemble ‘Popeye’, my arms are working hard in this machine.
I cannot see either when lying in the swimming machine. This isn’t unusual for me actually. I cant see a lot when swimming due to my eyesight, although I do wear prescription swimming goggles. They aren’t perfect. I can’t mention prescription swimming goggles without telling the tale of when I lost my glasses on the poolside after training one morning. I had (without me knowing) put them in a fellow swimmer’s bag… he had the same swimming bag and without my glasses on, I couldn’t tell which was which. After swimming I couldn’t find them and my only option was to drive home wearing my prescription goggles which caused much amusement at traffic lights.
In the swimming machine I am face down, my head is held this way by a cushion – an oxymoron. I cannot see the reactions of people around me, which is for the best. The cushion is leather and makes my face sweat easily due to the effort I am putting in. I heat up quickly.
I can only ‘swim’ in the machine for about 8 minutes as it takes too much effort in my upper body and is fairly uncomfortable. It is totally restrictive. It is as far away from the feel of swimming as it could be. You can tell this when watching… swimming in the machine looks difficult, impractical and absurd. I like this. This fits well with the original foundations for the piece in the exhibition Thought Positions in Sculpture. The 1870 patent for a ‘Swimming Apparatus’ was a design for a large wooden machine that was aimed at teaching the user how to swim breaststroke… that is, breaststroke out of water, on land. The idea for the machine was developed in a time when not many people in the UK could swim. I wonder if the inventor could or had ever swam?