Local Event Spotlight: A Climber's Guide to Eastern State Penitentiary; or East State's Architecture and How to Escape It

A Climber’s Guide to Eastern State Penitentiary; or Eastern State’s Architecture and How to Escape It, is an upcoming art installation at the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) by Philadelphia-based artist Alexander Rosenberg. This project is a unique blend of art, climbing, and history of the penitentiary, and exists in three parts. There is a series of performances where Alex climbs on the exterior wall of the penitentiary. The second is an installation inside one of the cells containing a display case with drawings, photographs, and other ephemera related to the history of climbing and escapes that have occurred at ESP, as well as a makeshift trad rack and rope fabricated out of materials that would have been available in the prison before it closed in 1971. Finally, there is a printed climbing guide which is included in the installation and will soon be available for purchase. It contains the names, locations, and ratings of each of the climbs on the north, east, and south walls, excerpts from the warden's journals about escape attempts related to the climbs, information about the fabricated equipment, the quarried stone that the wall is built from and general history of the prison.

Route: Gross Neglect, 5.10a. Photo credit: Harrison Rhodes

Route: Gross Neglect, 5.10a. Photo credit: Harrison Rhodes

Alex, your art installation at the Eastern State Penitentiary is a unique combination of art, recreational climbing, and also climbing as an escape. How did this project come to be, and more curiously, how does climbing intersect with the penitentiary's history?

Every year ESP selects and funds a couple of artist projects and I was fortunate to have my project selected this year. The application process is arduous, and I was hesitant to potentially waste the effort proposing something so unusual and seemingly dangerous to the institution. I was shocked when the project was accepted. I received the most cautious, but encouraging acceptance letter I've ever seen. The sentiment was something like, "We support your project 100% and want to do everything we can to make it happen, but please be prepared for some careful discussion and compromise to get everything figured out safely and in accordance with the conservation efforts on our delicate historic site."    

One of the really exciting conversations that have come up for me is related to conservation, and the perceived difference between the built and natural worlds. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, the same year that manufactured “clean climbing” gear became widely available to the public. Just a year later, the Chouinard Equipment Catalog included two articles addressing the relationship between climbing gear and environmental protection: one written by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, and the other by Doug Robinson, introducing the concept of clean climbing to the growing worldwide climbing community. The central ethics behind clean climbing map directly onto many of the technical restrictions artists are asked to consider when proposing Eastern State art installations. I was excited to try to propose a project that responded to the ethical and legal considerations of the unusual site, one that needs to be preserved and cared for as something natural and man-made. It is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic property under Federal law. It is also a ruin, abandoned in 1971, and stands today as an architectural shell.

It is eerily quiet climbing on the inside of Eastern State Penitentiary’s walls in the middle of the day. You quickly forget you are  in the middle of a dense metropolitan area. It’s only as you pull yourself up, over the top of the wall that the sound of the city comes pouring in, reminding you to take a look around and you can see the city sprawling east and west. You suddenly realize that the only other people to share this experience, to share this same view, were those who have escaped in this fashion. This empathetic, shared experience with strangers from the past is at the root of my interest in this kind of work.

Photo credit: Ben Pelta-Heller.

Photo credit: Ben Pelta-Heller.

What was your planning and thought process like in mapping these routes and creating the gear for it?

I think climbers are always looking at things in the world and wondering if they can be climbed. It's natural to try to solve problems with a certain skill-set you have acquired, even if it's not exactly the commonly accepted "right tool," for the job. I have visited Eastern State a lot - It's one of my favorite historic sites in the city. I've always looked at the big wall and wondered what it would be like to climb and if anyone had, using rock-climbing technique, to escape. The wall has some big cracks in it from weather and neglect that make certain ares easy to read as potential routes. The more I looked at it, the more It looked like a problem to solve with climbing. People did, of course, escape over the wall historically, but I don't think anyone ever successfully free climbed it.

ESP has a great archive of escape-related information. Over 100 escapes were made from the Penitentiary but every escapee was recaptured eventually, except for one. There are also images from when escape-related contraband was seized. A lot of the additions to Eastern States's initial design were built using inmate labor, so prisoners had access to certain construction materials. I tried to fabricate my climbing gear using what they might have had access to, and what might be easy to conceal or hide. Some friends of mine who have spent significant time in prison helped me learn a little bit about how people make things in prison today. There is a section in the climbing guide about making a "line," or rope out of a bed sheet.

Has anyone approached you with comments that this is similar to "buildering", and how contrasting is it to climb out of the penitentiary versus climbing at a crag?

I was definitely inspired / influenced by many historic and contemporary instances of people using climbing on man-made structures. I really like this book called The Night Climbers of Cambridge written in the 1930s about people climbing on buildings on the Cambridge University campus and the surrounding town in England. There is this added element of darkness in the technique since you have to climb at night to avoid getting caught. There are some well-known places around Philly too, that are popular for climbing on structures that are not entirely "natural."

For me, the most unusual thing about climbing on ESP is that they are letting me do it. It takes a little more effort and planning in certain ways than going rogue, but I don't have to sneak around, or run away if the wrong person shows up. It's great on one hand, that it's never crowded for climbing since I'm really the only one allowed to do it, but it's also a little bit lonely. You kind of want to compare beta with your friends or see someone else on the route, especially when you're struggling. I'm lucky to have supportive friends on the ground helping me and hanging out, just being a part of the project.

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One of the most historic escapes from the penitentiary was via a tunnel in 1945. How do you think these inmates would have fared if they attempted climbing instead?

There were a lot of over-the wall escapes with varied degrees of success. I refer to some of them in the names of the climbs I've been working on. One person tried to free climb the wall, but found it too difficult and turned himself in. I named this really challenging crimpy 5.11b on the north wall after him. the same guy later got over the wall by making a rope out of tied together laundry and a metal hook he removed from his cell door. There have been a few instances where a makeshift ladder was built, and many constructed bedsheet ropes. That's part of the excitement for me about the project. Even if very few people tried to free climb the wall, I'm sure most people who were imprisoned in ESP fantasized about it. I like being able to enact that fantasy.

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About the artist, Alexander Rosenberg:
Alexander Rosenberg is a Philadelphia-based artist, educator, and writer. He received a BFA in glass from Rhode Island School of Design and Master of Science in Visual Studies from MIT and currently teaches at Salem Community College. His artistic practice is rooted in the study of glass as a material, in conjunction with broad interdisciplinary investigation crossing over into many other media and research areas.

Alex grew up all over the northeastern United States, but he has become firmly rooted in Philadelphia finding a home, studio, and community there over the last decade. Alex has been making art professionally for about 15 years, about the same about of time he has been climbing. He went to art school thinking he would study painting, but ended up working with glass which has certain similarities to climbing: “It can be very performative, requires a lot of focus and practice, and cultivates this kind of mental obsession. Sometimes I think about glass as a movement based practice, just like dance. The difference with glass-making is that you are left with an object that is a physical record of your movements.”

Alex started climbing regularly while in art school. He took on a job at his local climbing gym and met a generous community who helped him improve his technical abilities, and showed him new places to climb in New England.

A Climber’s Guide to Eastern State Penitentiary; or Eastern State’s Architecture and How to Escape It opens at the Eastern State Penitentiary on May 2nd from 5:30 - 7:30pm. Alex will be climbing during the event and there will be food and drinks. The event is free and open to the public and the project will be on view through April of 2020.

Editor’s note: Climbing is not permitted to the general public.