Toward a Poetics of Skateboarding

Still from Thomas Campbell’s skateboard film, "Cuatros Sueños Pequeños"
Still from Thomas Campbell’s skateboard film, "Cuatros Sueños Pequeños"

VOICE 1: What’s that thing he’s on?
VOICE 2: It’s a board with wheels.
LORRAINE BAINES: He’s an absolute dream. 
                            —Robert Zemeckis

“If you don’t want to give back to the culture, to the skateboarders, and make our world a rad, sick place, you shouldn’t be in it.”
                            —Pontus Alv 

Nothing so comforts the mind as presumed understanding. The steadfast belief in one’s own knowledge will always, and by far, outstrip an experience of the genuine thing. Such, generally, is the nature of modern alterity. Specifically, it’s the case today with what we call skateboarding. Sixty-years since its strange birth, so wholly incorporated, so atomized and dispersed has skateboarding been into worlds of fashion, music, and endless confections of cultural debris that we have been numbed, or blinded, to the fundamental senselessness and mystery in its heart. Such mistakes of comprehension function as erasures, like staring so long through a chainlink fence that it disappears.

On one side skateboarding has a clear antecedent in surfing, that ancient practice even Europeans have been hip to since 1870. On the other there’s a growing fleet of malnourished progeny—snowboarding, wakeboarding, trampboarding…anything today can be -boarded. We sense an echo of the tumbling sports in the object, as with diving, gymnastics, or figure skating. From these it’s easy to envision schematics for judging its performances, and regulated competitions, even leagues, even season tickets, scorecards and foam fingers for the family. Followed to their logical conclusion, such metrics do gravity’s task for the market, working against any mysterious buoyancy and grounding it to sensible cognates.

Indeed, today the gerund “skateboarding” refers as frequently to the marketplace that’s formed around the activity as it does the activity itself. This is a five-billion-dollar industry drawing on, by one count, twenty-million participant-consumers. By another it’s forty-million. Enough, anyway, to amass into a thick, chitinous shell. It’s no wonder the activity lost grip on its language of self.

But for all of its private jargon, skateboarding’s poetry has never been linguistic. It is forever embodied and also, though this is difficult to speak of seriously, spiritual. How else to explain its appearance in Uganda without even a single retail outlet to support it? In fact, the only conveyable language of skateboarding, outside of participation and socialization in the activity itself, has always been spoken through film.

In broad terms, skate media splits time between documentation and advertisement, and their commercial evolution has skewed ever more crass and spectacular. Recent work from select video artists, however, attempts to confront the activity’s basic mystery and meaningful meaninglessness. Non-skateboarders have tended not to look very closely at these films. They mostly do not care. Skateboarders meanwhile care far too much to care exactly why. In any case, it’s here that an attempt toward a poetics of skateboarding must begin.

A poetics can come from any number of angles, though they’ll generally end in a mixture of morphology and a kind of latent promotion for the form in question. It is an exercise in legitimization. Such was Darko Suvin’s goal in his divisive 1972 essay, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” A poetics of “significant” SF would, he hoped, rescue it from the “debilitating confectionary” so pervasive in the genre.

Nor can we call such an effort unselfish. My own struggle with the mystery of skateboarding began five years ago, fifteen after I first stepped onto a board, when I began work on my second novel. The problem I encountered was that none of skateboarding’s confectionary can or should be dismissed. Speaking technically and contra Ian Mackaye, skateboarding today is a sport and a hobby both, along with countless other things: a therapy, an obsession, a conservative anti-drug. In its basic meaninglessness, skateboarding has become the tool that takes the shape of whoever’s hand it’s in.

To poeticize an object is to weigh its usefulness as a heuristic. Doing so requires a sense of history, which for skateboarding begins in post-war America, though nobody knows where or when. The prevailing legend starts with a scooter with its handlebars broken, or perhaps stolen. The origin tale lodged inside of 1985’s Back to the Future is as close as we can get.

They were flat, narrow planks of timber affixed to rigid frameworks stolen from rollerskates. Their wheels were metal at first, and then clay, and their riders wove shirtless through Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee films. There must have been something uncanny about their appeal. The skateboard tapped into a long mythos of four-wheeled objects with uninflated wheels—the carriage, red wagon, dolly, and other labor-driven devices aimed at conquering space and time. By 1965, they were kind enough to disappear.

Thank technology for skateboarding’s second act. First came the early 1970’s realization of soft, grippy polyurethane to replace the brittle, rattling wheels of tradition. The new wheels changed the very nature of skateboard movements: now there was friction to lean back against and leverage into sharp turns across schoolyard embankments. Suddenly there was style to the activity, tucked knees and dropped arms, along with a new factor of progression. Bigger and faster, of course, because this was America. But also stranger, with previously unconsidered lines finding new expression across bland schoolyard blacktops. These were hitherto unseen, even unconsidered maneuvers harvested from the ether, revealed in private dreams, and their expression meant a process of reinterpreting the landscapes of Southern California. And with the region’s record droughts came restrictions of how and when property owners could use water, leaving hundreds of swimming pools unfilled.

Quickly, then, did the geist of skateboarding shift, or more accurately, emerge. What in those first years had fit awkwardly into a de facto rubric of athletics—a sport to be timed and judged for athletic merit—became in the 1970s something more rhetorical. The ethos was the punk scavenging of revolution by way of repurposing. Whatever prefigurations of the object we had seen, never before had they been deployed creatively. To speak in China Mieville’s terms, what emerged was something counterposed to the comfort of the uncanny. The activity, new, unrecognized, and bounded only by imagination, was abcanny.

For the forty years that followed, two forces—one internal, rhetorical, and senseless, the other imposed by the external marketplace and institution of sport—have waged a sort of weaponless war. In the 1980s the venue shifted to constructed ramps and parks, and the arguments receded as once again the culture embraced the language of competition and commercialism, the fluorescent decadence of ready-made halfpipe spectacle. But beneath this reflective surface grew a new, parasitic zine culture, one that would become the backbone of DIY independence that would prove necessary in the coming decade, when skateboarding’s private golden era overlapped with the nadir of its social standing. How simple it was in the 1990s! Skater fags were fags and jocks were jocks, and from this rigid order came a hateful but firm harmony. This clarity diminished in the millennium, as SB’s outcast aesthetics moved gradually toward that threshold of cool to eventually bleed back into mainstream culture. Here it has stayed and swelled and lost much of the revolutionary impulse it once embodied. This, we acknowledge mournfully, is the nature of commoditization.

While the basic spirit of skateboarding might have remained constant since the addition of polyurethane, the marketplace around it quite obviously has not. Now and once again the importance of skateboarding in our time is on the increase. Today, it is on Fox. It is on ESPN with real-time algorithms for evaluating tricks. Once more the marketplace would have us comprehend skateboarding as a sport

We know on first glance that skateboarding, in its dominant form of street activity, stands apart from ball and net athletics. It seems uninterested, too, in velocity and stopwatch performances. But the first challenge to the rubric of sport begins even lower, at a semiotic level. You and I could, if we wanted, go and shoot lazy jumpshots on a netless schoolyard hoop, or go to the driving range and smack buckets of balls into the green void. We can take our gloves to the park and throw grounders and pop flies and apply tags to invisible runners. But for any of these to qualify as “basketball,” “golf,” or “baseball,” we would require the structure of competition and order of rules.

Systems such as these have no bearing on skateboarding, of which even the most negligible acts, no matter how brief or private, simply are skateboarding. Consider: between my home and the nearest skatepark is a well-paved boulevard with sewer caps embedded into the blacktop every half block or so. A source of joy for me is to push down this boulevard and pop tiny ollies over these sewer caps, sometimes barely scraping my tail, other times popping hard and pulling my knees up to my chest. These are not tricks proper, just ways to see and engage with the street’s reality. This is not, as athletes might call it, practice; I am not training for a future event. It is travel, yes, but the joy has little to do with the scenery or distance covered. In the purview of skate competition, this pushing down the boulevard, the single most fun I have in any given day, is not a scorable act of skateboarding. It is worth zero and it is worth everything.

In a world increasingly data-driven and surveilled, skateboarding lives beneath scoring and resists all datazation by establishing everything as a performance. It deflects the surveillance state by its primal devotion to documenting and sharing itself, monitoring every possible development, repetition, and failure. It pre-empts the onslaught of observation by embracing it. To pre-empt is to deflect, but also to admit defeat. Luckily, skateboarders are shameless—in this way, they’re the perfect actors to play the role of themselves.

Our potential heuristic now approaches what literary and cultural theorists today speak of, with a smirk, as the so-called authentic self. But a skater, whether standing on his stage, behind a camera, or at a keyboard, sees and thinks and performs precisely as what and who he is. What other memberships function in this or a similar manner? Parenthood. Romantic partnership. Citizenship. Does artistry?

To date, the most complete attempt to theorize skateboarding has been Iain Borden’s Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body (Berg, 2001). Borden, a Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at The Bartlett, University College London, treats the activity of skateboarding as a Lefebvrian practice with a potential to become its own sort of architecture: not of construction, but by the “production of space, time, and social being.” He traces the history of skateboarding into the 1990s’ street skating movement, and speaks of the way this “oppositional subculture” rethinks architecture “as a set of discrete features and elements…recomposing it through new speeds, spaces and times.” The gears of capitalism create spaces in which behavior is prescribed and easily accounted for. Skateboarding’s opposition is thus a compositional process, partially of the individual body, which is recomposed against the “intense scopic determinations of modernist space,” and partially of a deeper critique of urban life: “production not as the production of things but of play, desires and actions.”

For primary sources Borden dove into a trove of skateboard magazines both American and British. His book is spotted with action photographs taken from these mags, but the static nature of the photograph is, here, Borden’s limitation. Because movement is the core of skateboarding’s character, and because it is always performative, a poetics of the activity must engage with the visual sound of its primary expression, the skate video.

Until very recently, the standard procedure for these films included the convex of an extreme fisheye lens. This resulted in a center-heavy obsession with the skater’s body, distorting all scale and limiting environmental context.

By contrast, today’s most compelling skateboarding films aim to capture not only the play of skateboarding, but enact what Borden calls the “positive dialectic that restlessly searches for new possibilities of representing, imagining and living our lives.” The “Panoramic Series” from Philip Evans, for example, relieves the actor from the full burden of attention. Here Evans follows Phil Zwijsen through his hometown of Antwerp:

In two shots between 0:33 and 0:43, we see Zwijsen’s feet pushing hard from the screen’s right to left, our only audio the ambient clatter of wheels over sidewalk seams. Then the camera resets, and we see him harness his labor by appearing in from the right once again and speeding up a bank and onto a wall, landing, and adding quick no-comply that eventually finds him, once more, reaching the frame’s left. Breadth, here, the film’s aspect ratio, upends the common assumption of skater violence against his chosen terrain. The relationship we see is nuanced, even symbiotic, and exists beneath the trick itself.

Or consider Quik by Colin Kennedy, in which one of skateboarding’s dialectic relationships—between stasis and motion—achieves a relative synthesis by way of the director’s technique. At first, we observe the city as a local might, shot in passing through a car window.

The skater, Austyn Gillette, appears only after the environmental context, resulting in a portrait not of one or the other, but both. The subject is, as skateboarding’s always has been in practice, the interactions between city and individual body. Alongside recent work by Mike Manzoori, Evan Schiefelbine and select others, these films find energy beyond the progressive trickery of athletics, or the documentation of extant geographies. They combine the skateboarder’s practice—creative, productive—with a distinctly non-skateboarding meta-awareness of the activity’s potential for meaning. Their grounding within the geist of skateboarding is obvious: there is nothing a skater spots more quickly than the fraud, or tourist. These are films made by skateboarders who have lived within the activity’s world, and who choose to leverage the activity as a tool to understand itself. How long, they ask, must a toy endure before it becomes something else? What does it become, and does this mean it has ceased to be a toy?

Even still, Thomas Campbell’s Cuatros Sueños Pequeños arrives as a thing unique, exhaling in one long, sustained, dreamy breath the artist’s own approach to skateboarding poetics. Noted today for his sculptures and paintings, Campbell’s earliest work came in the 1980s, either as skateboard photography or teenage zine-making, depending how we define “work.” In any case, the artistic impulses that have shaped his life were themselves shaped by skateboarding. Without it, he’s not sure he would have been a creative person at all.

Shot on 16 mm film, Cuatros is, on one view, a return to the form Campbell discovered in 1995’s A Love Supreme (above), a languid profile of New York City that exhibits what for the day was a unique agnosticism for tricks. Instead, significance is found in the granular warmth of the film, what Campbell speaks of as a dance. Campbell’s projects—film and skateboarding, along with his painting, sculpting, sewing, living—are regressive and analog mechanisms.

But here the commonalities between his films end. Cuatros opens with Javier Mendizabal moving in and out of focus as he prepares himself for bed. There is no dialogue in the film, and no audio beyond the film’s score, which is an instrumental rock affair of the expressionist sort, with leitmotifs and refrains but no clear structure. Mendizabal’s first dream opens from a perspective very low on a concrete bridge with red metal work reaching toward a sharp blue of nearly cloudless sky. Mendizabal comes rolling toward us. Then we see clouds rolling in time lapse viewed, somehow, from above.

We are drawn through a parade of naturalistic images that have little relation to skateboarding. Mendizabol rolls down a mountain road through verdant green forestry and we watch first from the hillside, then from road-level, and then from a helicopter above. Seaside, he dives headfirst into the surf, and the sun glimmers through the water. His board is tethered to him by a rope. He emerges, leaves a wet footprint, then he’s descending a walkway alongside a massive set of stairs. He’s pushing in front of a stunning Spanish monument.

In fact it’s not until nearly three minutes in that we see our first proper skateboarding trick. It is a quiet, impressive ollie across a double doorway set into the natural transition of another bit of Spanish modernist architecture. From this point on, Mendizabal’s character engages what might be a quest, or tour, or even retreat through forest, desert, ocean, and sky. Each shot lasts a matter of seconds in a sequence that, like the music, lingers here or there but lacks clear through-line.

Wonderfully, there is no possible map or atlas to Mendizabal’s travels. The search, if it is a search, is for what? Beauty? Check. Occasionally we’re shown his sleeping face fading in and out of screen, the sheets of his bed ruffled but his girlfriend asleep peacefully. It is all quite beautiful. But what else? It is never exactly confusing. The search continues and is not, we cannot say that it’s in vain. It’s a dream scrubbed of all psychoanalytic debris, all leftover fibers of exhausted meanings. There is no argument, per se, but you can feel something working quietly beneath the surface. When we see two figures, one presumably Mendizabal, wearing winged costumes and romping through mountain, we presume the second small dream has begun. Good, we think. Here we go. But this is only a flash before we’re following Mendizabal through a series of snaking halfpipes and other pathways. Is there pain, here? He falls, is jostled awake before falling quickly back asleep.

At seven minutes we encounter Madars Apse clapping powdered palms that he holds open to the camera. In real life Apse is a gangly, blonde, and very talented Latvian skater known for irreverence. They find each other in a Spanish alleyway that we see from above, below, then again from a rooftop vantage, before they descend another bridge as a pair. Their familiarity is certain; I think of DeLillo’s truants gathered outside of the Polo Grounds who “have found one another by means of slidy looks that detect the fellow foolhard and here they stand.” This, I think, this is how skateboarding works, a tribal recognition I’ve never quite described. Where did Apse come from? From skateboarding, that active somnolence that recombines extant selves, that revaluates space and time. We infect each other’s dreams.

The other discovery we witness is Campbell’s, and thus our own—we’re discovering this landscape along with his dreamers, and his filmmaker’s treatment of the relevant lines and colors is quilted with the skaters’. At times, his compositions take the point of view of the fugitive nestled among the rocks who hears something coming and cannot resist looking, even knowing it could be his end. It is as if discovery were a synonym of fate. It is as if skateboarding’s own mysteries are playing out in front of our eyes.

In terms of tricks, Cuatros offers, by my count, one every 21 seconds—52 total, an even split of 26 per dreamer, spread over 18:42. This, to be clear, is a laughable rate in terms of mainstream skate media, and turgid even alongside Quik’s one trick every 14.32 seconds. But who says trickery has to be the point? Who says there is any point at all? Instead we are trapped in a labyrinth of alleyways with a disheveled and frantic Apse. First he has his board under his arm, and he’s running. Then the board is gone and his frenetic movements get more desperate and awkward, like a grounded bird. The light is low and pale, and still we’ve no map. Our host, the sleeping Mendizabal, has eyes that turn to clocks running backward. Madness reigns, and all of us, Apse included, search for release.

The Fin arrives soon enough, in what might be its first non-ironic appearance in the history of skateboarding. But not before Apse takes over the stage of Mandizabal’s dream. He is a pale giant, younger and more agile than the original dreamer (and filmmaker, too), the film’s final reflection. Thus the anxiety of replacement familiar to any skater over the age of, say twenty-four. Our mysterious noun, “skateboarding,” does indeed signify a dialectic between artistic play and competition. We cannot avoid comparing Mendizabal and Apse, nor are we warned against it. The spirit, though, cycles beneath trend and capital, a dream space where natural world, architectural monument, and urban timespaces overlap. Apse’s switchstance ollie of a double set of stairs is an act of avian mimicry. His kickflip-firecracker is a dream maneuver, a thing of insane imagination that opens, or reveals, a second dream world that is Apse’s own expression—this time, yes, inside the other.

Roberto Bolaño called surrealism “something convulsive and vague, that familiar amorphous thing.” If indeed there is ever to be a poetics of skateboarding, familiarity will have to play a role. Suvin argued that science fiction’s value lay in its ability to effect cognitive estrangement. Campbell’s film documents and creates ostranenie by the re-presentation of a familiar world as captured by, and portrayed through, the glance of the radical dreamer. In fact, what Cuatros does better than any film I’ve seen is remind us that skateboarding’s heuristic usefulness is ontological. Its topos is not that there is a world inside the world, but rather: there is a world the exact shape and texture of the world that you know laid seamlessly over top of it, and you, for some reason, fail to see how beautiful it can be.

Convulsive, vague, and conveyed by slidy looks. Campbell’s subject is our ineffable, binding thing, that lurking, trembling essence that he can only render by images and motions of the surreal. The artist whose art was born from skateboarding has made an object about skateboarding that conveys this birth and mode of being. Skateboarding infects the filmmaker infects the musicians infects the viewer. Viewer goes out skating. Skateboarding is self-perpetuating in this way. It is always itself and something else, it is infectious, it is comprehensive and sublatable to the core. This is how the infinite comes to be—once born, skateboarding can never now die.

But the dreamscape of Cuatros Sueños Pequeños is not an expression of this infinity. Rather, it is mimetic. What world is this?, asks the skateboarder. A familiar one we have seen so many times that it’s rendered unseeable. More importantly, what is to be done in it? The answer, like Campbell’s film, is incoherent, and thank goodness. The answer is anything at all.