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A Performative Critique of the American City: the Urban Practice of Skateboarding, 1958-1998
(Posted 5/19/2001)

A Performative Critique of the American City: the Urban Practice of Skateboarding, 1958-1998 *

Iain Borden *

Surely it is the supreme illusion to defer to architects, urbanists or planners as being experts or ultimate authorities in matters relating to space. (1)

Lefebvre’s attitude toward space has come to be widely held across different disciplines and discourses. Architects and planners may be the functionaries and ideologists of urban space, but their schema and drawings, their buildings and planned spaces, do not themselves constitute urban space. Rather, urban space is a continual reproduction, involving not just material objects and practices, not just codified texts and representations, but also imaginations and experiences of space.

What I want to do in this paper is to explore a particular kind of urban space production, one which utilises the objects and spaces of the city, but which does itself produce any objectival thing. In particular, I want to focus on the compositional and representational mode of skateboarding, to consider how it represents the city without maps, and how it speaks something of the city, without recourse to theory or texts.

From Surf to Streets

Skateboarding began in the beach cities of California *, first in the late 1950s through to the early 1970s as a surfer’s activity, emulating the surf moves on the hard surfaces of urban subdivisions and rolling tarmac.

By the mid 1970s skaters had located a variety of what I call found terrains, on which they further extended their surf-related moves. These ranged from schoolyard banks, such as those at Kenter School in the Brentwood area of LA, to drainage ditches, such as Stoker Hill, to concrete pipes found out in the desert. Most importantly of all, skaters discovered that once drained of water, the round, keyhole or kidney shaped swimming pools favoured in many of the more moneyed LA residences offered a curved transition from floor to wall. Skaters carved up the walls, explored the limits of the tile and coping, and even the space beyond the wall with "aerial" moves in which the skater

In the late 1970s, such moves became even more dramatic in the new skateparks * – purpose-built, commercial facilities built all over the US, UK * and other countries worldwide. Such skateparks typically offered a range of elements, including dramatically exaggerated pools, replete with tiles and coping – some of the most famous include the skatepark at Marina del Rey (Los Angeles) and "Pipeline) (Uplands, Los Angeles *) in the USA * and "The Rom" (Romford) and "Solid Surf" (Harrow) in the UK.

But from the early 1980s onward, skateboarding has increasingly gone back to the streets, not to so much to the suburban drives of California but to the inner city cores of other cities worldwide. The urban practice of skateboarding has become a global phenomenon, with I estimate around 20-40 million dedicated practitioners dispersed through just about every modern city worldwide. The centre of it all remains, however, the USA, with new centres like Philadelphia *, Chicago *, New York * and San Francisco * joining Los Angeles as major concentrations of skate activity. Here, in the modernist city, skaters ride on to the walls, benches, ledges, railings, fire hydrants and other paraphernalia of the urban street.

There is also a social and cultural dimension to this, for skateboarding in fact represents a totalising urban subculture, complete with its own graphic design, language, music, magazines, junk food and codes of behaviour. It postulates certain attitudes towards matters of gender relations, race, sexuality and masculinity. Above all, this is a subculture which rejects work, the family and normative American values. As one American skater put it,

Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, weed, beer, pills, needles, alcohol etc., etc., are all typical hobbies of all the typical people in all the typical states in the typical country of the United States * of Amerika [. . .] Why be a clone? Why be typical? (2)

This is a totalising subculture, in which partial allegiance is to miss the point and which ultimately presents the skater with a single binary choice: skate or be stupid.

Skateboarding thus brings together a concern to live out an idealised present, trying to live outside of society while being simultaneously within its very heart(3). But for skateboarders to produce themselves in this way, their activity must take place in the streets of the city. Its representational mode is not that of writing, drawing or theorising, but of performing – of speaking their meanings and critiques of the city through their urban actions. Here in the movement of the body across urban space, and in its direct interaction with the modern architecture of the city, lies the central critique of skateboarding – a rejection both of the values and of the spatio-temporal modes of living in the contemporary capitalist city.

The skater’s engagement with the city is, in particular, a run across its terrains, with momentary settlings and encounters with all manner of diverse objects and spaces: ledges, walls, hydrants, rails, steps, benches, planters, bins, kerbs, banks and so on. In the words of Stacy Peralta *,

[ S ]katers can exist on the essentials of what is out there. Any terrain. For urban skaters the city is the hardware on their trip (4).

In this sense, skaters see the city as a set of objects. Yet cities are not things, but the apparent form of the urbanisation process (5), and are in fact filled with ideas, culture and memories, with flows of money, information and ideologies, and are dynamically constitutive of the continual reproduction of the urban. To see the city as a collection of objects is then to fail to see its real character. And this is exactly the failure one could say of skateboarding, which does little or nothing to analyse the processes which form the urban; instead, the phenomenal procedures of skateboarding rely entirely on the objectival nature of the city, treating its surfaces – horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved – as the physical ground on which to operate.

Yet within this failure lies a profound critique of the city qua object-thing. Capitalism has replaced the city as oeuvre – the unintentional and collective work of art, richly significant yet embedded in everyday life (6) – with "repetitive spaces," "repetitive gestures" and standardised things of all kinds to be exchanged and reproduced, differentiated only by money (7). Skateboarding, however, at once accepts and denies this presentation of cities as collections of repetitive things. On the one hand, skateboarders accept it, by focusing purely on the phenomenal characteristics of architecture, on its compositions of planes, surfaces and textures as accessible to the skateboarder.

Look around. Look at a world full of skate shapes [. . .] shapes left there by architects for you to skate (8).

Here the city and its architecture is undoubtedly a thing. On the other hand, it is also through this very focus on the phenomenal that a change is made. When skateboarders ride along a wall, over a fire hydrant or up a building, they are entirely indifferent to its function or ideological content. They are therefore no longer even concerned with its presence as a building, as a composition of spaces and materials logically disposed to create a coherent urban entity. By focusing only on certain elements (ledges, walls, banks, rails) of the building, skateboarders deny architecture’s existence as a discrete three-dimensional indivisible thing, knowable only as a totality, and treat it instead as a set of floating, detached, physical elements isolated from each other; where architects’ considerations of building "users" (9) imply a quantification of the body subordinate to space and design, the skater’s performative body has, "the ability to deal with a given set of pre-determined circumstances and to extract what you want and to discard the rest."(10) Skateboarding reproduces architecture in its own measure, re-editing it as series of surfaces, textures and micro-objects.

Buildings are building blocks for the open minded (11).

Architecture (following here Lefebvre’s body-centric formulations) "reproduces itself within those who use the space in question, within their lived experience."(12) This occurs in skateboarding through architecture being encountered in relation to height, tactility, transition, slipperiness, roughness, damage to skin on touching, damage to body from a fall, angle and verticality, sequencing, drops (stairs and ramps), kinks and shape (hand-rails), profiles (edges), materials, lengths and so on. And only a very small part of the architecture is used – the "building" for a skater only an extracted edit of its total existence.

For example, a particular English * school in Ipswich is known by skaters not as a building or function, but for its handrails.

[ T ]ravel to Ipswich and ask to check out the school with the handrails, they’ll know which one and it’s sick (13).

Also in Ipswich, Suffolk College was known primarily for its roof, stairs and ledges, a specific church was known for the wooden benches outside, another school for some steps, and an entire us air base for a single, yellow fire hydrant (14).

Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, (1985, architect John Portman), and offering the usual Portman features of vast glass elevations, spectacular atrium, rocket ship elevators and internal glitz (15), was reconceived by skaters as "modern day skate architecture" and identified for its "tight transitions *," "black walls," street-level walkway and for its planters (16). Similarly, New York’s Museum of Natural History became "100 yards of Italian marble, marble benches curbed for frontside and backside rails, six steps, and statues of famous dudes with marble bases [. . .] basically an awesome skate arena."(17)

What ties these elements together is neither compositional, structural, servicing or functional logic, but the entirely separate logic composed from the skateboarder’s moving rapidly from one building or urban element * to another. Such "strategies embracing architecture"(18) select what in design-architectural terms are a discontinuous series of walls, surfaces, steps and boundaries, but which in skateboarding’s space-time become a flow of encounters and engagements between board, body and terrain.

Find it. Grind it. Leave it behind (19).

Skateboarding here resists the standardisation and repetition of the city as a serial production of building types, functions and discrete objects; it decentres building-objects in time and space in order to recompose them as a strung-out yet newly synchronous arrangement. Thus while many conceive of cities as comprehensive urban plans, monuments or grands projets, skateboarding suggests that cities can be thought of as series of micro-spaces. Consequently, architecture is seen to lie beyond the province of the architect and is thrown instead into the turbulent nexus of reproduction (20).

On the street the urban blight is being reworked to new specifications. The man on the avenue is the architect of the future. [. . .] There are now no formalized plans. Invent your own life (21).

Through such compositions, skateboarding brings back that which strictly economistic Marxism evacuates – it brings back the dream, imaginary and "poetic being,"(22) what one skater called the "skate of the art."(23) Skateboarding points to the resurrection of the urban not as a product, but as a way of living.

Performing Cities

Skateboarding is, then, at one level an aesthetic rather than ethical practice, using the "formants" at its disposal to create an alternative reality (24). Skateboarders analyse architecture not for historical, symbolic or authorial content but for how surfaces present themselves as skateable surfaces. This is what Thrasher skateboard magazine calls the "skater’s eye:"

People who ride skateboards look at the world in a very different way. Angles, spots, lurkers and cops all dot the landscape that we all travel (25).

How then does this aesthetic activity take place? What techniques or modes of representation are involved?

As already noted, skateboarders undertake a discontinuous edit of architecture and urban space, recomposing their own city from different places, locations, urban elements, routes and times. The city for the skateboarder becomes a kind of capriccio, the tourist’s postcard where various architectural sites are compressed into an irrational (in time and space) view,(26) except the editing tool is here not eye, camera or tourist coach but motile body.

One effect of this is that a different kind of canon of city architecture is drawn up – substituting everyday architecture for great monuments and buildings by famous architects. The city for skateboarders is not buildings but a set of ledges, window sills, walls, roofs, railings, porches, steps, salt bins, fire hydrants, bus benches, water tanks, newspaper stands, pavements, planters, kerbs, handrails, barriers, fences, banks, skips, posts, tables and so on "To us these things are more."(27) New York, for example, is for skaters not the New York of the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park and Chrysler Building, but of the Bear Stearns Building (46th and 47th, Park and Lexington), "Bubble banks" (south side of 747 3rd Avenue), "Harlem banks" (Malcolm x Avenue and 139th), "Brooklyn banks" (Manhattan end of Brooklyn Bridge), Washington * Square Park, Mullaly Park in Brooklyn, Marriott Marquis Hotel (45th and Broadway), Bell Plaza banks etc.(28) Washington, by the same process, became known architecturally to skaters as Pulaski Park, National Geographic Building, Federal Welfare Archives, Georgetown School banks, "Gold Rail" and "White Steps."(29) Other cities receive the same treatment; Tokyo, for example, becomes Akihabara Park, "jabu jabu" banks in Shinjuku, ledges at Tokyo Station, curbs at Yotsuya Station, banks at Tokyo Taikan and so on.

What is the mode involved in such a recomposition? Occasionally, this takes the form of a map or geographic list, such as alternative routes through Bristol (30) or the Knowhere internet site, where nearly every skate location in the uk is identified. (31) But more usually a more localised kind of mapping takes place. Skate magazines in the 1990s, have tended to focus less on professional skaters, major cities and well-known skate places and more on local skate scenes – the "streets and back yards of Anytown" (32) – like those in Oxted, Ipswich, Oxford, Milton Keynes, High Wycombe, Stroud, Cirencester and Cardiff; in the us, a single issue of Slap, for example, covered not just la (the oldest centre of skateboarding) but also places like Sacramento (California), Fort Lauderdale (Florida) and the urban backwaters of Nevada *, Utah *, Iowa *, Kentucky *, Connecticut *, and New Jersey *. (33) In such articles, the reader-skater finds descriptions of local banks, rails, curbs etc., not just to encourage a visit, but to generally demonstrate that such locations are to be found in all urban centres, and so available to all urban skaters.

Here are more pictures of Everyman skating in Everytown. It could be your town. It could be you (34)

This is a communication which engenders empathy and similarity between towns and skaters, not a spectacularised Other of terrain and personalities.

In their own locality, therefore, the skateboarder’s cognitive representation is neither map nor directory, for skateboarding is "hard to put onto paper," (35) nor of a spectacularised centre-point, but a mental knowledge composed of highly detailed local knowledge about dispersed places, micro-architectures and accessible times.

always be on the alert for a possible spot [. . .] Be alert [...] keep your eyes open and your head oscillating (36).

Skaters’ representations thus have more in common with the Situationist tactics of the dérive, détournement and psychogeography – "maps" composed from the opportunities offered by the physical and emotional contours of the city, and, above all, enacted through a run across different spaces and moments (37).

I’m directed most to movements, the way I travel, the directions I move in. I follow my feelings (38).

Skating is a continual search for the unknown (39).

Skateboarders’ representational maps are thus always situated through a continual re-living of the city – "an open mind always seeking out new lines and possibilities." (40) Skaters attempt neither to "see" the city or comprehend it as a totality, but to live it as simultaneously representation and physicality.

Walls aren’t just walls, banks aren’t just banks, curbs aren’t just curbs and so on [. . .] mapping cities out in your head according to the distribution of blocks and stairs, twisting the meaning of your environment around to fit your own needs and imagination. It’s brilliant being a skateboarder isn’t it? (41).

Another distinction from conventional maps concerns temporality. In the aerial form of map, the entire city is understood simultaneously within a single glance – but in skateboarders’ cognitive mapping the time is that of the run, composed of a disparate objects in a sequence (linear time), with some objects "read" once (isolated time), others encountered several times (repeated time) and still others returned to again and again on different occasions (cyclical time). The whole run can also be repeated the same or differently (differential time). As one skater described the experience of skateboarding among traffic:

Ridin’ from spot to spot, at high speed, during rush hour is my version of the ultimate test for any urban "street skater." On a good day, when all the stop lights are working in my favour, I feel like I’ve figured out where my place is in this fucked-up world. That lasts for maybe a minute, then the feeling disappears and I’m lost again. So it goes (42).

Skateboarders are thus more concerned with temporal distance as proximity (temporal closeness of things, temporal locality), and its repetition, than with time as a valuable resource or measure of efficiency; time for skaters is what is lived, experienced and produced, not what is required.

It’s about time, it’s about space, it’s about time to skate someplace (43).

Another aspect of this sense of adaptive temporality concerns memory and documentation, for the skateboarder’s is not an historical but everyday memory, often surviving only for the period in which a set of places are skated. Skateboarders thus negate the "historical" time of the city, being wholly unconcerned with the many decades and processes of its construction, so that the city appears out-of-the-blue with no temporal past. "I’ve always lived for the present. I live for the present."(44)

Nor is the city recorded by skateboarders, but is that of the here-and-now, the immediate object, re-born each day of the skater’s run. "This isn’t art, it isn’t business, it’s life." (45) Just, then, as skateboarders do not attempt to understand the city, nor do they try to document it. Skateboarding leaves almost no text to be read; its marks and assaults leave virtually no discernible script for others to translate and comprehend. These kinds of marks are about the only "text" left by the activity of skateboarding itself.

Skateboarding is, then, less a mode of writing or drawing, and more a mode of speaking of the city – that "speech doubling" (46) which at once interrogates and increases the meaning of the city, while leaving its original text intact. Above all, speech requires the actual presence of the subject, the active speaker of the city. Speaking-skateboarding is not a mimicking of the city, an oration of a pre-given text, but a performative utterance wherein the speaker forms anew themselves and the city.

The new urban strategist realizes that while it may not pay to be different, no one can really afford the price of being the same. In the new master plan, conformation has been replaced by confrontation. Act, don’t react, turn off the air conditioner go outside and move. (47)

It is, therefore, in the continual performance of skateboarding that its meaning and actions are manifested; as one skateboard maxim puts it, "shut up and skate." These are not things which can be simply seen or understood through pure abstraction; like any socio-spatial rhythm, skateboarding requires a multiplicity of senses, thoughts and activities to be represented and comprehended. Above all, because the experiencer relates the fundamental conditions of their own temporality to that of the world outside, they create a subject-object engagement that is ultimately a lived form of dialectical thought. They produce themselves bodily and socially, and they produce the city in terms of their own specific bodily encounter with it.

[Iain Borden is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at The Bartlett, University College London *.]

Endnotes

(1) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 *), p. 94.
(2)
Gary Davis, "Steep Slopes," Thrasher, v.3 n.5 (May 1983), p. 8.
(3)
Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes September 1959 - May 1961, (London: Verso, 1995 *), p. 301-2.
(4)
Stacy Peralta, interview, Interview, n.17, (July 1987 *), pp. 102-3.
(5)
David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996 *), p. 418.
(6)
Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (eds.), p. 101.
(7)
Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 75.
(8)
"Where?," R.A.D., n.79 (September 1989 *), p. 18.
(9)
Lefebvre, Production of Space, pp. 338-9.
(10)
John Smythe, "The History of the World and Other Short Subjects, or, From Jan and Dean to Joe Jackson Unabridged," SkateBoarder, v.6 n.10 (May 1980), p. 29.
(11)
"Searching, Finding, Living, Sharing", R.A.D., n.79 (September 1989), p. 15.
(12)
Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 137.
(13)
"Fire and Friends," Sidewalk Surfer, n.3 (January-February 1996), unpaginated.
(14)
"Fire and Friends," unpaginated.
(15)
Elliott Willensky and Norval White, AIA Guide to New York *, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, third edition, 1988 *), p. 230.
(16)
Kevin Wilkins, "New England * Hot Spots," TransWorld Skateboarding, v.9 n.11 (November 1991), p. 43.
(17)
Pete and the Posse, letter, Thrasher, v.11 n.9 (September 1991), p. 6.
(18)
Santa Cruz *, advertisement, Action Now, v.7 n.12 (July 1981), p. 53.
(19)
"Blast From the Past," Thrasher, v.17 n.9 (September 1997 *), p.. 56.
(20)
Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell, "Narratives of Architecture in the City," Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell (eds.), Strangely Familiar: Narratives of Architecture in the City, (London: Routledge 1996), p. 9.
(21)
John Smythe, "No Parking," Action Now, v.8 n.2 (September 1981), p. 55.
(22)
Henri Lefebvre, Espaces et Sociétés, v.4 (1976-8), p. 270, quoted in Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, "Lost in Transposition," Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, p. 23.
(23)
Stacy Peralta, "Skate of the Art, ’85," Thrasher, v.5 n.8 (August 1985 *), pp. 38-40.
(24)
Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, p. 321.
(25)
"Skater’s Eye," Thrasher, v.17 n.1 (January 1997), p. 71.
(26)
Barry Curtis, "Venice Metro," Borden, Kerr, Pivaro and Rendell (eds.), Strangely Familiar, p. 45.
(27)
"Searching, Finding, Living, Sharing", p. 15.
(28)
Marco Contati, "New York, New York," Skateboard!, (second series), n.43 (June 1990 *), pp. 32-41; "Skatetown: New York City *," Thrasher, v.9 n.10 (October 1989), pp. 58-65 and 106; and Wilkins, "New England," p. 43.
(29)
Pete Thompson, "Washington dc," TransWorld Skateboarding, v.13 n.5 (May 1995), pp. 86-9; and Andy Stone, interview, TransWorld Skateboarding, v.13 n.5 (May 1995), pp. 90-3.
(30)
Steve Kane, "Street Life: Bristol," Skateboard!, n.15 (November 1978), pp. 36-9.
(31)
Knowhere internet site, (accessed 7 February 1997).
(32)
"From Surf to Hellbows: the Styling of Street," R.A.D., n.75, (May 1989), p. 60.
(33)
Slap, v.6 n.1 (January 1997). See also Jerry Mander, "Sacto Locals," TransWorld Skateboarding, v.9 n.10 (October 1991), pp. 80-5.
(34)
"Scary Places," R.A.D., n.82, (December 1989), p. 20.
(35)
Ewan Bowman, "Comment," Sidewalk Surfer, n.13 (January-February 1997), unpaginated.
(36)
Gary Davis, "Radical Manifesto," Thrasher, v.2 n.2 (February 1982), p. 18, reprinted from Skate Fate, (Cincinnati, Ohio *).
(37)
Guy Debord, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography" and "Theory of the Dérive," Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), pp. 5-8 and 50-4.
(38)
Rodney Mullen *, interview, R.A.D., n.74, (April 1989), p. 28.
(39)
Caine Gayle, "Multiple Choice Through Words and Pictures," Slap, v.4 n.9 (September 1995), p. 33.
(40)
Christopher James Pulman, "An Environmental Issue," Sidewalk Surfer, n.1 (September-October 1995), unpaginated.
(41)
"Twisted," Sidewalk Surfer, n.14 (March 1997), unpaginated.
(42)
Jesse Driggs, "Swamp Trogs from Outer Space," Thrasher, v.15 n.9 (September 1995), p. 43.
(43)
Rick Blackhart, "Ask the Doctor," Thrasher, v.11 n.11 (November 1991), p. 24.
(44)
Rune Glifberg *, interview, Sidewalk Surfer, n.14 (March 1997), unpaginated.
(45)
Mark Gonzales *, in "Trash," Thrasher, v.16 n.2 (February 1996), p. 139.
(46)
Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, (London: Transaction Publishers, 1984), p. 176.
(47)
Smythe, "No Parking," p. 57.

 

© Copyright 1998 Iain Borden.
All rights reserved

Originally found at http://www.psychogeography.co.uk/borden_on_skateboarding.htm

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