Hacking Public Space.

Cities and urban spaces of our western metropolitan areas are fertile grounds for street skating unconsciously created by the excesses of industrialization and corporate capitalism. This new kind of dystopia turned in the 70s into a set of ideal playgrounds for a group of kids riding a piece of wood with four wheels. Following what feminist cinematographer and philosopher Kate Millet thought when saying “the personal is always political”, with this text I intend to show the activity of the modern skateboarder as a way of self growth and activist action.

 

“The answers to the question ‘Is skating really needed for the world?’. Is something that non-skaters will decide in the future. So that means all our actions will change the future. I’m trying to be the first one to change”, Takahiro Morita japanese skater & artist.


1) A bit of history:

Skateboarding is a youth activity that was born at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century in the United States of America. After a brief commercial period it disappeared among the favorite toys of north-american children to later, after decades buried in the suburban garages of southern California, emerge when a bunch of bored surfers used it to imitate on asphalt the maneuvers they used to perform on the waves. Historically speaking, street-skateboarding has existed since the very beginning of this subculture, postmodern sport, or physical activity. For example, in the 60s skaters rode on their skateboards through the streets of their city to reach the beaches that were popular for surfing at that time. In the mid 70s skateboarders in Southern California actively searched for street spots in local public schools or in kidney-shaped pools. These swimming pools, so cinematographic and typical of the North American architecture, were a neuralgic center of evolution for the skating in a very concrete moment: the droughts of the year 1976. This climate event forced their owners empty their pools all over the city of Los Angeles, turning this city of California into a paradise for young skateboarders who embarked on an adventure that has not yet ended, in which they set out to dominate their surrounding urban terrain with their four-wheeled toys…

However, the origins of street skating as we know it today did not reach it’s full potential until the early 80’s when some innovative skaters began to adapt the maneuvers that were made on ramps and vertical terrain into the streets. The most famous is perhaps the “ollie” invented in a skatepark in Florida by Allan “Ollie” Gelfand and that was later readjusted to the streets by the skater and businessman Rodney Mullen. This maneuver is essential in contemporary skating and consists of lifting the skateboard from the ground by means of a self-propelled jump and without using our hands, thus defying the laws of gravity for a few moments. In this way, the skater adapting a maneuver, the ollie, to the urban scenario converts his/her surroundings into a blank canvas on which he can interact in 3D (jumping stairs, sliding railings, climbing banks…).

We will try to understand this way – through the movements in / on the city – the strength of skateboarding as a tool for the non-intellectual critique of life in contemporary cities, and as a vehicle for the “détourné” – or psychogeographic drift – an authentic experiential “collage” of our metropolitan landscapes.

2) Context shapes content:

A couple years ago a video of the forty-something years old entrepreneur and pioneering skateboarder Rodney Mullen was published on the internet showcasing his participation in a TED talk organized by the University of Southern California. This unusual character – who moves between genius and eccentricity – studied engineering at the University of Florida in addition to to be co-founder of World Industries, the biggest skate company of the 90s (later sold for more than 20 million dollars). In the aforementioned talk we can appreciate Mr. Mullen explaining how “context shapes content”, shows his support for the intrinsic value of creating something by the simple fact of doing it, and what I consider his most interesting contribution… his statement that “skaters are hackers of a creative community”. Interesting reflection made by the person considered the most innovative street skater in history and who invented most of the maneuvers performed today (flatground ollie, kickflip, 360flip…). Because it must emphasized that despite the extensive commercialization of our activity and the inclusion of skateboarding as an Olympic Game in Tokyo 2020, still in the spirit of certain skaters continues to harbor a feeling of being hackers that belong to a creative community.

But when we talk about creativity I do not mean that “look” so fashionable today in the boutiques and magazines which sell us an image of a cosmopolitan and carefree skater addicted to sophisticated graphic expressivities. Because we must undeerstand that true inventiveness is about learning to open doors to new opportunities when replicating the movements of an inherited dictionary; therefore sampling, hybridization, and remixing are indispensable tools within the creative process. For all this, I shall summarize creativity in the following symbolic phrase or formula (in clear homage to the “mitosis” and the cellular division) that ends up praising the life in pure biological terms: *{<copy> + <transform> + <combine> = (creativity) : (life)}.


3) Hackers: creativity or destruction?

It was probably the writer William Gibson who popularized the image of the hacker as a glamorous antisocial rebel or technological cowboy in novels like “Neuromancer“, but most people had not even heard the term hacker until the scandalous arrest of Kevin Mitnick in 1995. Mitnick became famous for penetrating the systems of numerous companies and government agencies. This young man represented an unknown threat in a world that reached unprecedented levels of complexity.

Today the hacker has an indisputable place in the pantheon of heroes and villains of popular culture and proof of this is the apogee of the group Anonymous, a pseudonym used worldwide by different groups and individuals to carry out actions, disruptions or publications. According to Wikipedia the term “hacker” and “hack” can have positive and negative connotations. Computer programmers often use the words hacking and hacker to express admiration for the work of a qualified software developer, but it can also be used in another sense to describe a quick but smart solution to a problem. It is not surprising then to learn the close relationship between the hacker ethic inherited from the american counterculture, the emergence of video-games and computer fan clubs at universities like MIT. This playful union between transgression and experimentation sounds like something familiar between the world of skateboarding, doesn’t it?

And here and now is the ideal time to present CR Stecyk III, an early figure writing about the relationship between skateboarding and subversive use of public space. This Los Angeles native pioneered the fusion of aerosol art and skateboarding by appropriating the aesthetics of graffiti made by Chicano bands in his city to later sell it to different business projects such as Dogtown or Powell Peralta. Way back in 1976 Stecyk wrote in his column for Skateboarder Magazine that: “skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of”. He is still currently active participating in museum exhibitions such as “Beautiful Losers” or “Art in the Streets”, although in 2018 received some heavy criticism from writer and university teacher Kyle Beachy in his text “Primitive Progressivism” describing Stecyk as an undercover guardian of white-american heteronormative morality.

So taking into account the meaning of “hacking”, can we relate the original philosophy of these “heroes and villains” with that of the skaters? Can we understand skateboarders as people committed to understanding and tinkering with the different operations that govern the design, programming codes, and laws that regulate urban space? All the knowledge a skateboarder carries is not simply vandalism, but a positive disruption in the urban, cultural and technological fields. Here we mix political activism with the hacker ethic to show the skater as a creative agent propelling some improper uses of the technology that surrounds urban space and whose purposes are apparently presented to us as simple playful acts. The skateboard is the hardware, and skateboarding our software…

4) Skate & Destroy: creative destruction?

“Skate and destroy” is a popular slogan in the skate world influenced by the punk heritage of the 80s and which makes an apology of the erosion and “destructive” act that skating produces on urban furniture and different elements that constitute this artificial environment. Despite having been marketed in different types of merchandising, even in video-games, this phrase I suggest is closely linked to the concept  of “Creative Destruction” issued by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s. According to this theory the emergence of new companies and consumers, products, production methods or markets favors economic growth.

In this sense skateboarding has served not only to create an endless series of services and products, but also through the reinterpretation and abuse of the surpluses of the corporate capitalist economy (in the form of scenarios / streets and obstacles / urban furniture) skaters have made a reinterpretation of the decadent modernist city project. This can be viewed as a clear evidence of the success of creativity versus the standardization of our contemporary lives. Therefore I dare to say that creativity is one of the great qualities of the skateboarder, a figure built socially by that evident tensions between youthful transgressive visions and the cooptation of corporations dedicated to the sale of subjectivities (which have great characteristics of north-american cultural imperialism).

Surely it is convenient to remember the controversial Richard Florida – a famous american expert in geography and economic growth – who is mainly known for his work in the development of the concept of Creative Class and its ramifications in urban regeneration. Professor Florida’s theories hold that metropolitan areas with a high concentration of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians, and homosexuals (all groups he describes as “bohemians aka “arty hipsters”) are associated with a high level of economic development. While members of the Working and Services Classes are mainly  paid to act according to an established plan, the members of the Creative Class receive their retribution above all to create, so they have a considerable greater autonomy and flexibility than the other two. In order to not enter in the classic marxist debate of class struggle we will remember the words of Buddha, who was radical enough in his time to admit that everyone was capable of experiencing enlightenment (knowledge?) regardless of their social status, sex, caste, etc… It is not where you are born or how you define what really matters, a person is simply what he does in terms of karma: cause and effect.

What really matters is to make our path while we walk, to configure our own cartographies, or what Michel De Certau described in the following way: “without a doubt, the processes of the walker can be registered in urban maps to transcribe their footprints (here heavy, there light) and their trajectories (they pass through here but not over there)”. Tracing our own lines, learning to design our own action programs, and finding creative vanishing lines are the characteristics of the skateboarder that adapts to the urban environment to exploit all its possibilities and hopefully destabilizes for a few moments the hegemony of the “spectacle city” (in a pure Situationist point of view). We are already warned by the catalan anthropologist Manuel Delgado that the concept of “public space” it’s a new one that arose in the decade of the 90s in the USA, and that it is closely linked to real estate development and the economic development of cities. It is curious to observe how this vision is opposed to our usual “misconception” of libertarian overtones that expects from the city an environment of equity. In the words of this indispensable anthropologist: “the objective of making this mystical public space a reality is what makes any appropriation considered inappropriate on the street or in the square to be quickly neutralized (…), especially by a disabling and then an expulsion of those who dare to disown or deny the utopia“.

However, and taking up the concept of innovation as creativity, from the perspective of the french sociologist of science Bruno Latour and the Theory of the Actor-Network it would be necessary to move away from these ideas as mental processes of the “genius-entrepreneur” that resides in the interior of the subjects (idea raised by Florida and influenced by the concept “creative destruction” by Joseph Schumpeter). In that sense, innovation and creation imply a highly pragmatic collaborative work, of constant negotiation, adjustment and reconfiguration between subjects, technologies and materials. Hence the importance of the group of skaters or community, either in the internal negotiation as a creative entity or as a catalyst for a commercial youth movement, since it will be necessary to understand and decode the languages, hieroglyphs and interventions made by this urban athletes in our public space.

Therefore, it is essential to understand that this approach is very different from the typical image of skateboarding in the media, since the commercialization, mercantilization, and commodification of an underground style (skateboarding with a “hacker” spirit) that creates a small community committed to an innovative style (artistically, politically …) is basically a very specialized vision that is almost indecipherable for the general public. I think it’s time to take to the streets and act like wild metamodernist skater!

5) Resilience: skateboarding as DIY therapy?

“What does not kill me makes me stronger” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in “The decline of the idols” (1889) in clear reference to resilience, the ability to face adversity coming out strengthened. This is a characteristic intimately linked to Schumpeter’s innovative entrepreneur, who is an unusual individual for his energy even after temporary failures and who finally reaches by his vitality a state of excellence. Which reminds us of how many times will a skater fall to the ground until he has master the toy he carries to his feet. According to Schumpeter this icon comes from any social class and dreams of creating an economic empire (a name, a brand) therefore it is not strange to see how Richard Florida tells us that people in the creative class, that new “social category” that raises so many blisters and passions, prefer the so-called extreme sports (or postmodernists as I prefer to call them). These action sports require a continuous involvement, both in the physical plane and in the metal, and reward us by expanding our possibilities as we acquire more skills trying new and more complicated challenges.

In this way the skater with a hacker attitude breaks stereotypes and is for a few moments a street ninja whose mission, message and virtuality evokes the tasty thought of the Tunisian philosopher Pierre Lévy who tells us that: “(…) this maximum incarnation in this place at this time it is only obtained by making the limits tremble. Between air and water, between the earth and the sky, between the ground and the top, the surfer or the jumper does not It is never quite there”.  And if we connect these ideas embodied in this text with those of the social scientist Langdon Winner -who is questioning whether technological devices have a political value- we will see that a sidewalk and a skateboard can be considered tools of creative disruption. Again, we will refer to Wikipedia (the encyclopedia regulated by great communities of practice) that tells us that technology is the set of technical knowledge, scientifically ordered, that allow us to design and create goods and services. And assuming that in history there has been a tendency to reduce the technological to the field of industrial technology, electronics or computer science (thus forgetting soft technologies like norms, language, and culture) we may be able to understand the transforming power of skateboarding as an act of performative adaptation to the environment. As the anglo-jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall says: “it is not the individual elements of discourse that have ideological connotations, it is the way in which those elements are organized together in a new discursive form” that can confer those socially necessary qualities that the Japanese artist and skater Takahiro Morita also seeks in the practice of skateboarding.

In addition, as a particular detail, according to Ecological Urbanism the public space represents a vital thermometer of the degree of collective coexistence. Its definition should serve as a habitat for people (not only designed with motor vehicles in our minds) to encourage interaction, contact, and social life. So from this point of view as the Scandinavian author Åsa Bäckström already says: “there is more in skateboarding than just skate” and the skateboard can be considered a self-propelled and non-polluting four-wheel vehicle that invites its practitioners to perform creative activities and maintain a proactive attitude with their surrounding landscape.

In these drifts on our 4 wheeled toys – which I call iconoclastic trips and social safaris – to be open to improvisation (that attitude inherited from the creative pioneers of jazz musicians) is a prerequisite to consider ourselves “sincere artists”. The rest are nothing but children’s games…


Bibliography:

– Arbiza, M. (2010) “Live Free or Die Trying: el skateboarding como herramienta contracultural”. Parafernalia books, Spain.

– Bäckström, A. (2007) “Skateboarding – Radical and Romantic Physical Use of Urban Architecture”. Linköping University Electronic Press, Sweden.

– De Certau, M. (1984) “The Practice of Everyday Life”. University of California Press.

– Delgado, M. (2011) “El espacio público como ideología”. La Catarata, Madrid.

– De Maria, r. & Wilson J. (2002) “Hugh Score!: La historia ilustrada de los videojuegos”. McGraw-Hill Interamericana de España, Madrid.

– Florida, R. (2004) “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Basic Book, USA.

– Hall, S. (1997) “Representation: Cultural Representations and Sygnifying Practices”. The Open University, UK.

– Lévy, P. (1998) “¿Becoming Virtual”. Plenum Trade, USA.

– Miller, P. (2004) “Rhythm Science”. Mediaworks Pamphlets, USA.

– Stecyk, C. & Friedman G. (2002) ”DogTown: The Legend of the Z-Boys”. Burning Flag Press, USA.

– Winner, L. (1985) “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”. Open University Press, USA.


Warning: This text was written in 2013 while studying at the Open University of Catalonia, and is published here only as a way of sharing my past research work in order to find ways to connect it with my current interests.

*(Pictures: Tod Swank photo by Grant Brittain (1987), Shogo Kubo photo by Glen E. Friedman (1977), creativity formula by Mikel Arbiza (2013), “Skull” painting by C.R. Stecyk (2016), nassim guammaz by Fred Mortagne (2015),

3 thoughts on “Hacking Public Space.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.