Skateboarding as an Aesthetic Experience.

Some months ago I posted in this blog an abstract with my proposal, which develops around embodied cognition and skateboarding, for this year’s Pushing Boarders event in Sweden…

The organizers were looking for academic research in the fields of architecture and sociology related to different aspects of skateboarding, so I thought that a mix of cognitive neuroscience, urban geography and action sports would be an interesting approach…

But my proposal has not been accepted which leaves me wondering… Is that I’m not methodical enough for the academic world as some of my professors in the university may think? Why is so dificult for the humanities to accept transdisciplinary research heavily inspired in the natural sciences? Perhaps it is true, like some scientist think, that the social sciences are exhausted and are incapable of producing new knowledge with epistemic value? Is rejection a reason to doubt about oneself’s effort?

Well anyhow, while I answer to this questions by myself, here is the full text that I would have loved to present in the cited event…



“Embodied Cognition and Skateboarding: Rethinking our environment by experiencing the city”.

Abstract:

The practice of skateboarding helps rethink and redefine the environment of the user through the opportunities found in the urban context (BORDEN, 2001). The brain is a complex organ designed by natural selection which can extract -in cooperation with the sensory-motor system- the needed semantic information from its habitat in order to control different tasks (DENNET, 2017).

The kind of Embodied Cognition presented here is the claim that the brain is not the only resource we have available to generate behaviour. Our conduct emerges from the real-time interaction between a nervous system in a body with particular capabilities to process information and an environment that offers opportunities for action to this organism (BARRET, 2015). We might say that cognition is constructive since these fundamental sensorimotor experiences achieved through acting (skateboarding) in the world are actively constructed to facilitate concept formation (LAKOFF & JOHNSON, 1999).

Since our mind is a product of the body (MORGADO, 2015), our cognitive development as skateboarders arises through our movements while experiencing the city’s landscape. At the same time proprioception helps acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies- via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin- which it can be considered also an aesthetic sense (GAIL-MONTERO, 2016). This way skateboarding can not only help us develop coordination within our built environment, but also offers us an active and artistic interpretation of the space/time relationship between our bodies and the city.

Keywords: embodied cognition, neuroscience, skateboarding, urban sports, city landscape, affordances, aesthetics.


INDEX:

1. Skateboarding and the urban landscape
1.1.- Short history of street skating.
1.2.- The urban landscape as an empty canvas.

2. Mapping the city through the nervous system.
2.1.- The mind as a product of the body.
2.2.- Cognitive urbanism.

3. The aesthetics of proprioception.
3.1.- Movements as information generators.
3.2.- The sensorimotor systems as artistic material.

4. Conclusion.

5. Bibliography.


1. Skateboarding and the urban landscape

1.1. – Short history of street skating.

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 (BORDEN, 2001).

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 (ARBIZA, 2010).

However, the origins of street skating as we know it today did not reach its 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 by jumping stairs, sliding railings, climbing banks… (BÄCKSTRÖM, 2007).

Through researching the movements in/on the city we will try to understand the strengths of skateboarding as field to explore human cognition.


Professional skateboarder and artist Kris Markovich performing a huge ollie and flying over a big set of stairs in 1993.

1.2. – The urban landscape as an empty canvas.

Skateboarding is an individual activity that contains some sporting traits and can be practiced in a group. It is also a way of looking at the city in a creative way and getting used to the changes carried by urban development. New forms of urban design bring new approaches on the skater’s part and this radically different movements give new meanings to the city. From this point of view we can conceive the urban landscape as an empty canvas (VALLELY, 2018) for our brains which are control centers for dealing with the the affordances (opportunities and risks) of our mobile life.

There are thousands of places, street furniture, and typologies of city developing that have been interpreted by the skater community thus creating a global language. (BRACALI, 2007). The new relations of the skateboarder’s body with his/her space – and here we connect with the ideas of the british Iain Borden and his influences of the thinking of  french marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre – have become the new most effective architectural tools for the critique of everyday life. Unimaginable by no urban planner of the last century, these youthful games have changed the landscape of our western cities forever, almost more powerfully than the inclement weather or urban speculation.

Skating, like other improvised street activities – and without commercial purposes – such as: demonstrations, graffiti, “parkour”, “botellón” or the music of street artists has become activities that help generate a city, and of course, citizenship. Although they may seem chaotic, scandalous, noisy, annoying or politically incorrect for a large sector of the population, they show us the creative potential inherent in youth and their open disposition to a total reinterpretation of urban environment (ARBIZA ,2010).

Following the view of veteran professional skateboarder Mike Vallely we can conceive the urban landscape as an empty canvas, and this way skateboarding can help us develop proprioception and coordination as well as the interpretation of the space/time relationship which is also very beneficial. Therefore, the practice of skateboarding helps rethink the environment of the user through the opportunities found in the urban context, which in consequence helps redefine his/her life.

2. Mapping the city through the nervous system.

2.1. – The mind as a product of the body.

Embodied Cognition is a burgeoning conceptual framework that proposes that cognition is truly environment-first, emerging from an active relationship between environment, body, and brain (HINTON, 2014). Thus the proposal that’s being made in this paper totally connects with the idea that our mind is a product of our body so this is an integral part of our cognitive development which arises through our movements while experiencing the city’s landscape .

The practice of skateboarding helps rethink and redefine the environment of the user through the opportunities found in the urban context (BORDEN, 2001), so the city becomes a fertile field for self-expression where our minds and brains are control centers for dealing with the the affordances (opportunities and risks) of our mobile life. This complex organ designed by natural selection can extract -in cooperation with the sensory-motor system- the needed semantic information from its habitat in order to control different tasks (DENNET, 2017).

The kind of Embodied Cognition presented here is the claim that the brain is not the only resource we have available to generate behaviour. Our conduct emerges from the real-time interaction between a nervous system in a body with particular capabilities to process information and an environment that offers opportunities for action to this organism (BARRET, 2015). Therefore, the brain is part of a broader system that mixes perception and action instead of being an entity that represents symbolic knowledge about the world and simply uses it to output commands.

The way in which we are embodied not only constrains the way we can interact in the world, but our particular form of embodiment also partly determines the way the world appears to us. We might say that cognition is constructive since these fundamental sensorimotor experiences achieved through acting (skateboarding) in the world are actively constructed to facilitate concept formation (LAKOFF & JOHNSON, 1999).

2.2.- Cognitive urbanism.

Different scientific evidences suggest that separate but interconnected parts of our brain assume specific functions in building an internal map of space which helps keep track of one’s position in the world. Spatial memories are formed after an animal gathers and processes sensory information about its surroundings especially by the way of vision and proprioception.

In general, mammals require a functioning Hippocampus in order to form and process memories about space. So as spatial cognition is fundamental for survival in the topographically complex environments inhabited by humans and other animals, the Hippocampus has a central role in spatial cognition which is characterized by high concentration of a neurotransmitter called Serotonin.

So as our mind emerges from brain and nervous system, in a body that is in a physical and social world (MONTELLO, 2009), and humans acquire geographic knowledge about the spatial and nonspatial properties of the Earth which then is encoded in the nervous system in the form of patterned mental representations which can also be translated to symbolic artifacts like cartographic maps, verbal descriptions, numerical equations…

The movements of the skateboarders while experiencing the city can be a opportunity to re-conceptualize our experience of the urban landscape. While proprioception helps us acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, this new olympic sport (skateboarding) can not only help us develop coordination within our built environment, but also offers us a way to creatively write our spatial memories…

Different properties of the territory are encoded in the nervous system in the form of mental representations which later on can be translated to symbolic artifacts like this map of the city of San Sebastian made in 1900.

3. The aesthetics of proprioception.

3.1. – Movements as information generators.

Finding one’s way around an environment and remembering the events that occur within it are crucial cognitive abilities. The mental representation of space must not only contain the relative locations of objects in the environment, but also has to be orientated appropriately with respect to that environment. Experiments suggest that humans by using self-motion cues produce idiothetic signals that can be used to update the orientation of the spatial representation of an environment (BURGESS, MAGUIRE & O’KEEFE, 2002).

Aside from the Hippocampus, another part of our brains that participates in the mapping of the environment is the Parietal Cortex which encodes spatial information using an egocentric frame of reference which is involved in the transformation of sensory information coordinates into action by updating the spatial representation of the body within the environment (COLBY & GOLDBERG, 1999). Also some Frontal and Prefrontal Cortical Areas represent visual space in orderly, reproducible, topographic maps which may be useful for attending to task-relevant objects at various spatial locations, an aspect of the executive control of attention (HAGLER & SERENO, 2006).

Finally, but not least, the Thalamus -once viewed as passively relaying sensory information to the cerebral cortex- is becoming increasingly acknowledged as actively regulating the information transmitted to the mentioned Cortical Areas (SAALMANN & KASTNER, 2015). From an evolutionary perspective it can be argued that complex motricity and cognition are functionally and interdependently connected since both evolved in parallel.

Both cognitive and motor function are controlled by brain areas such as frontal lobes, cerebellum, and basal ganglia that collectively interact to exert governance and control over executive function and intentionality of movements. Movement can be defined as body parts displacement in physical space in order to achieve a goal-directed activity (LEISMAN, MOUSTAFA; SHAFIR, 2016).

Early mammals developed several novel brain functions most likely due to the acquisition of only simple motor skills thanks to the somatomotor cortex where somatosensory and motor information were processed in the same cortical region. This allowed for the acquisition of only simple motor skills which shows how a mind-body relationship served not only as a significant basis for the evolution of the human neocortex in the brain, but also to develop complex and sophisticated movements in and through the environment.

Schematic illustration of brain areas involved in spatial memory and the corresponding serotonin pathways (adapted from Heimer, 1994).

3.2. – The sensorimotor systems as artistic material.

Proprioception helps acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies- via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin- which it can be considered also an aesthetic sense (GAIL-MONTERO, 2016).

This new kind of Embodied Aesthetics aims at rejecting the mainstream view of aesthetics, heavily influenced by the theory of Immanuel Kant who contributed to the consideration of aesthetic experience to be non-conceptual and incapable of giving rise to knowledge.

The influence of north-american Pragmatism in this approach is undeniable, since Peirce, James and Dewey saw human beings not only as embodied, but as inseparable from the environment they interact with (SCARINZI, 2015). From this point of view cognition is not exhaustively determined by neural processes but implies the embeddedness of such processes in a living body and the embeddedness of this body in a world (DE JAEGHER et al., 2010). Therefore within the anti-dualistic framework presented here we may consider aesthetic experience as a process of embodied meaning-making.

Pioneer professional skateboarder and entrepeneur Rodney Mullen executing some moves similar to modern-dance for his video “Liminal” (2017). Situated between the arts, sciences and sport this american has been called the “Godfather of Street Skating” by Forbes and skateboarding’s Einstein by Rolling Stone Magazine.

Despite the biological and social importance of the human body, little attentions it’s paid to the  complexity of aesthetic experience reflected by the dynamic interplay between brain systems involved in reward, perceptual and motor processing (KIRSCH, URGESI & COSS, 2016). Aesthetic experiences emerge from the interaction between neural systems involved with sensory–motor processes, emotion–valuation processes , and meaning–knowledge processes including expertise, context and culture (CHATTERJE & VARTANIAN, 2014).

Although cognitive neuroscience has classically separated static body and movement brain mechanisms, neural activity in these areas is strongly interconnected shaping a brain network for human body perception which helps in the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensations.

4. Conclusion

Skateboarders riding in the urban scenario convert their surroundings into a blank canvas to interact in 3D by jumping stairs, sliding railings, climbing banks… (BÄCKSTRÖM, 2007). Therefore skateboarding can not only help us develop coordination within our built environment, but also offers us an active and artistic interpretation of the space/time relationship between our bodies and the city.

The brain is a complex organ designed by natural selection can extract -in cooperation with the sensory-motor system- the needed semantic information from its habitat in order to control different tasks (DENNET, 2017). Cognitive urbanism suggests that separate but interconnected parts of our brain assume specific functions in building an internal map of space which helps keep track of one’s position in the world. Movement can be defined as body parts displacement in physical space in order to achieve a goal-directed activity (LEISMAN, MOUSTAFA; SHAFIR, 2016).

Since cognition is not exhaustively determined by neural processes but implies the embeddedness of such processes in a living body and the embeddedness of this body in a world (DE JAEGHER et al., 2010), aesthetic experiences may also emerge from the interaction between neural systems involved with sensory–motor processes, emotion–valuation processes , and meaning–knowledge processes including expertise, context and culture (CHATTERJE & VARTANIAN, 2014). So by experiencing the city we can rethink our environment.


5. 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.

Barrett, L. (2015) “Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds”. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Bracali, A. (2007) “Thanks, Le Corbusier (… from the skateboarders). The failure of social space and the rise of skateboarding”. http://www.bracali.com Last access: June 2010.

Borden, I. (2001) “Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body”. Berg, Oxford.

Burgess, N., Maguire, E.A. & O’Keefe, J. (2002) The Human Hippocampus and Spatial and Episodic Memory. Neuron Volume 35, Issue 4, Cell Press.

Chatterjee A. , Vartanian O. (2014) Neuroaesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences Volume 18, Issue 7, July 2014, Pages 370-375.

Colby, C.L. and Goldberg, M.E. (1999) Space and Attention in Parietal Cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience Vol. 22:319-349.

De Jaegher, H., Di Paolo, E., and Gallagher, S. (2010). Can social interaction constitute social cognition? Trends Cogn. Sci. 14, 441–447.

Dennett, D. (2017) “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”.  W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Gail-Montero, B. (2016) “Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind”. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hinton, A. (2014) “Understanding Context. Chapter 4: Perception, Cognition, and Affordance”.  O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Kirsch L.P., Urgesi C., Cross E.S. (2016) Shaping and reshaping the aesthetic brain: Emerging perspectives on the neurobiology of embodied aesthetics. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 62, March 2016, Pages 56-68, Elsevier.

Hagler D.J. Jr., Sereno M.. (2006) Spatial maps in frontal and prefrontal cortex. Neuroimage. 2006 Jan 15;29(2):567-77.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999) “Philosophy In the Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought. New York”. Basic Books, New York.

Leisman, G., Moustafa, A.A. and Shafir, T. (2016) Thinking, Walking, Talking: Integratory Motor and Cognitive Brain Function. Frontiers in Public Health. 2016; 4: 94.

Montello, D.R. (2009) “International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Cognitive Geography”, Elsevier.

Morgado-Bernal, I. (2015) “La fábrica de las ilusiones: Conocernos más para ser mejores”. Editorial Ariel, Barcelona.

Saalmann, Y.B. and Kastner, S. (2015) The cognitive thalamus. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. 2015; 9: 39.

Scarinzi A. (ed.) (2015) Aesthetics and the Embodied Mind: Beyond Art Theory and the Cartesian Mind-Body Dichotomy. Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 73, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht.

Tizini, L.F., Urgesi ,C. and Calvo Merino, C.  (2015) “Embodied Aesthetics: Insight from Cognitive Neuroscience of Performing Arts”, chapter from book “Corporeal Cognition: Pragmatist Aesthetics in William James”.  Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 73, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht.

Vallely, M. (2018) “Bruce Lee Podcast. #127 Interview with Mike Vallely”. http://www.brucelee.com Last access: June 2019.


*(Picture: Fully Flared skate gif by Cosme Studio).

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.