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Skate Videos: Rolling in a City Symphony
Dominique Teoh | 08 January 2021
Skateboarding is situational. It’s not just what you do but where you do it and not knowing whether you’ll be greeted with a high-five or a slap on the face. Cities are to skateboarding what pants are to legs and it only makes sense that skate videos pay respect to the concrete jungles they play in.
While skate videos are unique, the celebration of urban life is not, with city symphonies providing an iconic example. These documentaries were mostly produced in the 1920s, employing experimental film techniques to capture the life of a city. They had no characters or plot, but were structured around movements inspired by musical symphonies.
Films like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City celebrated modern society. Others, like À propos de Nice, critiqued it, contrasting images of the working class with capitalist hedonism.
Skate videos and city symphonies are very different genres with no real basis for comparison. Yet, they both influence the way we think of and experience the City, so here's an attempt to look at the skate video as a city symphony.
Though unintentional, skate videos draw attention to social inequality. Whether it’s the random passerby or the homeless homie, skate videos acknowledge the existence of society’s “lower” strata — marginal characters often omitted from mainstream media, except in depictions of poverty and marginalisation.
To be fair, skate videos often include these characters for their weird factor; but they aren’t judged or diminished for it. Skateboarders, too, are regular weirdos and skateboarding itself is a celebration of all things kooky. More often than not, the only characters castigated by skate videos are those in positions of authority — police, security guards, property owners — a reflection of skateboarding’s anti-establishment cliché.
Chance encounters with strangers are one of the best things about street skating. Nizam Hisham captures such a moment in Cozyclub's teaser for Acapulco.
To equate skateboarding with a fight for equality is straight silly. Skaters can cross the line, disrespecting decent people beyond reason. All this lofty mumbo-jumbo is a side product and not the intention of skateboarding; but it does reveal the way public spaces are designed to benefit certain groups of people and actively exclude others.
Street skating draws attention to defensive design, parodying these exclusionary efforts by creatively overcoming them. It’s one thing for urban designers to defend against skateboarders, but what if they defend against the homeless, the elderly or other “undesirables”?
Capturing the Spirit of a City
Skate videos have become a meaningful way to think about urban design and identity. The average filmer might not think about these things, but there are certainly those who do.
If we’re talking about odes to cities, Phil Evans’ Panoramic Series is a personal favourite, exploring European cities through the lens of skateboarding. Moving from spot to spot, you cruise the streets of London, travel on the Paris Metro and drive around Antwerp. You even get a sense of Manchester’s linguistic identity with random Mancunian rambling narrating skate clips.
These cities' economic and cultural character are made concrete through skate spots, and Evans captures something of their spirit from a street-level perspective. Best of all, he experiments with the visual, the aural and the narrative, embodying skateboarding's creative spirit in both form and content.
Fisheye on the World
Those of us outside the US learn to recognise New York spots long before we can point to the city on a map. In the same way, you’ll know a Shanghai spot when you see one; and you come to appreciate Soviet architecture for peppering the Eastern Bloc with marble plazas.
Like movies and books, skate videos offer a window to the outside world. They contribute to the imagined spirit of a city, but with very different focal points. The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) is a prime example — a revered spot, not for its Mirós, Klees or Duchamps, but for its ledges and gaps.
This raises the question of what holds value in society — million-dollar objects that you aren’t allowed to touch or slabs of concrete that are daily baptised by sweat? Skaters the world over make pilgrimages to MACBA, a living public space with as much cultural significance as the objects in the museum itself.
Even in Malaysia, a bench may be as significant as a heritage building. I remember taking a Macedonian friend to a local spot. Busloads of tourists were snapping pictures of Kuala Lumpur's oldest mosque, and this guy turns his back on it to take a picture of a bench.
So which is more valuable? The bench was constructed with the mosque in mind, providing the perfect view; but skateboarding uprooted the bench from its intended context, promoting it to a focal point in its own right.
London’s Southbank is one of many holy sites in skateboarding. Ghof captures its global importance in “Connect the Dots,” featuring an international crew and Fritildea's Southeast Asia-inspired track.
Skateboarding elevates mundane objects to cultural landmarks. While tourists use museums and monuments to navigate a city, skateboarders use spots. Directions like, “head past the Pa'din ledges and turn right before the triple set,” might not make sense to the average person, but it certainly would to a local skate rat.
I’m throwing this hypothesis out there: skate videos create mental maps, albeit patchy ones. After seeing the same spots over and over, you subconsciously develop a sense of how they fit into a city, even if you’ve never been there before.
This map gets clearer when you see the same places represented in video games and movies, each new angle filling in the gaps. To be sure, this only applies to areas with significant media coverage — your Southbanks and Santa Monica Piers. Still, it might be your first time there, but you know turning left will take you to the triple set.
Adidas’ One Stop (dir. Colin Kennedy) connects two LA Metro stations through a string of skate spots, resulting in Miles Silvas’ insane 5-minute line.