what can skateboarding teach us about modern life?
As a new exhibition entitled 'Museum of Skateboarding' examines skating and its relationship with the body, the mind, and the spaces it inhabits, we speak to the artist behind the multimedia show.
The cityscape of London today — much like in New York, Paris or any other major capital — is a battleground. It's constantly being divided, bought up and sold off by major corporations. Amongst the constant redevelopment and rising skyscrapers, there's not much room left for its largely moneyless young inhabitants.
There are various ways we can reclaim the streets of the cities we live in; once of the most enduring though, is skateboarding. In recent years London skateboarders have won a couple of battles against decay and redevelopment: in October 2014, Rom Skatepark in east London was awarded heritage status. Just a month before Southbank Skatepark — a much-loved, graffiti-covered cave on the bank of the Thames — was saved from redevelopment after a long battle and numerous petitions. Both indicate that skateboarding is now acknowledged as part of a city's cultural lifeblood.
Since entering the mainstream in 70s, skateboarding has gone in and out of fashion, has been praised, vilified, commodified, and commercialized. Really, it should be dead by now — but skateboarding never seems to die. It never gets old or too commercial, it always somehow retains the raw power that can turn a piece of wood on four wheels into an enduring artifact of youth and rebellion. It lives as it's constantly being rediscovered through pain, bruises and failures — shaping contemporary urban space along the way. Skateboarders continue to inspire London's visual artists: from Alasdair McLellan and his project on Palace Wayward Boys Choir to black and white portraits by Ian Bird. Skateboarding imagery reflects our yearning for freedom, but perhaps it could become something bigger: the best way to survive and liberate yourself in contemporary urban environment. This is the version of skateboarding presented in London this month by artist Kirill Savchenkov in his exhibition Museum of Skateboarding.
Savchenkov was born and raised in Moscow and spent a great deal of time skateboarding before he got into contemporary art. After he stopped, he realized that the experience of skating goes far beyond tricks and skate clothes — it leaves you with unique skills and experience, a certain knowledge of body and urban space. "Museum of Skateboarding is a project which examines skateboarding not as a subculture but through its impact on consciousness and body, and the particular point of view on the city," he explains. "It gives you more than any other subculture, in terms of experience the person is left with after he's quit skating. Skateboarding forms a person's identity, and not only through wearing certain sneakers and knowing trick names. During the process various skills are acquired: getting over pain, coordination, concentration in moments of fear."
Savchenkov was inspired by the ideas of functional, modernist architecture that focused on organization of human existence in the city, and the fact that skateboarding is able to read those ideas through the body and open up the hidden potential of architecture. At the same time, the skateboarding he explores in the exhibition is not skateboarding as we know it today — but a strange hybrid form of activity that almost resembles a religion. This New Skateboarding merges skating with knowledge from martial arts, military, and fitness — for an ultimate skill set of survival in the city.
"I developed a set of exercises with a Russian skate legend from the 90s, Ashot Shabayan, who now works as a fitness trainer," Savchenkov explains. "In one of the videos in the exhibition two guys perform martial arts techniques which are taken from a Russian special forces manual, but combined with the moves that skateboarders at times perform, like when they're waiting they put their board other head. It turned into a very shamanic looking tutorial, but also probably very handy if you get into a fight with a board at hand."
In the exhibition, the video is integrated into a multi-media sculpture made from rails of the kind skaters use for grinding. Another work displays pieces of pavement with different types of surface — once again examining the city through the possibilities of skating. There is also a small book, a practical instruction manual for skateboarding, but styled in a way as if it was composed by someone from the future trying to archeologically reconstruct this new skateboarding as a way of moving through a dystopian landscape. It's full of graphs, strange symbols, illustrated guidelines, bits of text, and grainy photos — like something that survived a journey in a time machine. "The book is supposed to give you a certain methodology of the practice, but the gaze it represents is from the future so it's not complete, more like a ruin of knowledge. But the best thing is that you can actually use those exercises — if you do them on the daily basis it would be easier to skate, or just live, they could be used like a fitness plan," Savchenkov says.
Although Savchenkov developed the first part of the project in his native Moscow, his vision is much more global. "It's certainly not just about the post-Soviet space, the project could be applied to Birmingham or Glasgow, and especially LA and New York because in both cities there are modernist experiments with functionalism; there's downtown, asphalt, granite and concrete. There is a sculpture with skate-stoppers in the exhibition, and it's much more relevant to the West than Russian. Skate stoppers are hardly ever used in Russia, unlike in the US and UK. Architects themselves often protest the skate stoppers that are integrated into their designs — often in a tacky shape of turtles of leaves. The same industry usually target homeless people as well, and the case when skaters remove the stoppers is one of those examples when skateboarding changes the meaning and ownership of the place, even for other communities," he says.
Today the future of our urban spaces is uncertain, and forces much bigger than us are often at play. One of the key lessons the viewer can glean from visiting Museum of Skateboarding is the particular perspective on the difficulties of existing in the city. "The idea crucial to the whole project is simple: obstacle is a resource. For skaters an obstacle means a potential for the new form of movement," Savchenkov says. "It means that any obstacle you encounter should be used as a resource, played to your advantage."
Text Anastasiia Fedorova