Waxing the Curb

The Psychoanalytic Skatepark 
     Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989. 

Kinderskate: Vans Skateboarding by Frog Skateboards


Safety is not an easy thing to associate with skateboarding. For obvious reasons, the notions of protection, shelter, care, and an existence free from harm is diametrically opposed to an activity that fundamentally risks danger, property damage, and bodily injury. Yet, that is precisely the feeling I get from watching the latest Frog promo in support of their recent collaboration with Vans. To see Chris Milic don a helmet and skate the vert wall of some SoCal skatepark inundated me with strong feelings of sanctity, comfort, coziness, simplicity, and acceptance—or, perhaps, just the feels.

Over the last several years, Frog has split the difference between the group think most commonly associated with affect theory—the sort of pulsating flow of emotional capital that rises and falls throughout our overly networked lives, largely aimed at producing a heaving emotional reaction, much like an internal, emotive high tide—and the auteurship of previous generations of skate companies, embodying the singular vision of its founder, Milic as a fully-fledged brand universe. Its ethos is well represented in the Frog name, which itself conjures a small, handheld creature, whose patterned camouflage and gooey exterior sends a satisfying, ASMR-like chill down ones spine. Effectively, Frog represents something utterly approachable, but which can also withstand our touch.

What Frog is so adept at is to present a worry-free image of skateboarding. Forget gnarliness, forget effort, forget fashion, forget one-of-a-kind spot selection, forget meaning all together—just consider the robotic cat toy that introduces the promo. It prances along the coping as Luis Ouida (aka Turtle Tom) and Allen Bell arch enormous frontside and backside ollies well above the little kitty’s head, or crunch the pool coping, sending kitty flying. It’s pretty easy to get lost here—does the cat-bot bring a level of childlike, and somewhat corny wonderment to the skating, or does the skating produce a little bit of terror that endears us to, and makes us want to protect the cat? Indeed, everything registers through these G-rated signifiers, not so much in the production of narrative, or signification, but rather to translate how fast the skaters are going, and the fluidity with which they do it through a sophisticated emoji keyboard of affective expression.

And for a brief 4:48-minute long promo, the video is pretty laden with warm feelings, offering the same all-encompassing world as a full-length. Part of this immersive effect is due to the edit: only the skaters’ best, most stylish stuff is on view, though for this team it generally means an emphasis on tweaking and repetition, as when Ouida floats the same backside air over and over again, Brighton Zeuner torques a lipslide, or in the multiple instances of doubles skating, as when Ouida and Bell mount duelling handplants on opposite sides of a spine. The aesthetic also relies on the wonky, as with Nick Michel’s amazing gap to bluntslide on the impossibly-steep transitions of a poorly designed skatepark fun box.
But the main reason the video feels like an entire universe is a high dose of nostalgia. Often, the promo is reminiscent of old Transworld videos. The scene at Mount Baldy, in which everyone does fly-outs from the full-pipe to the steeper section of wall, in particular reproduces the effect of the foundational series, bringing to mind the desert montage in Free Your Mind, or any number of 16mm sun flares that were an emotive and melodramatic hallmark of the franchise.

The trap for virtually any this-by-that collab is commodification: the belief that unboxing a pair of these Vans x Frog shoes will offer the same goosebump inducing, nerve-tingling thrum of sensation. Not so—they’re just skate shoes, and unless you plan to lick them, or rake a long set of manicured nails against Vans patented waffle sole, or eat them like Werner Herzog did, such feelings are not likely to issue from the shoes themselves, or from your skating in them. Yet, I am not entirely saying you should give up on props, either. Not only do crummy public skateparks host half the video’s content, but even when the Froggers skate normal spots, like the banks at LA High, they are accompanied by jump ramps (which also recall the jump ramp section in Girl’s 1994 video, Goldfish). It permits Milic and Michel to do wild combinations on a handicap rail with relative ease, the latter spinning a frontside 270 to lipslide, and the former boardsliding nearly the whole thing. Or it crops up at JKwon, where they heave giant backside transfers into the building’s steep, vert-wall-like buttresses.  

Bringing the ramp to spots seemingly readymade for skateboarding seamlessly transitions with other scenes geared toward accessibility and fun. Zeuner straps on knee pads, Milic sports a helmet, Michel swings on a swingset, and Ouida bomb drops into a vert ramp off a trampoline, each scene representing a different, but complementary aspect of Frog’s model for a user friendly and ergonomic version of skateboarding. Yes, the extent to which a skateboard company models a lifestyle in 2021 is debatable—often they come on strong, and sputter out. But Frog’s propensity for New Agey clip art, kindergarten handicraft, and 8-bit ambient music brings a welcome level of serenity to a culture that favors speed, the brand’s hope to connect less on the basis of meaning, and more on the biological, hormonal, or instinctual plains (diagnostic of capitalist realism, yes, but not an unpleasant instance of it either, and more of a discussion for another time).

Perhaps this is the reason for the video’s audio, the mix of which is somewhat muted and distant, softening the pop of the board, and reducing it either to a satisfyingly soggy thump, or a far-off thrush that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. It’s a funny choice to make for a board company: similar to the issue of safety, dumpy folly work does not suggest stellar products, or the high-volume brashness of individualistic rebellion. But that’s Frog’s overall gambit, the audio piggybacking on the company’s propensity for thrifted props, discarded toys, opposite-handed doodles, and the lovably-hard-to-love; as well as their overall trick aesthetics, which welcome the oft-maligned use of hands-based maneuvering (see: Michel’s nose grabs, and Ouida’s mind boggling handplant-cum-fastplant) and one-footers. In short, their aim is holistic. Frog just wants the skaters of this world to feel safe.

A World In Which Both Tricks Are True: Tanner Van Vark's T.V.V. part


What are the physics that hold a skate trick together? For the most part, it depends on the interrelation of power, pop, flick, and commitment. Did the skater boost over the picnic table, or merely clear it? Did the trick seem to issue from them, or were they overselling it? How crisp—no, how poised was their flat ground? And did he have to fakie flip that high in that line (see: Kalis, Josh. Photosynthesis, 2000)? Though a million tiny decisions inform this equation, the laws of skate physics are virtually inviolable: from the placidity of Louie Lopez, to the crispness of Alexis Sablone, to the haggard pleasure of a Baker Maker, these fundamentals forever govern both how a trick is done, and how it will be judged.  

But Tanner Van Vark’s T.V.V. part for Real reminds us that there has always been another dark science to trick mechanics, one which torques our comprehension of what or how a trick is done: the alley-oop. To some extent, it constitutes the quantum mechanics of skateboarding: an alley-oop’s involuted motion turns the world inside out, not so much counter to our expectations, but rather, suggesting that a trick exists in multiple universes at the same time (e.g. frontside and backside, but together). T.V.V. is full of these small miracles, as in an early clip involving a simple back 180 onto a flat bar. About half-way through the grind, something shifts, and Van Vark appears to be riding switch stance, as if he was doing an entirely different trick. It’s hard to explain what happened, but no matter how many times I rewound it, trying not to blink, I still could not figure out the science behind the shift—either, neither, both?
When I first encountered Van Vark’s skating, however, I struggled to look past his basic uniform. His kit included Dickies, graphic t’s, slip-ons, and a five pannel hat that festooned a cartoonish frock of unkempt hair. Coupled with an arsenal of dorky, slappy- and wallie-based tricks popular on Instagram, the kid felt like a one-hit-wonder, a concession his board sponsor Real made to the imperatives of social media, and the strictly data-driven decision-making on the part of his shoe sponsor Vans. Association with these companies didn’t do Van Vark any favors, either: their image venerates a level of toughness and struggle, making Van Vark’s preternatural talent appear glib by comparison. I considered him a novelty, lacking the self-awareness or maturity it takes to develop those dork tricks into a fully fledged style like Gustave Tonneson’s, an ironic statement about skating like Jesse Alba’s, or to use them as a model of increased accessibility in the fashion of Unity’s collectivism. 
But T.V.V. took me by surprise, demonstrating not only the extent of Van Vark’s ambitions, but also his canny mixture of playfulness and mathematical precision. In short, his maturity is reflected in his choice to eschew hucking for a bit of pre-planning and creative constraints, as in the alley-oop noseblunt on a Quikreted ditch, which unwinds with the complex geometries of a calculus theorem; or.a switch back lip on a jersey barrier, which he lands regular, as if the result of multiplying two negative numbers, switch and backside. The same temporal compressions come across in Van Vark’s propensity for spiral-like motion: whether he is doing a fakie hurricane on a flat bar, or a switch Bennet grind on a hubba, the outcome shirks linear thinking. For his almost ender, a convoluted frontside hurricane, he appears to embody multiple contradictory forces at the same time: he pops fakie, grinds switch, and turns entirely inside-out by not returning to true regular, rendering all directional qualifiers equally plausible, and therefore equally irrelevant. 

Perhaps the arena in which Van Vark most contests the laws of (skate) physics is on the wall—or off it, as it were. It’s there, upon the vertical plane that he works his most perplexing magic. In some cases, he finds the gnarly in the minute, as when he scales down the parabolic arch of a two-story frontside wallride into a 180 out, a motion that suggests a fractal, endlessly repeating the same form at ever-diminishing dimensions. In other cases, he works in broad strokes, enlarging one of his typical slappy grinds into a cascading frontside slasher on the retaining wall of a ditch, or prefacing a fairly routine wallride to fakie with an entire frontside 360.
In the end, though, everything boils down to the art of the alley-oop, whicn, for Van Vark, is not just a modification to a preexisting trick, but rather the grounds upon which he builds his entire style. Yet, for all its complexity, it is the simplest trick in the part that may actually offer the clearest summation of his ability to spin miracles. A few clips before his ender, Van Vark lisplides a rail with a strong right-hand bend. His position is characteristic of a typical lipslide, designed to leverage himself over and on-top-of the rail, but as soon as he hits the kink, a perceptual schism occurs. The lipslide is still happening, except he has impossibly forced his posture toward his nose, into a boardslide, with the trick effectively existing as two different versions of itself at once—who is to say which one he actually lands? In the end, most of us do not possess the math skills to work out this equation, but we can at least consider that Van Vark does not pose an either/or question. Rather, throughout T.V.V., he forces us to consider a version of skateboarding in which both tricks are equally true.  •••

Waxing the Curb

Notes on Skate Camp

     Tony Cragg, Resonating Bodies, 1996. Battery Park, New York City.

CALEB: A Southern Gothic Welcome Clip


Part of the charm we experience from watching skateboard videos can be attributed to the trope of the lovable childhood scamp. Even if the skater is in their 20s (or 30s, or even, sometimes, possibly, if you squint, 40s), their presence recalls any of a handful of archetypes, mixing together Horatio Alger’s bootstrappers, Dickens’ street urchins, Mark Twain’s pair of river rats, as well as more modern examples, like JD Salinger’s existential Catcher, Raymond Queneau’s New Wave Zazie, and even the devil-may-care Nietzschean anti-hero, Bart Simpson. What these characters tend to have in common is that they are all unburdened by the past—or, as all teenagers do, act with abandon toward the future—their haste, angst, innocence, and not just a little ennui having primed them to embody the enthusiasms and pitfalls of a given generation.

While these types of characters usually guide us on an adventure of some kind, their defining mobility seems poorly suited to the past 12 months, during which the pandemic ground the world to a halt (sort of). Yet, Caleb McNeely and his collaborators at HUF, seem to have taken up the challenge with CALEB, wisely invoking the fleetingness of youth to make sense of, and bring some urgency to the extended doldrums of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, from the start, we do not directly witness a global public health disaster, but rather, via the video’s languorous Southern imagery, accompany the skater on an extended summer break, partaking of the same riverside swimming holes, cliffside views, and golden sunflowers, the latter of which, in one 35mm photograph, vibrate with a palpable inner life. That youth is in bloom, and responsibility is on hold carries over into images of McNeely, as well. He is our eternal Huck Finn, pictured either behind the wheel, mobile, unencumbered, on the road, or else wandering in the shade of a highway overpass, finding in this hiding spot what most people have craved for the past 12 months—freedom and escape.

The same carefree ethos can be felt throughout the video: with work on hold, and spots abandoned, there seems to be nothing else to do, but skate. Along with the normal out-of-the-way spots, McNeely and his pals extend their vision to those places that had previously been deemed unskatable or a bust, like the Brutalist federal buildings in DC that play host to a miraculous pair of quick-footed combos. Yet, that same incredulity and sense of unimaginable opportunity eventually take on an erie sense of suspension: a granite-covered plaza is the site of surreal beauty when McNeely glides through a fakie nosegrind revert followed by a front blunt kickflip on respective ledges. Yet, with nobody around, the clip is uncanny, its underlying dread also making us aware of certain losses, such as the security guard that implicates our mischievous vocation within a wider social contract, or the local color of an office worker who we would expect to sit on the second bench, and, without fail, refuse to move for the duration of her 15-minute smoke break.

Obviously there are limitations to the youthful archetype’s ability to address the breadth of the pandemic: when McNeely presses a frontside noseslide to fakie on the vandalized pedestal of Richmond’s statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, the clip feels dangerously ahistorical, taking for granted the protests and public pressure that lead to the monument’s removal, and which only incidentally freed up the space for skaters, as well. Yet, and I know this is a stretch, the videomaker’s decision to crop out the statue itself makes me give them the benefit of the doubt that they are aware of its racist legacy (otherwise, guys, I have questions about why you included it...).

Overall, though, McNeely is a great guide, unshy about his excitement at a time when such necessary expressions of humanity could feel inappropriate, or simply hard to muster. Particularly in its invocation of the Southern Gothic, the video exposes a richness and depth out of the pandemic’s miasma of confusion, with the scenery’s sense of fatefulness always contrasted by McNeely’s ease on a skateboard. Such tension comes through in a moody, sunset clip. The soft, clementine glow of a soda lamp provides the backdrop for a bump to bar, which McNeely ollies, lancing a curb with his back truck on the way down. It’s a banger, but as the filmer gradually overtakes his subject, we are suddenly forward moving, but backwards looking, beholding one last flatground 360 flip at the exact moment the day expires.  

Yes, my pandemic gone by, I’ll miss it so (I suppose). McNeely’s part shows how, for skaters at least, unemployment was just more time to skate, with thousands of kids suddenly getting sponsored by the Federal Government. Yet, in invoking the stasis of unemployment, or the slowness of summer, the video reminds us that such grace periods are temporary. It also calls to mind those paralyzing moments of indecision, when doing the right thing felt so unclear. Yet, the video’s choice of country music soundtrack reinforces the fact that time still passes. In Robert Lester Folsom’s “See You Later, I’m Gone,” we hear the plaintive longing for home and normalcy brought on by the passage of summer into fall. The mood it sets can be a little idealistic and indulgent—similarly, McNeely never seems to wear a mask, and that’s a problem. But, as evidenced in the skater’s ender, the same heartrending lyricism, and sense of expiration comes across in the skating.

Set against a closed-down, neo-classical high school, McNeely squares up on the chest high parapet that forms the front-most boundary of the grounds, intent to ollie a successive pair of gaps in the wall. An American flag still flies on the flagpole, though it’s virtually impossible to tell what day of the week it is, merely that it is a beautifully sunny afternoon. There are no students milling about. At first, a tracking shot condenses the languorousness of this dog day, sharpening our attention via McNeely’s intense focus, and the urgency speed brings to the clip. But with a second, stationary angle, the intensity is slowed back down, situating McNeely as but one element in a larger composition, put in perspective before this enveloping landscape. The scene suggests some kind of metaphor: the pandemic, America, capital “H” History. To me, it is refreshing to see such a fully fledged character galvanize the past 12 months, in spite of all the ambiguity. Though it clearly has its faults, and borders on the sentimental, CALEB nonetheless puts forth images of skating utterly unique to the present, helping us to appreciate that even this challenging moment will, someday, be gone.  •••


Waxing the Curb is ︎ by Sam Korman. 

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