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Waxing the Curb

The Psychoanalytic Skatepark 
     Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989. 

Idiot Mode: Jack O'Grady's "Pass~Port" Part


    

Idiot mode is what it sounds like: the general ethos of an exceptionally reckless kind of skating. The state of mind when someone has dedicated themself to cheap thrills. When common sense is thrown out the door for pure menacing glee, doubt given way for titillation, hesitation for plunder, debate for single minded pursuit of self-destruction. It’s not skating a handrail, it’s nosediving down one that’s extra steep. It’s not simply throwing oneself down stairs, it’s plummeting from the top rope. It’s not just hucking, it’s careening toward the ground with the death drive of a crash test dummy. Here, slamming isn’t an accident, it’s a welcome outcome, if not the point. Idiot mode is exhibitionism, and the delight in making you flinch.

I got a good dose of idiot mode in Jack O’Grady’s pro-part for Pass Port on Thrasher. The kid is peril in the streets, electing to skate the steep, the long, the tall, and the generally ill-advised, all while going extremely fast. His is the type of skating that immediately captures your attention, and captures it for good reason: because of the immanence of danger, because of one person’s full-on dismissal of reason, because of an almost libidinous understanding of the city and architecture as the explosive fulfillment of ego. Rock and roll is often compared to this type of shredding—the beat, the religious demagogues once decried, the beat, the beat, the beat, it immitates sex. (As a teenager, I even asked my grandma why someone like Elvis seemed so controversial, and she, too, cited his rhythmic gyrations). In skating, it’s similar: it’s the party, it’s catharsis, it’s release. All that energy, all that momentum, all building up to the point at which the board leaves the ground, the body coming down with or without it.

O’Grady has his own approach to idiot mode: his preternatural board control, and slam-dance-like commitment expressing themselves in the petty impulse to tap, slap, spank, bonk, and jostle everything with his board. In his opening line, he nose bonks some wonky plastic DOT stanchion, giving it a good whack the way some crooked cop in a movie wraps his billy club off a street post. Depraved, the trick is impossible to take your eyes off of, because we know someone is going to get it, even if, or, rather, because the gesture is just about O’Grady getting his kicks. His second line, too, partakes of this same engrossing cruelty: a gap to back noseblunt on a pair of benches is smooth in the way he glides from one into a two-wheeled slide on the other, but it is all a ruse. The tenderness and finesse is merely a set up for the room-silencing whap of a wally off a trash can, which he wantonly carries into the street, indulging its full follow through, as though he had just slapped us back to our senses.  

What makes O’Grady’s skating true idiot mode is that it scales up infinitely. Yes, its nuances are best appreciated at ground level: careening off sidewalk fixtures like a dog in heat, leaving his stink everywhere. But the fact that the kid can bring the same energy—and, counterintuitively, finesse—to big stunts elevates him to the status of idiot king, effectively turning his sidewalk-style hijinks into full scale theater, and translating the infrastructural tap dance into a penchant for the narrow, the steep, the repetitive, the attenuated, and the just-barely. Handrails generally don’t seem to be enough: he has to gap out to them, gap off of them, or pop out of them, as we see multiple times in various scenarios. He gaps to lipslide a 5 flat 5 with the nihilism of Heath Kirchart; he gaps to noseblunt down a rough hewn concrete hubba, landing so precariously, it looks like his extra wide board is as slender (and wobbly) as a tightrope suspended over a deep chasm; and like a veritable monkey, he dips himself into a front smith before vaulting over a bit of sidewalk and curb, an about face of momentum that makes a fool of whoever proclaimed inertia an inviolable law of physics. Tying these clips, and their surly acrobatics, together is his ender, a miraculous ollie from one rail to another. When he lands on the second one, he sits on it like he owns the place.

The point is, these are clips you don’t just behold with your eyes (or, which force you to close them, should the situation get too harry). You feel this type of footage in your loins, a gut reaction. That’s definitely how I feel from the innumerable downhill clips, in which his takeoff point or landing lends extra levels of treacherousness and hostility to an already breakneck amount of risk—I mean, the one with the moss-covered ground. This same boundaries-pushing harrying, however, can also extend into discomforting territory. It’s disturbing to watch O’Grady end a line by pump-faking a heelflip at a motorist. Sure, the driver’s in their vehicle, but who wants to be flexed on by some gym-socks-wearing bloke? Who wants to be a bystander to this entitlement, this aggressiveness? It’s enough to make you feel vindicated when, after a bit of b&e, O’Grady ollies over some homeowner’s house gate, only to get served on impact with the street.
Senselessness, however, is small sacrifice for the way O’Grady’s skating injects liveliness and excitement into the city that surrounds him—the way he keeps you on your toes. It is an affirmation that the city is still an interesting context, his mischief proof that they aren’t entirely sanitized. While O’Grady’s version of idiot mode comes off as PG when compared to forebears like Dustin Dollin, who laid bare the cravennes at the heart of this skating, and though one senses everywhere the subtle censors of O’Grady’s shoe sponsor, Nike, we nonetheless get treated to a healthy level of sketchiness—a sense that the reptilian underbelly of libido is coming out for some overdue sun, and cares little for the stir it causes by being out in public. Basically, that O’Grady’s skating is out there for everyone to see—and to be frightened by. It is perhaps for this reason that, when I think of O’Grady now, I picture a crooked smile smeared across his face. The expression is everywhere in his part, less a mood and more a scar left by a good punch in the mouth. I see it toward the end his part, when he kickflips from a parking lot into a steep, concrete bank, putting a hand down, as he steers out of a powerslide. All his friends erupt in surprise—surely they thought he was getting tossed. But with such a shit landing—or, sort of shit, anyway—O’Grady gets both the trick and the reaction that he wanted. Pleased with himself, he sticks out his tongue, and skates away. •••

Kids Born Out of Fire: On Ari Marcopoulos’ Polaroids (92-95)


      

Skate photos take on an unusual mystique in Ari Marcopoulos’ latest books, Polaroids 92-95 (NY) and it’s companion volume, Polaroids 92-95 (CA), both out from Dashwood Books. In these publications, we find a tender, if disjointed montage of images: the past, but more ambient, interstitial, and awkward than anyone remembers it. Your favorite pros, but greener, skinnier, and more self-conscious. A primary document, but made up of curious outtakes. A handful of skate photos, but nothing was landed (except, maybe, an ollie over a bike by Julien Stranger, and a Japan air by Max Schaaf). It’s skateboarding’s golden era, but as three years worth of empty afternoons, and a guy with a new Polaroid camera—part of the fascination arising from the irony that it took 25 years for these images to come to light, when Polaroids develop instantly.  

Marcopoulos has been shooting skate photos for decades, and his idiosyncratic style of image making clearly borrows from the mythologizing eye skaters turn to spots: granular, obsessed with inscrutable details, highly attuned to place, attracted to the fringes and other peripheral places—materialist, but still chasing a spectacle. In other words, Marcopoulos will hone in on the most mundane, obscure, in-between places—airports, the underside of bridges, stairwells, gutters, litter, youth—dipping in and out of the all-consuming flood of images that already populate our world. 
The same maleability plays into his publications, as well, perhaps best represented by Anyway (Dashwood Books, 2012): no stranger to the expediency of self-publishing and zines, the unorthodox tome collects a few dozen of these saddle-stitched booklets, and presents them in a beige archival box, mounting a de facto catalog raisonée as a figment of coherence, a monument to the gloriously incidental; easy to store, impossible to archive.

How that slipperiness fits into these books is quite interesting. The Polaroids were taken between 1992-95 in New York and San Francisco, respectively, but were subsequently lost for the last 25 years, only to be rediscovered in 2020. Yet, despite what we might hope for such a momentous rediscovery, as Marcopoulos explains in his dedication, much information remains forgotten. This detail is important, because it’s what I imagine aligns these books with skateboarding’s fundamental antipathy toward officialdom, and its predisposition to such lost tales and minor histories as ABDs, NBDs, BGPs, sticker-based memorabilia, the Slap Message Board, and a world of conflicting opinions about who did what when, and why Ricky Oyola claims that Vinnie Ponte was not the first person to ollie down Love—basically, all the bullshit that marks skateboarding as an oral tradition.  
The result, however, is that fact and fiction narrow significantly when we look at these images. On the one hand, we get a semi-factual account of street skating’s prelapsarian period, prior to its eventual corporatization—a real time, and a real place. But on the other, the kids in baggy pants and skate companies ripping their logos from athleticwear; hats worn exclusively backwards with offensive t-shirts; the mishmash of street and vert, East coast and West; and the gawky body language of adolescence, together frame out a version of Neverland, wherein all the details of this world are stand-ins for desire and yearning—a world of profound moodiness and affect. 

It’s this elusiveness that makes me think of Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film, Nostalgia. For one, like Marcopoulous, Frampton starts with the discard pile, focusing on 13 images from the filmmaker’s early days as a budding artist/photographer. And two, the film brings memory into question, pairing each image with a voiceover in which Frampton remembers the photograph’s various failures to launch as art, editorials, portraits, evidentiary documents, posters, and even objects. The trick, however, is that the subsequent montage is totally out of synch: the voiceover never corresponds to the image on screen, though it doesn’t prevent a certain sentimentality from blossoming as we watch the photographs slowly burn up on the coils of an electric hotplate. Nostalgia, it reveals, works on everyone.
In the end, as much as I still have questions—where is Ethan Fowler these days? And who are the 2 or 3 women that occasionally populate these images? Dirty overalls, bushy ponytail, impassive expression, as angst-ridden and adventurous as any of the boys—their presence is so powerful, that all the other images seem to pile at the womens’ sneaker-clad feet—I bring up Nostalgia in relation to Marcopoulos’ Polaroids not to suggest that we will find answers, but rather, to describe how, everytime we look at them, our gaze seems to be drawn elsewhere—to the fringes of an image, the edges of an era, the heart of myth, or simply into a fairly normal past. In other words, in skateboarding, there’s often no difference between myth and fact. And that’s the fun of it. •••

Waxing the Curb

Late Capitalist Griptape

     Tony Rosenthal, Alamo, 1967. Astor Place, New York City.

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.
•••



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Waxing the Curb is ︎ by Sam Korman. 


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