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Volume, or The Problem of Quantity: Mark Suciu’s Big Year


   

He did it. It happened. There it is. After all the tape has been logged, and all the hours of footage released to the world, and after a near miss in 2019, the maestro Mark Suciu has finally been awarded skateboarding’s most coveted title. He is the 2021 Thrasher Magazine Skater of the Year. I must admit, something about this year’s SOTY race elicited a groan from me. When did skateboarding become so obsessed with titles? How did SOTY ever become such a thing? Skating was in the Olympics this year, how much more do we want to play into this competitive mindset? And didn’t the pandemic prompt us all to reconsider our most hallowed institutions—have we learned nothing? Or, at least, couldn’t we have just taken this year off? Or named the entire skate world SOTY, in some kind of bid for relevancy during a time of disaster, as when the Nobel Prize committee gave its Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012 for holding it together during the financial crisis? Or perhaps pull some sort of ruse like naming “the grom” SOTY, following the example of Time, which, in 2006, named You (yes, you) its Person of the Year, in an attempt to show its awareness of social media, and therefore hoping to slow its inevitable, and fast-coming irrelevancy as a centralized media authority? Oh, Thrasher, why?

But after I stepped back from my own grumpiness, and re-watched Suciu’s four (and a half) parts, I found that there was actually something appropriate, even reassuring about his accomplishment. The entire situation makes me feel the way I did after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza on 70mm at the Village East Cinema’s ornate Byzantine-style theater in Manhattan. In my opinion, it’s not PTA’s best film. It doesn’t take me anywhere strange and discomfiting like Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Master did. It doesn’t make me queasy the way A Phantom Thread lured me into the profound emotional undertow of Oedipal family relations in Golden Era New York. It doesn’t tangle with the American underbelly the way Boogie Nights wrenches such pathos from the lives of porn stars. It doesn’t bring us to our knees in front of the dark heart of greed like Daniel Day Lewis forces Paul Dano to do (on a his personal bowling alley, no less) in There Will Be Blood. In short, Licorice Pizza does not drink our milkshake. But it is still great, endearing, beautifully acted, a sort of instant classic from someone who has reached the heights of his career, and who is now beginning to look back at his origins, taking his own lost youth in Studio City as his muse. To put it another way: Licorice Pizza is a teen movie par excellence, and Alana Haim’s punchy yearning for experience confirms that, during a time of stasis, stagnation, and cultural malaise, a time when it has been difficult to feel like you are moving forward with your life, complexity still exists, art is worth making, ambition is relevant, your angsty feelings still matter, and no matter how stuck we feel, you’re going to miss it when it’s gone.

Ok, so Suciu’s victory is not quite so sappy and emotional. Really, the guy is so straight-faced in all of his parts that it couldn’t be further from the electricity of Haim’s performance. But I do think there is a similar confirmation that can be found in the over 20 minutes of footage that he released this year. This episodic one-man full length video may not push us into uncomfortable territory, and it may not offer us the explosive, even orgiastic sense of relief we might have been hoping for all these lonely months, but the fact that it earned Suciu top honors suggests that, during this time in which motivation is scarce, and uncertainty bountiful, skateboarding continues to reward the effort you put into it—that, in each of these four (and a half) parts, there is evidence that it still matters to try, albeit complicated, and very much of these times.

If I go back through my skater friends group chat, and chart the evolving conversation around Suciu’s clear SOTY bid from the beginning, Blue Dog was my favorite Suciu part—though I was ignorant of the three (and a half) that would follow. And I don’t just mean favorite part this year, I mean favorite part from him of all time (topping Verso). It contains the familiar tropes that have come to define the more mature period of the skater’s career. He riffs at historic spots like Pier Seven in a sort of structural reconsideration of the layout: skating it the long way, he sneaks in a slew of extra ollies, kickflips, and 180s, drawing every component of the spot in relation to one another, such that its presumed linearity actually becomes quite involuted, folding the spot back on itself. And he probes 3rd and Army with a line that is two, three, four tricks longer and more complex than anyone else tends to deliver there, deconstructing the spot’s familiar throughlines with an eloquently circuitous grammar that ranks alongside William Gass—that ollie over the block to tailslide on the step, wow, it almost seems like a purely linguistic exercise. But as I said to my compatriots, the part also seems to show a looser, more free-flowing Suciu. His guard is down and he seems more willing to mix in a few jokes along the way, as when he concludes his long line at 3rd and Army with a curb trick, adding a pop shuvit at the end as if to make a subtle pun on the curb’s overall curvature—quel bon mot!

One of the more notable aspects of Blue Dog is a shift in Suciu’s typical interest in complex geometry. Since his early career, he’s always contrasted the planar urban arrangement of shapes by pretzling himself into all variety of convoluted postures—it is this tendency that brought him his initial fame. But by the time Verso came out, it had morphed into an idealized version of itself through mirroring and symmetry. In hindsight, such a modernist, rationalist pursuit of an ideal seems sort of at odds with skateboarding’s more intractable, hedonistic, and tribal qualities, and looking back on it, it feels almost like pure form: all surface and reason. It reminds me of the way a well trained dog can seem somewhat sad, its true animal nature replaced with an unflinching loyalty at the command of its owner. Or the way the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus and International School of architecture were so easily coopted for corporate interests, and perverted into a symbol of mid-century conformity. Still, a somewhat surreal quality lingers in Verso, not unlike the various bureaucracies that Borges or Kafka explore in their stories. Pushing his process to the point of fractal-like abstraction, the mirror lines expose a similar sense of absurdity in supposedly rational systems of thought, though Suciu is no Gregor Samsa, his world not that of Tlön.

In Blue Dog, there’s an opening up of this idealism, a softening of Suciu’s hardlined pursuit of perfection. When he skates the low hubba on 2nd Avenue, it has a more improvisatory quality,  the spot’s approachably low posture seeming ready made for the types of quick-footed combos only Suciu seems able to produce, like subtly rewinding a bluntslide into a back 5050 on the ensuing flat part, or popping out of another bluntslide to fakie—it’s like watching someone who is really good at skateboarding find fun ways to skate a really shitty skatepark. Or there’s his beautiful rumination on the JFK banks. Skaters love to talk about “unlocking the spot” as if someone possesses a secret cheat code, but I think the term diminishes the poetry that Suciu finds there. Rather than come with some preconceived notion, he yields to the spot’s pyramidal geometry, spinning an alleyoop 270 onto the top of one of its ledge in some sort of looping, elliptical pentameter. Moving forward, but looking back, the motion inverts typical harmonies, registering like a sound I’ve never heard before, but which feels distantly familiar. Indeed, Suciu seems less concerned with “getting it right,” and instead offers a more unsentimental read on the zaniness of these mid-century architectural icons.

And then came the three (and a half) other parts. Curve makes Cincinnati look like the entire skate world’s home town. Flora treats us to a handrail cycle as complex and discursive as anything poet Charles Bernstein or Marjorie Perloff ever wrote or published. And in his Spitfire part, things get personal when he tangles with a security guard, and firecrackers his tail off a curb, a daring show of emotion for an otherwise straight-faced, cerebral type of guy, though it took me a moment to notice his cheeky wink of self-awareness when he slaps his tail both regular and switch. Yet, in spite of these small glimpses of personality, one of the questions that came up in my group chat was the issue of music. One of my compatriots commented that Suciu still hasn’t found his band, his tracks to skate to. In Verso he skates primarily to Beirut, a band which brings me back to the jangly, intermediary Bush years, in which indie music was accompanied by such juvenile entertainment as dodgeball, people drank Pabst Blue Ribbon (and not natural wine), and everyone wore keffiyehs not to show support for Palestine, but rather to signal that they had studied abroad—cringe. This round, Suciu skates to the likes of staid indie ambassadors like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Blonde Redhead, or the more contemporary Alex G, their relative familiarity and innocuous appeal creating a subtle incongruity with Suciu’s skating that mirrors the troubles PJ Ladd faced after having skated to Pulp’s iconic, 1998 anthem “Like A Friend” as an am, a song whose sappy lyrics—“You are that last drink I never should have drunk / You are the body hidden in the trunk / You are the habit I can't seem to kick / You are my secrets on the front page every week”—pairs so well with Ladd’s arriviste, passionate, and youthful virtuosity, only to go with silence for his pro debut in Flip’s Really Sorry, a gesture that feels like a story without an ending, or the climax of a movie getting interrupted. You just don’t get the same emotional payoff from pure skate stuff.

For Suciu, the question spins out to include editing: not only would Suciu never pick something so sincere as the Pulp track, but his choice in music seldom seems as challenging or sophisticated as his skating, almost putting his soundtracks in a subordinate position, rather than a complementary one—like a book printed on bad paper, or a poorly plated meal at a fancy restaurant. This incongruity becomes especially acute with the release of what amounts to a one-man full length skate video, the sheer volume of which further obscures what is truly unique about his skating, as if he’s still trying to write a 19th century novel, when the rest of us only have the attention span for Lydia Davis. The problem has caused a seachange in opinions about Suciu, provoking a feeling of ambivalence in other commentators and skaters who want to see something more tightly edited, and condensed, an opinion I, to some extent, share—because, like, did every sponsor deserve a part?

To some extent, it’s true. It’s tough to know what to make of the mass of it all. But I also think there’s another way to look at it, that if we position Suciu in terms of the present moment, we might be able to separate our own judgments, and identify what is uniquely Suciu, and what is more about our contemporary condition. One key is to reconsider his skating through the lens of architect, Rem Koolhaas’ iconoclastic notion that “only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.” Attempting to make sense of a ubiquitous, technologically-driven style of late-capitalist corporate architecture, which had abandoned the human as its basic unit of measure, Koolhaas’ cool, ironic, and materialist approach to scale could also describe Suciu’s predilection for volume, and the sheer minutes of usable footage he logs. Sure, there is something dehumanizing about Koolhaas’ imperative to embrace global systems of power, framing the architect as some kind of Christopher Nolan-esque anti-hero. And yes, in terms of Suciu, there’s something that erases the intimacy we are accustomed to feel from a skate video.
But what nonetheless emerges is a post-humanist ethics that takes an honest and unsentimental view of how these techno-capitalist regimes impact our lives, and how little power humans actually have to control them. I mean, consider how much the pandemic exposed our dependence on these massive systems and supply chains (as well as skaters’ limitless desire for archival b-sides), and how completely powerless you felt as a result. What I’m trying to say is that, in putting it all out there, and skating for volume—something he sort of invented way back in 2012 anyway, and which other skaters have profitably put to use in their own SOTY bids in recent years—Suciu’s particular genius is not only his gift on a skateboard, but also in embodying Keats’ notion of “negative capability”, or, to wade into ethically ambiguous territory, framing himself as a kind of frictionless, almost machine-like producer. Basically, to not just talk about it, but be about it, to show, not tell.

Ok, so, ya, I don’t necessarily know if Suciu is making this kind of critique with his skateboarding, but I do think that much of the criticism he faces has to do with the underlying, and dehumanizing fatigue that so many of us were facing before the pandemic, and which was only exacerbated by the lonely privation that two years of isolation caused—how many more times can you rewatch The Sopranos before gabagool can no longer substitute for human contact, ya know? It also often felt like you had the entire world on your shoulders, that every decision was accompanied by a crushing ethical uncertainty about how this would effect literally everyone else in the world—see, here’s scale again—only for the CDC to change policy, therefore erasing all your quandaries in a single gesture.

Still, life went on. All my friends had kids. I got married. My sister bought a house. Countless friends were able to lock down affordable housing for the first time in their lives. All my other friends finally applied to grad school. Paul Thomas Anderson got us to fall in love with the movies again. And while our global systems of information, governance, and exchange continue to go completely haywire, Suciu dances his frenzied handrail cycle at the end of Flora, with each embellishment and innovation belonging to the same energy, exuberance, and chaos that drove so many people to fall in love with skateboarding again. It may have a kind of algorithmic caste to it, like one of those uncanny images produced by sentient AIs, which feels familiar, but actually depicts nothing; and the part’s condensation into a single onslaught draws out Suciu’s more automated tendencies, but it also offers something that only seems possible under our present circumstances, as if its astounding formal variations, and complete, unleashed sense of invention had been pent up for so long, it all came out in one enormous, cathartic burst. If there were one image that proves Suciu deserves SOTY this year, it would be the way he rolls away from his frankly impossible ender—a nollie full cab to back 5-0 on a handrail. Doing such a temperamental trick that requires profound nuance, while at the same time flying entirely blind toward a handrail is certainly an evocative metaphor for the past year, but it’s the way he lands it as if nothing happened that captures the ambiguity, ambivalence, and relief we all felt at so many points during the pandemic, when it could often seem like no matter what we tried, for better or worse, we’d land right back where we started.•••