August 10, 2002

Dogtown Style

Category: Anthropology,Politics,Research — Biella @ 7:04 pm

Last night I went to see Dogtown and the Z Boys at the Red Vic Movie House. This is the second time I have seen this documentary about the birth of the sport and culture of skating, a birth that was a messy intersection of local politics, sport predecessors, the modern artifact of plastic, aggressive and flashy personalities, environmental factors, corporate support, and a good deal of love and passion for spending endless hours on your skateboard, always in style.

This morning I decided to read some reviews of Dogtown, which were critical of Peralta for overdramatizing the “fall’ of one of the most gifted and spirited Zboys, Jay Adams. As well as for not being skeptical and objective enough about the birth of skateboarding and the corporate presence that bolstered the growth and proliferation of the sport in the 80s and through the 90s.

Despite the sentimentalism , which I guess I am a sucker for, I think the reviewer, Mark Holcomb entirely misses the boat as to what makes the movie a far more powerful rendition than his weenie journalistic perspective will allow. Even though the movie focuses a lot on the crew of young boys and teenagers from the economically disadvantaged and rough neighborhood of Venice Beach, Dogtown, the film artfully integrated the many other factors and conditions that paved the way for the new drama of skating. Dog town was an area of LA that was rough, dirty, its streets infected with socio-cultural attitude that spread to the local surf spots and eventually to the paved hills and valleys where the local kids first met to skate. Initially imitating the flow and style of surfing and even a particular surfer, Larry Bertelman skating eventually grew into its own as an identity and sport. It is as if Dogtown received a “blow” to its environment and in the process of its ruptured bleeding, skating was born. What I mean by that is that the substance and form of the Zephyr skating team was etched out of the local environment born simultaneously from two polar opposite substances, the water and concrete, fused in the middle by the community of kids that transformed the urban environment into their very own. Born and raised surfing, the Zephyr kids adopted the aesthetics of surfing placing them in skating by crouching low to the ground, cutting, and drawing lines all with deep style. The polyurethane wheel and the drought were the technological and environmental factors that ensured that skating would not be just surfing side kick but grow as its own entity that was eventually fueled by a good dose of corporate sponsorship. The pool, a very potent symbol and material artifact of upper middle class America was hijacked by the skaters as their heavenly play ground. It was the site where skaters first entered the realm of the vertical and really took “unauthorized access” to its logical conclusion.

Along with the fact that skating is just plain and simple: rad, what I find so appealing about it is is that it reclaims public (the streets) and private (pools, backyards) spaces and makes use of them in ways that were never intended. As you all know, I am pretty interested personally and academically in the question of the
commons and what can emerge if you let people create through collective stuff whether it is knoweldge, resources, or material artificats. Skating is one of those activities, like hacking, in which young males males make use of a commons through creative passionate and performative play. Of course there are serious differences between hacking and street skating but there are some ethical, political, and aesthetic parallels that are fun to think about. So, two of my favorite political slogans are basically the same except for the first word: Skating is not a crime and Coding is not a crime . Both activities albeit in distinct ways have been criminalized, in part because of that very fuzzy and hazy concept of “unauthorized access” that both worlds engage in. Skaters gain access to unauthorized “hard” spaces like concrete curbs, parks, and streets, while hackers gain access to the ephemeral space of code and the network. The law has been used to curb both activities. To stop access in the world of computers we now have the overly draconian law like the DMCA and in the world of skating, it is often illegal to skateboard in public places. There are also physical means to stop the two. With technology we have Digital Rights Management while skaters have to face the retarded skate stoppers. Hackers and skaters keep the question of legitimate access in play not through a engagement with politics but engaging in their craft.

The cultural image of the hacker and that of the skater, simultaneously inspire a good deal of loathing among conservative societal elements while the have also grown to hold a revered status as “underground” iconoclastic figures who are led by ideals of passion and freedom to pursue those things that they love. Many emerge out of a similar soci-economic milieu, that of the sterile American suburb and both choose to engage in activities that go against the grain of the isolation and boredom that can tend to characterize the ‘burbs.

Anyway, there is more to be said, but the blog is not meant to be a medium for a leangthy essay so I will leave it at that and check out the movie if you have a chance.

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