Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

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More product placement: I’ve contributed to photographer Steve Harries new book ‘Reading Lines’. The book is a collection of photos of London skateboarders and the public spaces they explore, exploit and interact with.

Here is my contribution:

We are surrounded by manufactured landscapes, by environments created out of ideas, culture and – even occasionally – need. From the peak of national park mountains to the depths of underground car parks, descriptions of environments play a significant role in how we understand both our context and ourselves. These descriptions span the full octave of media: a poem, a painting, a policy document, or a masterplan. Think of Wordsworth walking in the Lake District, Capability Brown sculpting aristocratic grounds, Constable painting landscapes, EDAW masterplanning a district, Arup traffic planning a car park, or JG Ballard describing the psychosexual quality of the Westway. These are all acts of landscape creation – they change the ways we think and use our habitat.

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Contemporary landscapes are often born out of rational masterplans, of logical and plausible arguments discussed, modeled and drawn. On the ground however, their singular belief is hard to fathom. Think of the post-war landscapes that were built to reconstruct the country not only physically but also socially. That progressive, idealistic era is strangely puzzling to us. These are landscapes whose continuing certainty is at odds with our own doubt. Their belief in progress is at odds with our experience. We follow their utopian armature with a slouching apathy. They sometimes feel like the puzzling remains of a vanished civilization.

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Perhaps these landscapes, though built by man, they were intended to be vacant – empty, like scenes in an artificial desert.

The emptiness of contemporary landscapes holds a fascination. There is a futuristic appeal in tessellating hexagonal concrete slabs, a poetry in the to-the-horizon tarmac of airport car parks in early morning mists, an appeal in the sculptural motorway on-ramps and off ramps, flyovers and elevated sections. Part of this fascination is the feeling that what you are walking on might not really be the surface of the planet.

In fact, the appeal of hard landscapes is the alien, un-natural, un-earthly sensations that they allow us to experience. Hard landscapes are not simply coverings with practical qualities. They are representations of the earth laid over its surface: Planetary masks, created by landscape architects leafing through catalogues full of concrete pavers.

Like glass, tarmac never sets completely solid. Streets are really rivers flowing with the thickest black treacle. A viscous gloop in whose depths lurk stringy wires and lumpy pipes. Like the chocolate topping on a crunchy muesli bar. On very hot days you can feel its velvety softness with your heel.

The Situationists claimed that the beach lies beneath the pavement. Reality, however, is more exotic than rhetoric. Roads are million year old sludge drawn from deep beneath the ocean. Most road asphalt is a by-product of crude oil processing. Once all the valuable bits have been removed, the denuded left overs are made into asphalt. Roads are just a sticky kind of dirt, rearranged into linear patterns. It’s like mud that’s been edited. Asphalt is an abstract version of the ground. Dark, compressed, inert and flat. Somewhere between mud and stone. Equivalent pretty much across the country – consistent meaning, regardless of local vernacular or materials. Endlessly extendable and always exactly the same. Where even now a truck and a roller are adding a three-lane bypass.

All of this freshly pressed blackness flows on to the horizon. Crisp and clean and unspoilt. Glistening like overnight snow, only blacker and harder. As full of the promise of love as wedding cake icing. So beautiful and textured that you want to step barefoot onto this unspoilt world. Forests of signposts, hosts of golden yellow sodium lamps for a Wordsworth of the highway – deeper in poetic loneliness behind the wheel of a 4×4 than walking in the Lake District ever allowed.

A brand new skin for the earth. That makes the world look newborn, so that it can’t be anything but innocent. More wonderful than the ancient craggy, scuffed planet beneath. Perhaps the real modern poets are those who create these landscapes: The Capability Browns of the motorway system, the Gertrude Jekylls of the parking lot. Driven by desire to reclaim earth as an unspoilt paradise. Highway engineers who dream of being naked Tarmac Adams in a Tarmac Eden.

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Think of liquid concrete poured into its shuttering during the construction process. The grey sludge flowing into its mould around cages of reinforcement. Just imagine: London’s South Bank was once entirely liquid. Perhaps its solidity might be temporary like an ice sculpture. Maybe the chemical bonds formed in the cement during its curing might reverse, returning the building to dust, stone and water again. An entire cultural complex washing into the Thames.

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It is within this concrete landscape that new ways of occupying space have developed. We see it in the complex social politics of driving, but perhaps most expressively in the skateboarders who use, or rather mis-use terrain of contemporary public space.

You can tell they are near when you hear the sound of their wheels running over concrete. The texture of the ground amplified by wheel and board into rattling sonic streams describing the minutiae of surface texture. And you can see the new spatial interpretations in the skaters trajectories. In their flips, switches, and in their bodies twisting above the ground. Momentum and gravity, and bodies loose from the surface.

Why choose these environments? What is the significance of these landscapes as backdrops to act out enigmatic dramas of velocity? Perhaps – amongst the sheer weight of concrete and tarmac, against the solidity of material presence, and within the determined logics of the masterplanner – the skaters act is an expression of a desire to cut the bonds of that tie us to the surface, to escape the physics of the ground plane. Many be it is an acting out of a dream where gravity no longer applied to humans and people begin to float into the air. An anticipation of the moment when heels, then toes loose contact with the ground and we fall upwards into the sky: Perhaps it is a plea: Anything to feel weightless again, below thousands of tonnes of concrete.

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I’m sure where you can pick up a copy of the book, but there is an accompanying exhibition at the Carhartt store, 15-17 Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9LL.

More info at >>Creative Review<<

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Also, see Steve’s photos revisiting the locations of iconic movie scenes >>on his website<< - where the intrigue is played out between the collective dramatic narrative of the cinematic image and the banal everyday scenes.

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