Friday, April 18, 2003

Reason #23 to really like my PhD supervisor, or what designers can learn from skaters

Skater Hannes Schmidt (Freiburg, Germany) describes his work as 'manipulated skatepics'. The other day, Rob introduced me to Iain Borden's excellent-so-far book, Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body, which "looks at skateboarding history from the surf-beaches of California in the 1950s, through the purpose-built skateparks of the 1970s, to the street-skating of the present day and shows how skateboarders experience and understand the city through their sport. Dismissive of authority and convention, skateboarders suggest that the city is not just a place for working and shopping but a true pleasure-ground, a place where the human body, emotions and energy can be expressed to the full. As the author demonstrates, street-style skateboarding, especially characteristic of recent decades, conducts a performative critique of architecture, the city and capitalism." Or - as one review states, "Skateboarders make an extraordinary contribution to the life of cities, creating new architectures, movements and social critiques through their actions." How cool is that?!

If you don't want to read the book, you can find a decent summary in Borden's article A Performative Critique of the American City: the Urban Practice of Skateboarding, 1958-1998. But the book brings together several of my long-time loves: architecture, social space, resistance and play - and should be of interest to anyone working in the design of user experiences, especially for large-scale (urban) mobile or ubiquitous projects. I love skaters for lots of reasons, but mostly because they effectively hack the city and perform it into new shapes - practices I believe need to be encouraged in the design and use of new technologies. If we really want to develop social computing applications, I think we need to be looking to spaces and cultures like these for inspiration... For more along these lines, check out Cate Trotter's article, Can the Design of Objects, Cities and Spaces Restore the City as Oeuvre?. She argues that rather than creating spaces/objects to be used, we should design spaces/objects for the user to create through movement, through practice, through everyday life.

And related to all of this is the 2001 ZONE exhibition: "a project involving the interrelation between skate culture, art and architecture." I was particularly taken by the photographs of Jocko Weyland - "All over the world, skaters have designed and built objects of their own accord. Weyland has photographed these ramps, bowls, grindboxes and drop-ins in an almost clinical way, deserted and devoid of all activity. He forces the spectator to scrutinise structures by leaving the skater out of the photographs and emphasising the curves and windings, the geometry, the materials and the wear and tear." - and Hannes Schmidt - "By retouching parts of the 'slam sequences' (sequences of skaters taking a bad fall) in skate videos, Schmidt creates fascinating and at the same time comic works of bodies floating around in extreme positions or lying down on the ground. Whereas Weyland erases the body from the image, Schmidt pictures the skater in full action yet without his skateboard, creating the impression of a meaningless activity in an urban landscape."

There are lessons to be learned here as well...

Other skateboard photography books: Thrasher: Insane Terrain and Dogtown: Legends of the Z-Boys, which accompanies the sweet documentary film on the legendary Zephyr skate team, and briefly touches on their appropriation of urban space and architecture. Definitely worth a look-see ;) And hardcore fans love Fuck You Heroes: Glen E. Friedman Photographs, 1976-1991.

UPDATE 18/04/03: And because I'm afraid gems like this might get lost in the comments, John adds The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space by Ocean Howell. In it there is some interesting discussion of how urban architecture attempts to (re)claim as private what might otherwise be public space, by rendering buildings and objects difficult to experience in particular ways - like installing features that prevent the smooth movement of wheels, or sleeping, on a surface. And that's just plain cruel design in my books. Thanks John!

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