Skateboarders are known for a lot of things—being tiny-hat-wearing fuccbois, fighting security guards, and playing bizarre drinking games, to name a few—but not usually for their academic prowess. But there are a lot of smart people who skateboard, and one weekend in early June a whole bunch of them got together in London for a three-day academic conference devoted to all things skating.
Pushing Boarders was organized by Re-verb Skateboarding, Long Live South Bank, and SkatePal, three groups that represent skater-led academia, urban skate advocacy, and international skate charity work, respectively. Hosting duties were shared by House of Vans London and the University College of London’s (UCL) Bartlett School of Architecture. The goal of the conference was to explore not just the surprising amount of crossover between skateboarding and academia, but to critically examine skateboarding itself.
This being a skate-centric academic conference, there was, of course, a lot of skating. The weekend kicked off with a free session and launch party at House of Vans, followed by a late night migration to South Bank, London's iconic meet-up spot. The party also featured “Globally Stoked,” a photo exhibition on global skate scenes with work by Fred Mortagne, Arto Saari, Sam McGuire, and others.
Saturday was the meaty, academic discussion portion of the conference, featuring five panels at the Bartlett school. First up was “University of Skate: A History of Skateboarding in Academia,” featuring Borden and legendary former pro skater Ocean Howell, now a professor at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College. This was followed by “What We Do is Secret: The Challenge of Writing about Skateboarding,” moderated by Ted Barrow, who is beloved for his sardonic Instagram account @feedback_ts, but is also pursuing a PhD in art history at City University of New York. Next was a conversation between “skate ambassador" Neftalie Williams and pro skater Karl Watson titled “Race, Skateboarding, and the Power of Imagined Communities.” Then came “‘Not just some homogenised bullshit’: Skateboarding and the Gender-Identity Evolution,” featuring the publishers of Skateism, skateboarding's first diversity magazine, and Marie Dabbadie, whose Xem Skaters zine focuses on nonbinary and genderqueer skaters. The day closed with “Concrete Waves and the Rise of Female Skaters," a panel of top female pros including Elissa Steamer and Alexis Sablone (who also happens to be an MIT grad), talking about making it in a male-dominated industry. After the panels, the organizers dragged two wooden kicker ramps over to a nearby flat ground spot, and attendees skated into the wee hours.
Sunday saw the conference back at House of Vans, for two final talks and an expo in the main hall, replete with skate lessons, screen printing workshops, and booths from small skate brands like Doyenne, a women-owned company that supports “all the minorities including women, LGBT community, POC and people with disabilities, aiming to create a bigger space for them within subcultures, specialising in skateboarding.” The first talk focused on the work being done by organizations like SkatePal or Make Life Skate Life around the world. The second, featuring Malmo skate ombudsman Gustav Eden, was on how to build more “skateable” cities.
“Nothing like this, we think, has ever happened before,” acclaimed skate author and Bartlett school professor of architecture and urban culture Iain Borden said, before his presentation on the history of skateboarding and academia. “There’s never been a conference about skateboarding that brings such a diverse audience of people and speakers together.”
That sense of uncharted territory ran through the entire weekend. As the event program said, “Pushing Boarders is an experiment. We don’t know what a ‘skate conference’ should be any more than you do. We’re not even sure we should call this a conference. What we do know is that skateboarders around the world have been doing amazing and unexpected things with a ‘useless wooden toy,’ and it’s time we acknowledge that.”
It’s also been a time for skateboarding to finally acknowledge some of the very much not amazing things it's been doing, like promoting toxic masculinity and celebrating men with long histories of hateful views, and the conference did not hesitate to explore those issues. The panels touched on subjects that, until very recently, skateboarders were not willing to address, giving them a sense of real urgency.
Speaking on Barrow's skate writing panel, Roosevelt University professor Kyle Beachy discussed the reaction to an essay he wrote recently criticizing Jason Jessee, whose history of racist and homophobic comments were recently brought to light by VICE. King magazine originally published Beachy’s piece, then removed it from their site, citing a desire by Jessee to “address the issues brought up in this article.”
“There are, right now, sitting thousands of miles away on the western coast of California, a group of men who control this industry who would absolutely straight-faced say to us, ‘No you’re wrong,’” Beachy said. “It’s important to note that these are the same men who are making the most money off this industry.”
That was not the only moment that sent a hush through the room. Kava Vaz, a black, female skater and Thomas J. Watson fellow, produced another when she challenged pro skater Karl Watson during his panel on race and skateboarding to question how his relatively rosy experience as a black person in skateboarding might be tied to his gender. Intersectionality, she stressed, was not to be overlooked.
Another came when Dabbadie, of Xem Skaters, relayed their experience of skateboarding as a genderqueer person. “To survive in the skate world, I felt like I needed to protect myself from the mainstream views of skateboarding,” they told us. “I didn’t and don’t feel safe.”
The topics discussed by these panels were not the positive, get-you-stoked things we’re used to hearing about skateboarding, but it was clear that people were hungry to hear them.
“I really felt like every panel was really charged,” said Dr. Dani Abulhawa, a SkatePal ambassador and one of the event’s organizers. “It was just such an intense dialogue happening. Not just in those moments, but outside of the panels as well. That was just wonderful. I’ve never experienced that in an academic conference before!”
“I think we all, by being in this space, even if we didn’t actively participate in the discussion, all of us being in this room and sitting through the discomfort is part of the growth that we’re promoting as a skateboarding community,” said Vaz.
The conference forced participants to re-examine what it means to be a “core” skateboarder. “For a while, I have been not that into the skateboarding industry and really bummed out about it,” said attendee Andrew Gorham, a recent college grad who'd flown in from Boston because he was excited about the idea of the conference. “Just because there’s a lot of people that kind of exemplify the same characteristics that you see in other areas of society. Like politics in the United States right now. Hypermasculinity, racism, sexism, and all these other terrible things. To have a group of people that all skate and can acknowledge that these are problems is really encouraging and inspiring.”
“As much as we care about the core of this thing, maybe the core is a little rotten,” suggested skate journalist Anthony Pappalardo, riffing off Beachy’s frustrations with the industry. And, Pappalardo reminded us, “California isn’t the world.”
If a person only sees the mainstream skate industry, they might never get past the bro culture. They might think that’s all skateboarding is, and that it isn’t for them. They might quit, or they might never even start. The fact that the conference’s attendees were so numerous, and hailed from so many places across the globe, was a great reminder that there is a much bigger community out there. Skateboarding is composed of people of all genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. It is composed of deeply intellectual people who are passionate about designing skateable cities, building skateparks in places like Palestine, and fighting sexism, racism, and transphobia. It is welcoming a new generation of passionate, open-minded young people. It is, I discovered, not at all the thing I grew up with. And I’ve never been more excited about it.
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