Graduates - Karyan Au-Yeung
There's a whole lot of essays, books and talks surrounding skateboarding. You sort of wonder where it all started. At what point did someone take skateboarding and 'intellectualise' (in no way as an inflammatory term) it?
We continue our journey into skateboarders and their academic research for our 'Graduates' series by talking to Karyan Au-Yeung who I met whilst she was studying in Leeds. Later into her Masters degree she utilised the interior of the store whilst making her documentary.
Whilst we make more of these pieces there seems to be a point in time where more questions are needed and some are re-worded. The overall outcome may be the same but we're learning more about academia as the series progresses.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to tell your graduate stories here on the Welcome blog. Images kindly provided by Karyan which have been captured from her documentary 'It's just a piece of wood.'.
Where and what did you study?
I actually started with English Literature and Language at Leeds University and I did it for a whole year, then I changed to Media and Communications. I also did a placement year as part of the degree, it felt like I was in Leeds for a very long time. The question tends to be "Five years? What did you do?".
Then I moved onto my masters course at UAL (London College of Communications). That started in October 2021 and I finished that in December last year. That was in Media, Communications and Critical Practice. It was a lot more practical than my time at Leeds which was theory based with a lot of writing, which I did enjoy but I wanted to complete a masters to shoot, do more practical things and be more hands-on. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.
So it was lots of theory for your bachelors and loads of practical for the masters, were you hoping for a more balanced approach?
No, I was just expecting the quality of teaching to be better on my masters. Which it wasn’t. I expected the standard of the teaching for my masters to be better than they gave, but I feel that in all unis you just have to make it your own.
I don’t regret it though I met a lot of new people and most of them weren’t from the UK and on top of that I got to create the documentary for my dissertation which was the best result out of it.
Why did you choose Leeds and later on London, was it purely based on the course?
No, I originally applied for 3 out of 5 London universities for my bachelors and the only northern ones were Leeds and Liverpool. I remember just being dead set on going to Kings but I'm glad I didn't because they don't even do media so I would have just dropped out entirely. With Leeds I went to an applicant day and I remember thinking that everyone was so nice and the university felt like it was people centred. Leeds definitely changed my mind when it came to going to a London uni. The London student experience is different, you have to be able to afford to live comfortably just to have a good time and as a student that's probably not the best choice of a city. Leeds felt like a better city and it felt as if I would be nurtured there more than in London.
Following my bachelors I moved to London rather than moving back home, which is a small town outside of Manchester, my friends from uni were all from London too. It made sense for work and my media degree that there are just more opportunities here. The key to me moving to London was that I was working alongside my masters rather than just going and trying to study if that makes sense.
Almost all the students I met in London had a part-time or even full-time job to make ends meet there.
Most people I knew did but saying that, a lot of people didn't. The people on my course were from across Europe, China and the US; some of them did not have to work to pay their rent/bills or finding work wasn't necessarily a first priority. Post-grad is a different experience. You don’t spend a lot of time on campus, you come and go pretty quick. If you want to study in London you just have to find a job, London life is expensive.
I don't know how long you've been skating for, and it lends more to your MA but did skateboarding lend itself to your choice of degree?
For the bachelors no, I started skateboarding in Leeds. But for the MA I would say, it wasn’t the primary reason, I didn’t go into it intentionally with skateboarding on my mind but moving to London has a massive perk and benefit as a skateboarder. There’s so many different parks and spots, there is so much to skate on your doorstep here, which in turn helps you meet new people. I was definitely nervous though, I’d spent 5 years getting to know the skateboarding community in Leeds whereas in London there is a community 5 minutes down the road and then another one 5 minutes away which can be completely different so that's intimidating.
I think for the dissertation knowing it would be practical skateboarding definitely informed that, I knew I wanted to create something about skateboarding because of how much it had impacted me in the past 5 years. So yeah it infomed the MA not the Ba.
Do you have to title the documentary separately to the project?
For the documentary I titled it ‘It's Just A Piece Of Wood.’ and the dissertation title was ‘An exploration into how UK women of colour navigate race and gender identity through skateboarding.’ so those were made in tandem.
There was a weird rule about not having help for the Documentary, you had to shoot, record, produce it all etc. Which I found ways around, you can’t expect people to put together whole documentaries with no help whatsoever. It was very challenging whilst working two jobs at the same time. You’d be a director, producer and editor and then write about the creative process alongside any theory and literature which informed it. The whole of my last year was a bit nuts, now that I look back on it I don't know how I did it.
Did you have to pitch your documentary to the university staff? Was there any push back for creating a skateboarding documentary?
No I didn't have much in the way of having to push it, it's a new subject matter and my supervisor hadn’t seen anything like it before and they knew it was barely researched or talked about so that was a good starting point. For me, I have a cut for the uni which I’m still not happy with when I’m happy it will be shared further. What I would say is that the intention of making something I’m not able to see or find myself in skateboarding media or from what i’ve seen personally. A lot of the diverse representation that I see comes from the US and I still don't think that I'm able to connect with women of colour in the UK, so I created what I can't see and just to see how it goes. It's not that I'm a ‘Skateboard Filmmaker’ because I wanted to focus on the people and the stories and experiences behind them. By the end of it skateboarding was the by-product of what I was exploring as opposed to the actual focus of the film.
It was sort of a journey in itself, it started off as a ‘I want to make a film about skateboarding’ to oh wait this has nothing to do with actually skateboarding in the end. It is and it isn’t about skateboarding because it's about connection. That was something I learned and I was totally surprised by it as well because I was also in it. My friend was interviewing me for part of the film, I realised the stuff I was saying in the moment wasn't about the sport or being good at skating, it was about connecting, learning about yourself and identity.
Was there any part of the subject matter that you were working on difficult to portray on camera?
It was super difficult to achieve what I wanted to say, we filmed an interview with myself at Welcome and it was just not right, my friend Ty said ‘This is so surface level’ and it was because I was uncomfortable to be vulnerable it was hard to get personal and deep, there's a behind-the-scenes of me saying "If I say certain things, people are going to come at me and say that I’m making up problems, they won’t believe me and I’m going to have to explain my feelings" these worries were very real I had a tough time being vulnerable about something that's really important to me. The doc is my opinion, people might not agree or have the same experiences as me and a majority of people in Leeds probably haven’t too. I needed some form of validation from something or someone which is tough.
How did the research go, could you find anything relevant to skateboarding, race and gender?
I was surprised, I found a lot of stuff. I was blown away, I found some from 2010. There was an article from 2006, about skater girlhood and femininity within skateboarding. I was sort of shocked, I thought this is all available and no-one is discussing it. I think most of the sources were older than relevant work. There’s also some pieces that are relevant to skateboarding such as Racism, Sexism in Sport and applying it to skateboarding. Other people's dissertations are publicly available. There's a lot of skateboarding as a subculture from essays to journals. There were two or three amazing ones, Female Skateboarding: Rewriting Gender by Dani Abulahawa for example.
It was cool to bring the timelines together a little bit too, I could read older pieces of work and make comparisons to now and my own work. Skateboarding has changed but it's more or less stayed the same in a lot of ways based on the articles and my own experiences. As for the inspiration for my documentary I ‘d say Stay On Board: The Leo Baker Story (Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda), Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle) and Minding the Gap (Bing Liu) . It was a good experience gathering material overall.
There was an amazing piece which was 'Women’s Attitude To Race In Hong Kong Skateboarding', it's insane. The attitudes of women towards US skateboarders it's absolutely nuts. The racial politics side and hierarchies of things are bizarre.
Has your degree led to a job within the industry and would you like to at any point for it to encompass skateboarding?
So yes, I was working two jobs whilst I was studying. I was working as a production assistant for an independent production company as a development researcher and I was at a music rehearsal studio. I’m leaving those jobs and moving onto a job in the industry next week. It's directly relevant to what I studied. I’m still very much interested in Television and Film, and with this new job luckily because I could monitor projects for unscripted tv, which is doc or inspired by real-life stories, anything alternative or untold stories in mainstream tv skateboarding would then be something i’d be pushing consciously or subconsciously because there ideas within skateboarding that are interesting. I think the public are really interested in skateboarding, people who don't skate are so curious about it and dont know too much about it. With this new job opportunity I’ll yes try and bring in my own interests whether that's skateboarding, music or subcultures. There's a beauty combining all your interests to mix music, skateboarding and filmmaking.
Lastly, would you recommend going into higher education?
I think this is an interesting question, it depends on who you are and what you want to do. I've said from the start that University is not for everyone. People jump into it because they think it's the right thing to do, there’s also the pressure from your family and friends thinking that it's the right thing to do too. With that extra pressure people tend to drop out, fail or choose a degree that they didn’t want to do. I’m a firm believer in doing what's right for you. It really isn’t for everyone, unless you want to be a doctor then it’s a necessary step.
I think it's best if you have a set goal or a job you want to do and start work in that industry from the bottom. It depends on your circumstances, take me for example I went to study English and was going to convert to a Law degree, what was I thinking? Haha. I was terrified to change my degree, I was an academic A* student as a child and I decided to take what some people consider a ‘Mickey Mouse Degree’ I remember it being a big deal for me. I’d say overall it's a big choice with too many external pressures and to look at what you want to do before you jump into it. Uni was a great experience for me in Leeds. I enjoyed the course, the school and I found my people but people need to remember that it's a completely individual experience for everyone, so yes and no.