The Work of (Skate) Art in the Age of Mechanical Grey Matter

By Jono Coote

“..the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” – Marshall McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’

On 12:15 a.m., October 6, 2010, Instagram went live for the first time. In June 2013, it introduced video hosting to its platform. By the time of typing this (April 2020), its place as the skateboard media’s visual platform de rigeur is unsurpassed. Skateboarders have come to prominence through it (in place of magazine footage, video parts etc.), news of sponsorship changes is immediately announced via a post from rider, company or both, and footage which would have once been eagerly squirrelled away towards a video is shoved straight into the public eye in the endless quest for ‘likes’. Print magazines are dropping left, right and centre, photographers are getting paid less and less and DVD releases are little more than an existential shriek into the information superhighway void, but Instagram goes from strength to strength like an unchecked tumour.

So where does this leave the beleaguered skateboard industry, already reeling from mainstream appropriation, global economic downturn, the competition offered by the wider issue of the internet as a whole etc.? Does the unhealthy vitality of Instagram, glowing with all the appeal of a genetically modified rodent, find its nourishment in the anaemic body of our culture? Or does it herald the democratisation of skateboard culture – a semi-utopian platform where the Gramscian hegemony of the company-curated skate video has been brought down to a level playing field with your mate’s video from last night’s car park session? 

One of the problems which immediately stands out when scrolling through Instagram, Facebook et al on the shitter is the sheer volume of visual stimulus clamouring for attention. When once I would spend hours discussing the minutiae of one Scott Palmer trick in a Blueprint video with mates, nowadays even when I see something which gets me stoked the chances are I’ll forget who posted it, who did it and even what it was within a day. The amount of shit being flung at the wall means that even that which starts to stick is soon knocked loose by the next handful and dragged down into the steaming pile with the rest. Social media is clamouring for our attention and, in order to gain it, feels like it needs to cater to the shortest possible attention span. This by proxy means that all of our brains are slowly being trained to rely on a constantly changing stimulus, an endless circus in which information is put out on a level playing field regardless of its worth; all that matters is its brevity. Prize dingus and 18th century nature shitter Henry David Thoreau, in between bleating about how much smarter he was than everyone else, occasionally had time to hit upon a good point. One of these can be found in Walden, where at the beginning of a chapter on reading (mostly consisting of why he is better at it than everyone else), he states, “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” (Thoreau, p. 68). This doesn’t take much imaginative stretching to project on to the skateboarding video or magazine. Time has probably been put into editing a string of tricks together in a timeline to match a certain portion of the soundtrack, or shooting incredibly composed skate photos and then sitting up late into the evening writing supermarket brand wine-fuelled text to accompany them. To cut these artefacts into bite size portions removed of the majority of their context is disposable culture at its most cursory; and arguably reduces the value of something which the skater has perhaps spent hours trying and which has been captured on film or video to be transformed into a work of art. Like McLuhan’s Work of Art, stripped of its aura by the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the contextual clothing of skateboarding’s visual output is stripped away by the medium of their presentation. 

Don’t get me wrong, photos by J. Grant Brittain, Skin Phillips or Leo Sharp will always stand out from the crowd to those who are looking for quality; so will the innovative filming and editing techniques of Jacob Harris, Johnny Wilson and those other four wheeled filmmakers who are truly dedicated to showcasing skateboarding in ways unique and exciting. But, studded like diamonds in shit amongst the masses of phone cam rocket ollies down three sets and photos which might as well be in your local Observer article about the opening of a new skatepark, will they be engaged with on the same level as when they could be found in a stack of well thumbed magazines in your bedroom?

Daryl Mersom, in his article in support of Instagram for Kingpin a couple of years ago, argued in defense of social media;

“Whilst I agree that in general our attention spans are decreasing, I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. Edits are becoming more concise and, hopefully, I will not have to sit through any more grass skating interludes from local scene videos.” 

However, I’m not sure a minute’s worth of footage maximum is as far into ‘concise’ as I want to see things go – the rise of the Instagram edit could well herald a massive drop in the amount of ‘warts and all’ labour of love scene productions crossing our DVD players and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss those grass skating interludes, badly edited tricks and baffling song choices which shows a skateboarder fumbling his way into editorial capability via trial and error, the traditional method of learning to make a skateboarding video. 

I am aware of the inherent irony in the fact that many of you will read this having been directed to it by social media, and it would be remiss of me (if not downright braindead) to claim that social media is inherently the root of all evil, one of the four technological horsemen heralding the death of skateboarding as we know it. I’m not just some bitter holdover from the pre-Insta days moaning about the fact that the buttons on those new internet phones are too small for my fingers. I’m saving that for another article. Social media is a brilliant tool for meeting up with other skaters when travelling, aiding in organising incredible events like the Vladimir Film Festival and being able to see what friends in other towns are up to right this minute at the unlocking of a phone. You can even message your favourite pro and most likely get a response, an unlikely scenario in the days of posting fan mail.

Skateboarders as a group also have a natural flair for not taking media at its ‘accepted’ value. Studies of public media consumption have come a long way since the widely painted picture of a lumpen, passive proletariat, eagerly lapping up whatever the evil market forces behind Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ could churn out. Audiences are made up of individuals who watch, take in information from and further disseminate cultural artefacts from a huge array of angles. Skateboarders (and perhaps this is a conceit) are more widely attuned to appropriating supposedly hegemonic materials than most; this is after all the culture that took advertising, that widely maligned institution, and used it to channel the direction it would take for years to come. After all, at its root the majority of skateboarding media is a tarted up advert, but one which the likes of Steve Rocco, Big Brother Magazine and Deluxe Distribution gleefully subverted to its own ends. Sales were key, but innovation and artistic license were rewarded. Now the shift in focus towards page clicks means a demand for wider public appeal and a striving for popular acceptance which at its worst resulted in the creation of that truly awful cultural cul-de-sac ‘clickbait’ (a trend which thankfully seems to have run out of steam). The fact of Instagram and Facebook’s algorithms, ‘rewarding’ certain types of content with more exposure than others, should have questions raised regarding social media’s supposed democratisation of popular culture. Advertisers slowly begin to see what is deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of how many clicks and shares it has garnered and the seed is planted for a demeaning slump into artistic mediocrity.

Instagram, Facebook and the like should not be hailed as the skateboard industry’s saviour, but hopefully the youth who have grown up with it as a backdrop to most of their skateboarding lives will be able to bend it to their own uses; much as skateboarders of the 1990s took the by that point tired visual tropes of their filmic forebears and created a much rawer, more exciting visual experience. Rather than being pursued with a rabid zeal to the detriment of other, more traditional vehicles of radness consumption, social media at its best is a useful appendage to more in depth exercises in skateboard media – full length scene videos, print magazines and tour videos being three which immediately spring to mind. Otherwise, we run the risk of our generation’s contribution to skateboarding culture being the quashing of some of its most captivating quirks. That, and more ironically dressed no complies.