Helena Long’s ‘Much Quiet’ Interview + photo gallery
To curate something is to carefully choose, arrange, and present different items in order to get a particular effect. It was Alex Forbes (skateboarder and Vans Europe Marketing Manager) who curated this Vans London/Paris project (Much Quiet). Alex hand-picked certain Vans riders from Paris and London to be showcased skating their hometown spots and chose Sirus F Gahan to direct the video project instead of the usual Vans production squad. But I can’t take credit for calling Forbes’ work a ‘curation’, the first I heard of that term in regards to this was when speaking to Helena Long last week. You see, Helena is real familiar with curation, after all she works at one of London’s top-tier arts and culture institutions: Somerset House. She was also a big part of the No Comply: Skate Culture And Community exhibition that took place there this past summer.
Plus she is one of the chosen few Vans riders to be included in this project, so we thought it was only fitting to talk to her about it all, plus her work at Somerset House, a little about curation, the skateable objects on the Strand, how her life has significantly changed the past few years and much more.
Interview by Will Harmon
So as far as the London crew in this project, was it people you skate with often?
Helena Long: No not all of them, but we cross paths. I guess for a long time, when I was younger, when I would go skate it was usually something I’d do by myself. Because my schedule was really random, I had a lot of part-time jobs, I’d work weekends, so I’d just go to a park or something and see who was there. So I would bump into Sam (Sitayeb) or Curtis (Pearl) at Mile End (skatepark) but never specifically for a session. I’d see Rory (Milanes) at Stockwell…
What about Tom Delion?
Oh well Tom is different for sure; I grew up skating with him. He is kind of the reason I started almost actually. He was one of three or four guys that were skating outside of school and I thought, ‘ah that looks cool.’ So I got a board and started and that was it… I was skating with Tom literally from day one.
And this was in Greenwich (borough of London) where you grew up?
Yeah and it’s quite funny, I was talking to Dan Adams at the No Comply exhibition and he had been interviewed by Hypebeast about it all and I told him that I saw the photo of Greenwich Park and this thing that was called Devil’s Ditch. It was a hill that looked like a stretched out halfpipe and it’s really funny because Tom and I used to call that ‘Halfpipe Hill’. We never knew it was called Devil’s Ditch, but we used to skate Greenwich Park all the time. Also Tom and I were talking about how we’ve had a similar journey in skateboarding, which was like we did our own thing, always kept it up a bit, maybe stopped for a little due to injuries, working a lot or we did some partying, but then we came back to it. Well not ‘came back to it’ as we never dropped it, but for both of us skating has become more of a focal point later in our lives.
Yeah you’re right! You’ve also got quite a good relationship with Sirus (F Gahan) as well as you guys have filmed a lot together over the past few years right?
Sirus is the best. And Tom actually introduced me to him because the first skate trip Tom and I went on together was to Nepal and Sirus was the one filming.
Ah yes the Nepal trip…
It was with the Lovenskate guys, Daryl (Dominguez) and that’s when I first really met Sirus and Rich West. Ever since then Tom was just like, ‘yeah, Sirus is the best.’ And I was like, ‘yeah he is the best!’ So when there was the Indonesia/Bali/Vans trip Alex Forbes was like, ‘we’ve used this filmer before, but if you have a friend who films… We want to make it as comfortable a trip as possible because it’s the first all girls trip thing we’ve done blah blah blah…’ And I was like, ‘yeah you should get this guy Sirus, he’s literally the best.’ And I sent him the Nepal edit and he was stoked on it…
Ah so you helped get him on that trip then…
Kind of, but also I think he’d done some stuff for Vans before, so they knew of him. But after that Bali trip he got to know Alex and so I was so stoked he was part of this London/Paris project as I already had that relationship with him.
You mentioned earlier the No Comply exhibition, which was at Somerset House in London this summer. I know you were involved with it but also you’ve worked for Somerset House for a while right? How did that come about?
I’ve worked for Somerset House for six years, but different roles and mostly part-time. My first job there was a gallery assistant for an exhibition. And after that particular exhibition ended they said they would keep in touch for further part-time work, so I thought if I kept my foot in the door somewhere like here then one day something might happen. Then I worked as a gallery supervisor and some other roles, but these were always part-time so I had a lot of weekdays off to skate and do other things.
So how did this transpire into you being involved in the ‘No Comply: Skate Culture And Community’ exhibition there?
It happened by chance, which is quite funny because I had always brought my skateboard in, so it was knocking about under a desk. So my colleagues knew I was a skateboarder, but I guess they didn’t know to the extent that I was involved in it. But then they found out through this interview I had in the Evening Standard.
Hmm rings a bell, but I can’t fully remember this…
A couple years ago I was interviewed in the Evening Standard around the time Street League was in London. I got paid £500 and they interviewed me and Alex Decunha. It was because SLS was held in the Olympic Park and skateboarding was due to be in the Olympics in 2020 and they wanted a guy and a girl who would potentially be representing Great Britain in street in the Olympics. I mean I never tried to get in the Olympics because there was no funding… (Editor’s note: Helena was invited to compete in qualifying events for the Olympics, but was told she would have to pay for the flights, accommodation and entrance fees herself.)
Would you have wanted to be in the Olympics if there was?
I don’t know if I would have because it’s not really my thing. Competitions make me really nervous and I’m not really in this to be competitive. So anyways, long story short, I went to do this interview in the morning and then I went to Somerset House for an evening shift starting at 4:30pm. In the interview they did ask me where I worked but I figured no one would see the Evening Standard until the evening when they’d get on the tube so I thought I’d avoid that awkward moment. But I came into the office, it’s an open plan office and I share desks with the press team and it had come up on their radar because I mentioned Somerset House. I had forgotten that the interview would come out online before people saw the paper so when I walked into the office everyone had the article up on their screens and they were all just grinning at me.
Ha ha ha!
Yeah it was really funny and then my line manager circulated the article around the office like ‘one of our own’ and sent it to the senior curator, who I’ve actually always been terrified of. So she emailed me and said, ‘this is interesting, I spoke to someone about the idea of a skateboarding exhibition the other day at this private view. Would you be interested in having a chat at some point?’ So I said yes and a few days later we met and talked for two hours about skateboarding.
It must have been weird having your two worlds collide.
Yeah it was so weird. She started to just pull me into meetings and then she decided to have a skateboarding exhibition.
And it was originally going to happen in 2020 right?
Yeah it was August/September 2019 that we started to talk about it and it was supposed to happen in the summer of 2020, but obviously it got delayed. It was insane because I was suddenly in meetings with all the people responsible for all the stuff there (at Somerset House) and that I really respect because I’ve seen the exhibitions they do, I’ve seen them in the office working really hard and all the artists they have to deal with, all the bullshit and so it was like, ‘wow I really get an inside view as to how it works now’ and I kind of kept getting pulled to all different departments to help with the development of it all. Like finding sponsorships, finding funding, working with the exhibitions team and finding people to loan stuff and then I was also talking to curators about what themes to have and things like that. It made me appreciate how hard some of those jobs are.
But it must have given you all this valuable experience that maybe you’d not had before.
Ah exactly, it was incredible. I kind of had the chance to say yes and no to things or ‘please don’t do that, but if you have to, can you spin it this way or something?’ It was amazing but at certain points I was a bit panicky, because in the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘big institution puts on exhibition about skateboarding, it’s gonna reach a different audience.’
And also I’m sure you were worried about how it was going to be presented and perceived. You being a skateboarder and involved with it, it’s kind of like a lot of pressure I suppose.
Yeah we’re obviously all very protective over our scene. Yeah and to showcase skateboarding on that big platform, it’s like,
how do you do it without offending anyone and including as many people as possible? I was constantly worried that people wouldn’t like it, but at the end of the day I can fall back on the idea that I’m a consultant and not the curator, so that made me feel better.
But it got a really good reception in the end. Are you happy with how it was received?
Yeah I was so stoked. I mean obviously some things were out of my hands in a sense, like I didn’t pick some of the photos but I did get asked about stuff and I would point them in the right direction. When Nick (Sharratt) from Palomino got involved he established a good relationship with the curator Tory Turk, which was wicked as she really listened. When Nick told me he was stoked on it I was like, ‘well if Nick is ok with it, then that’s a good sign.’
Yeah it is.
Yeah and I just found out the other day that that was one of the most popular exhibitions they’ve ever had in those rooms.
Yeah they said 17,000 people came and visited over those two months, which is kind of mad.
Yeah as it was kinda as the pandemic restrictions were just lifted.
Yeah the exhibition opened on ‘Freedom Day’ or whatever and so there weren’t many tourists in town and there was a limit on capacity, so all in all it was an incredible turnout. I mean it was actually good timing because of the pandemic so many people took up skateboarding. And also skateboarding was in the Olympics this past summer, so the exhibition was another thing to mention for the mainstream media people when talking about that.
And then towards the tail end of the No Comply exhibition they closed off the Strand (the road in front of Somerset House) and there were skateable obstacles there by Betongpark.Ltd… Can you tell us about that?
Yeah that was insane. So working at Somerset House in an open plan office I always made a point to meet people and say, ‘if you ever need a hand, just let me know.’ So there is a woman there, I forget her exact title, but she’s kind of responsible for public installations and whatnot and she knew my interest in skateboarding (this is before the Evening Standard article)… So she told me about this playable cities thing where they try to make cities more inviting and have more public space. She told me they were going to pedestrianise the Strand permanently. I was like, ‘no way!’ and obviously because the Strand is situated in front of Somerset House they get to have a say in what happens there. So I knew this when I went to Pushing Boarders in 2019 so I had this in mind during the talks about public space. So when
I was there I tried to get as much information about how cities have done it before, like how Long Live Southbank did it, and they had Pollyanna (Ruiz, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sussex) almost as a translator for a skateboarder to the academic side of things. And there was a group that were having discussions about projects they were working on so I just jumped in and said, ‘I don’t know if this is ever going to happen, but they are going to pedestrianise the area in front of the building I work at. And If I get a chance I’d like to see if they would let us put some skateable objects there,’ and the people at Southampton Skate were doing something where they were creating statistics that showed that skateboarding benefits people in education that don’t fit in and stuff. So I got all these little notes at PB I then brought back to work.
Ah ok I see…
But the pedestrianisation of the Strand wasn’t going to happen until 2021, so originally the exhibition wouldn’t have crossed over, but then the pandemic happened, the exhibition was pushed a year and then I thought, what are the chances you could throw in the pitch to have something skateable almost to coincide with the exhibition? So I went to the development team at my work and told them that I could try and speak to Vans about funding if they were into the idea of skateable obstacles. Vans were keen, especially as House of Vans had been closed this whole time; I thought we could get Betongpark to build some obstacles and I started to think this could actually work! So the last hurdle was convincing Westminster Council and weirdly they were incredibly hyped on it!
That’s pretty amazing. Did you use some of the lingo and points you learned at Pushing Boarders to talk to the council?
Yes I used a lot of the research I learned there about the benefits of skateboarding and a lot Esther’s (Sayers) research. I used it in the exhibition as well. I picked up on a lot of good phrases that I would reel off like, ‘skateboarding teaches you to fail’ and I explained how skateboarding would help adolescents integrate into society, and how skateboarding is something you can do on your own, but also with other people…
You don’t need a team…
Yeah exactly. Skateboarding you can do as an individual. You’re on your own schedule to get as good as you want, practise as much
as you want, whatever. So I told them that this is a tool that could really work for a lot of people.
I also told Westminster Council in these Zoom meetings that ‘you also don’t have to build something that’s so obviously skateable.’ So I brought to the table examples of what’s been done, like what they do at Malmö Street or in Bordeaux like, ‘look at all these obstacles around the city,’ where we can negotiate times to skate the stuff and other times it’s for the public, etc. And I wanted to express to them how skateboarders could be quite respectful most of the time. So I said to them if there were skateable objects here, we could work with them about times to skate and restrictions etc. And then they were like, ‘ok yeah!’ and they were really excited about it. They knew skateboarding was going to be in the Olympics and knew there was this whole media hysteria about it so I think that kind of sealed the deal.
Yeah I thought the exhibition and the skateable objects on the Strand were planned to be together the whole time…
Yeah it was totally coincidental timing. The pandemic delayed the exhibition; there was a surge of skateboarding during the pandemic, then the pedestrianisation of the Strand plus the Olympics so it became just the easiest thing to market I guess, ha ha.
The pandemic also caused you to be furloughed, which gave you a lot more time to skate.
Yeah that really helped with this video project. I didn’t have to work so I was just like, ‘Sirus, let’s go. If you’re down?’ The city was empty, security wasn’t around and offices were closed. I actually hadn’t been around London for such a long time either. 2019 was insane; it was like 20 trips or something… I remember counting it up one day and I think I was out of the country more than I was in the country that year. So every time I was back here (in London) I wouldn’t skate street, I’d just go to a Stockwell or something local and just roll around, wait for the next trip and save my legs for that. Growing up here you feel like you’ve seen everything so when this happened it kind of opened up London again for me.
Yeah all these things were skateable for the first time.
There were more spots because there were no people in the way. Because normally I just think of skatestoppers or security being the problem, but actually I wouldn’t have normally seen these spots because of all the pedestrians.
And you guys all went to Paris as well. Did you link up with all the French Vans riders over there?
Yeah different guys would come out at different times. Joseph (Biais) came out a few times and Val (Bauer) came out, but he was injured so he just kind of came to say hi. Nico (Gissono) and Quentin (Boillon) were out, it was kind of a mix but then there were occasions when it was just like Brits abroad. But I guess it’s like that situation if you’re in your hometown you’ve probably got work or something. People had pockets of time. Elliot (Bonnabel) came out a lot… But definitely some days there was a heavy mix of both crews so that was nice. Especially the day we went to Bobigny…
Ah the Paris suburbs spots are the best!
It was so good. That’s the best thing about skateboarding, going to these parts of a city you would never normally go to.
Well I can’t wait to see all the clips you guys got over there… Have you ever worked on a project of this size before?
Not really. The only one I guess that’s similar would be the Vans video Credits. But even then the point of that video was to focus on Fabi, Una and Breezy. And of course they wanted to bring in other members of the crew, so it was like being part of a bigger project, but more just going on some trips and getting clips rather than ‘you need to go on every trip and film all this stuff!’ you know.
Having this project to do with the lockdown and all was actually a blessing, in the sense that I didn’t lose my mind. I do enjoy working as it puts some sort of schedule in place.
I know you’ve had a lot of injuries recently as well. How did you balance that with everything in the past 18 months?
I was quite fortunate in the sense that I got a lot of footage in 2020. I’ve always had a dodgy left knee, so that’s one thing I would do to fill those gaps is go to the gym and do physio stuff, but the gyms were closed during the lockdowns, and there’s only so much you can do at home, and then at the start of 2021 I rolled my ankle. And that affected my right knee, but at that time the weather was pretty shit. So I felt happy I had gotten a lot of clips already in 2020. It took the pressure off.
I want to talk about what your life is like now versus five years ago.
In 2016 I was probably mostly working. I was working a lot at different jobs and I had saved up a lot of money to go travelling with my boyfriend at the time. So we did that for like seven months, of course I brought my board, but when I got back it was like work work work… I didn’t have any sponsors back then. I don’t know if it was that cool, as in, the female scene hadn’t really kicked off.
So compare that to your life now, how has it all changed?
Well I was fortunate enough to be on the Vans UK team back in the day. There were like a handful of female skateboarders like Lois Pendlebury and Sam Bruce… And I just got free shoes, but there was never an opportunity and it never crossed our minds that you could live off of it.
When did that start changing for you?
I think it was like 2018. I would always go travel with a skateboard, because that was my favourite thing to do, but it was kind of like a backseat to work basically. So I went to Nepal on that trip and I was like, ‘I haven’t filmed skateboarding like this, like street skating, in so long.’ I used to do it all the time when I was a 15, 16-year-old. And that was my favourite thing to do, but I hadn’t done it in like 10 years or so. It was this big gap, because there was no space for it I guess. So after that trip or maybe even a bit before I had gotten some messages via Vans being like, ‘hey, here’s some shoes again. Would you be interested in this?’ I told them I was down and then when Alex Forbes joined Vans marketing I got a phone call from him and he said, ‘I think we need to push female skateboarding big time.’ And so he brought myself and a couple others onto Vans Europe, which meant he was like, ‘oh and we’ll pay you a bit,’ and I was like, ‘whoa, what!?’
Yeah it was mad! Then I showed them the Nepal edit, which showed my interest in street skating. Then I went on that Indonesia trip and it was more developing a good friendship with those guys and it showed that I was keen to skate street and travel. Plus Vans were doing a big push with women in skateboarding so I kind of ended up going on all these trips and doing all that kind of stuff. So there was another trip I wanted to go on and I asked Vans if I could go and they were like, ‘all right sure!’ and they had budget to help me travel. And then that would churn out footage for something…
So it’s all really happened in the past three years for you…
Yeah the past 2-3 years. I guess the general surge in popularity of smaller communities within skateboarding happened when social media became such a thing. I was quite late to the game when it came to social media stuff. So that didn’t give me an advantage of getting a chance to be seen as someone that likes to skate street.
It’s a great connector; you can see what other communities are doing all over the world. It’s one of the few positive things about social media…
Yeah before you’d have to wait for some video to come out to see other girls skating, or get the free DVD that came with magazines. Then eventually YouTube…
But with social media it’s just instantly there. I used to go to European contests and be like, ‘this is the entirety of the female European scene.’ I mean all these old girls’ contests I used to go to were like this, I got to meet everyone… At the Wheels of Fortune comp (contest in Seattle) it seemed like the whole American women’s scene was there, because it’s like everyone flocks to this. But with the help of social media now there’s so much more light shone on these smaller skateboarding communities and it’s gotten so many more people skating. It’s skyrocketed. Lockdown in particular I remember thinking, I can’t be bothered with going to the window anymore to see who is skating down the road. I have no idea who that is…
Yeah no chance anymore. And so do you feel the same way about skating as you did five years ago? Do you feel more pressure now?
Yeah I feel more pressure because it’s kind of more my job than my job at Somerset House now.
You got the pro board now too!
Yeah that’s fucking weird! It’s great, but it’s kinda crazy. But yeah I feel a bit more pressure for sure because I guess I’m thinking, ‘what am I capable of doing?’ But it’s just something I’ve always wanted and it’s like my favourite thing to do: travel and skate. So the pressure is there, I want to prove myself, but I’m doing exactly what I want to do. Maybe forget about the pressure and just ride it whilst it’s here. I can’t believe it; I’m just so stoked. It blows my mind. I have absolutely no complaints at all.