The Skateboard Pavilion and Other Art That Skaters Might Like

The Skateboard Pavilion and Other Art That Skaters Might Like

Words by Sam Korman

The following text is adapted from a talk I gave as part of ‘Empathy and Texture: On Skateboarding and Art’, a panel discussion organised by art historian Ted Barrow, which also included Jerry Hsu, Akwasi Owusu, and Louis Sarowsky (aka Lurker Lou). It was one of three panels at Slow Impact 2023, sharing the bill with ‘Podium or Per Diem’, chaired by Krux team manager Alex White, and ‘You Are Skating on Native Land’, hosted by ASU professor Maurice Crandall. (Shout out to Ryan Lay for putting the whole conference together.) Though our panel aimed to discuss the relationship between art and skateboarding, I never really wanted to touch the thorny question of whether skate-boarding is art—frankly, it’s never been that useful of a definition to me. My approach had more to do with offering skaters some additional context for what they do, and by exploring certain formal, thematic, and political similarities between skateboarding and specific artworks; I wanted to create a new toolkit by which we can appreciate skating’s sickness, as well. And if skaters find some art they like in this primer on post-WWII contemporary art, then that’s sick, too. So, I suppose, we can just jump right in. 

Dan Graham, Skateboard Pavilion, 1989. Courtesy the Estate of Dan Graham.

Skateboard Pavilion

When I got to art school, I thought you had to be really serious if you wanted to be an artist. I had grown up on television, and obsessively watched The Simpsons. But, now I couldn’t just make weird little things for my friends anymore—I felt I had to read philosophy and make declarative statements about capitalism. I couldn’t just fulfil an assignment designed to teach me how to use a table saw, I had to critique the institution in which that table saw existed, I had to expose the labour conditions that created a need for the table saw in the first place.
It was not enough to make something unique, either. To make a painting, I now needed a strong grasp of the gallery system, the international art market, and how these things were suddenly tied to the illegal movement of financial assets throughout the world. TV was no longer the answer, or so I assumed.

The answer was to read Discipline and Punish like 10 times (okay, this one probably did me some good). And most importantly, I absolutely could not be funny. It was all so damn serious.
Then I discovered the conceptual artist and overall malcontent Dan Graham and the door flew open on my fallacy that an artist was a singular type, his irreverence demonstrated that someone who’s artistic sensibilities were informed largely by The Simpsons might have a foothold in this world after all. One thing I always appreciated was Graham’s scepticism. He disdained the artist label, preferring to think of himself as an amateur. Hardly sacrosanct about the form his work took, he made sculptures, took photos, wrote essays, did research, ran a gallery. His art might take the form of an ad in a magazine. He encouraged artists to keep their receipts, so they could return materials after they used them for an exhibition. His influences were also far ranging. He loved comics and sci-fi. His favourite band was The Kinks. And he was obsessed with punk, even though he was already pushing 40 by the time it came on the scene. His video essay Rock My Religion (1984) was a landmark piece for me. It situated the iconoclasm of Patti Smith and the hysterical audience dynamics of early rock performances in the lineage of religious sects like the Shakers, and playfully set recordings of devout Christian ritual and cult-like dance to tracks by Sonic Youth. ‘Rock is the first music form to be totally commercial and consumer-exploitative. It is largely produced by adults specifically to exploit a vast new adolescent market,’ Graham says in Rock My Religion, echoing skateboarding’s similarly commercial roots. ‘But, ambiguously built into rock ‘n’ roll is a self-consciousness that it is a commercialised form and thus is not to be taken totally seriously by the teenagers who listen to it. The nature of this compromised position can be discerned in the irony of a song such as “Johnny B. Goode.”’

Perhaps most important, though, was the discovery of Skateboard Pavilion. In the mid-1980s, Graham was approached by a large horticultural festival in Stuttgart, Germany to propose a public artwork that would be installed in a newly renovated garden during the city-wide event. Graham was already exploring ideas around public space and architecture. During the 1980s and ‘90s, he developed a series of pavilions consisting of one-way mirror glass, a popular building material synonymous with corporate architecture of the time, as well as a useful surveillance tool—think police interrogation rooms. To explore this aesthetic opacity and its relationship to economic power, his pavilions would often create a recursive relationship with the viewer or viewers, refracting and distorting their gaze. When he proposed a pavilion as a playground, it resulted in a playful, postmodern funhouse. Those pavilions located closer to their source material—say, a corporate plaza—resulted in a more fractured and antagonistic head trip.
In any case, trouble maker that he was, Graham grasped that the festival was part of a larger urban renewal project, and wanted to disrupt the pristine image the organisers sought to create. To do so, he proposed a skate bowl for one of the main gardens. Its surface was graffitied with band names like Black Flag and Fugazi, skate crews like the Bones Brigade, and, bizarrely, the terrorist Bin Laden. A pyramidal pavilion hovered directly over the bowl, shading it like a reflective hood. Unsurprisingly, the organisers rejected it. Though it was proposed a number of times in the ensuing years, all we have is the model. It was never realised.

For me, it seems ok that he never built the skate bowl. It might be one of those projects that’s better as an idea—I love that skateboarding could inspire both practical and aesthetic provocations.
But one thing always nagged at me: the pyramidal awning. Before Graham died, I had the chance to address the issue with him during a studio visit, where I suggested that the awning’s kaleidoscopic effect would cause skaters to bail every trick. Graham looked at me, scratched his head, and smirked. ‘I built the awning for the skaters,’ he explained. ‘I wanted them to have a psychedelic experience while they were in the air.’ Then he laughed mischievously for a few moments before abruptly changing the subject.

David Johnson, Loiter (Samuel), 2021. Photo Sebastian Bach. Image courtesy the artist and Theta, New York.


David L. Johnson liberates ledges, benches, standpipes, and other potential seating areas from the clutches of hostile architecture. Think skate stoppers, but also any spiky or bulbous element that deters people from having a sit. He then exhibits these metal braces as sculptures in a gallery. Here, some of them look like a cross between a bear trap and minimalist sculptures from the 1960s and ’70s (Loiter (Peter, Steven) (2021)), whereas others reflect the insidiousness of their unassuming design (Loiter (John) (2020)). The tangible benefit of Johnson’s vigilante art practice should be pretty obvious: whether intentional or not, he makes spots skateable again. But I would imagine that his approach to public space would resonate with skaters, as well.
He similarly accepts petty crimes as part of his craft, exploiting the tension between private and public, creation and destruction, to produce artworks that are as poetic as they are political.
There is the law, someone once said, and there is what is done.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-80. July 24, 1979-June 26, 1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Date unknown. Sweep 3, Manhattan 3. Photo: Robin Holland. © Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

Touch Sanitation Performance

Something happened in skateboarding over the last few years, a change in consciousness. Skaters are paying more attention to the work that goes into their spots, the care that goes into their community. We still love to nerd out on the nuances of a clip, but now the conversation also extends to the people who break in the curbs, sweep the parking lots, Bondo the cracks, hunt the spots, coordinate the session, and organise the meetups. Frankly, it’s overdue, but thankfully, how we define skateboarding increasingly includes a consideration of all these other efforts.
A very similar situation occurred in the art during the 1960s. Under the influence of leftist politics and second wave feminism, artists began to reconsider the role of labour and gender in the art world, centring questions of care and maintenance to their practices. The most famous example of this re-examination was, perhaps, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who, in 1969, declared she would no longer exhibit art objects, per se. Instead, she would foreground the largely invisible efforts that nonetheless sustain life, and prop up large-scale public institutions—like, say, cleaning, childcare, etc. ‘I will simply do these maintenance everyday things,’ she writes in her groundbreaking Maintenance Art Manifesto, ‘and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.’ In lieu of paintings or sculptures, viewers would see the artist sweeping, waxing the floors, dusting, washing the walls, cooking, hosting, and even changing the lightbulbs. ‘The exhibition area might look “empty”,’ she continues, ‘but it will be maintained in full public view.’
Ukeles’ practice was extremely radical in its time. While many artists turned their attention to the infrastructure that supported the art system—tearing down walls to expose the pipes, researching the real estate holdings of museum trustees—and engaging with the social—founding artist-run restaurants, organising artist job placement groups, cataloguing local histories—she, too, made the personal political, refocusing our attention on the life-sustaining efforts involved in being an artist, particularly as a young mother with strong artistic and political ambitions. As her work evolved, however, it became more important to, at least in part, shift attention from herself to the labour conditions faced by various city workers. For example, in 1976, she performed I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day, in which she collaborated with the maintenance and cleaning staff at the Whitney Museum over a period of five months. The premise was simple, if profound: she asked 300 workers to label a given task as ‘art’ or ‘work’, with Ukeles creating a photographic taxonomy of the various assessments. For one cleaning woman, vacuuming was ‘work’, while dusting represented ‘art’. A few years later, she embarked on another large-scale project in collaboration with the New York Department of Sanitation, Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-80). Over the course of 11 months, Ukeles shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City. These were dark years, too. The city had defaulted, and labour unions in particular were under fire after massive sanitation strikes left the city full of garbage. But Ukeles tracked everyone down, and thanked them—8,500 in all.

‘Unfettered by object status,’ writes Lucy Lippard in her seminal book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, ‘Conceptual artists were free to let their imaginations run rampant. With hindsight, it is clear to me that they could have run further.’ Lippard’s observation echoes my own weariness about Ukeles’ practice—and indeed, about making a comparison to skateboarding, though I still think it is important for skaters to grasp the full extent (and consequences) of her practice. In the 1960s and ‘70s, mapping the inner-workings of a political system was incredibly radical—and indeed, there was clearly a huge personal connection that Ukeles made with her subjects. In 2023, however, art has failed to shake its elitist associations. Audiences, too, are more sceptical of the purported revolutionary potential of art. And institutions have adapted to accommodate these historical gestures, making it even more difficult to engage even in the realpolitik of organisations and political systems. We want practical consequences where possible. We want money going to the right people. That’s to say, in 2023, shaking the hand of
a sanitation worker is not enough, as the sanitation worker still cannot transcend their circumstances the way an artist has the freedom to. We want progress, not pictures.

Nevertheless, in spite of the imperfections in Ukeles’ work, I am always drawn back to an oft-quoted line from Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.’ The shortcomings in Ukeles’ practice are a sharp reminder of art’s (and skateboarding’s) limitations as a political tool. Yet, while these symbolic acts failed to result in any structural change, the DSNY’s response to her work may suggest that all is not lost. For however problematic we might see Ukeles’ handshakes today, the department was clearly moved by the artist’s extended efforts, particularly at a time when the union was most embattled. The 11 months Ukeles spent on the performance would inspire the DSNY to create an artist in residence program in her honour, a position she would hold for the next several decades. The DSNY would also collaborate with Ukeles on a suite of performances during the 1980s titled ‘Work Ballets’. For one, Ukeles covered a garbage truck in mirrors and drove it down Madison Avenue, followed by a twirling retinue of mechanical street sweepers. The mirrored truck has been preserved by the department. Its gleaming surfaces continue to reflect the city back upon itself to this day.

Pope.L, Still of The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 5 Years, 1 Street (Segment #1: December 29, 2001), 2001-2006. Video. 6:35 min. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York


Skaters are part of a unique group of people, in that our many trials and errors take place in public, on the street. For the most part, we’re upright. We’re cruising. We move on by. But occasionally, we fall, which makes us more intimate than most with the grit and grime of the ground. Some of us even seem to like the dirty places better. Polite society, on the other hand, is often sceptical of us and the pleasure we take in our foibles. We move too freely for them. Our antics disrupt their flow, stop them from being productive. And then there are those who take it personally. They get mad, yell at us, sometimes call the cops.

It was with this same eye toward disruption that the artist Pope.L [who sadly passed away after the print version of this article was published] began his Crawls in 1978. Originally motivated by the complacency with which people met the unhoused, including two of Pope.L’s own family members, the self-described ‘friendliest Black artist in America’ descended to ground level and elbowed his way up city streets, sometimes in a suit, sometimes in a Superman costume. In one, he crawled up New York’s Avenue A, clutching a small flower pot he had planted with a dandelion, until some random Samaritan stopped him, having taken offence. In his first crawl down 42nd Street in Manhattan, he befuddled onlookers who could not determine if he was deranged or if it was a stunt. That one ended when Pope.L was confronted by a police officer for whom the distinction between art and altercation didn’t matter. ‘To not move at the same rhythm of the city is a form of resistance. For some people, that’s a smack in the face,’ Pope.L said of his 2019 Crawl ‘Conquest’ in the New Yorker. ‘What do you mean, you’re not working? The mythology of the city is about this energy, this forward movement, but the pace I was moving was not an acceptable pace… It’s suspicious, you know?’

Pope.L, Still of The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 5 Years, 1 Street (Segment #1: December 29, 2001), 2001-2006. Video. 6:35 min. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

Skateboards have also helped Pope.L in these performances, ironically making them more safe. He strapped one to his back for ‘The Great White Way,’ his 2001 crawl up the entire length of Broadway, terminating at his mother’s house in the Bronx (Supreme has recently collaborated with Pope.L, using images from this Crawl). The skateboard propelled him through intersections more quickly, getting him out of the way of eager New York drivers, though the 21-mile crawl proved too gruelling for the rest of his safety equipment. As if to really drive home the labour behind his dumbfounding performances, and his absolute commitment to the
bit, Pope.L wore through a set of knee pads.

Ashley Bickerton, Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity II (Cowboy Suit), 1992. Enamel on milled aluminum, anodized aluminum, rope, wood, safety glass, caulk, fiberglass, nylon webbing and found object. 91¾” x 81⅛” x 221½”. © Ashley Bickerton. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.


Perhaps you were aware of the Monster Kid. His name is Topo, and in 2019, you would have seen him with his shirt off, exposing the Monster Energy logos tattooed on his chest and stomach, the fluorescent green M appearing as if clawed by some horrible, taurine-fuelled demon. Topo’s tattoos are grotesque, but he is merely the most literal and twisted example of skate culture’s dependence on brands, both in terms of business and personal identity. It’s this same condition that fascinated Ashely Bickerton, whose work from the 1980s explored the increased influence of brands on everyday life. The Reagan years were motivated by a new form of individualism, which believed that a person was in charge of their own destiny—not the government, not society. As such, protections on public institutions were rolled back, and their functions quickly privatised. Excess, consumption, and hedonism defined the aesthetic sensibilities of the day. Greed was celebrated. Hostile takeovers and the image of the Strong Man replaced a belief in the public good. And not only that, but new media technologies, and a softening of international conflicts created a new opportunity for these ideas to spread throughout the world, transcending formerly entrenched boundaries. Thanks to many American brands, the corporate Ubermensch went global.
Bickerton responded by delving directly into these tactics, turning his artistic practice into its own brand to show off the grotesque effects of corporatization. Converting his signature into a logo, he transformed the mark of authenticity into a sort of corporate seal. He also designated an entire series of works with the title ‘Susie,’ resembling more a line of products than a series of artworks. Each of these works suggest functionality.

Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles), 1988. Synthetic polymer, bronze powder, and lacquer on wood, anodized aluminum, rubber, plastic, Formica, leather, chrome-plated steel, and padded black canvas covering. 90″ x 69″ x 18″. © Ashley Bickerton. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

They might resemble a crate, or a life raft. But they were in themselves useless: broad, hulking forms with dozens of superfluous straps, flaps, and grommets. Atop these quasi-functional commodities appeared a record of the various brands Bickerton had consumed over a given period of time. They ranged from local media organisations like WNYC to international conglomerates like RCA, East Village vegetarian restaurant Angelica Kitchen to condom-maker Trojan, the collection amounting to a self-portrait based on consumption, rather than the interior life, social relations, or personal history of the sitter. In the end, there’s something painfully ironic in the way Bickerton renders something so profound out of such trivialities, particularly as he juxtaposes the allure of the new with the objects’ essential uselessness. These massive, visually complex works certainly take up a lot of space in the room, but at heart, they are merely empty vessels, literally stickered over with the glossy logos of the day.

AK Burns and AL Steiner, Community Action Center, 2010. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Community Action Center

There is a part of There Skateboards’ 2022 full-length video Ruining Skateboarding that totally devastated me. It happened during Chandler Burton’s part. Until then, I found the video somewhat conventional. Solo parts replaced the resounding messiness I had found so appealing in the company’s earlier montages, suggesting that Unity, the queer skate collective that had birthed There, conceded to the pressures of the skateboard marketplace—team boards sell less than pro models. Or, it was just running a bit long. As Marbie Miller put it during ‘Podium or Per Diem’: ‘It seems kind of fried to make an hour-long skate video and make people watch it.’
But when Burton’s part came on, I realised that Ruining Skateboarding is far from conventional. As the video’s cheeky title suggests, the company, which exclusively sponsors queer, trans, and GNC skaters was playing on the macho tropes of the skate world, everywhere riffing on convention. But it was when Mike, Burton’s partner, appeared on screen, and made his hesitant first few pushes, that the stakes of their project really hit home for me. Ordinarily, a skater will have the opportunity to feature a friend or sibling in their part. It’s a cool way to get your unsponsored homie some exposure, or to shout out your homie that rides for a different company, sidestepping the normal rules about who can appear in a vid. But here, it was not just a friend or a colleague. It was a lover. It was Mike.

Burton was in the audience during the ‘Empathy and Texture’ panel, and he explained that Mike had only started skating as a way for them to spend time together—to explore something his partner clearly cared so much about. And there is a vicarious thrill you get from watching him tentatively balance on a board, pushing himself out of his comfort zone to impress his partner. It’s just so vulnerable. Burton also added that Mike has a degree in cinema, and that he first started to come on sessions to film his boyfriend skating. Now that Mike skates, too, they take turns filming one another. Again, this mutual gaze is a familiar configuration for any pair of skate friends, but here, as a reflection of desire and intimacy, handing the camera back and forth makes the power dynamics of the gaze more explicit, a kind of tango that Burton described as ‘so beautiful, and so frustrating.’

Clearly Ruining Skateboarding is much more than a skate video, but in its adoption of normative tropes of desire, and using them to reclaim some sense of intimacy, it bears a resemblance to AK Burns and AL Steiner’s video Community Action Center (2010). The work is basically a soft-core porn that drew upon the artists’ network of friends, colleagues, lovers and ex-lovers. Re-enacting the clichéd plot lines of erotic films, and adopting their crooked power dynamics, the amateur actors renegotiate how marginalised bodies might be imagined within a field of explicit desire, ‘using tropes,’ as the artists write, ‘for their comical value, critical consideration and historical homage.’ Somewhat hard to watch, but nonetheless powerful, the film documents the messy ways a community plays these various parts for each other—sexually, socially, psychodynamically. I might say the same of Ruining Skateboarding.

The Nonsite

I always thought of Robert Smithson’s notion of the nonsite as the art equivalent of a skate spot. During the 1960s, he and his wife, the artist Nancy Holt, would commute from their home in Lower Manhattan to New Jersey, where they would explore the Meadowlands, the Pine Barrens, as well as to former mines, factories, and other industrial sites. There they would tour the grounds, and collect all sorts of raw material, stones, and other industrial by-products. Back in New York, Smithson would pile these materials onto mirrors, or collect them into geometric cages, and exhibit them as art, often alongside maps and photos. Some of my favourites include Closed Mirror Square (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969), a small pyramid of crystalline rock salt, and Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1969), a jagged, aquamarine island of glass shards.

The nonsites were more than just an ode to New Jersey nothingness, however. In his 1969 text, ‘Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan’, Smithson describes a trip to the eponymous peninsula, where he implanted a series of mirrors into the moist forest and beaches, as if to remind us that place is merely a matter of perception. For another photo series titled Urination Map of the Constellation Hydra (1969), Smithson travelled to a beach in New Jersey, and gave himself the following instructions: ‘At each star-point on the constellation the artist will urinate till a small puddle develops.’ His most compelling exploration of the subject, though, is his semi-ironic 1967 travelogue, ‘A Tour of The Monuments of Passaic.’ The essay recounts a bus trip Smithson takes to the titular city, where he embarks on a revelatory afternoon stroll. For him, all the new industrial public works, like steel bridges, culverts, and other signs of heavy industry suggest a state of entropy and chaos, leading him to declare New Jersey the new Rome. ‘That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse,’ he writes. ‘[T]hat is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.’ Such evocations of crust certainly make me think of skaters, but it’s Smithson’s descriptions of time that seem to capture our peculiar sense of displacement and apocalyptic giddiness. According to him, the future that New Jersey seemed to promise with all its new construction represented ‘A Utopia minus a bottom.’ ‘Time turns metaphors into things,’ he continues, echoing the kind of boredom that has long motivated the skater’s imagination, ‘and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs.’

Dark Star Park

Sometimes I think skaters have a mystical relationship to everyday life. One of the most beautiful and potent aspects of our imagination is the ability to draw so much significance out of the seemingly mundane, to plug ourselves into the infrastructure of the city and extract from it an almost spiritual experience. Unremarkable places like back alleys, abandoned downtowns, and suburban backlots represent not blight—or, not only blight—but rather, a kind of temple, a ritual site from which we derive great meaning. Curbs, streets, and overpasses are our places of refuge. Indeed, the material reality itself represents the wellspring of our stories. I have scaled tall fences to step foot in sacred school yards.

Unearthing the significance of disused public space, and embedding it with geological layers of meaning is the heart of Nancy Holt’s practice. She was a systems thinker, and together with her husband, Robert Smithson, she drew inspiration from the post-industrial ruins of her home state, New Jersey. Rather than literal raw materials, though, her medium had more to do with perception. In an early series titled, ‘Buried Poems’ (1969-71), she did just that, choosing remote locations according to their affinity with a respective friend. The object of the poem was then given a topographical map of the area. Her work from the 1970s expanded on her complex understanding of place. In Sun Tunnels (1973-76), her best known work, she arranged four concrete cylinders in the Great Basin Desert outside of Wendover, Utah, aligning them according to the solstices. Each pipe is inlaid with the pattern of holes that correspond to the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn, with the patterns operating as a multidimensional viewfinder for when these arrangements appear in the sky. When the sun is high, they also cast the constellation onto the interior of the tube. Another favourite project of mine similarly grounds our experience in towering forces, albeit much smaller in scale. For Wild Spot (1980), which was commissioned for the Wellesley College campus, she caged off a portion of land, where she planted wildflowers. The site is meant to remain in its natural state in perpetuity. ‘Wild Spot also refers to that wild, uneducable, untamed zone in the centre of ourselves,’ Holt said of the work.

While these projects consider the personal in relationship to the broad-ranging landscape, Holt never lost track of the big picture, always reconsidering what the artist’s role was in relation to society. Indicative of her unique approach were the texts that she often wrote to accompany her works, many of which not only document her process, but also pay respect to the many craftspeople, curators, and other labourers who contributed to the realisation of the work. In this respect, Dark Star Park (1979-84) represents a major turning point. The project continued her interest in astronomy and deep time—she was ‘quoting the cosmos,’ as the Holt/Smithson Foundation puts it. But this time, she was no longer running the show, and instead had to work closely with local government, a position that involved her not only in the exigencies of her own design, but also in the city planning surrounding the site. As Holt writes, the project represents a ‘merging [of] historical time with the cyclical time of the sun,’ but behind the scenes, the long term collaboration exposed her to the many ways that an artist might intervene in the civic systems that condition our everyday life. ‘My concern with the value of making art that is also functional and necessary in society,’ she wrote following her many years working on what would become Dark Star Park, ‘has been reinforced.’

‘[A] blighted urban site with the buried remains of a gas station and a warehouse, surrounded by broken asphalt, giant weeds, collapsed fencing, fragments of glass, rusty steel, and decaying wood,’ Holt writes, describing the site that would become Dark Star Park as essentially a skater’s paradise. Though skaters would likely be drawn to many of the same places that inspired Holt, it’s her attention to infrastructure that would make her later work seem so compelling to our sort. For the latter part of her career, she turned that same lofty grasp of the cosmos back on the basic, life-sustaining systems on earth. Indeed, infrastructure became a major interest of hers, and she began to incorporate HVAC systems, pipelines, and plumbing into large scale installations. For Electrical System (For Thomas Edison) (1982) she ran electrical conduit throughout the John Weber Gallery, making the lighting the subject of the exhibition itself. For Pipeline (1986), Holt travelled to Alaska, where she ran leaking oil pipes into the gallery.

Again, as her work evolved after Dark Star Park, Holt was especially happy when she could make both artistic and practical contributions to the community, as in the public sculpture Catch Basin (1982). A massive pool was dug into St. James Park in Toronto, with various clay troughs and channels cutting through the surrounding grass lawn. On an aesthetic level, the work evokes ancient aqueducts and canals, tying the present to the ancient past. But it also solved a drainage problem. By the 1980s, Holt’s public projects were getting noticed, and she was asked to convert a decommissioned landfill in the Meadowlands into a massive earthwork. She proposed Sky Mound (1988-2008), a massive ritual ground complete with a pond to support migrating birds, viewing stations to see the stars, measuring sticks to track the rate of decomposition, and torches that burned methane created by the trash. Though the site proved too volatile for anything but the most practical interventions, forcing Holt to eventually abandon the project, the skater in me delights in the monument it has become. Indeed, I love that millions of commuters unwittingly see Sky Mound every year, and that the trash panorama continues to frustrate even the best systems—artistic, metaphorical, scientific, governmental—with which we attempt to contain it.

Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro Park, detail of Reversible Destiny Office, interior, 1993-95. Public park. Total area: 195,000 sq. ft. Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Photo courtesy: The Site of Reversible Destiny Yoro Park. © 1997 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins.

The Site of Reversible Destiny

The day I spent wandering through Arakawa and Gins’ Site of Reversible Destiny at Yoro Park in Gifu, Japan is the closest I have ever come to skateboarding without actually stepping foot on a board. It had to do with a sense of play, and the artists’ belief that architecture could help reinvigorate the senses, a process they believed would reverse the effects of ageing. ‘Death is old fashioned,’ they wrote in their book, Mechanisms of Meaning.

As for The Site of Reversible Destiny, just imagine a ‘90s Nickelodeon TV set mixed with old street maps, mazes, a water park, an ancient temple, a spaceship, and all sorts of antiquarian charts and graphs. Like the many obstacles at a skatepark, various structures populate the 4.5-acre site, with names like ‘Imaging Navel’’ and ‘Critical Resemblance House.’ Most of them possess a maze-like interior, which bifurcates all sorts of domestic furnishings like mattresses, bathtubs, stoves, and even a desk lamp. Adding to the uncanny feel of these fractured perspectives is the frequent mirroring of these objects, which pervades the experience with a sense of déjà vu. To suddenly see a toilet on the ceiling—the same toilet I had found in some corner of the Critical Resemblance House’s intricate labyrinth—really got me.

Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro Park, detail of Critical Resemblance House, 1993-95. Public park. Total area: 195,000 sq. ft. Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Photo courtesy: The Site of Reversible Destiny Yoro Park. © 1997 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins.

Elsewhere, navigating the park can often feel like solving a riddle with your body. Footpaths snake throughout the undulating landscape, seldom leading where you think they might, and even plunging you into sudden darkness. Maps of Tokyo, New York, and Paris are overlaid upon the landscape’s concrete surfaces, but in spite of any familiarity those cities may bring to your experience, you may still find yourself, as I did, walking down ‘Not To Disappear Street.’ If I had to compare it to anything, I might say that the place is the physical incarnation of skating switch. There’s just such a bizarre relationship it creates to the most familiar sensations, that you feel like you’re doing something, and watching yourself do it at the same time. In the same way that learning a new trick unlocks a novel understanding of your body, your experience of the world takes on a new, more intuitive vibrancy—you don’t just know something, you feel it. Time assumes a new richness, too. And, as if this stupefying new realisation were not enough, everything is painted AstroTurf green, canary yellow, cadmium red, and Pepto-Bismol pink.

Dena Yago, Big Fish Eat Little Fish (detail), 2020. Image courtesy the artist and JTT Gallery, New York.

Content Industrial Complex

One of my main goals for this talk was to help frame skateboarding as a form of creative labour. I know that designation might take the fun out of something most people consider to be their escape from everyday life, but framing skating as a form of work restores a sense of agency—agency that has largely been leached out of skate culture by the extractive forces of social media, professionalisation, and the decentralisation of both skate media and skate communities in general. Forces that have increased the competition for people’s attention, creating a system in which most people will happily contribute their efforts simply in exchange for attention and clout. Skaters once held the tools of production in their very hands. They merely existed for one another. But now, someone else is in charge.
It’s this precarious relationship to making a living, and keeping the independent spirit of their craft alive, that skaters and contemporary artists share. In both fields, we enjoy the privilege to do what we love, but we also juggle a million jobs to do it. Labour happens 24 hours a day, and opportunity increasingly depends on social capital, rather than quantifiable skills. While both art and skateboarding have always been fickle, with success sometimes eluding people during their lifetimes—or, say, during their periods of peak productivity—both are filled with people who share the dim hope of breaking even as creative labourers. Marbie Miller summed up the situation quite well during ‘Podium or Per Diem’ at Slow Impact. Asked by Krux team manager and former pro skater Alex White what success looks like, Miller replied, ‘Having enough money. Having health insurance. And, like, a car. I don’t have any of those.’ After hearing her own reply, she laughed, presumably at the absurdity of having none of these basic human needs met.

While the skate world seems a bit doomed in this respect, perhaps owing to its longstanding distrust of collective organisation and institutions, artists have been trying to find a solution to precarity for quite some time, with the artist Dena Yago challenging the art world’s increasing commercialism by demystifying the relationship between art and work. (Full disclosure, she’s also my wife.) Early in her career, Yago was a founding member of K-Hole, an art collective-cum-trend forecasting group. Their work took the form of well researched trend reports which they distributed as PDFs online, sometimes partnering with brands and art museums to create USB-related tchotchkes. Their most famous edition was 2013’s ‘Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom’, in which they coined the expression Normcore, an influential notion that at first described blending in as an early form of online resistance. It persists as the viral naming convention for every ensuing fashion trend that has its roots in some kind of online subculture (i.e. cottagecore, zizmorecore, core core, etc.). As a solo-artist, Yago’s relationship to corporate culture has also supported her work conceptually, as she translates her experience as a brand strategist into a biting brand of visual poetry—a kind of report from the inner-workings of soft power. ‘Compressed by the weight of all those hats we’ve been made to wear for so long,’ reads a block of text in her artwork The Procession (2021), a multi-panelled dressing screen that tells a storybook allegory of maker culture. ‘We’ve turned the sorcerer, apprentice, and parade of tools into one.’

Dena Yago, The Procession, 2021. Image courtesy the artist and JTT Gallery, New York.

Yago is also a writer, and in a trilogy of essays she published in e-flux journal—’On Ketamine and Added Value,’ ‘Content Industrial Complex,’ and ‘The Wall Stays in The Picture: Destination Murals in Los Angeles’—she uses her insider’s perspective to illustrate the ways brands instrumentalise artists through social media, describing how these corporate entities seek a certain authenticity from partnerships in exchange for greater visibility and often short-term, gig-based support—or worse, for mere attention. ‘Never entirely innocent,’ Yago writes in her pivotal essay, ‘Content Industrial Complex,’ in part decrying the art world’s blissful ignorance, and impractical means of resistance, ‘the role of the artist in these negotiations has shifted radically towards complicity. Producing content in the form of artworks and social-media posts, the cultural influencer functions as a highly valued asset for brands.’ The point, for Yago, is to realise the lack of agency that the art world has in these situations, in part to help them recognise when they are being exploited, and also to help them realise the power they do have to find agency in their corporate dealings—dealings upon which creative professionals increasingly rely. This same point was echoed by Marbie Miller during the ‘Podium or Per Diem’ panel. Asked about the tokenization of her identity within the skate industry, Miller spoke to the challenges of making a living on social platforms, particularly for queer skaters. ‘Shoe companies only pay people when it’s Pride Month,’ she observed. ‘If you see me doing any dumb shit on Instagram,’ she continued, decrying the compromises she has to make in order to subsist as a professional skater, ‘It’s for a check.’