Pushing Boarders: Second Annual Academic Skate Conference
John Rattray and Madeleine Uggla, in front of hundreds of skaters from around the world, talk about how skateboarding can help with mental health issues and depression, and how Lance Mountain is the authority when it comes to whether or not your Sad Plant counts Photo: Emil Agerskov
Last month, a legion of the world’s smartest, most imaginative and most progressive minds in skateboarding assembled in Malmö, Sweden for the second annual Pushing Boarders academic skate conference. All the panelists and attendees went into the four-day conference with one simple goal—to save the skate world from the “shut up and skate” faction. Did it work? Did this unlikely international coalition of pro skaters, academics and activists set in motion the skate culture Rube Goldberg machine that will get skaters across the planet to realize we can’t fix this dumpster fire of a planet until we fix our scene first? Maybe they did. Read on and see for yourself how Lacey Baker, Rick McCrank, John Rattray, Brian Panebianco and Ocean Howell—along with dozens of other smarty-pants skaters you’ve never heard of—tackled the hard issues facing the skate world today. And yes, don’t worry, there are a few skate photos. —Ted Schmitz
A panel called Globally Stoked enlightened the audience about starting and sustaining skate scenes in places like South Africa, India, Cuba and Palestine while also staring down a perfect park rail
This year’s overarching theme was mental health, and to start things off, John Rattray and Portuguese skater Madeleine Uggla led with a conversation about their experiences with depression and losing loved ones to suicide. They also spoke about their work to try and get skaters to “talk about depression as easily as we talk about getting shinners.” Rattray also spoke about his “Why So Sad” campaign that he started in order to raise funds and awareness for depression and suicide prevention by riding a bike 100 miles and also, in his 40s, landing a proper Lance-Mountain-approved Sad Plant. The talk was vulnerable, moving and open, exactly the type of discussion to effectively push back against the shut-up-and-skaters.
Rattray tells audiences about opening up to talk about mental health and depression. It’s heavy work but holding up a Lance-approved Sad Plant as part of the mission should help build some arm strength
Maybe the only skate event where it’s not weird to takes notes (and where the average crowd member is, like, 34 years old)
Right from the start it was obvious that this academic conference was distinct from any stuffy university-affiliated affair. For starters, there was a perfect handrail and Euro gap right in front of the panels on the first and last day. Was it distracting? Yes. It’s hard to focus on Skateistan’s satellite program in South Africa while staring down a pristine seven rail. Did any of the panelists hit the rail during their talk? No. In many regards it was a sort of “no caveman” situation. The flat bottom of the street course was also littered with over 300 seated respectful skaters. It was a lot like a premiere but instead of getting blasted and smoking weed inside a theater while yelling for the homies’ hammers, the audience just got caffeinated, took copious amounts of notes and gave conference-appropriate claps for some of the more profound points made by the panels.
For all the talking about and dissecting of the power dynamics in the skate industry or how skateboarding can be used to augment a nontraditional learner’s education, there was also an obscene amount of skating that went on during the conference. One of the reasons was that the event coincided with a city-wide skate event called Skate Malmö Street which is similar to the Copenhagen Open, maybe just slightly smaller in scope and without every pro on the planet blacked out in broad daylight. In some ways the event was like a postgraduate Woodward, with sore and aging skaters shuffling from park to street spot trying to keep their early onset arthritis in check long enough to get at least two Instagram clips at one of the Malmö’s many skate-sanctioned public spots—hell, even Ocean got his first clip for the ‘Gram while at the conference. So maybe they weren’t exactly out to kill everything in the shut up and skate camp, mostly just the "shut up” part.
The inimitable Lacey Baker talks on a panel called Rage Against the Gaze with fellow LGBTQ+ identifying members of the skate scene Yann Horowitz and Briana King about their life and how traditional skaters from the scene can be better allies—hint, maybe don’t say someone’s coming out is “going to the dark side,” even as a joke
The middle days of the conference really did stick it to the shut-up-and-skaters, as there were hours of discussion about the LGBTQ+ experience in skating, womxn in skateboarding and the art of print journalism in a fast-digitizing world—noticeably absent from the latter was any representative from this here establishment. Some of the most moving conversation came from the Rage Against the Gaze panel about prejudice and allyship in skateboarding that involved some very honest and uplifting as well as some very traumatic coming-out stories from our fellow skaters. To anyone listening, it became instantly clear that shutting up and just skating won’t make our growing skate world a better place for skaters on the fringes to have as much fun as most of us get to have on a daily or weekly basis.
A panel about skate journalism gave some insight as to what some skate journalists, photographers and podcasters are up to with this whole discussing-skating-on-the-Internet thing. Seems like someone from the Mag could’ve offered some valuable insight for this one, but maybe they heard T-Ed only has a bachelor’s
For the die-hard sensitive skaters looking for extra credit, there were additional literary readings, as well as video and documentary screenings to further broaden the already quite broad agenda. There was no shortage of extracurriculars and everyone attending got, like, four gold stars and pins and needles in their butt from sitting on the floor for an hour—maybe that was just me trying to avoid sitting on the butt cheek I flung into the concrete quarterpipe at the mega park that Oski rips.
Skater and novelist firebrand Kyle Beachy hosts a literary reading for and by skaters. It was a little unconventional from a typical literary reading, not in the coffeehouse slam poetry kind of way, but in the way that it was well attended
Like any event of substantial length, some parts were more memorable than others, like learning about how the city of Malmö is reconstructing parts of Love Park in their city or how Leo Valls convinced the city of Bordeaux to stop using skate stoppers. And I really hate to be that guy but, take notes, American cities! It’s actually pretty incredible what skaters can accomplish if they just speak up a little before they skate.
If you want to know how to work with City Hall to get better public spaces to skate, watch Professor Ocean Howell’s and Gustav Eden’s panel on skate-friendly cities whenever it goes online. Or just shut up and keep letting them build shittier parks while they knob every spot in town
The whole thing wrapped up right where it started, at a massive indoor skatepark that is also a high school called Bryggeriet—notable alumni include Heitor DaSilva, Deedz, Sarah Meurle, Ville Wester, Oskar Rozenberg and probably the rest of the Polar team. The final discussions tackled the effects of social media in skating and what to do about this core and corporate distinction in the skate industry. Yes, Instagram can be isolating and scrolling through your own page rewatching your clips is probably a waste of time, but it can also help build scenes for marginalized folks to meet up if you use it wisely like Briana King. The Pushing Boarders talks didn’t ban the corporate overlords outright like some would’ve hoped, but there are also smaller operations—like the Palomino run by Nick Sharrat—learning to swim in the shallower water by selling small run zines and limited brands. Nearly every panel identified a problem that honestly would make most people want to turn off their brains to the outside world and just skate, but they also offered hints that we might be able to dig our way out of some of these messes if we just stuck our heads above the coping every now and then to talk to other skaters about the messy shit we’re skating around.
After the event wrapped up and the cabal of socially-conscious skaters was forced to go back to the outside world that wasn’t a Scandinavian dreamland of amazing weather and skate-sanctioned street spots, many were left wondering if they had really won the war. A critic of the event might wonder if all these four-wheeled PhDs and nonprofit directors were really moving the needle or if it was just four straight days of navel gazing and self-congratulatory skate talk. Sure, there were moments when navels were gazed and some choirs were preached to, but this woke-seeming crowd also got hip to about 1,000 other rad movements and people in skating they might not have heard from otherwise. How many skaters do you know that talk about the refugee crisis in Greece and what, if anything, can a skate clinic by Free Movement do to help alleviate some of the stress in such a dire situation? Our world likes to keep to itself, and keep the outside out, but what if we took the good parts of skating and introduced it to new places and people? What if we talked openly about our blind spots and heard more from people who have a different experience in skating other than getting in the van and terrorizing some plaza in China? We might have more people to share this wacky thing with and in the process not become just like every other ignoramus we encounter while we’re skating.
Panelist and pro skater Leo Valls took an unconventional approach when getting the city of Bordeaux to stop using skate stoppers and he also took an odd angle to this downhill boneless by doing some sort of no-comply scrape/booger slide into it
Up-and-coming adidas flow rider and conference attendee, Neex Washington, got a nice front nose on the skate-sanctioned spot designed by past Pushing Boarders speaker and well accomplished academic, Alexis Sablone
Ask any of the organizers what Pushing Boarders is all about and they’ll tell you that conversations on stage should serve as a jumping off point to have a much needed dialogue about capitalism, gender equity, urban design and the isolating effects of social media in skating, but certainly that is too narrow and unambitious to believe. They obviously aim to burn down the barneys, take out the shut-up-and-skaters and save the world. And, by golly, it seems like they really did it. Actually they didn’t, but they put on a hell of a conference for people who love skating and are doing some really cool shit. So if you need a place to book your annual grown-up skate trip, maybe consider the next Pushing Boarders conference to give your shaky not-used-to-skating-three-days-in-a-row legs a break with some really sick talks about the social part of skating in between sessions. But if traveling isn’t your thing or in your budget, maybe just watch a few of the talks on YouTube—they’re better than 90 percent of the Ted Talks out there.
Just a small selection of notable and wicked smart panelists at Pushing Boarders. Top row: John Rattray, Paul Shier, Briana King and Ryan Lay. Bottom row: Candy Jacobs, Rick McCrank, Kristin Ebeling and Leo Valls
Back to School List for Pushing Boarders:
-One notebook for notes or looking like you’re smart enough to take notes
-Second deck you won’t use but will make people think you skate a lot more than you will
-One pocket thesaurus to punch up your adjectives when talking to one of the dozen or so multi-lingual international PhD skaters. Actually, just use the word “anecdotal” a few times and you should be good
-One copy of Ocean Howell’s book Making the Mission. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read it. Just have it close by and say how you know about his work and that you know he’s not just the guy from the iPath promo
-One DVD copy of the iPath promo to get signed by Ocean Howell
-The ability to not fan out on Alexis Sablone when you see her casually hanging out at the conference. Actually, fan out, but don’t be an asshole and, like, cut her off if she’s in a conversation
-An extra set of cruiser wheels to do the “Portland swap.” You will be skating between locations and those 53mm Spitfire 99a wheels are no match for the European cobblestones
-Two button up shirts—two different colors preferably. Rotate them out between the days to look like you have some idea of what this hygiene thing is that the others are practicing
-The decency to not scroll through Instagram during the talks. Yes, it’s hard not to, but come on
-One pair of glasses. You’re smart, aren’t you? Look the part. Even if you don’t need them, just pick up some readers and deal with the headache. Nobody will know you’re a PhD poser
-Two pairs of pants. Or just one if you don’t mind smelling full skater on the plane home
-One skate tool. This will go missing, but it’s just part of the game
-One pen. You know, for that notebook thing we talked about
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