SKATEPARK ALLYSHIP STARTS WITH SOUND
Dani Abulhawa Discusses a New Approach to Understanding Skateboarding's Dynamics.
Thank you all again for peeping the latest. Before we dig into the conversation I had with Dani Abulhawa a few weeks ago, I’d suggest you take a moment to absorb the audio artwork we reference in the text.
And before you do that, here is some helpful info that sets things up:
A site-based audio artwork designed to be listened to on headphones in or around a skatepark or skatespot.
The narration and instructions for movement throughout are designed for anyone (skater or non-skater) to listen to and perform (or imagine performing) in or around a skatepark or skatespot.
The texts on allyship from the three characters in the piece were developed from anonymised interview material gathered as part of the Girl Skateboarders research project. This project was funded by The Leverhulme Trust and led by Nottingham Trent University (Principal Investigator- Prof. Carrie Paechter), with Skateboard GB and the University of Leeds.
Dani Abulhawa is a skateboarder and lecturer in Contemporary Applied Performance at the University of Leeds, UK. She is an ambassador for skateboarding charity, SkatePal, co-director of Skate Manchester, and author of Skateboarding and Femininity: Gender, Space-making and Expressive Movement (published in 2020 by Routledge).
OK, we’re back. Here’s my conversation with Dani Abulhawa. If you enjoyed this one, please share the link to the work, conveniently housed on Bandcamp for easy streaming consumption.
I don’t think I can go a day without hearing about “polarization” and sure, it’s a real thing, but I wanted to start there. Because of that polarization, we hear so much about, it’s led to a perception that left-leaning folks want more regulation in a sense. Now, I believe that regulation is necessary due to how polarized we’ve become, but when taking on an ambitious project such as you’ve done, someone who's critiquing your work would say, “We don’t need more rules. Our skateparks are our spaces to do whatever we want.” I don't think it's a valid criticism, but it is a criticism. So maybe you could start by talking about that.
That's a great question. Of course, public spaces are already governed by rules and that's the thing that everyone misses. When you enter a skatepark, depending on the time of day, there's already a whole set of rules going on there. And they're governed by, generally, who is the fastest or the most proficient, or maybe it's about who's there all the time as well because that's, that's the thing. Those rules of behavior are sort of already there but they're implicit.
People don't like the idea of explicit rules—that you’re sort of saying it out loud. That's the interesting thing for me because of course, one set of rules is that kind of hidden implicit set of rules that is always also really difficult to critique because it's ‘just the way it is’. Now, on the other hand, you've got this explicit set of rules, let's say, or something like allyship. I think people don't like to see things in that kind of explicit black-and white-way. I think that's how I understand it, really.
I also think skateboarding has an obsession with “cool.” So if the rules are implied, that's cool, because you're, you're in on it. You know, the social cues of l” this person puts their board on the coping a certain way, they're going next, and I know that.” So if something is explicit, you’re going to have some percentage of folks deeming that “uncool.”
I never thought of it that way as well. You see someone doing a mall grab, and it's like they've missed something. It’s unspoken but it’s there. The idea of cool, I suppose, is very much rooted in the idea of implicit knowledge, isn't it?
I think we're at an interesting point in skateboarding because, in many ways, it’s still a subculture and subcultures always have unspoken rules. The whole part of assimilating to a subculture is showing up as yourself, then figuring out the pecking order and structure, then you can access if you’re going to stick around or even try to change it. Now, in a very good way, we’re in a social climate where we all enter a space with more understanding and decency—on both sides. But I think something that gets lost is that we are entering someone else’s space and sure, maybe that person who’s been a park local for 15 years is a little rough around the edges, but they also deserve the same respect, initially.
I think that's a really good point. I guess we’re talking about skateparks, mainly, but it can extend to established spots too. Those kinds of places very much have their own communities. I mean, Stockwell skatepark in London, for example, is fascinating, you know, not just the skaters, the non-skaters that are kind of oriented around that park. When you get into skateboarding and you turn up one day at a skatepark there is an element that you're entering into a community—there’s a negotiation that happens there and should happen. My idea wasn’t to create a guide to allyship necessarily and it certainly wasn't about saying we should disregard those communities or disrespect those communities. It was about pointing to some of the ways in which people might think about being conscious of who is in the space and who was around them.
I think we need that baseline in some capacity. Let’s talk about your audio project because I thought it was really fascinating. I hadn't encountered anything like it before. It really alternates between really insightful points and then this very ambient space. So, I guess if we could walk back and you could just start to talk about putting this together.
I got involved with a research project and one of the main things I was responsible for, was producing an audio artwork. The idea had been on my mind for like working with communities and doing some kind of artwork that would be produced with the people we were researching —something participatory and creative. The project didn’t pan out exactly as I had hoped and one of the things we weren’t able to do was to work in this participatory way. But the idea for the artwork came from my experience as a skateboarder. I saw a need and wanted to get out this message in some way to people who occupy skateparks that their behavior makes a big difference to other people, but not in a way that's instructive. I wanted to do it in a way that was more contemplative—something that makes you think and you can act on it if you like.
A friend of mine, Guillaume Dujat, who's a really brilliant composer based in Manchester and a skater, got involved with the project to create this kind of track that like that everything hangs on to and the idea was that you could be in a skatepark or a skatespot and listen to this track, which is 30 minutes long, and it's quite enjoyable. It's quite contemplative and relaxing and it creates this space for you to think about these ideas. One strand of ideas is a kind of conversation that's happening between three fictional skateboarders where they're talking about the kinds of things that support them in skateparks, and the kinds of behavior that support them, I suppose. The other aspect of all the other facets of the piece is like a set of instructions for movement that are designed to get you to reassess or redefine the way that you might use a skatepark as well as a skateboarder or as whoever as an observer or whoever you are, whatever you do, and to kind of place your body into different sorts of orientations and perspectives and practices within the skatepark.
The reason for that was that the whole piece is designed around this sense of having a different experience at the skatepark and seeing it from other people's perspectives. The experience of being in a skatepark is very physical. I recently went to a relatively new skatepark in South Wales and just going to a new park where I don't really know anybody, you tend to feel a lot of things in that new space. There’s so much that’s happening when you're occupying that physical space at the skatepark. I wanted to kind of capture that idea a little bit and get people thinking—particularly people who don’t have these thoughts when they enter a space. I wanted to give them that other perspective, in a sense.
PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN BERGER
There’s something I thought of when I listened to the piece and it’s that everyone who enters a park, regardless of who they are experiences some risk assessment to different degrees. For some folks, it’s just, “Am I going to bust my ass if I skate that huge quarterpipe,” and for others it might be, “Am I going to be safe here. Are people going to accept me?” That happens before you even put the board down. I felt that your work did a good job of communicating that without saying, “So here are the rules now.”
100%, that was the goal. It’s really hard for us to understand things from someone else’s perspective unless you’ve been in that position. We’re often tied up in so much of our own stuff. It's very hard to see that. I would add to that, that whilst there are those layers of danger that we're all navigating, some of us are navigating more than others. Maybe it’s anxiety about our skill—around our performance. My body doesn’t move the way it did last time or a year ago… I’m not able to do this thing. I don’t look the way I want. I don’t like how my pants fit. There are all sorts of anxieties going on.
I often joke that I’m anti-skatepark for that reason. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to open mic at a comedy club. Everyone's fucking judging if I'm funny before I even tell a joke. It’s the same thing, people can often judge if you’re good at skating just by how you look or act or whatever.
God, completely. And I have to say, I feel very similar to you about skateparks. I still end up skating in skateparks 99% of the time and when you know the place it becomes a bit easier. You’re going back to the same skatepark and you kind of get to know the locals. It's a lot easier. But yeah, God stepping into a skatepark that you don't skate very often, it’s like, ‘OK, so everyone's assessing me as I walk in. OK, they're a woman and they’re dressed a certain way… ’ Now what’s my first joke going to be? [laughs] What trick do I do first to hopefully quell some of this anxiety about how I’m being perceived? But it’s interesting because I’ve always said as well that as soon as someone steps on their board, you see them. You see them in a very profound way.
I like that. It makes me think about something really unique about skateboarding. A lot of people like fine art or they like movies. Have they ever watched someone paint an entire work, start to finish? Have they watched someone film an entire movie? It’s not uncommon to watch your friend try a trick for an entire day or fuck, we’ll watch a 45-minute rough cut of a 3-minute part, but in that, you become really aware of movement and all these acute details. You know if someone is going to make a trick by how their feet are.
Going back to danger, has that changed for you at all since you’ve become a Mother? I ask this because my life is typing on a computer and I broke my wrist once and I had to get over the fear of doing it again and potentially not being able to work as efficiently if that makes sense.
You know what? I literally was thinking of that. Since I've given birth, and everything, I haven't skated—I stopped skating around 16 weeks into my pregnancy or something because I was getting a lot of hassle about it. And then, since the birth of my daughter, I've not obviously skated very regularly. It’s not completely gone but at times I feel like I’m back at square one. I'm also really conscious that if I really hurt myself, I'm not going to be able to look after her. That's definitely in the back of my mind. Just the other day was thinking like, ‘God, I’m just gonna wear a helmet.’ It's definitely shifted my perspective, but in other ways, it's freed me in some respects, because I also give even less of a shit about what I look like, what I can do, and what I can't do. I'm pretty stoked to be able to roll around at the moment.
I also think there’s a shift in perspective that can happen with life events and also, through learning about other people’s experiences. For example, I’ve been arrested for skating and one time a cop roughed me up—motherfucker was twisting the cuffs so they dug into my wrists and was asking me if it hurt. Sadistic shit and an awful thing to happen to you at any age and at 19 that really fucked me up. As an older person, I think about how that experience could have been dramatically different if I were a woman, if I were a person of color… I guess getting older made me less concerned with myself and more aware of others, as well as helped me realize that things that impacted me could have been much different and are different for others everyday.
Absolutely The way that you're articulating that idea of looking beyond your experience—how might that person be experiencing it? That level of looking sideways… it’s not typical. I think the problem is it's self-centeredness, isn't it? It's this idea that ‘I’m the only person that sort of exists in the world and matters in this particular moment.’ I think that's particularly pronounced with skateparks because quite often, you're dealing with kids who don't have the life experience. Largely speaking, as people grow into adults, they start to be able to relate more to other people and think more about other people. Something that I wanted to raise, in some ways with the audio artwork was, you know, look at what else is happening here.
In making the work, can you talk about the choice to make the testimonials anonymous?
It wasn't exactly my intention to do that, but because of the ethical process for the research, the voices that I wrote were based on responses that participants had given within the research and so I couldn't use their names or anything like that, so I had to get creative and work from what I heard but often rewrite it. In a way, it was much better because it enabled me to be creative about who those people might be as well and to try and present three people who are all quite different and all quite sorts of not-typical, non-traditional skateboarders. It sort of raises the question of who is a skateboarder and who are these people in this park? The project was centered around women's experiences. The anonymity was mainly a thing because of the ethical process in the research.
That being said, I think it added this really interesting dimension because I had to imagine who these people were. There are going to be people who listen to that who identify with the characters.
I wrote those characters based on my experience of skateparks as well over the last 20 years or so—the sort of people that you might meet as well. That was also part of it— trying to think about a set of people who could be interesting characters that I might have encountered.,
I feel like there are so few ways for people outside of skateboarding to understand it. It gets me thinking that if I went to a park or a plaza and there's a QR code, I could listen to this audio component and now I'm aware of the different people in this place. And it's really eye-opening.
That's one of the things I'd really like to do is to kind of get it sort of QR coded into different spaces. I think that'd be really cool. I have contacted some non-skate media as well, to try and get it out there. It’s about those layers, isn't it as well, that people don't necessarily connect to or encounter when they're just, you know, going about their daily business, which will be really cool to intervene in.
I started this off playing devil’s advocate—talking about how skaters resist rules but in reality, we love rules. Boards, wheels, trucks, shoes… tricks. Sure, people go outside the box and get creative, but we all know the unwritten rules of what’s cool and what isn’t. I think that’s been changing over the last 5 years or more but do you think your work could help people break rules in a positive way? Being more kind, being more aware… it’s cool not to care. [laughs]
I think that the idea of making space for other people, and the idea of being considerate is so generative. As soon as you extend that, in some way, it sort of opens up possibilities for you and for other people. It allows you to be more creative. The more that we try to make spaces exclusive and make our experience this kind of exclusive thing where we're closing off so much. I think a lot of skateparks have people replicating each other. You’re kind of doing the standard trick on the standard piece of equipment. Imagine if we looked outside of that and broadened our perspective. As soon as you do that, as soon as you make space for someone else to come in who's maybe a complete beginner or whoever they are, they could do something that sparks your imagination. It just changes the way that you think about everything. That's the kind of generative creative space-making that we should be encouraging as skateboarders.