Skateboarding as social practice

An average spectator might observe a skateboarder as nothing but a person on wheels; they see an athlete—or a delinquent, maybe—pushing and coasting and jumping (“How does the board stick to the bottom of their feet?”), there one minute and gone the next.

But from the rider’s perspective, the world is transforming around them. Minute shifts in body weight affect balance, a slight change in toe placement means a different trick. It’s all about speed, it’s all about power, it’s a perfect storm of technique, confidence, and a little bit of magic.

That experience touches on the ethos of The Useless Tool (Skate Sessions), an upcoming free event at the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

The Useless Tool is billed as “a day of skateboarding and conversation about skateboarding as social and embodied practice.” It was organized by Kyle Beachy, local skateboarder, associate professor at Roosevelt University, and author of The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life (Grand Central, 2021); Tina Post, a performance theorist and assistant professor of theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago; and Alexis Sablone, artist, architect, and professional skateboarder.

The event is structured into two sessions, with food, skating, and community-building before, between, and after. The first session is loosely titled “skateboarding and the world,” featuring pro skateboarders Kristin Ebeling and Timothy Johnson; Natty Bwoy, a skateboard and bicycle repair shop on the south side of Chicago; and FroSkate, a local skate collective that centers BIPOC femme, trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary skaters.

“Our concerns in the morning session will be skateboarding’s emplacement, for lack of a better word: space, place, race and gender, community formation,” Post wrote in an email.

The Useless Tool (Skate Sessions)
Thu 6/2, 9:45 AM-7 PM, Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, 929 E. 60th, graycenter.uchicago.edu, free, bring your own skateboard

The second session is “skateboarding and the moving body,” with performance company Every house has a door, collaborative artist practice Sonnenzimmer, and writer and technologist Maxwell Neely-Cohen. 

Post noted, “We’re trying to thread the needle of, on the one hand, enough structure to ensure no one feels like the day was just hanging out, and on the other, enough looseness to feel like a skate session—free form, improvisatory, spontaneous, and able to hold both success and failure. For the sake of some structure we’ve organized their parts into the morning and afternoon, it’s really the case that we’re hoping to all skate and think together across sessions.”

The typical skate session Post refers to is not uncommon. There’s a growing number of collectives and groups that meet up across Chicago to find community in skateboarding, especially women, queer people, and anyone else not seen as the “traditional” skateboarder. Alongside FroSkate, there’s OnWord Skate Collective here in Chicago, and beyond that, there’s SK8 Babes on the east coast, Skate Like a Girl on the west coast, Proper Gnar elsewhere in the midwest—the list goes on.

Still, an event like The Useless Tool feels unique, with a distinct focus on the body and physicality of skateboarding. Post described further what the angle is here, especially as she brings her perspective of theater and performance. 

“I believe there’s such a thing as embodied knowledge, and I love thinking about how we acquire this and what it informs about our lives, and what becomes available to us when our brains become more aware of the things our bodies know. For example, it is interesting to me that in order to land a trick, you have to be able to anticipate how fast your board is going and how fast your body is going and also where your weight will need to be in the future, down to a second. The anticipation of moving balance, the future sensing of your interior senses, seems metaphorically rich (in addition to the more obvious valuable things about skateboarding, like being banged up and stubborn and so forth).” 

“I also love thinking through style,” she continued. “How and why do bodies acquire style in movement? What’s adjustable and what’s not? What drives which things demand aesthetic adjustment and what values are encoded therein?”

By asking these questions, Post is helping to make skateboarding the center of the inquiry at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, but it’s been a goal at the Center for some time.

With the support of director of programs and fellowships Zachary Cahill, assistant director of fellowships and operations Mike Schuh has been working to bring skateboarding programming to the Gray Center since 2017. Early on, Schuh connected with Beachy, who contributed skateboarding content to the Center’s journal Portable Gray, and participated in a livestreamed conversation event with Sablone in 2021. This whole team got together, with the addition of Post, to plan the upcoming June 2 event—and they hope to continue the conversation on skateboarding in the future.

When asked about what she expects from The Useless Tool, Post said, “As this event is coming together, I think it really will be in the best spirit of ‘arts and inquiry’—heady, experimental, and above all, fun.”

On the same question, Beachy added, “The more you push on skateboarding the more you realize that it’s magic. . . . I don’t think any of us really have any idea how this is going to go. And that too is skateboarding: personal catastrophe and outrageous success are all always equally possible. That’s exciting.”

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