If there were an ancestry website for skateboard tricks, Rodney Mullen would be at the top of its genealogical tree. From ground-breaking freestyle tricks, an unprecedented competitive reign in the seventies and eighties, to a complete reinvention as one of the most influential street skaters throughout the nineties, Rodney has literally shaped street skating’s DNA as we know it. I had the unique opportunity to speak with Rodney, and contemporary video artist, Shaun Gladwell, about their recent collaboration, Skateboarding vs. Minimalism, at the Drake Hotel, before a talk they hosted that evening. The event, hosted by Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, was an intimate conversation between artist and skateboarder, discussing the unique parity between minimalist art and freestyle skateboarding. If you haven’t already considered the similarities between these two communities, Shaun and Rodney make two things clear: skateboarding has a place within minimalist culture, and Rodney Mullen has proven himself as skateboarding’s foremost ambassador, yet again. – Daniel Kratochvil
Photo Credit: Rick O’Brien for Monkey Shoulder
After watching Skateboarders vs. Minimalism, I was immediately reminded of the recent documentary, The Minimalists, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They define minimalism as ‘a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favour of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.’ That definition has a striking similarity to skateboarding. What drew you to collaborate with Shaun, and this exposition?
Photo Credit: Rick O’Brien for Monkey Shoulder
SG: I guess coming from an interest in art history, I was sort of breaking skateboarding up into sub-genres. You have freestyle as a kind of the minimalism of skateboarding. You don’t have any objects to work against, especially the kind of skating that Rodney was developing in the late seventies, and throughout the early eighties, in such a spectacular way. It was just the basic components of skateboarding: your body, a deck, and a flat piece of concrete. Whether that be in your double garage in Florida, or in a car park, there were no curbs, or no objects, to read against or invent with. For me, that was a form of minimal activity. It was reducing it down to the basic elements. So, I guess I already had that particular kind of skateboarding as somehow connected to minimalism. It was a privilege to be able to reach out to Rodney and ask him to be involved in the project for that kind of reason, that kind of thinking, and it just sort of went from there. We set up some objects that were replicas of my favourite minimalist artists who were working on those ideas that you’ve mentioned – before it was even called ‘minimalism’. That was sort of term was bestowed on them after the fact. My favourite artists like, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, or Dan Flavin – these artists were very influential to me, but I didn’t sort of make the distinction between Rodney’s work as a skateboarder, and say, Carl Andre, or Donald Judd’s work. It’s just art, it’s inventing, working out new ways of doing something. So, creative athletics to me is exactly the same as what a contemporary artist does, or what a philosopher does, or what a sociologist does. There’s so many connections between those different fields of activity and the creative labour that’s driving them. It was also an awesome excuse to meet the guy! It was a great privilege to collaborate.
RM: Having spent so much in skating when people reach out, you’re like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Sean Mortimer, the guy who co-authored a book – my biography – he’s the one who introduced me to Shaun. I had been hurt for a long time, and I didn’t know if I was going to come back. Mortimer reached out, and he’s like, ‘There’s this guy, Shaun, you should know.’ And Mortimer is pretty thorny in that department, and so I was like, ‘Wow, he must be pretty special.’ So, we connected, and I explained I was hurt, and didn’t know what I could do. But let me put it this way, we got to know each other, and it got to the point of, ‘Look, if I’ll do anything first, it’ll be with you.’ And it wasn’t until I got came home from San Fransisco that one day, and our schedules just criss-crossed. Shaun came over and said, ‘I just need a few tricks’, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m just not ready!’ And, we ended up just shaking hands, and I was like, ‘We’ll just do a handful.’ That was really where we started, and that was the origin of our meeting. As we started to connect, Shaun started to give me a lot of books on art. There is definitely an artistic component to skateboarding – it’s far more of an art than a sport, that’s for sure – a form of expression. But when it comes to art art, I didn’t know. Shaun started sending me books, and I looked up Carl Andre, and found this quote: “art is the exclusion of the unnecessary.” That connected with me in a couple of ways. It’s what street skaters do. I would think that the externalities for what you need to create beauty should be in the denominator, so the less you need, the more beauty there is. So, for that element, I was on the same page. When Shaun explained what he wanted to do, I trusted what he had in mind; he didn’t have to tell me anything more. As far as the [skateboarding] community, and its resonance with art itself, and minimalism, that’s exactly what pro skaters are about. If we all study one another – how we move – we have a certain shape based on our genetics. What we do shapes us, and in turn, shapes how we do it. And that’s a reflexive cycle – a coupling. And you see that in skaters. You can watch how some skaters walk, and you can tell if they’re goofy-footed, or regular. It shapes you, and in turn shapes how you skate. For us, everybody has something very particular about them, and that’s clear. Any of us can see even a silhouette of certain skaters – think of Daewon’s 360 flips, or Koston’s switch heels. And we spend thousands and thousands of tries trying to minimize lines, so that nothing is wasted, so it looks fluid. It’s funny, when you learn a new trick, you realize you’re kinda tired at the end of the day. Once you get it dialled in, you’re less tired. It’s not so much you adapting to the trick, but you adapting the trick to fit you by minimizing the lines that need out. In these terms, I think [skateboarding] is very much related to minimalism. That’s why pro skaters make it look easy: they make the tricks easy by design.
I’m also reminded of your Ted Talks on How Context Shapes Content and the idea of how the environment you’re skating can change the very nature of the types of tricks you’re trying to perform. How do you feel a minimalist environment inspires your creative process?
Photo Credit: Rick O’Brien for Monkey Shoulder
RM: There’s this scholarly definition of creativity and the imagination. Creativity is to make the familiar strange. And conversely, the imagination is defined in terms of making the strange familiar, for every creative act in a given domain. Think of a trick – I got this frontside crooks on a flat bar. Imagination seeks to stretch it out into an outer unknown circumstance, forcing creativity to adapt it anew. So, you’re like, ‘I have this.’ And you’re cruising around the streets, and there’s a flat bar-ish, but it goes into a bank, or off something into something else – maybe you can flip out of it into some manual. That sort of coupling of, ‘Okay, great, I have this trick.’ And you’re searching around consistently, and find one and think, ‘that’s not that different from a flat bar, only I need to shift [the board], can I do that?’ And that’s part of going around to a spot, and trying to skate it, and thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m not going to be able to make this work, this sucks, but I’ve got this other idea.’ And, that’s the nature of what we do. It’s this push-pull process of how it forms you and shapes you, and you see that in the video parts. Whenever you make something first try, basically it always sucks, because there’s all this extra movement in trying to recover. But until you’re sort of on autopilot, where everything is minimized – in its easiest form – that’s when it’s flowing best, and when everything is operating best. So, you see the unity, creativity, imagination, and minimization of movement.
SG: You have an economy of form, and it starts to lead into concepts of grace, or notions of grace. I don’t know how many hundreds, or thousands of times, you repeat the action, and all of the calibrations have taken place. The body has literally calibrated itself, and tricks start to organize themselves around the body, and you get that communication, and it’s so smooth. Even your skating, Rodney, when you were introducing an entirely new trick, it wasn’t done mechanically; you had this great combination of bringing art to the trick. The way that you were organizing runs or routines, that was a huge force. A lot of the elements were in place. It wasn’t just one element or the other. You had the whole palate covered, in a sense.
RM: Thank you. You know, I think in skate videos – all of us – we seek to do that. Certainly, with me, Daewon, all of the guys. On the one hand, there was an era where, okay, we have to add skits because we have to make it better. But then you see those parts get washed right out because, ‘No, just get right to it again.’ You see those eras come and go. [The industry doesn’t] need you to project a fake personality, [the industry] wants an unadulterated expression of personality through the movements of skating and what you choose to do, and how you do it. And that is the essence of the purity and minimalistic notion of skate videos. To some extent, I think that becomes so uniform – as we all do it – we’re molded, you could say, harshly. By what we do there is a uniformity, whereas a lot of the pro community call it a ‘drought’. So many videos come out, and what did you learn from it? And so you get diminishing returns. I think when Shaun came to me, I thought well, what I do, and what I’ve done – even when I could skate again – it’s like polishing a turd, you know? I can’t do anything more with this. And to be able to do something in a little different form, that’s one of things that drew me back to freestyle. What I missed about freestyle – and even when I started to do it again – I realized there are different muscles being used, and you don’t have the same continuity of movement as you do in freestyle. And as I started to get back to that, and get a feel for it, and adapt to it again – which took some months – I thought, ‘Man, I want to do this with Shaun’ because I like to create something different through the expression [of freestyle] because so much has been done before. And it’s been shaved and shaved and condensed so tightly into those binary movements. I wanted to try and burst out of that in another direction. I was grateful to do this with Shaun.
I want to touch upon the notion that skaters are outsiders that seek a sense of belonging, albeit on their own terms. Watching Skateboarders vs. Minimalism, skateboarding and art seem to contribute to one another in a way that edifies both communities. Do you feel artists and skateboarders are connected in the same outsider fashion?
SG: I’m interested in that idea of how you push ideas, and what are the parallels between different communities through a creative project. These [artists] in New York in the sixties and seventies, they were doing something completely new, and they hadn’t been supported. No one really knew what they were doing. They were kind of out on their own, in the true sense of being an ‘avant-garde’. They were really so far ahead of their game that only now do we understand what they’re doing. And I feel that was happening with skateboarding. A group of skateboarders, or even Rodney, single-handedly laying basically the foundations down for what becomes modern skateboarding. It kind of started to seem like a similar activity. Even the process of creativity – involving a lot of solitude, a lot of solitary time ruminating on materials – I just started seeing all these parallels. And so it makes sense to draw the analogy. And also it’s a formal thing. When I look at a Donald Judd sculpture, it just looks like a box that you’d see in a park. Or the Andre piece thats looks like a ledge. On a formal level, even if I wasn’t thinking about the mechanics of creativity within contemporary art versus skateboarding. I started looking at the way, say, Rodney was dealing with the later [skate] videos with Daewon. That became a different way of representing skateboarding: it was pitching yourself against a teammate, and going, ‘I’m going to compete with you in this sort of playful way.’ I wanted to go into this creative ‘one-upmanship’ too, and push each other from this model of ‘Rodeny versus Daewon’ to skateboarders versus minimalism! Almost like, I took the concept, and changed the agents that were in competition with each other. I was completely inspired by Rodeny and Daewon’s contribution.