London's Bartlett School of Architecture hosts Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference

Text by Dani Abulhawa, Thom Callan-Riley, Sander Hölsgens

On a sunny weekend in June, hundreds of skateboarders assembled at The Bartlett School of Architecture and House of Vans for the first ever international conference on skateboarding. Pushing Boarders was the outcome of years of planning, thinking and skating. What started out as a few independent plans for small events in London culminated in an exciting collaboration; the central organisers were Theo Krish and Philip Joa from SkatePal, Stuart Maclure from Long Live Southbank and Thom Callan-Riley, Dani Abulhawa and Sander Hölsgens from Re-verb Skateboarding, all working toward the aim of highlighting a range of practices and diversity within our strange but beautiful culture.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference photo Wade Trevean wt_mg_9509web

Photo: Wade Trevean

Since the foundation of Skateistan, the link between charities and skateboarding has been strong and fruitful, and the connection between universities and skateboarding has also been growing. Scholars like Iain Borden, Becky Beal and Ocean Howell have been researching and writing about skateboarding since the 1990s, and in recent years there has been a significant rise in skateboarders pursuing PhDs and writing about skateboarding. Bringing these academics together with pro-skaters (and academic pro-skaters like Alexis Sablone), leading skate charities, and skate collectives, we were overwhelmed by the upswell of interest that materialised for Pushing Boarders. With over 1700 people registered for the event, and with only standing room for each of the panels, it’s fair to say there’s clearly an interest in talking about skateboarding.

The presence of such an enthusiastic audience meant that there were great moments of discussion and feedback within sessions – an event full of skateboarders naturally brought with it vocal recognitions of stoke and the literal calling out of differences in opinion. There was a huge generosity and openness and lack of self-importance, as we engaged in what seemed like a collective unpacking of this thing called skateboarding that we have invested so much time and care in over many years, and for some people, decades.

The three-day event began with an academic forum on the Friday afternoon. There’s some amazing writing on skateboarding out there, and Re-verb Skateboarding organised the forum to bring scholars together and encourage young blood to develop their ideas among their peers and perhaps consider a career in academia. It is possible to get an MA or PhD in skateboarding, and there’s an endless number of research areas to dive into. The forum hosted a range of critical discussions on skate films (Glen Wood, Adam Hebert, Cayla Delardi), educational and urban skateboarding projects (Kirsty Smith, Luke Cianciotto, Kelli Watson, Matthew McDonald), Olympic training practices in China (Austin Li), and skate trick notation (Henry Edwards-Wood), amongst other things.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Emil Agerskov ea_mg_2511web

Photo: Emil Agerskov

Saturday featured a legacy panel with Borden, Beal and Howell, which reflected on the history of skateboarding scholarship in the years from Ban This to Atlantic Drift. A lot has changed since they began writing about skateboarding in the early and mid 1990s: just look at the growing diversity within our scenes, in particular recent coverage of gender-queer skaters and non-Western communities. These historical developments were also noticeable in the second panel: discussing the practice of writing about skateboarding, a line-up of journalists and academics shared their experiences of time spent writing about skate culture. From Kyle Beachy’s and Tara Jepsen’s recent articles on structural racism and sexism within skateboarding, to ethnographies on East Asian skate scenes by Dwayne Dixon, Sander Hölsgens and Paul O’Connor, there’s a whole range of unprecedented and inclusive writing being published over the past few months. One point that came out of these discussions is that it can be difficult to ensure criticality in such a tight bubble of an industry, but the panellists emphasised the importance of free, independent academic, fiction and journalistic writing.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Wade Trevean ea_mg_2511webwt_mg_9457webkarl

Photo: Wade Trevean

The Saturday afternoon began with a conversation between Neftalie Williams and Karl Watson, on the latter’s experiences growing up in Southern California as well as the shifting contexts of racial politics within skateboarding. This was followed by powerful and moving presentations from panellists discussing gender-identity, chaired by Dani Abulhawa. Grassroots initiatives by Marie Dabbadie (Xem Skaters Zine), Dani Gallacher (Girl Skate UK) and Atita Verghese (Girl Skate India) are changing the face of skateboarding from within, and writers like Osh Tammas and Moch Simos (Skateism) and Anthony Pappalardo are documenting how our scene grows more and more emancipatory and inclusive. The Saturday evening finished with Jilleen Liao’s Heavy Discussion, featuring Alexis Sablone, Elissa Steamer, Lucy Adams, Louisa Menke, Jaime Reyes and Maria Falbo. The panel examined the experiences of women within skateboarding, as much as it gestured towards the differences between North American and European skate cultures. This panel opened up the need to unpack much more here. Whereas some skaters feel the need for safe spaces for women, others see things differently, as Louisa Menke emphatically remarked, “I don’t see why female skaters need to skate without men around. No separation is how I see it".

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Emil Agerskov

Photo: Emil Agerskov

These skater-led panels were empowering by critically reflecting on the current state of skateboarding – and it was incredibly rad to see how such conversations transmuted into a proper DIY skate session in the streets outside the Bartlett as the talks ended. It must’ve been the first (academic) conference where panellists got to skate together until the early hours, so the Sunday sessions began a little later in the day, with a skate school, a photo exhibition and market stalls (from Doyenne to Lovenskate) at House of Vans.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Emil Agerskov  ea_mg_1710web

Photo: Emil Agerskov

The first Sunday panel looked at the rise of the skateboarding charity movement, considering some of the challenges and potential for philanthropic projects in conflict-affected areas: Oliver Percovich (Skateistan), Charlie Davis (SkatePal), and Will Ascott and Ruby Mateja (Free Movement Skateboarding) focused on their experiences in the Middle East, whereas Tobias Engelkamp (Skate Aid) and Arne Hilerns (Make Life Skate Life) provided insights into how to start a skate charity. Their endeavours extend far beyond skateboarding too, as founder of SkatePal Charlie Davis emphasised: “A skatepark is not just for skaters. It’s a community space, a safe space, which is even better". The final session, with panellists Daphne Greca, Gustav Eden, Chris Lawton, David Knight and Alexis Sablone, and chaired by Stu Maclure and Ocean Howell, spoke to policy making in urban spaces, exploring how we can make cities more ‘skate-friendly’.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Emil Agerskov  ea_mg_1710web ea_mg_2476web

Photo: Emil Agerskov

We didn't quite know what kind of conference Pushing Boarders would turn out to be, but we all agreed that we are here to contribute to and facilitate these incredible initiatives. As co-organiser Sander Hölsgens put it: “I think our incentives for Pushing Boarders are crystal clear: we take a stand for diversity and inclusion within skateboarding. This is much needed in an industry that can be conservative and socio-politically ignorant. This is why it's so important to have these difficult and self-reflective conversations."

If there was one major theme that ran through the event, it was the awareness that there’s a growing culture of skateboarders who aren’t just going to leave things unsaid and unchallenged. As Marie Dabbadie said in the panel ‘Not just some homogenised bullshit’: “Skateboarding is widely not respecting of women and trans people, like [Thrasher’s King of the Road] harassing women in the street. We need allies. More importantly, we need counterculture in skateboarding (…) I want skateboarders to question themselves. It is a radical practice, but it has been resting on its norm breaking status instead of actually being norm breaking. We need more women and queer stakeholders in skateboarding". Pushing Boarders highlighted a progressive, socially-aware, charged uprising that’s bringing a change in perspective and calling for a new agenda.

Pushing Boarders - the world's first academic skateboarding conference Photo Emil Agerskov  ea_mg_1710web ea_mg_2476web ea_mg_1730web

Photo: Emil Agerskov