Skateboarding as Heritage

Back in February, I posted an item about Tarr Steps in Exmoor – and about how its heritage should be recognised less in terms of it being a ‘beautiful’ and ‘ancient’ site, and more in terms of its use as a public right of way. A slightly quirky example of this came up over the weekend in The Guardian (Saturday 11th May 2013, p.14), in an item about a skateboarding site on the Southbank, along the Thames in London:

While certainly not ‘ancient’ (and few would claim it to be ‘beautiful’) Sam Jones’ article described how skateboarders were seeking to protect the ‘undercroft’ area next to the Southbank Centre by applying to Lambeth Council to have the space registered and protected as a community space under the Commons Acts (2006). This law was designed to protect ‘village greens’ as items of heritage, and tends to conjour up notions of tranquil swards in small rural communities, with cricket matches, duck ponds, fetes and fairs. But what are ‘village greens’? For such a space to have meaning, the law defines a community space as a space where ‘a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or of any neighbourhood within a locality, have indulged as a right in lawful sports and pastimes on land for a period of at least 20 years’. In other words, its meaning resides in terms of communal significance, notions of place and temporal depth (albeit of only 20 years) – and a well known skateboarding zone seems to fit the bill perfectly.

The invocation of heritage is made very clear when the author speaks to skateboarders: it is “all about the folklore and the history and you got told stories about so-and-so doing this trick here in 1991. It was like an old fashioned village with all its history”. While many modern education and planning strategies tend to stabilise ‘heritage’ as a separate object, the integrity of which is to be found in maintaining an ‘authentic’ material form – hence the rebuilding and ‘preservation’ of Tarr Steps – this reference to ‘folklore’, memorable events and the shared knowledge systems that are produced through oral histories, animates an understanding of heritage that is all about practice, performance and an immersive and emergent relationship between people and things.

The rebuilding of Tarr Steps is important as a celebration of certain rights of way, and points to the experiences of people visiting and passing through this part of Exmoor for many generations. In a similar way, the Southbank is a site that becomes a heritage landscape through the actions and experiences of skateboarders. As Iain Borden (professor of architecture at UCL, quoted in the newspaper article) argues: the physical buildings and architecture of this part of the Southbank “is made up as much now by the skateboarding as it is by the concrete”. In other words, the very essence of what makes this space a (public) place is connected to the memories and on-going activities of skateboarding.

Art installation or community heritage…?

Last weekend I was walking along the River Barle, just upstream from Tarr Steps in Exmoor, and came across a small clearing with some felled tree trunks. These dead and decaying trunks had hundreds and hundreds of coins hammered in to them: at first sight I thought that they must have been an Art Installation …. We sat and waited for my friend and his young son to catch up…. “Daddy: why has someone put those coins in that tree?”; “I don’t know ‘Henry’, perhaps they thought it would look nice – shall we put one in too?”; “Yes – can I do it please Daddy?”. And so another coin was added. ….and the ‘art installation’ was …. ‘added to’?; …ruined’?!

Is this perhaps a piece of ‘accidental'(?) guerrilla community art-heritage, generated and developed through serendipity and the curiosity of children, and all interacting with the work of beetles, birds and fungus…. A relational enterprise between the human and non-human world, and an ‘unconscious'(?) enactment of being part of wider society, perhaps made over long periods of time by unseen humans in a purposeful and concerted – yet uncoordinated – effort, to be seen (and felt, and stroked and be pondered over) by other passers-by at a future date….? Whether the practice is 5 years old or 50 (or 500), I feel that there is an element of open-ended interaction of past, present and future, and the celebration of a sort of ‘intimate’ community (bound through a very particular and material relationship with the landscape) who perhaps will never ‘know’ or meet each other in person, and which cannot be ‘bounded’ as ‘local’ or ‘insider’/’outsider’.

Or maybe what I saw by the River Barle really was the product of a student arts project?! I thought it was nice anyway.