New East Digital Archive
Power and architecture

Urban vibrations

If you want to feel the city, skate it, says artist Kirill Savchenkov

The monuments of the post-Soviet city are different from those that came before; the same is true of its subcultures. The built environment of a place like Moscow is informed by socialist monoliths but shaped by new forces, new materials and proprietors. And the way young people in particular relate to and live amongst this shifting built environment has likewise evolved.

The skater has a bodily relationship with the city: through the tool of the board, he or she feels its contours in a new, potentially liberating way

Kirill Savchenkov’s Museum of Skateboarding (2015), which constitutes the third of four exhibitions in Calvert 22 Foundation’s Power and Architecture season, draws on this fluid relationship between grand urban space and ground-level subculture. It explores the past and imagines the future of skateboarding and in doing so asks how identities are to be formed and conflicts resolved in the modern metropolis.

Savchenkov himself was a skater until an injury and art school cut that career short. Skateboarding has featured in his work before: most of all in his photobook-novella Iceberg (2012) about young love and confusion in the Moscow suburbs where he was raised. Since then the concerns of his work have crystallised: communication in a world defined by the internet, human relations in the space of the city, cultural conflict. In his words, the Museum deals with “skateboarding as a practice, as human experience, as a system for locating human beings within the city”. More than just a hobby or even a rebellious act, skateboarding “helps us to understand the forms and regimes of human communities”.

Along with many other facets of American culture, skateboarding arrived in Russia during perestroika. Initially it was an underground — “non-conformist” is Savchenkov’s word — youth culture limited to big cities, populated by DIY enthusiasts making their own decks, trucks and belts. Over time contact was made with established Western communities and a domestic industry emerged: now provincial centres like Krasnoyarsk and Vladivostok have their own organised groups, skate parks are more common and skateboarding is being considered as a potential Olympic sport. For Savchenkov, this history in itself speaks to the broader issue of local subcultures and national art movements in a globalised world.

“Subcultures are artefacts of globalisation. You see the same forms and traditions [everywhere] but with local specifications. In this way, these subcultures are like a language for understanding modernity, for understanding the reorganisation of cities, for understanding the algorithms behind the production of space. Functionalism and Brutalism, for instance, take the same shapes in Los Angeles as in Bahrain: [people employ] different materials but have the same ways of producing space.” In Russia, the modern art movement that skateboarding most shares an affinity with might be Constructivism. In the 1920s artists and designers like Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin thought about art and architecture in terms of its material, how stuff was put together. Savchenkov sees a link between the Constructivist notion of faktura — the artist’s feel or sense of their medium — and skateboarding. The skater has a bodily relationship with the city: through the tool of the board, he or she feels its contours in a new, potentially liberating way. It is a “bodily reading of the city”.

As well as reinvigorating old artistic theories, skateboarding in Savchenkov’s eyes also defines the urban individual in political terms. One aspect of skateboarding that made it a rebellious subculture in the first place was that it often took place on private property, reappropriating small sections of the city for public sport and bringing skaters into conflict with the police. “Skateboarding creates new relations with micro-spaces and public spaces, and so of course it creates new relations with power and the police,” Savchenkov says. “In Russia, if we skate on government buildings, or around Second World War memorials, we can get in trouble with authority.” In the 2000s, Moscow skaters often clashed with police over their use of monuments in Victory Park.

As Moscow is refashioned by its post-Soviet leaders, does Savchenkov see a simultaneous shift in skateboarding’s antagonistic political potential? “Despite what happened under Yury Luzhkov [Moscow’s first post-Soviet mayor, responsible for the demolition of listed buildings on a huge scale], in the late 1990s and 2000s we stayed in the same spots. What people were skating were monuments, memorials and Lenin statues, and these weren’t touched in reconstruction.” Under Luzhkov’s replacement Sergei Sobyanin, cosmetic changes to central Moscow’s public spaces have altered the skating experience: asphalt in open squares has given way to gravel and tiling, creating intense vibrations for skaters. The texture — one might say the faktura — of the sport is different.

“Skateboarding creates new relations with micro-spaces and public spaces, and so of course it creates new relations with power and the police.”

Museum of Skateboarding speaks to all of the above, but Savchenkov is not looking back to some Golden Age of youthful rebellion, nor bemoaning the encroaching commercialisation and popularisation of skateboarding. For him, skaters have always occupied a “hybrid” world between mainstream and counterculture, past and present, and he has his eye on the future.

“I think of the Museum as an archive. Archives can help us understand the future as well as the past. I speak about ‘post-skateboarding’ in Russia. My project is about moving from the practice of skateboarding to an understanding of, or a view on to, the future.” As realised at Calvert 22, Savchenkov’s installation encompasses documentary photography, comments on the textures of cityscapes, abstract compositions and instructions for imagined self-defence and meditation programmes. In all this the experience of the skater is the point of departure for an exploration of how the city of the future will look and feel. At points it all gets a little surreal.

“For me this is about the evolution into something strange,” Savchenko says, “a strange practice, like a cult or a sect for people who are trying to understand themselves and the spaces they occupy. It becomes something like survival practice.” Again, this is about “experiences of a hybrid nature”. Different types of human endeavour are thrown together — fitness regimes, paramilitary organisation, artistic education — and reassembled. Particularly striking are the images of martial arts routines in which the skateboard becomes either weapon or shield. Savchenkov cites a real trend amongst young suburban Russians to take up fighting sports: “Maybe it’s a crisis of masculinity, but I think it’s more to do with the social and political situation for city dwellers.” As Russian civic society is increasingly militarised under President Vladimir Putin, the worlds of skaters and soldiers move closer together.

How then are we supposed to take in the hybrid, future-oriented world that Savchenkov has pieced together? In one sense we could look back on his work in Iceberg, for instance, and see the Museum as a more conceptually ambitious way of processing the experience of the dreamy, post-Soviet, suburban teenager, caught in the thrill of skating the city and trying to make sense of what it all means (if anything at all). But while young adult reverie might remain an inspiration or thematic touchstone in his work, it’s fair to say that Savchenkov is reaching for something much more expansive in his later work. “If it’s a museum, then you have to ask: a museum of what?” he reasons. “Maybe it’s a museum for a new future. Maybe it’s a museum of impossible or fantastic skateboarding. A museum is something that you use to understand the practices of strange cultures — like the Ancient Egyptians.” From teenage kicks to post-Soviet hieroglyphs on four wheels and a plank of wood.

Visit The Museum of Skateboarding at Calvert 22 from 11 August — 11 September

Text: Samuel Goff
Image: Kirill Savchenkov