Skateboarding, Cities and New Beginnings.
An Interview with Duncan McDuie-Ra
By Jim Turvey
Zorlac’s ‘Shut Up and Skate’ motto never sat right with me. Why shouldn’t we discuss skateboarding, write about it, read about it, watch it and absorb it every way possible? Isn’t that what you do when you love something?
I’ve spent a large portion of my life poring over old magazines and overanalysing tiny details in the background of videos. About a year ago, I started to feel like it was all for nothing; that I’d wasted my most valuable years studying something that wasn’t really meant to be studied. Maybe Zorlac had been right all along.
Then I met Duncan McDuie-Ra.
Duncan is professor of Urban Sociology at University of Newcastle. He’s also a skateboarder, an enabler of discussion, a conduit of ideas and most of all, my friend.
His latest book, Skateboarding and Urban Landscapes in Asia: Endless Spots, has just been published by Amsterdam University Press.
Do you want to explain what you do as both a skateboarder and as a researcher/academic?
I think the best way to describe my academic trajectory is that I’m an ethnographer of place and space and that’s taken me to mining areas in the Northeast Indian borderlands, to urban migrant ghettos in Delhi, to border cities in post-conflict areas. Through all of that I found I really just wanted to do urban research again and again.
The last twelve years of my career has really been urban research and I reached a time where I was working in quite stressful environments. I felt I’d started all kinds of new research areas in borderlands studies—out-migration, race, cities and I’d written five books and heaps of papers—and I wanted to do something else. I was running out of motivation. I wanted to get back to skateboarding and figure out how I could do it academically.
I didn’t want to do really obvious skate research, like skate culture, rebels and delinquents. I know that a lot of the work that has been done about skateboarding in academia is really good, and I didn’t want to repeat it or update it. I was trying to think of a way into it. That’s how the current book came out, the one that I’m just finishing off and I guess the future work I want to do all kind of came about; through feeling the desire to match my profession with my passion.
It was not as simple as it sounds. It took ages to get the confidence. It’s weird, even now, the book is out and people are responding to it. It’s the same publisher that I’ve written other books for and it’s so dramatically different to those other books that people are like, ‘what, there’s more, I didn’t know you did this?’. Which is kind of the response I wanted. I wanted to reveal my double life slowly…
Writing about something like skateboarding is really hard because it’s a performance, it’s a bodily thing, putting it into words is so underwhelming. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted to write a book that was as much about cities as it was about skateboarding, and that it was about cities in Asia as much as it was about skateboarding and using landscape as a lens to look at it.
Were you using Asian cities to segue from past research to new, or was it because it’s something else you’re passionate about?
I think it’s a good segue. I’m always interested in the cultural studies of landscape, so that it’s not just something aesthetic that you look at. Twenty years ago, W.J.T. Mitchell, an American cultural studies scholar, wrote about not what landscape is, but what it does, its cultural power.
We can see layers of the past and future trajectories in the landscape we’re in, but there’s also all the invisible stuff; what has been dispossessed and lost. So if you want to think about skateboarding, you can think about the places it happens, rather than it as a culture. And yes, they are connected, but what if we start with the place and go from there.
You and I and everyone in this shop right now (Laate Store), all the skaters we know, we have a way of looking at the landscape; a lens that we view the landscape through that is different to people who don’t skate. We share ways that they look at the landscape, but we also have a way that is different. We have a skater’s gaze. We look at something and think of a trick you could do on it, we look at marks on a wall and know someone has done a wallie on it, we look at wax on something and think “wow, there are possibilities here”.
What I was really interested in was how that all travels. How does that travel to all the different people that get into skating in different parts of the world, particularly in Asia because that’s where my research background is. I found that when I was doing other urban research I couldn’t turn that off.
That skate lens that I grew up with really helped me understand space, its texture and how people used it for rebellious purposes. In places occupied by military you see that all the time and it reminded me of how skateboarders repurpose space for other uses. What really interested me was that I couldn’t turn that lens off.
What you’ve got to do as an academic is try and turn it on for people that have never thought that way. How do you turn that on for readers? How do you get them to understand that? This isn’t just somebody pushing a toy along, there’s a whole lot of calculations, aesthetics, looking, thinking, imagining and doing that skaters do in an urban landscape.
You said you’re going back to your origins, using this lens that you grew up with. Do you want to explain where you grew up skateboarding and how you got into writing?
I grew up in suburban Sydney, in Hornsby, which is where my parents still live. I started skateboarding around 1987/88. Street skating was around, but we didn’t know much about it. My neighbours skated too and our parents would take it in turns to drive about an hour away to pump on a ramp and get snaked by older kids and then go home.
My friend Andrew’s grandparents had a Chinese restaurant in St Mary’s so we’d go to the mini ramp there and hangout and skate. We’d go to Manly which wasn’t close either, or Mona Vale, which was ridiculous for kids to skate. It was a vert ramp and people were doing inverts and stuff. You’d get your turn and kind of pump a little then jump off.
Eventually we started to see more street skating, mostly in Powell videos because they had them at Video Ezy. We watched the street parts in Public Domain and we’d try to copy all the Ray Barbee tricks. Our boards weren’t good for street skating. I had a Tony Hawk with rails and a nose bone, it was really heavy. The trucks were from my first board from a sports store with crappy wheels. But then things changed really quickly and by 1990 we were street skating.
There was a petrol station that had gone out of business and they’d removed all the pumps but it still had the manual pads and curbs. Someone had cut a hole in the fence and it was a spot for local skaters to meet. That’s when I first witnessed people taking care of a spot. People would smash bottles, but there was an older guy who stashed a broom in the bushes to sweep it up and it dawned on me: “wow, if you take care of the spot, you can skate it more”.
It was really obvious, even then, that this was private space that we’d made into a public space we could share. It’s not like we used those words. We probably said “this is ours”! I understood contestation of a space, but it wasn’t contestation between capitalists and the displaced, it was delinquents fighting over how to use the space; between people fucking it up and people trying to fix it. A Westfield ended up being built on top of it.
When I got a bit older we’d catch the train to Chatswood because there were lots of corporate buildings to skate. We’d see a lot of other skaters there, especially at places like the Chatswood Ten.
Any famous skaters at the time?
We’d see Phil Mackie there and occasionally Michael “Davo” Davidson, but more often you’d see him at Martin Place. There was a guy called Justin Wong that I shared mutual friends with that was really good and a bunch of people that you’d only ever know by their first names and you’d have to try and put two and two together.
There was this other place called CSR, Colonial Sugar Refinery, which I found out later my great-grandfather worked for at the processing plant. They had their corporate offices in Chatswood with a huge brick area in front of it with a long brick four stair followed by another brick four-stair. Chatswood was great.
There was also a spot in Gordon that we skated, it was an IT type building that would be somewhere like Macquarie Park these days. It had a downward driveway with a long ledge that went straight out. There was a rumour that this other guy from school and I had both noseslid the whole thing.
Was it true?
I had, but he was about two years younger than me. I am not sure we believed each other. We met at the spot one day and he was basically like, ‘show us that you can do it,’ but it had been partially skate-stopped by then, so you had to get on a little higher. I ended up doing it again that day and he did it too. The only way to prove it back then!
Great times skating the suburbs; no mobile phones, you just went places and hoped you’d see people you knew. We’d go to the city, to Martin Place, but more to watch. A lot of really good skaters would be there and we wouldn’t have the confidence to try a trick in front of Alex Smith and people from that era. Occasionally there’d even be visiting pros from the US.
When I was sixteen I got really into hip-hop and a good friend was into graffiti. We started a zine called Damn Kids. It’s really hard to explain to people now, because skateboarding and those things go together, but back then I felt like I had to choose. They were different kind of friends and they were pulling me in different directions.
I did the writing for that zine and we’d photocopy it at different places. Sometimes we’d use the photocopier at my Dad’s office after hours. We’d staple it all together and distribute it. Damn Kids continued until 1999 I think. I did skate through that period, but my skating friends dropped off, so not with the same intensity.
You continued writing though, you wrote for Revolver which was a big deal at the time.
Yeah, I wrote for a street press magazine called Revolver which was distributed everywhere. 3D World Magazine was techno/rave and Revolver was more Rock, but both of them wanted to get into hip-hop. I started at 3D World, but they didn’t have as much work for me. Revolver gave me my own column every week and I could write whatever I wanted. It was called Large Confessions, like Large Professor (the MC). I really liked that, I had the column for a few years. I went travelling overseas and I kept it up for a bit, but it ended up being more like travel writing.
I wrote a column about crossing the border from Turkey into Iran on foot. At the time, in early 2001, Iran had a lot of censorship on anything that was brought into the country. Mostly truck drivers crossed from Turkey to Iran, so it was rare to get pedestrians and even rarer to get foreigners. I had proper paperwork and visas, but they had to look through everything I was bringing into the country. They checked for illicit material, pornography, anti-regime or missionary material. I didn’t have anything with me except for audio tapes. This woman from customs, in full chador and everything, made me take out all my tapes and she listened to them. They were all rap tapes. She’d listen, then fast forward a bit and then fast forward again. I guess they weren’t looking for crude material, because it was all crude. They were looking for speeches, gospel material or propaganda.
So I wrote an article about having hip-hop reviewed by an Iranian customs official. I kept up the writing for a while, but it was hard while travelling.
I was away from Australia for two years, then started skating again, started studying again and did my PhD, became an academic. Once I became an academic there was a weird feeling that I had to keep my skateboarding life separate. I don’t know why, I think it’s because I was really young in a career where everyone was much older.
It was just as the boom in Australian universities was taking off. I was quite self-conscious of my age and I went through the academic levels quite quickly, so I became even more self-conscious of it. I wish I’d had more confidence in my identity; to embrace it not hide it in my professional life.
Was moving to Newcastle as an opportunity to reinvent yourself?
Yeah, I’d been at one university since I was a PhD student, got a job there, and I’d gone all the way to the most senior academic level you can have. I grew up there. And there were times I felt like I was infantilised there. There were times I felt like I had an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Moving somewhere new as a senior academic was a chance to build my own identity. I could get away from the past. It was a classic clean slate.
This book had been in my mind since I was in my old job. I got started around 2015. In the summer between finishing up there and beginning here, 2018-19, I became really serious about it. I hand wrote eleven points of argument in a notebook. The book has four arguments in the end, but I was still working them all out over that summer.
Yeah, I wanted to write about skateboarding in Asian cities, but what did I want to say about them and how would it be valuable? Why will people read it? How would I get an academic publisher to publish it? For me it’s important that skaters can read it, but I want other urban studies researchers to see what skateboarding can tell them about all kinds of things, and that’s what’s valuable.
Changing jobs gave me that window to really get into that headspace. I went away to Denmark for work in February 2019 and as soon as the plane landed coming back I was like, “right, now I research skateboarding”. I was already typing stuff on the train back to Newcastle. That was before I even made friends here.
To bookend all of that, the book has been published and it’s available?
The book exists. It’s called Skateboarding and Urban Landscapes in Asia: Endless Spots. It had lots of different names. The first one was Lands Untouched by Modern Urethane but the publisher said no one would know what that meant. Another title was just Endless Spots.
In the extras for We Are Blood, Shane O’Neill said: ‘There’ll never be a time when China runs out of spots. It has endless spots,’ or something like that. I got the subtitle from there because it perfectly catches how skaters viewed cities in China in the 2010s. If you think about it, how does a country that has urbanised more rapidly than any other country in human history get imagined amongst skaters? It’s a completely different way that an entrepreneur would imagine it or a population expert would imagine it. We imagine handrails, marble, ledges, stairs, plazas, low surveillance and that really captured this idea.
The book is also about old infrastructure, particularly the former Soviet Union, and it’s about new frontiers and skaters going off into crazy places to find spots.
The publisher was like, okay, it needs to sell, so skateboarding has to be the first word. So it’s Skateboarding and Urban Landscapes in Asia. It could have been Skateboarding in Cities in Asia, but some of it isn’t in cities. I wanted the idea of endless spots to be in there too.
It’s not just about the growth of cities in Asia, but also the decline of cities in the West and the difficulty of skating particularly in the US. You’ve got to get permits, permissions and the essence of just showing up and going for it is disappearing.
We’re in a kind of middle ground in Australia. New buildings are prebuilt with skate stoppers, they’re there from the beginning. Skate stoppers and surveillance are now part of the urban landscape, which is really interesting when you think about it. I’ve seen office workers arrange themselves in between skate stoppers and I wonder if they even know what the things are. Do they understand defensive architecture or hostile architecture?
It was really satisfying when the book had gone to review and come back and I could look at the hundreds of things I’ve cited in the bibliography and it’s entirely different to the last book I wrote. There’s all this incredible writing that I got to read and try to pull into this book, from social and cultural theories on concrete, to the Shah of Iran’s urban grid, to how memorials are part of Soviet life; it’s wild. I’m not building on work I’ve done before, it’s all completely new. I can’t believe someone published it. Ha ha!
Well, there are a lot of real skate nerds that enjoy reading and discussing this kind of thing.
Yes! That’s a really good point. There are academics that write about skateboarding. Some are just a flash in the pan, an article here or there, but the number that stick at it are quite small. And they have been great. I’ve found a new community of scholars that I feel comfortable with and that I can work with. That was an important thing during the transition.
You’ve moved cities, changed your career trajectory and you’re part of this new academic community that you’ve just mentioned, but you’re also part of a new skate community too. How has it been finding yourself as an older skateboarder on the streets?
It has been entirely unexpected. I always knew that Newcastle had a lot of good skateboarders, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that Newcastle had multiple generations of skaters that stayed connected to skateboarding. In Sydney I felt old. There are older skaters in Sydney, but I didn’t know where they were. Here, I feel really at home with people of different ages.
There are world class skateboarders in Newcastle right now. You can go to a spot and see some of the best up and coming amateurs in the world of skate. Just like that. It’s incredible.
For me, the most important thing is that I’ve made the most incredible friends who I feel like I’ve known for twenty years. The generosity of the skate community is incredible. And having a space like Laate and Civic makes a huge difference. Academics are not people you make good friends with. I have made friends with some, but they’re a quasi-dysfunctional, competitive group of strange people and I’ve never found strong connections with them. I’ve made strong connections with people where I do fieldwork, but they’re far away and fraught with all kinds of other emotions.
The fact that in middle age, I can make new friends and we can share ideas and talk about this book, or the new book I have coming out, that in itself is remarkable. The new one is called Skateboarding Video: Archiving the City From Below and it’s about how skateboarding is a form of recording urban history. Scholars of cities should pay attention to this kind of thing. Skate videos are archiving alleyways and backblocks and plazas and things that planners are not doing, city marketers are not doing. They’re looking at the front stage. At the spectacle. Skateboarders have been archiving the backstage of cities for years, from Wallenberg to the LA River, to Civic and Library and Admin.
While I’ve diverged from your question, being in this new environment has hyped me to do more and more and more. And now I am hyped to skate again as much as possible. Even some of my muscle memory is coming back!
There’s an amazing community here. People are so accepting and I feel like I can be myself. As corny as that sounds, when you reach a certain age that actually ends up mattering so much. Especially when you’ve given up so much for a profession that gives so little back.
DONT MISS DUNCAN'S BOOK LAUNCH
& SKATE TRIVIA with JIMBO...
THURSDAY JUNE 10TH
THE SHIP INN