How Skateboarding Came to the Kennedy Center

How Skateboarding Came to the Kennedy Center

Garth A. Ross/ 2017

The following is an excerpt of Finding a Line from Fight Club to The Kennedy Center: How We Learned To Cross Invisible Bridges by Garth A. Ross and was originally published in “Grassroots Leadership and the Arts for Social Change.” Finding a Line first came to the Kennedy Center in 2015 and it returns on Saturday May 27 as a part of Open House.

For ten days in September of 2015, there was a skate park in front of the Kennedy Center. Where did it come from? Why did that even make sense? And why does it matter?

Finding a Line is our name for this multi-disciplinary skateboard culture initiative that we describe as an ongoing, community-sourced public art project. The project caught attention and piqued curiosity, but just as often confounded.

I entered this story in a place called Fight Club. My role is that I have the pleasure of serving as the Vice President for Community Engagement at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center is more known for ballet, opera, and lifetime achievement awards than for skateboarding, punk rock and urban youth culture. Why then, would someone who leads community engagement at an arts center like this be working with skateboarders? And what would that person be doing in a place called Fight Club?

Finding A Line: Highlights

Fight Club, Ben Ashworth, and Finding a Line

Fight Club DC was a privately-owned creative space in Washington, D.C. for skateboarding, live music, visual art, construction and documentation. It emerged on the scene in 2004 in an unoccupied and deteriorating building near the Washington Convention Center, which had opened one year earlier, initiating the eventual gentrification of the Shaw neighborhood. Fight Club arose when the Vans skate park in suburban Virginia just outside of D.C. closed its doors, leaving D.C. area skaters without an indoor alternative in bad weather. Ramps scavenged from the shuttered Vans park were the seeds of the space, but what would come to be known as Fight Club grew from an outsider ethos of collectivity and bricolage — improvisational creation from a diverse range of available things. In a scene dominated by white teenage boys, the community at Fight Club was more diverse in ethnicity, age and gender. A donation at the unmarked door admitted those in the know to these weekly skating sessions that also included art exhibitions, film screenings, live bands and DJs. As word of these wildly creative and energetic BYOB happenings spread and their popularity grew, it was generally understood that Fight Club DC would ultimately be a moment in time, a utopian scene destined to be displaced by development pressures, police, or both.

People called it Fight Club in reference to the film of the same name and its famous quote: “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!” So I didn’t learn about this “underground” spot until 2009 when I was invited by a visual artist and skateboarder friend of mine. The moment I passed through the rusted metal door I was struck by an awareness that I’d become part of a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. The point wasn’t whether the skater in the bowl, or the band on the stage, or the art on the walls was the best ever. The power of the experience was in the balance of the technical and aesthetic with the core purpose of creative expression and engagement, amplified by intense positive energy. Everyone there was fully present and involved. It was there that I met skateboarder, artist, educator, and community activist Ben Ashworth, a driving force at the center of the scene.

When the Vans skate park closed, an important community asset was lost. Leadership was needed to transform a problem that was beyond the community’s control into a solution that they did control. Ben and his collective of artists and skaters responded by transforming a dilapidated building on a dark alley into a vibrant venue in which multiple creative communities could converge and thrive. The situation called for transformational leadership, and Ben was happy to provide it. It’s just what he does, like a calling. By the time the era of Fight Club DC came to a close in 2010 (allowing me to write about it without violating the first and second rules of Fight Club), Ben had already completed another project working with volunteers to transform community blight into a community asset by dredging tires out of D.C.’s historically neglected Anacostia River (which separates the rest of the District from the historically neglected neighborhood of the same name) and using them to build an outdoor skate bowl dubbed “Green Skate Lab” (GSL) at Langdon Recreation Center in Northeast D.C.

Then in 2012, with support from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ public art installation commissioning program “5X5,” Ben brought together residents of the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill neighborhoods with skaters, artists and musicians to transform a dicey freeway underpass into a safe and accessible community space for arts and recreation that would come to be known as “Bridge Spot.” Ben called this project Finding a Line, describing it as “a project which takes the improvisational act at the core of skateboarding — finding a line through physical space — and applies it to the process of transforming community space.”

At the heart of each of these projects, from Fight Club to GSL to Finding a Line is Ben’s commitment to the transformative power of dialogue through action. “Finding a Line is ultimately about presence,” says Ben. “It reinforces the value of work in shared territory. It’s a collective body that’s forced to be present, thinking with our hands and our feet. It’s a free zone, not a defined zone. Finding a Line opens up so many questions about how we can be together in this place.”

When we first met at Fight Club, Ben and I struck up a conversation that continues today and is unlikely to end. From our earliest discussions, we agreed that the Kennedy Center would be a perfect platform on which to showcase this multi-disciplinary collection of creative communities that come together around the expressive act of skateboarding. At the same time, we both acknowledged the unlikeliness of such a radical mash-up. For us, the appropriateness was so apparent that it felt like an imperative. A uniquely American phenomenon, skateboarding emerged from 1960’s southern California surf culture and proceeded to spread across the country and around the globe, thriving outside the rules of sports and society anywhere green space was displaced by pavement. With audacity and imagination skaters turned wastelands into wonderlands using only a small board with four wheels. Finding a Line needed to be at the Kennedy Center. But how would we make the case for something that represented such a departure from current organizational practice? How would we make the bridge between the skate community and the national center for the performing arts as visible to others as it was to us?

Close-Up with Ben Ashworth 

Jason Moran and live skateboarding

Jason Moran, jazz pianist and the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, was the first to cross the invisible bridge between the performing arts establishment and skate culture, and show us how to follow.

In 2013, in addition to his visionary artistic leadership role at the Kennedy Center, Jason was also serving as artist-in-residence at SF Jazz in San Francisco, CA. At SF Jazz, he developed “Bandwagon and live skateboarding,” an event in which he and his band “The Bandwagon” improvised a single 90-minute jazz jam session while Bay area skateboarders improvised their own skating session on a half-pipe installed in the theater right in front of the stage. The interdisciplinary dialogue and creative exchange between the skaters and musicians was inspiring for the performers and thrilling for the audience. With this project, Jason drew on his personal history growing up skateboarding and playing jazz in Houston, TX. As a teen torn between what seemed like the two different worlds of skateboarding and jazz, he was inspired by “Video Days,” a film in which the path-breaking skater Mark Gonzales joyously re-interprets the concrete jungle of early 1990’s New York City as a playground for his completely original skating to the music of the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Over twenty years later, Jason would access that inspiration as a way to expand shrinking jazz audiences by demonstrating the parallels between the two seemingly disparate forms of expression.

Not only are both based in improvisation, but they also both develop and thrive in “sessions.” Jason understood that sessions are typically for insiders of a creative community, while performances are designed for presentation to outsiders. He mindfully aimed to strengthen the connection between artists and audiences by inviting audiences into the authentic experience of a session. He believed this would help audiences understand and enjoy the exploratory trial and error creative process as the artists themselves do. He saw this raw format and this juxtaposition of forms as a way to re-frame falling and failing in the pursuit of a new musical phrase or skateboard trick as exciting, courageous and beautiful.

Jason Moran previews Finding a Line

Today, perhaps more than ever, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to strengthen the communities we live in. Locally, nationally, and internationally, individuals and communities suffer negative consequences of weak ties and strong divisions. And since many of the problems our communities face are cultural, why do we invest so little in cultural tools for responding to cultural problems?

We can no longer afford to ignore this obvious value proposition for society. Just as we turn to financial tools for responding to financial problems, and military tools for responding to military problems, we must turn to cultural tools for responding to cultural problems. The intrinsic motivations that drive participation in the arts support personal actualization, social engagement and civic activation. These pro-social effects make grassroots cultural co-production a uniquely effective tool for strengthening communities by cultivating individual and collective flourishing.

And if we currently lack sufficient cultural tools, then investment in the design and implementation of such tools is not a luxury, it’s an imperative. We can no longer afford to regard the arts as a “nice to have” that we indulge in when times are good. We must awake to the realization that the arts are a “must have” that we need most when times are hard.

Artists can be transformational leaders with the vision to reframe shared problems as shared opportunities. With Finding a Line, we put into practice what Jason Moran learned in San Francisco from reframing the problem of shrinking jazz audiences as an opportunity to revitalize jazz audiences, and the musical experience itself, through the union of skateboarding and jazz. Artists have the ingenuity to design creative projects that bring together disparate groups and individuals to realize these visions. Artistic leaders see invisible bridges, use questions to make them visible and strong, and then lead us across.

The project transformed an institution formerly off-limits to the skateboarding community into a platform for that community to authentically reveal itself and its relevance through shared cultural action in cultural common space. The unity achieved across this chasm of difference has tremendous value for the Kennedy Center, the skateboarding community, and for society at large. Let’s put the artists and the tools to work. There’s much to be done.

Finding A Line: Skateboarding, Music and Media