By David Dempewolf
The following article was published in Never Edition, a printed collaboration between McCartney/Belknap Projects, The St. Claire, and Title Magazine in conjunction with CITYWIDE.
I am from Trenton New Jersey. The city has been the psychogeographic[i] center for my family for over three generations. I have never lived more an 80-mile radius from the capital of New Jersey. My friends and I first started to really visit and investigate Philadelphia with our skateboards in 1987. We would catch a Septa train into the city on Saturdays to skate Love Park, City Hall, and the UPenn-Drexel-Temple University campuses. Through exploring the city and looking for things to skate, we developed a first-hand knowledge of the layouts of the streets, ethnic-racial-class diversity of the neighborhoods, places to eat, and spots to chill when somebody got hurt or we were simply worn out.
When it was time for me to finally go to college, the only cities that realistically came to mind were New York and Philadelphia. New York was too expensive, so I decided to go to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then the University of Pennsylvania. I was so excited to start going to art school. I couldn’t believe that I would be spending all my time making art with other young artists who were also curious, resourceful and rigorous. I imagined that the classes would have a productively competitive approach similar to the skateboarding sessions I had with my friends, where we would push each other to progress and refine our techniques.
These skate sessions would usually consist of two to five Skaters and last an average of several hours. When I found myself with a group that fit my temperament, the sessions would be rowdy, physically punishing affairs where we would push each other to perform the seemingly impossible, as well as calling each other ‘out’ if one wasn’t fully concentrating or trying their hardest. We insisted on the best from one another and our friendships and skateboarding abilities grew with every encounter.
I genuinely thought the vibe of art school would be like this, yet it really wasn’t. One cause of this lack of substantial interaction was due to student rivalry and peer competition instigated by the some of the faculty under the guise of scholarships and grants. There was a powerfully talented student the year ahead of me whose work agitated all the other ambitious students to become better artists, or to give up. The (at times) negatively competitive nature of the program caused many internal rivalries, but in spite of this, I found my people. We would tap into the hard work and energy being generated in one another’s studios. Each of us felt personal gratification when a friend started to make what we considered to be good work.
These relationships carried over to the projects I participated in with the Basekamp collaborative team (Justin Matherly, Scott Rigby, Leigh Stevens & myself). From 1998-2001 we tried to develop and produce the most ambitious projects we were capable of with our limited financial resources and shared knowledge bases. The team became visible in Philadelphia and we were invited to stage projects at PAFA, Moore College of Art, the ICA, and other spaces throughout the city.
Since 2009 I have been co-directing the Marginal Utility gallery at 319 N. 11th Street in Philly with my wife Yuka Yokoyama. We have a small, low profile space with extremely limited resources, so we need to be very hands-on to facilitate the production of good art. Yuka and I are lucky to work with an amazing and expanding group of friends/interns that often help the exhibiting artists finish their work within the space. We have hand-stenciled the walls with a faux 19th-century wallpaper design with Rachel Mason, hung over eighty black plastic trash bags full of newspapers from the ceiling with Abigail Deville, and for the past year and a half we have changed the footprint of the space by building new walls for almost every exhibition. Each show enables us to spend time with our deeply valued friends, and these interactions are the reasons we run the gallery. The exhibitions are the end result of these relationships and activities. For me, these encounters are similar to those generated within skateboard communities, as the innovative professional skateboarder Rodney Mullen states:
the beauty of skateboarding is that no ‘one guy’ is the best… what makes them great is the degree to which they use their skateboarding to individuate themselves. Skaters, I think they tend to be outsiders who seek a sense of belonging, but belonging on their own terms. And real respect is given by how much we take what other guys do (basic tricks such as 360 flips), we take that, we make it our own and we contribute back to the community in a way that edifies the community itself. The greater the contribution, the more we express and inform our individuality… The summation of that gives us something we could never achieve as an individual. Truly. And that forms… I should say that there’s some form of beautiful symmetry… that the degree to which we connect to a community, is in proportion to our individuality, which we are expressing by what we do.[ii]
The Philadelphia art community perseveres without the safety net of a stable art market. This lack of resources frees up artists and DIY art spaces from being beholden to the interests of those outside the field of art. Personally, being situated in Philadelphia allows me to have as much as autonomy as I need to create an art world I want to live within (we all function within worlds we produce), and provides me with the head space to attempt to make art. I have been fortunate to find and develop relationships with other artists that are as brutally encouraging and demanding as the friendships that I found in skateboarding. Helping and observing other artists work to the edges of their abilities encourages me to do the same. I hope that I can in my own way contribute to the shared excitement within the community of artists in which I am rooted.
[i] Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”