By Olivia Jia
On view through July 27.
Marginal Utility’s Temporary Autonomous Aggro Zone is an exhibition of photographic and film-based work investigating the phenomenon of pool skating. The show documents skateboarding subcultures – mainly comprised of experienced, adult male skaters – that seek out and repurpose abandoned pools as skating terrain. The nuances of this subculture are depicted through two bodies of work: the Super 8 film Fruit of the Vine by Rick Charnoski and Coan Buddy Nichols, and a series of photographs by Phil Jackson.These pieces provide insight into a culture that the public can rarely access.
The exhibition takes its name from Hakim Bey’s book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. In it, the anarchist-poet describes the creation of fleeting situations that subvert existing structures of authority, and proposes that one may grasp autonomy through an individual action upon the physical world. This “action” is precisely what differentiates the pool-skating culture in Temporary Autonomous Aggro Zone from mass culture’s perception of the skateboarding world. The subjects of this work utilize pool skating as a tool for the pursuit of freedom from cultural conformity.
Fruit of the Vine is a fifty-six minute long compilation of audio and video footage from Charnoski and Nichols’ experiences as pool skaters. The clips have the haphazard, ‘do-it-yourself’ vibe of a home video as the group travels from location to location. Images of these environments function more as memory than as contextual information; visually, they communicate little to the audience, but coupled with monologues and recordings, Fruit of the Vine becomes a memoir. The landscape of the film moves from the West Coast across the country, and the identities of the skaters are similarly in motion – the credits list over sixty skaters, though rarely more than ten or fifteen appear at once. Every element of the film emphasizes the transient and unanchored nature of this subculture.
Though the subject matter is similar, Phil Jackson’s photographic works provide an inherently different point of view. Where Fruit of the Vine is defined by its frenetic energy (asserted by the speed of the camera motion, the constantly moving figures, and the loud, fast-paced music), Jackson’s photographs allow the viewer to thoroughly investigate each image individually and aesthetically. Many of his shots are candid and emphasize moments of stillness. Pictures like Davis with avocado and Luke with Ocho do not depict movement at all, and contain no signs of skateboarding culture except in their environments of graffiti covered walls and chain link fences. Other images focus on the labor of creating an environment for skateboarding – Dan V and the Moat shows skaters cleaning, Luke and Andrew mixing documents construction.
None of Jackson’s sixteen photographs depict the act of skating, a choice that seems fitting for the medium. This stillness identifies the members of this subculture as regular people beyond the label of “pool skater,” while the individuals in Fruit of the Vine deliberately and vocally marginalize themselves from the mainstream. Jackson’s photographs document where Charnoski and Nichols’ film persuades, and its silence is a window for objective consideration.
This subculture exists within middle-class America, an ideal steeped in irony; though the American dream is hinged upon a culture that claims to value personal freedom above all else, the twentieth century saw this manifest through suburban sprawl. The privately owned backyard swimming pool became a symbol of the status and success, implying luxury and leisure. Now these concrete basins linger long after their owners depart. They exist as contemporary ruins – ancient monuments weathered by the elements – void of utility, containers of detritus and reminders of past affluence. Temporary Autonomous Aggro Zone offers new life to these lost spaces and documents the labors through which the skateboarders toiled to reinvent them.
At the heart of the show is the exploration of what freedom can mean. The “freedom” of the American Dream is the potential for upward mobility beyond boundaries of class, inherently tied to the concept of private property and structured hierarchy. The individuals documented here – respected and experienced members of the skating community – reject this tenuous freedom by remaining untethered to specific locations, and social conventions cannot limit their ability to generate countless new Temporary Autonomous Zones.
The spirit of Bey’s “T.A.Z.” is paradoxical – though each individual instance may be considered temporary, the ideas that form the foundation of the subculture persist, and gain permanence with their practice.The repurposed pool as an exercise in autonomy is not a temporary, isolated incident, but a tradition. The time lapse between Jackson’s photographs and the film by Charnoski and Nichols illustrates this clearly – Jackson photographed his candid scenes fourteen years after Charnoski and Nichols completed Fruit of the Vine.
Where the film is shown as a complete document, Jackson’s photography focuses on process. Many of his images are shots of individuals who are constructing or deconstructing a space, such as Josh Breaking Ice, in which a man holds a makeshift sledgehammer aloft, mid-swing. The tension of the frozen event implies a result that has not yet occurred. Jackson looks to the future, where Fruit of the Vine functions as a retrospective. Though the locations, situations, and individuals depicted in these two bodies of work are different, they are intrinsically tied through time and space in a mutual pursuit of freedom through adventure.
As a whole, Temporary Autonomous Aggro Zone engagesthemes on a much grander scale than those of either individual project. The show speaks of tradition; of breaking tradition, rejecting tradition, and creating new traditions that represent a disregard for an old set of rules. This is a culture that has built its foundation upon abundant resources, the wreckage of modern life. It reclaims the process of making as opposed to consuming, and in this process it asserts self-sufficiency. In a landscape of failed consumer culture, it hearkens back to the primal, pre-market economy mentality of the foraging hunter-gatherer.
The greatest success of Temporary Autonomous Aggro Zone is its authentic, honest, and unapologetic portrayal of this subculture. It does not claim to be a political statement, nor does it romanticize an alternative lifestyle. Rather, it allows the public to see one example not only of a functioning model of collectiveautonomy, but also a subculture without hierarchy. The pool skaters are a utilitarian group that operates without a figure of authority. Together, these people transform a landscape of stagnancy and desolation into a place of action and freedom. Though these spaces may be gone by tomorrow, their legacies remain through the continuation of pool skating as a model for autonomous action. In Fruit of the Vine, one of the skaters sums up why this show is both relevant and vital to the average citizen: “If we weren’t skating these pools, they’d just be another part of the great American wasteland, you know?”
Olivia Jia is a painting student at the University of the Arts. She is interested in aesthetic philosophy and writing, and hopes to integrate these pursuits with her studio work.