17 February 2012

This Ain’t California – Skateboarding and the City in the GDR

Skateboarding at Alexanderplatz. Film still ‘This Ain’t California’
Public space in the GDR was - as in many other autocratic societies - understood as a means of political representation of the regime. The occupation of East Berlin by the USSR and the foundation of the GDR also entailed a radical change in the configuration and understanding of urban public spaces. One of the foundational principles of the GDR was overcoming of previous epochs, which also influenced urban planning and the built environment. As a first measure, the demolition of buildings that had been closely associated with Prussia should make space for the new regime. Therefore buildings like the Berlin palace (Stadtschloss) and Schinkel’s Bauakademie needed to give way for public spaces as sites of organised mass events. East Berlin got rebuild as the ’centre of a representative publics’, a space of self-staging. Moreover the built environment should represent the collective thinking of the socialist state through grand gestures of buildings beyond human scale provoking humbleness in its citizens. The individual was subordinate and rendered small under the overwhelming influence of the state. With grand axes and vast open spaces, East Berlin’s new city centre should appear as one continuous space. Alexanderplatz, the space around the impressive new TV Tower was designed as one continuous concrete surface that should later become a heaven for skateboarders.

The German documentary ‘This Ain’t California’ by Marten Persiel, which premiered a few days ago at the Berlinale Film Festival is an impressive document of skateboard culture in the GDR and also got me thinking about public space in GDR Berlin. The director brought together a former GDR 1980s skateboard gang, whose members vividly reminisce about how they built their first Rollbrett and later smuggled skateboards from the West to the East and how the skateboarding scene grew in the GDR. The terrific film sets the subculture of skateboarding in the context of the political landscape of that time.  At a time when the Eastern bloc already started to crumble, a vivid skater culture, partly autonomous partly with Western influence developed. The concrete desert of East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz was on the one hand the most obvious stage for the skaters on the other hand also a site of subverting the authoritative socialist state.  The public space no longer was a means of representation or intimidation, through skateboarding it got a place for self expression and if not intentionally also for resistance. 

Skateboarding at Alexanderplatz. Film stills ‘This Ain’t California’

In the GDR, sport was highly reputable and promoted. Especially top-athletes, and the GDR had many of them, were highly respected as representatives of their state. But skateboarding was not such a sport, since it was seen as a pop-cultural capitalist threat invading from the West. Therefore, as the documentary depicts, the skateboarders where surveyed by the Stasi as potential dissident citizens. Simultaneously authorities tried to control the teenagers through the installation of institutionalised facilities to train and coach this new sport to make the GDR also competitive in international skateboarding events. Obviously these institutions were never really successful amongst the skateboarders, as also in the GDR the sport was more understood as a way of life rather than a sporting discipline.
Arguably, the act of skateboarding questioned the state of public spaces of the socialist regime. Skateboarding, or in GDR terminology Rollbrettfahren, was a form of embodied resistance and rendered the space as a representational space. As the documentary clearly elucidates, not only in the West but also in the East skateboarding was built on an anarchist tradition of hacking the urban landscape.  Iain Borden (author of  Skatebording space and the city: architecture and the body) argues in a Lefebvrian sense that ‘skateboarders see the city as a place to assert use values over exchange values, pleasure over toil, active bodies over passive behaviours’. In other words, skateboarders communicate a Marxist approach that public space is for uses rather than exchange. In this sense, in a way, skateboarding would have been a spatial practice that was in conformity with socialist ideologies. But in former Eastern Germany there was no such thing as a capitalist abstract space the skateboarders could challenge with their activity, as public space was never a space of consumption. Nevertheless skateboarding as depicted in ‘This Ain’t California’ was an implicit critique of what public space should be, a critique that was true for both the East and the West. 
Skateboarding in East Berlin, Thrasher Magazine, December 1988

Skateboarding at Alexanderplatz. Film stills ‘This Ain’t California’
 Apart from raising questions about public space the documentary is a highly recommendable and entertaining film that comments on GDR politics, youth culture and everyday life through an impressive amount of original footage. Of course, the film also resonates with a certain nostalgia for old school skateboarding and in general for GDR aesthetics,  so called Ostalgie.