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Shock of the Open: A Politics of Verticality

By Zack Anderson.

To the streets, all you Futurists, / drummers, and poets!  – Vladimir Mayakovsky

Interference of surfaces makes a kind of hypnosis, “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”[1] Spinning urethane on concrete, with the rasp of cheap bearings mediating their communication. I’m looking down into the overlapping planes, a palimpsest of grip tape sparkling when the sun catches it, the grain in the concrete, flashes of black suede. The lines of the tennis court gather and disperse, a fluctuating map I stare down into.

Photos courtesy of Anderson.

It might be tempting to read a kind of mastery into this top-down perspective. The skateboard as a prosthesis, interface of simple body-machine and simple board-machine creating a new complex machine. I’ve been practicing kickflips. My flick is getting better—the board spins under my feet like a cruise missile before I catch it with my back foot. I think of the Futurist Tullio Crali’s painting Nose Dive on the City (1939), its ecstatic vertigo, its forcible reorganization of space with the perspectival machinery of war.[2]

Incuneandosi nell’abitato (1938) by Tullo Cralli via tulliocrali.com.

Hito Steyerl traces a shift in the way vision is organized: an emphasis on linear perspective governed by the horizon gives way to a new vertical perspective in which “the former distinction between object and subject is exacerbated and turned into the one-way gaze of superiors onto inferiors, a looking down from high to low. Additionally, the displacement of perspective creates a disembodied and remote-controlled gaze, outsourced to machines and other objects.”[3] As I’m practicing kickflips today, I suddenly feel the distance between my eyes and the board, creating an uncanny sense of automation. A disembodied gaze and an abstracted muscle memory. Does this sense of detachment as I gaze down on the board in mid-flip suggest mastery or loss of control? Maybe this is what the Situationists meant by psychogeography, the invisible influence of the “terrain.” Guy Debord writes in “Theory of the Dérive,” “In a dérive, one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” I find myself timing my snap to avoid the lines on the court.

As the tennis court’s manufactured landscape unspools under my wheels, I’m thinking about how the rhetoric of empire and war surfaces unexpectedly in skate culture. Bombing hills, Spitfire wheels, Independent’s iron cross logo, Thunder’s grenade logo, Fallen Footwear’s model called The Patriot, whose sales benefit Hope for the Warriors Foundation. Destructo highlights the “weapons-grade aluminum” in their D2 Mid trucks.[4] I was ten years old in 2001 when my parents kept me home from school on 9/11. I have no memory of the towers dropping, no memory of any news coverage at all. I took my skateboard to the driveway and watched for planes between tricks. The urethane on rotten concrete so loud, the sky so clear and silent.

*

When the shift comes, it’s quick but dramatic. The scale of the court is suddenly disorienting, fissures imitating canyons, puddles from last night’s rain resembling silvered lakes, painted foul lines like landing strips or highways. My vertical perspective extends the surface to infinity and the “attractions of the terrain” exert their weird influence. Steyerl describes this moment of perspectival collapse as the sensation of where the “disorientation is partly due to the loss of a stable horizon. And with the loss of horizon also comes the departure of a stable paradigm of orientation, which has situated concepts of subject and object, of time and space, throughout modernity. In falling, the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.” I cut across the juridical network of the tennis court, an unproductive expenditure, a vertiginous dérive. Suspended in free fall, I lose all sense of boundaries. I think this smooth expanse of concrete goes on forever.

*

F.T. Marinetti: “Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”[5]

Steyerl identifies the present moment as a state of “free fall,” “distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.” It’s this state of free fall, of infinite exchangeability of signifiers, that implicates my afternoon dérive—on a tennis court under the noisy American sky—in all the machinery of resource extraction, drone strikes, and weapons-grade aluminum. My joyfully wasted afternoon implicated in this grim apparatus. But free fall has another side—a more immediate and embodied one—as the horizon recedes, my sense of scale collapses, and the ground comes rushing up to meet me.

*

Steyerl: “A fall toward objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorializing, and always already unknown.”[7]

All photos courtesy of the author.

[1] Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive,” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 62.

[2] Steyerl references this painting in a lecture version of “In Free Fall,” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqV1Ll2GFGk.

[3] Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment,” E-flux no. 24 (April 2011): 8.

[4] https://destructotrucks.com/collections/d2/D2

[5] F.T. Marinetti, “Manifesto of Futurism,” in Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 187.

[6] Steyerl, 1.

[7] Steyerl, 9.

Photo courtesy of Anderson.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zack Anderson is a poet and translator from Wyoming, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame MFA program, and a PhD student at the University of Georgia. His chapbook The Outlaw, The Red Ghost, Half-Lives, a Photogram Exposed by the Dirt was published by The Magnificent Field in 2021. His book reviews and critical writings can be found in Harvard ReviewKenyon Review, and the Action Books blog, and his poems have recently appeared in Fairy Tale ReviewNew Delta Review, and Dreginald.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 15th, 2021.