Emboldening the Renaissance of Surfing
Decentralizing the male competitive/professional surfer as the measure by which good surfing is gauged may be the most important shift in surfing’s renaissance.
I make no apologies if using the word “renaissance” comes off sounding grandiose. Rather than focus on the “hipster” conversation and its idea of authenticity, that evokes little more than opinions surrounding superficial fashion trends and ungrounded identities flitting in the winds of consumerist culture, the use of the word renaissance speaks directly to the undermining of a cemented, tyrannical status quo that tells us what is true and good based on old clichés (like “sex sells”) trotted out by the privileged and the thoughtless, that persist unquestioned simply because they are repeated ad nauseum. Just as the Renaissance saw a rapid increase in the proliferation of ideas because of the printing press, surfing’s renaissance can be directly tied to the access afforded via the internet and new video technologies.
The very first thing that we must tackle at the beginning of this conversation is a reclamation of the word authenticity from pundits who decry a longing backwards glance. Both those in the European Renaissance and those today who struggle with the use of the word authenticity have been criticized for their nostalgia, as if a backward glance was some monolithic desire that prevents a proper interrogation of one’s political place in the here and now. European Renaissance artists, poets, thinkers, mathematicians, architects… all looked back with a critical eye, a perspective that was influenced by the pressures and schisms in their own era, and dredged up the past in order to refine and progress the ages.
While the use of the concept of authenticity may carry different consequences across different genres of thought and society today (due largely to a globalizing consumerist culture that takes advantage of superficial desires to redefine one’s outward identity based around the feel of eras), I would like to zero in on a narrow definition of authenticity for our purposes here.
Authenticity in surfing will be defined as follows: proximity to the immersion of the body in the ocean while engaged in the act of riding waves. This definition allows us to bypass conversations about the fashion of authentic surfing, the look of authentic surfing, the authenticity of near-iterations of surfing (like skateboarding or riding waves in wave pools) and speaks directly to the subjective feeling one has while riding a wave in the ocean, which is necessarily distinct for each surfer and is contingent on bodily immersion in the ocean.
Using this definition, we can rationally discuss, for instance, whether SUPing in the ocean is more or less authentic than body surfing in the ocean because the conversation revolves within a definition of authenticity that is tied to the proximity of bodily immersion in the ocean whilst riding waves. For example, we can say that SUPing in the ocean is less authentic than body surfing in the ocean but more authentic than riding waves on a surfboard in a wave pool. SUPing in the ocean would also be more authentic than body surfing in a wave pool using our definition. We also now have a rational mode with which to express the idea that tow-in surfing is less authentic than paddle-in surfing.
This definition of authenticity then is a tool we can carry forward in our conversation.
The reason that establishing what we mean by “authenticity in surfing” is so important to conversations regarding today’s surf culture is because progressive surfing and other surfing activities have become so completely driven toward disconnecting with the ocean (wave pools), disconnecting the body from its immersion in the ocean (SUP, tow-in) and disconnecting from waves themselves (airs).
At some unexpressed level, surfers involved in the dialogue of authenticity, vocally and/or bodily, are struggling to tackle these disconnecting trends by re-engaging in activities that are fundamentally immersive (body surfing, paipo, alaia). As a consequence, the term “authenticity” gets thrown around a lot without anyone really knowing what exactly is meant by this.
It is no coincidence that with the era of airs, SUPs and tow-ins we have an equal and opposing emphasis on body surfing and traditional Polynesian crafts that require the body act as rudder. This immersion of the body in the ocean is at the core of surfing and defines what surfing is. But companies cannot make money off of this simple truth and so a mutated formula for a lifestyle of surfing was created. Consequently, the rise of the wave pool is not an extension of authentic surfing but an extension of the disconnection from authentic surfing that is the bifurcation occurring in the current surf era. Surfing will never happen in a wave pool and surfing will never enter the Olympics. Waveboarding will. This is not simply a matter of semantics.
Now it is time to take it one step further, into the meat of the conversation: What is the import and the meaning of this immersion of the body in the ocean for human beings? Why is authenticity in surfing important?
If each surfer has their own experience of surfing, can we hope to answer this question in such a way that our answer fits everyone? Absolutely not. What we can do is gaze at the way surfers ride waves and begin to collect information not unlike the way art critics gaze at a painter’s stroke and technique, or the way a critical reader might absorb the form and content of a book to garner the meaning and subtext left like breadcrumbs by an author. In other words, we must view surfing as an art, the body expressing itself through motion, and so begin to untangle “style” and “flow” and all those words that get tossed around without any formal undertaking as to what underlies the meaning of these tags.
We are, after all, artists who have thus far been leaving undecipherable poems writ in liquid; artists with an intimate relationship to impermanence and sovereign flux, without thought to a critical eye that might begin to pull apart and give language to the rich content of our delicious dances.
I remember listening to my mother discuss the difference between men’s and women’s surfing when I was much younger. She always used dance as an example to illustrate the value of the difference between how men and women surf. What female dancers are valued for is much different than what male dancers are valued for and this is very much a material difference. That is not to say that female dancers cannot be powerful or dominating or fearless and that male dancers cannot be graceful or sensual or submissive but dance does not force them to be so in order to be valued in their performance art.
What defines the dancer’s style is the dance to be performed and the role that they will play. A female lead in a classical dance will not perform the same as she would in a modern piece and a truly great dancer can do it all. The dance and the music gives shape to dancers’ expressions and often, they are not alone. There is a troupe, each expressing their part in the performance. So too the waves and the tools that we use to ride these waves define our expressions of the day, each to their own.
But ours is not a theatre with redundant and perfectly choreographed steps. We are dancers constantly seeking the rhythms and pulses of a fluctuating environment. It is ridiculous and perverse to force upon bodies, female or male, one ideal performance style or type and ask of all bodies to perform the same iterations in order to be valued or to be considered valid in this environment. This is not football. This is surfing. There is no endgame, no ultimate win, there is only, ever expression. To demand a single voice, a single expression from surfers in order to be valued is a perversion of surfing itself wherein we give voice to an infinite number of oceanic movements through our bodies.
Yet this is exactly what professional surfing requires. Despite the inclusion of “innovation” (a word actually meaning “disconnect more”) in its judging criteria, it wants only what will be considered a win against another human. The ocean becomes something tertiary to the spartan battle of personalities and time restrictions.
The focus on competitive achievement in the realm of surfing has caused us to miss the mark completely, that is, the messages surfers send into the void each time they rise to their feet on a wave. We know how good it is to surf with friends… but have we explored why? To have one’s message, one’s expression received… isn’t that what artists or even humans in general, ultimately desire? That what is sent out into the world be heard, seen, received, participated with, enjoyed, hated… at the very least, engaged. This is fulfilling. This is why we developed language, our first technology, to share our innermost thoughts, our histories, our stories, to attempt to fill the spaces between us. Yet we overlook these stories of the body in our rush to categorize the “best” surfer in some hierarchy centered around the competitive/professional male shortboarder that overlooks the nuances of the liquid language of the body completely.
We use words to describe styles like “attacking the lip” and “gracefully drawing a line” but never engage with how this translates critically or artistically, we simply assume that this central figure, this male competitive/professional shortboarder sets a technical standard that everyone should be judged by. This male competitive/professional shortboarder is a placeholder, a role that has been filled time and again by each era’s newest and brightest. It is a parochial role that has not changed itself, though many players have moved through it. Perhaps it is only now that one single human has occupied that space for so long that we can finally see it clearly.
What we have overlooked all this time by focusing on a hierarchy centered around one single figure is the background, the white space that surrounds the foregrounded bold, central figure. Within these spaces we will find the songs, meanings and poems of bodies-in-motion, the tales you cannot capture with still-shots but must follow in their motion, as they should be experienced. The photographed surfer is a deadened image, a flat sound in a dense darkness. Where we cannot join each other in the water, video helps us to delve into the rich, layered language of bodies-in-motion.
This is what we must study. This is the language we dance but have not yet learned to interpret. One huge step forward in this interpreting was offered yesterday by Mr. Ted Endo. His piece on The Inertia blithely picks up on the need to decentralize the foregrounded figure of the male surfer in order to give breathing space to alternative physical narratives. He does so by contrasting female surfing with male surfing but he has also previously brought up commentary of a similar type around styles of surfing in longboarding.
By bringing our new understanding of authenticity into the conversation that Mr. Endo has so necessarily highlighted, we can begin to revisit this concept of a renaissance of surfing from a different perspective: not that of what is true and good as compared to a tired central dogma (figure), but that of a shift in perspective that liberates a depthless, limited point of view toward an interpretive gaze that sees the dance in a more complex and layered way. That is, how we participate with the ocean, what tools we choose to use, or don’t use, and what we are saying through our bodies about the world and our place in it must become valued above achievement or replication. The heart must be engaged, as with any art, else the art fall flat. Be aware that “style” is one’s unique cursive, that “flow” connects the content, and the wave itself is the form that the liquid poem will take. What is said and how it is said courses through the body without thought, like automatic writing, or inspiration, or transcendence… ART.
If at first we must dig into our history in order to remind ourselves that it is the actual bodily immersion and connection to and in the ocean that is the most important and meaningful part of surfing, then let it be so. The European Renaissance artists gazed back in history, through a great schism in The Church with what may have begun as nostalgia but transformed into a movement that shook their era and helped shape ours.
We must recognize that in order for surfing to engage its own renaissance fully, the tyranny of the professional/competitive male surfer must be dethroned, toppled from his centrality completely and no one must fill this space in his stead. The centrality of surfing must be filled with ocean alone: the swirling, swift, shifting, sovereign flux of the ocean itself and then let the biographies of surfing bodies be sung in all their diversity and beauty. And let us please learn the language of surfing bodies and open our hearts and minds to receive their poems.
“Only in the dance do I know how to tell the parable of the highest things…” -Nietzsche