Kirill Savchenkov is a Russian multi-disciplinary artist, currently based in Moscow. His project Museum of Skateboarding was initially completed in 2015 and presented as part of “Expanding Space. Artistic Practice in the Urban Environment” at GES-2, V-A-C Foundation in Moscow. Recently Savchenkov’s project was newly commissioned as part of Calvert 22’s ambitious four-part series Power and Architecture, which ran from 12 June – 09 October this year.
On the large screen ahead, a city is in motion. Tall grey buildings rise up around the camera as it blurs down largely deserted streets. Suddenly a wide public square opens up in front of the viewer. The camera moves quickly through the space, periodically rising and dropping over obstacles. Polished concrete blocks for seating are visible, a staircase and handrail loom up from the ground.
Suddenly the image changes. Instead of an open cityscape, the familiar walls of a gallery or museum flash by; the public benches of the square now replaced with the ubiquitous seating arrangements familiar in any large modern exhibition hall. As the camera moves into a stairwell, more familiar shapes emerge; the smooth gradient of the handrail, the diagonal confines of the space framing descending steps. Recurring angles and designs join the vast open square and the more confined gallery space, but only when the camera pitches to the side do we see that the film is shot from the perspective of a skateboarder.
The video is part of artist Kirill Savchenkov’s project Museum of Skateboarding, which I recently encountered in newly commissioned form at Calvert 22 in London. Working with performance, installation, video and photography, and very much influenced by his experience as a dedicated skater in his teens, the artist explores how Skateboarding can function as a way to understand and map one’s surroundings. Taking this as a starting point, Savchenkov has developed a whole system of thinking which includes everything from architectural theory and the use of public space, to martial arts and physical and spiritual wellbeing. Over a brief discussion at the opening of the Calvert 22 exhibition, and then later via email, Savchenkov kindly elaborated on some of the major themes of his work, most specifically with the Museum of Skateboarding project.
For the artist, skateboarding is akin to a methodology, a tool to see and understand the wider environment and the individual’s position within it. The changing perspectives in the video component almost suggest a kind of reflexive muscle memory, as if the body was trained to see and navigate shapes and spaces, something which Savchenkov himself is keen to emphasise when discussing his research. “Skateboarding is a tool for body-reading of space, objects and things,” he writes, “and skateboarding as practice can develop metageographical maps, connect micro-spaces in the surrounding environment and develop new spaces.” Here ‘metageography’ refers to Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen’s work in The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, which they define in the preface as “the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world.” Inherent in their work is a critique of the predominantly western-centric frameworks which tend to dictate how things like history, anthropology, politics and sociology among others things are seen.
The challenge which skateboarding could pose, however, goes beyond simply how we read space to posing weightier questions about the use of public space, and the potential for skateboarding to function as both a means of protest and self-defence. During the opening night at Calvert 22, I asked him about the way skateboarders are frequently criticised for using public spaces such as memorials to perform tricks, something which carries an even greater significance in his native Russia where the country has a complex relationship with its Soviet past, particularly with regard to Second World War memorials. “I think these relations with authority on different levels are an important part of skateboarding culture,” Savchenkov suggests, “and in Russia these relations have a place too, but skateboarders don’t look at this like a concrete type of protest against state authority.”
There is no denying that the rebellious connotations in skateboarding have always been somehow central to its culture, real or perceived. There is something about Savchenkov’s particular perspective which also brings to mind the work of German architect, spatial designer, consultant and writer Markus Miessen, specifically in his characterisation of the ‘uninvited outsider.’ In a 2013 interview with Federica Bueti, Miessen describes the idea as “an attempt to propose a model in which participation is radically rethought: moving away from the romantic idea of all-inclusive democratic processes, where everyone is invited to the round-table to add one’s point, which – from my point of view – ultimately will lead to watered-down and weak consensus.”  He continues, “…we need to work towards the notion of the first-person-singular actor, an independent actor with a conscience.”  Looking at Savchenkov’s figure of the skateboarder, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with Miessen’s ‘independent actor with a conscience,’ not only from a personal perspective but as a potentially divisive and also political actor, provoking a reconsideration of public space.
Beyond the realm of protest or wider social connotations, it’s perhaps in the connection between skateboarding and an individual’s personal self-defence where Savchenkov really draws his view of its significance out into a new theory. “I think neuropsychology is very important for understanding this link,” tells me. “Skateboarding and martial arts develop the same part of the brain responsible for the procedural memory. Another thing – the martial arts are also focused in the same time in the inner dialogue with yourself – this issue is common for both practices.” In Museum of Skateboarding this idea permeates several works. Different sculptural works contain materials like concrete and paving stone, surfaces which must be negotiated by skaters to safely traverse an area. There are also skate stoppers, the metal shapes added to urban designs expressly to disrupt skaters from grinding or performing other tricks on certain surfaces (and analogous to the kinds of methods used to deter the homeless from sleeping in certain areas).
Savchenkov has also developed a kind of training video, also featured in the exhibition, which further explores this idea. In an interview with i-D from earlier this year, he explained how the work came about. “I developed a set of exercises with a Russian skate legend from the 90s, Ashot Shabayan, who now works as a fitness trainer. In one of the videos in the exhibition two guys perform martial arts techniques which are taken from a Russian special forces manual, but combined with the moves that skateboarders at times perform, like when they’re waiting they put their board other head.”  The exhibition project is also accompanied by a Practice Manual, the substance of which touches on multiple strands of inquiry, from new age spirituality to martial arts and philosophy; a kind of skateboarder’s Art of War but presented from a futuristic perspective. There are diagrams of stretches, poses, even breathing exercises, all in the development of a more complete kind of perspectival shift.
These methods of understanding and seeing however are not limited just this particular project. Another major interest is a (perhaps not entirely unrelated) fascination with cults, and the way collective knowledge is shared and developed. “I’m working on project about the educational systems, conspiracy believers and cryptozoology,” he elaborates, “and this project will be based on my previous work – Horizon Community Workshop. It was a series of performances based on tutorial form of education, learning and some tactics in new religion movements and illegal intelligence.” In addition to this, Savchenkov will also produce a public element of Museum of Skateboarding in Moscow with V-A-C Foundation later this year, as he continues to develop his figure of the ‘New Skateboarder.’
By Will Gresson