Skatelab (Laboratorio de skate) was a project that temporarily appropriated an unused pavillion in the back of a museum, creating a space dedicated to play and skating to explore the contemporary culture of skateboarding in Mexico City. It was an initiative that launched as part of my three month residency at Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, a contemporary art museum located in Mexico City, and it was the extension of previous independent research I’ve been doing with skaters in Mexico.
The architecture of Skatelab was deliberately minimalistic, serving as an alternative if not an antithesis to the rise of skatepark construction in Mexico City. It was crucial that the project collaborated with the Mexico City based firm Anónima, leading experts in skatepark designs that accomodate free play and experimentation. Skatelab was meant to be adapted towards experimentation, expansion and appropriation, and the space was equipped with only a few permanent elements while the rest consisted of temporary objects and things that could be appropriated for skating.
The goal of Skatelab was two-fold:
(1) Investigate how large-scale and institutional urban design initiatives such as the construction of state-of-the-art skateparks, which create highly scripted and programmed play spaces, effectively deprive skaters of their ability to exercise their spatial and creative agency in public spaces: the streets, plazas, sidewalks, parks and the act of appropriating of other unused, abandoned and/or forgotten spaces.
(2) Create a channel through which non-institutional actors can enter and creatively occupy spaces with institutional power such as museums, and develop new working relationships in between.
Skatelab also contributed to creating different social dynamics with the public (who were largely non-skaters) and it was most visible in the ways through which the passerby in the park started to occupy the space for recreational and entertainment purposes. People played on the ramps without using a skateboard, or simply came to Skatelab to watch skaters skate). The museum produced rules, policies, and signages in reaction to the new socio-spatial relations produced through the act of skaters entering institutional spaces. On February 25th 2019 the Skatelab ramps were passed onto Veronica, a talented young female skater who plans to open a skate school for youth. The spirit of Skatelab continues to grow and hopes to take on other forms of design practices inside and outside of cultural institutions.
What prompted the project?
Skateboarding and its ability to produce agency and individualized spaces of power. Skatelab was an architectural intervention dedicated to tackling some of the larger ambitions that came out of my previous work, which aimed to position skateboarders as design collaborators and not simply users of space. When I started my residency in Museo Tamayo, my mentor and director of the education department Manuel Alcalá really liked my work around skateboarding and encouraged me to put 2 ramps in a pavillion in the back of the museum. I took that idea and pushed it into a series of public programs that deeply involved the museum, because I wanted to see what happens when skateboarding and design combine forces and skew the boundaries of what is possible or acceptable in a museum environment. On the other hand, I totally wanted to make something that celebrated the DIY culture of skateboarding. I think the DIY culture not only shows the incredibly clever and fun aspects of skateboarding, but also at its core is a way that skaters produce power and agency through moments of connecting with one another and making things together in the city.
What tools were implemented in the development of the project, from concept to research to execution?
I work with skaters but I don’t skate myself, so I took some time to dunk my brain into full skateboarding mode again. I was spending hours revisiting skateparks, skate spots and public spaces in Mexico City where I took many photos. I also sketched, made an index of skateable objects as well as some conceptual diagrams to define the boundaries of my project. Any spare time I had, I gave it all to skateboarding. I also sensed early on that I needed to understand the ergonomics of skateboarding to make Skatelab a truly skateable concept. This was in reaction to the many poorly designed skateparks I’ve seen or heard of in Mexico, which were either designed or constructed by people who didn’t have any knowledge of skate architecture.
I went to learn from the experts and interviewed OG skaters such as Alfredo “Blunt” Franco and Nito Escalante who spoiled me with incredible stories of the DIY skateboarding culture as well as the art of bowl construction. Oyuki Matsumoto, who founded the all girls collective Ucanskate, was not only supportive but also connected me to cool people like Gustav Edén –– project manager of Malmö, a city which has a track record of growing public spaces with input from skaters. I also spoke with Ocean Howell who has written some of my favorite texts such as “The Poetics of Security” and “Skatepark as Neoliberal Playground” and got unexpected encouragement to keep pursuing practice-based research in skateboarding studies.
In the execution phase, Erik Carranza, co-founder of the architectural practice Anónima, developed skateable strategies that greatly activated the small space of the pavillion and breathed life into the project through beautiful architectural plans. These plans were then passed onto Distrito Industrial who carried out the entire construction. During the process of working and communicating with the construction workers, I used tools such as diagrams that showed the basic structures of a ramp. Here I found myself in the middle of the very phenomenon that I was so keen to critique at first: there’s no way you can build skateable things unless you are working with a skater! The execution of the project finally seemed to be over
when the construction of Skatelab finished, and an orchestra of objects were assembled to create the DIY component. These objects were borrowed from Monkey Skatepark, Ucanskate and Hesner Sánchez, the skate wizard who first opened my eyes to the skateboarding scene in Mexico City, and who has also been a continuous mentor throughout the process.
In retrospect, it seems like I went the long route to do something rather simple, but I think I needed it all. The accumulation of experiences allowed me to develop an understanding of how to merge the worlds of design research and skateboarding.
What informed the selection of collaborative events?
The collaborations were a series of amazing relationships that developed like a rolling stone. My collaborators were either people who I met through my skateboarding research (such as Anónima, Lúdica and Laboratorio para la Ciudad) or people who I met through the first couple of events I hosted at Skatelab. The first few events at Skatelab were something I pitched out of my own research –– pretty nerdy design stuff –– such as wanting to make maps that rendered Museo Tamayo skateable, or wanting to see what cool structures the skaters will produce with a bunch of skateable objects. Then it became more about what the skateboarding community wanted to do, such as hosting contests for best tricks and best spots (i.e., who can make the most creative, dexterous or daringly ambitious skateable spot), or about what Mexicans related to, such as the concept of trueque I used in Mercado Skate with the Mexico City-based skateboarding practice Lúdica, in which skaters exchanged things without using money. Like my research, my collaborations were significantly informed by the community of skaters and more broadly the community of people I began to form relationships with in Mexico City.
How did the project influence people's perception of the previously unused pavilion? Did this draw people into the museum?
Yes! It was really cool to meet people who I didn’t know knew about the project, but would tell me stories of how they encountered Skatelab during their visit to the museum or a stroll in the park. Skatelab’s motto –– “come play with us” –– was really meant to create dynamics like these, where regardless of whether you skate or not, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in Skatelab. People were happy to see skaters in the museum and excited that they had something fun to look towards in their everyday relationship to the site. When we had our events, it drew unexpected actors such as the vendors who sell ice cream and snacks, who relocated their carts near us because they began to see how the project was attracting a lot of energy and people. I think the reactivation of the pavillion was something that was perhaps needed for a long time, but I had no idea about this because I had just started my relationship with the museum. As for the skateboarding community, I think Museo Tamayo is not a very accessible location to most of them, so many of them expressed interest in the events that took place here. There is definitely something about the idea of skating inside a museum environment that excites people, and a lot of skaters told me about some previous initiatives that had happened in Mexico City, which were very informative and interesting stories.
How did the initiative alter people's perception of skating?
I think the most significant change that happened was between the museum and the skaters, because people who were previously strangers to skateboarding began to form a working relationship. My close colleagues in the education department began to play roles in my project, such as coordinator and project supervisor, and it was exciting to see them getting excited about skateboarding and falling in love with its magic. On the other hand, frustrating things happened too. I’m not sure to what extent skateboarding was viewed as a nuisance in Museo Tamayo in particular, but I recall countless conversations in which I felt like I had to reiterate the legitimacy of skateboarding as a form of play, entertainment, activity and practice. For instance, some of the guards of the museum created their own rules that banned the use of a skateboard inside Skatelab, which was a little absurd considering the ramps that were there obviously to serve the needs of skaters. But clearly, it wasn’t obvious enough. It was interesting to see moments like these that are representations of some of the real prejudices that still exist to this day against anyone carrying a skateboard.
Where do you see the project developing?
I think the project can take shape in many ways. I’m continuously interested in this idea of inviting non-institutional actors to break the paradigms of social participation in institutions, which panned out really well through Skatelab. I think the core methods of public programming and relationship building I learned in Skatelab will always live through me in my practice, which is interested in using design to intervene in existing systems of power. Skateboarding will also always have a place in my practice, and I’d love to keep pursuing the particular intersection between skateboarding and museums. The process of forming relationships with institutions via skateboarding is an interesting one, because sometimes the skateboarding aspect throws people off or gets them really excited about a particular aspect of it, and becomes more a conversation around methods of curation and display. That is something I am interested in as well, although my primary focus will always be on the social component of the practice and not so much the aesthetic of it or my particular values as an individual artist. I am also very curious around the role of design and more specifically architectural interventions that can collectively contemplate and explore the ethos of a specific community of people.
What informed the graphic language of all the flyers? How were these distributed? (physically or via social outputs as facebook and instagram)
Sometimes the graphics were collaborative, which is when my collaborators mainly designed the feel and style of the flyer. These were always fun, because I lost control and it felt good. Then other times, well most of the time I guess, the graphic language was something that came out of my thoughts and dreams, because I felt a need to create flyers that spoke to a very unique and exciting worldview that I had in my mind. Rather than going to another designer, I thought it would be quicker if I did it on my own, and I ended up loving it. The museum began to intervene in the end, and I had to use the museum’s typography on the final 2 flyers for the film festival. After that I didn’t make any more flyers under the museum. The flyers were always distributed on social media, but it would be cool to do something in the city next time with physical ones. I just didn’t have the time back then because it was so back to back.
Can we refer to a 'skate' visual language?
I think other skaters can talk more about this than me. There are so much cool graphics and styles of how skateboarding has been visually communicated and represented, there is some super funky things to very clean surreal things. Skate videos are also fascinating montages of different aesthetics and worldviews. The language is extremely diverse and creative.
What is for you the architects most important tool?
As a self identified ex-architect, I am personally more interested in the social aspects of an architectural practice. So for me, my most important tool is communication, and more broadly a sort of philosophy that keeps me in tune with the city as a living and evolving being. The city is my partner who I grow my practice and philosophies with everyday. Without philosophy, there is no internal compass I can rely on as I navigate my practice, which is far from traditional, and also without philosophy people will forget about your work. I think to keep creating something that carries on momentum and life to your next project, to your next audience, to your next platform and to your next dream is something that is a challenge but also incredibly refreshing.
A special thanks goes out to all of the skaters, the artists, and the many photographers and videographers who have documented this experience and helped make it possible; my skate mentors Hesner Sánchez, Martin Núñez, Erik Carranza and Oyuki Matsumoto, Caleb Gutiérrez who supported the crucial maintenance of the ramps, and my extremely supportive team at Taller Tamayo including Manuel Alcalá, Brenda Garcia and Eva Cardenas to name a few.
Plans produced by Anónima
Photo credits: Reina Imagawa and Miguel Rojas Rea
Sketches and flyers: Reina Imagawa, Lúdica
Reina Imagawa (b.1992) is a Japanese designer, architect, trilingual social engineer and arts leader based in Los Angeles and Mexico City. She looks critically at models of social participation embedded in art, design and urban systems, exploring the role design could play in breaking these traditional paradigms while working with existing systems of power. Her recent work in Mexico City combines architecture and social engineering to produce playful designs that realign hierarchy and agency.