Interning at Innoskate

Editor’s Note: This post is by Joel Pelovitz, an intern working on the Innoskate and Places of Invention projects. Joel is a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College with a degree in history and business. 

As a returning intern this summer, I had the pleasure of aiding in the preparation and materialization of the museum’s first ever Innoskate event, which occurred Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. By gathering together some of the world’s most pivotal and influential skateboarding icons—both riders and industry gurus—the Center hoped to gain valuable insight into key innovative strides in technology, skating technique, and cultural impact/adaptations since the sport’s inception. What resulted was a captivating and thought-provoking experience that drew crowds of all generations and backgrounds. The participants—a group consisting of skaters, including famed skaters Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen; designers; media personalities; and engineers—donated their skateboarding history to the National Museum of American History’s collections, held discussion panels on invention, and gave skateboarding demonstrations on a ramp built specifically for the event!

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Traditionally, skateboarding has not been considered academic and is often negatively represented in conservative culture as a result of its association to punk movements. The nature of the event—a supercharged fusion between scholarly inquiry and heart-pounding visual display—allowed for the participants to be accurately represented as inventive minds by sharing their collective knowledge and experiences. As a former skateboarder, Innoskate intertwined my interests for history and skateboarding, creating new perspectives that I had never before considered! My involvement has also evoked further interest into the themes of progress and ingenuity that skateboarding embodies. As for the participants, I have never met a more compassionate, down-to-earth, and appreciative group of people. For the future, I hope that this event not only helped the public reevaluate skateboarding as a constructive endeavor, but also compels us to recognize and appreciate the creative qualities that exist everywhere, especially those beyond our conventional perceptions.

A Unique Way to See the World: Skateboarders and Inventors

In December, I shared my experiences traveling to Orlando, Florida in 2011 to begin a new Lemelson Center initiative into the exploration of invention, innovation, and creativity in skateboarding culture.  Our work and research continued with a visit by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen this past summer who spent a wonderful couple of days at the Lemelson Center discussing the role of innovation not only in skateboarding, but its critical importance to the larger society—both historically and in the future.

During his visit, Rodney graciously allowed us to record a video podcast which debuted this past December. The goal of the podcast was simply to let “Rodney be Rodney” and allow him the opportunity to explain his thought process and approach to skating and innovation. The response to the podcast has far exceeded our expectations with over 70,000 views so far. Of course, this is due to Rodney’s stature and popularity in the skateboarding community. But the posted comments to the video reveal that we are succeeding in establishing an important connection between skateboarding and innovation and between the skate community and the Lemelson Center. One the pure joys of working at the Lemelson Center is the opportunity to bring disparate groups of people together through the interdisciplinary connection of invention and innovation. This includes scholars with public audiences, young kids with inventors, and even skateboarders with museum professionals.

Rodney Mullen talks skateboarding and innovation.

Rodney shares some of his thoughts on skateboarding and innovation with me on the roof of the Museum.

As part of our continued work together, the Lemelson Center, in collaboration with the International Association of Skateboard Companies, plans to feature skate culture with a major public festival—Innoskate—on June 21 and 22, 2013, as an extension and compliment to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of global Go Skateboarding Day. Innoskate will celebrate invention and creativity by sharing skate culture’s widespread innovative spirit with the Museum’s public audiences. Innoskate activities will feature skate demonstrations, panel discussions, films, donations of skate objects to the national collections, and other programs to showcase the impact of skate culture’s innovations in American culture. (Stay tuned for more information to come.)

As part of the planning process, I had the pleasure to welcome Ryan Clements (of Excel Management and formerly of Skatepark of Tampa), to the Museum in early February. Ryan is a highly respected member of the skate industry and is playing a key role as part of the Innoskate planning committee. His insights and assistance have been extremely valuable. As part of our planning and discussions, we found ourselves on the Museum’s large plaza fronting the museum’s entrance on the National Mall. Most of Innoskate’s activities and programs will take place on the plaza in a large area that is defined by large planters, built-in benches, and a short set of stairs. Primarily, we were looking at this area because of our intention to install a mini-ramp here for skate demonstrations during Innoskate. But Ryan immediately saw the potential of the built environment, the surrounding architecture of benchers, planters, and such, for developing a “do-it-yourself” project of constructing ¼ pipes and placing them up and against the surrounding architecture to demonstrate various aspects of street skating. (This is a new addition to the program that we are actively pursuing.) But significantly, where I saw a place to sit, Ryan saw a place to skate and to create.

Benches outside the museum are a draw for skateboarders.

Just benches? Or a skater’s paradise?

Later that day, as Ryan and I were walking out of the Museum, we continued discussing the intersection of innovation and skateboarding and the role of “terrain” or the built environment in skate culture. As a skater, Ryan said that he was constantly thinking of new ways to skate the world around him. And it’s not just the stairs, hand rails, and curbs that present such opportunities, but just about anything and everything he sees—Ryan told me that he once tried to figure out how to skate a huge pile of dirt. In his effort to help me understand this phenomenon, Ryan explained that “skaters just view the world around them through a different lens than most others,” constantly using their own creativity and self-expression to move through their world.

Ryan’s observation literally stopped me in my tracks. His self-reflection about how skaters view and understand the world around them resonated deeply with how inventors often describe themselves.  Inventors often share a distinct mindset—a compulsion to solve problems and to find ways to improve the things around them. In particular, Jerry Lemelson, who founded the Lemelson Center with his wife, Dolly, has often been described as a man who couldn’t help but constantly think about how to improve the things he encountered in his world. It is not uncommon for inventors to state that they, too, view the world a bit differently than most others.

Tony Hawk donates skateboard to the Museum.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck in 2011. Curator Jane Rogers and I are standing by. Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards

So does this correlation suggest that all skaters should start hiring patent attorneys or that all inventors should head out to the nearest skate shop for a new skateboard? Not necessarily—though of course there are skateboarders who are inventors and inventors who skate. But in the effort to illuminate the history of invention and to understand the factors that influence how, when, where, and why innovation occurs, we should take notice of the fact that highly creative and innovative people seem to share a common characteristic of being able to engage their world—not for what it is, but for what it has the potential to be.

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, Skateboard Legends…and Inventors?

In January 2011 I found myself in a rather unusual place—at the National Surf and Skate Expo in Orlando, Florida. Along with my colleagues Jane Rogers, an Associate Curator in the Museum’s Division of Entertainment, Sports, and Culture, and Betsy Gordon, a Project Executive from the National Museum of the American Indian, I traveled to Orlando to meet some of skateboarding’s founding pioneers and enduring legends. The National Museum of American History had just launched a broad collecting initiative focusing on skateboarding and I was keenly interested in the role of invention, innovation, and creativity play in skate’s history and culture. As a group that feels that it has been cast as “outsiders” most of their lives, the skaters were surprised at the Smithsonian’s interest, but very welcoming and eager to share their experiences with us. The day culminated with an “All-80s” skate competition that featured the likes of Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Andy MacDonald, and a host of other icons of skateboarding lore. At the conclusion of the event, Tony Hawk donated his skateboard to the Museum while standing in the middle of the vert ramp surrounded by 2,500 screaming fans.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck. Jane and I are standing by--the skateboarders were expecting the Smithsonian to be represented by a bunch of "old dudes." Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards.

Since that time, the Lemelson Center and the Museum have continued to build important relationships with skateboarding’s innovators. The Lemelson Center’s belief that everyone is inventive and that innovation abounds all around us is one of our greatest strengths and affords us the opportunity to explore the history of invention and innovation from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and across a broad range of subjects. Most associate invention and innovation with technology and science, but the Center often explores other unexpected places where invention and innovation flourishes—like skateboarding. This wide exploration is critical to fostering an appreciation for the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. It also makes our work extremely interesting, fun, and exciting as we meet, collaborate, and explore the world of invention and innovation with all types of people.

Skate legend Rodney Mullen was kind enough to let us film him doing tricks on the roof terrace of the Museum.

In August of 2012, the Lemelson Center invited Rodney Mullen, the unquestioned leader and pioneer of street skating, to visit us to discuss the role of invention and innovation in American life. It was a truly wonderful day in which we exchanged ideas and views not only about skateboarding, but about the role and importance of creativity and innovation to building a better society.  You can watch our video podcast with Rodney below or on YouTube.

Our exploration of the intersection between innovation and skateboarding continues. On June 21-22, to coincide with National Go Skate Day 2013, the Lemelson Center will host Innoskate, a major public festival that will celebrate invention and creativity in skate culture. Innoskate will highlight the contributions skate innovators make to society through demonstrations, hands-on education activities, public programs with inventors and innovators, and donations of objects to the national collections. Activities will also include discussions and demonstrations of evolving technology such as decks, wheels, trucks, board design, materials, etc., as well as innovations in tricks that fueled further technological innovations. Hands-on activities related to skate culture may include aspects of board design and fabrication, use of new materials, and/or the engineering and physics of making decks and performing tricks.

We will continue to share program information about Innoskate in the months to come—so keep checking back with us.