Patrik Wallner interview
Interview by Filip Tenšek
I’ve read somewhere that your uncle had bought you your first skateboard on a trip to Croatia while you were already living in the US – where you had relocated to from Germany. Back to where it all started, eh? We’re really glad to have you here in Croatia with us this year.
Full circle, indeed. I wish I could find the kid who did this kickflip in front of me and thank him for the ricochet effect. It was on a tiny marble square somewhere by the port of the island of Rab, back in the summer of 2001. Like with many others, that kickflip translated to magic in my eyes and spiralled into a life-long obsession to skateboard.
It seems that from pretty early on you were already traveling across the globe… Are there still any pockets of this planet left for you to uncover? Also, I’ve seen your map with many different pins and your cataloguing skills look really impressive. I guess you have to be meticulous when you’re doing research, documenting, editing and then archiving your work. Your artwork in the Paper Trails series also shows symptoms of this OCD-ish approach, could you tell us a bit more about this coincidental connection? Is that a practice you learned on the way?
As a child, I was really intrigued by the cartoon ‘Tintin’ who traveled the world. Also my mother used to be a geography teacher, so maps were omnipresent throughout my childhood.
Ever-changing borderlines was always a crazy concept for me. Once I turned into a young adult and started documenting and filming skateboarding, it just made sense to entice my childhood thirst of exploration.
I was always pulled towards the East, hence why I am living in Hong Kong right now. My projects have taken me pretty much to almost all nations here on this side of the planet, but I still have a big open canvas on the Western Hemisphere; South and Central America. I sometimes beat myself over the head when I realise that I have been to Kazakhstan for example three times or North Korea four times, but have not visited Brazil yet (haha). I guess the time will come. Regarding your question of being meticulous, I just don’t see another way of keeping things intact without being systematic. I am constantly documenting, but I am also forgetful, so I need a strict order to make sure everything is archived properly. I guess some people could call that OCD (haha) same going for the folding of banknotes for Paper Trails which can be really time consuming. However after a while it becomes second nature and I find myself folding while socialising after dinner with friends or while watching TV.
I’d like to talk a bit about your approach to filmmaking. Aside from great skateboarding on wonderful spots by the likes of Kenny Reed, Michael Mackrodt, Laurence Keefe and others, Visualtraveling is about storytelling and participating, as visitors, in different cultures. Now, it’s not a new thing that capital in expansion likes to use non-western cultures as a colorful backdrop for its activities, and skateboarding, as seen in many different commercial videos, certainly is a vehicle for some companies, if not all, to try and expand. A security guard waving his or her hands, pedestrians cheering, a skater pointing his finger as he sees a beautiful old building – almost universal tropes showing us not much more than plain tourism. But then, there is a way of producing an informative and respectful skate documentary – skateumentary as you’ve called it — which examines different countries in a more humble scenario, while using company funds. I certainly see Visualtraveling as operating in that tiny niche and genre. I guess what I’m really trying to talk about is the ethics of filmmaking. How do you see this issue? Did you ever have any difficulties with either convincing the sponsors or reconciling this issue within yourself?
Even within our subculture, I definitely see traveling being oversaturated for commercial use. However, when we (under Visualtraveling) finished our ’10,000 Kilometers’ DVD back in 2009 which took us from Moscow to Hong Kong all by train, we knew we had to keep going clockwise around the Eurasia supercontinent. It was this inner-desire that wasn’t even just driven by skateboarding, recognition or monetary gain, but just by curiosity. Then just like with cooking, we had the right ingredients for a story; a distance place that not much people knew about and the angle of us digging through the streets to find random pieces of architecture, that could gift us with a frontside crooked grind or a crusty wallride. All Visualtraveling trips were self-funded by everyone on board, so we had the power to do whatever we wanted. We would often hold serious talks on where to go next. For example in Uzbekistan we realised we got black listed for Afghanistan, so we had a democratic vote and decided we should go to Afghanistan. No sponsors breathing down our necks, just curiosity and wanting to know what across the next border.
Culture, especially in relation to tourism, almost unanimously tends to be portrayed as something vibrant and rich. Yet, we know culture is far more complex – cultural hegemony, global and local politics and deep inequality in access to culture for people from the lower classes and undeveloped countries are often left out of the picture in service of images which create popular wishes and demands. Instead of showing the distilled, somewhat neutral version of culture, your skateumentaries show different social structures and processes which are at work in the countries you are visiting, and I’d personally like to see more of it in skateboard media. Do you feel a personal obligation to portray a more truthful version of culture, having been in so many different countries and cultures? Do you think your style of ‘reporting’ has changed over the years?
Skatumentaries are a strange being, they don’t hold the journalistic integrity, since they feature skateboarders not reporters. They also lack a narrative which is painted by a political stance. I literally have emotionally filled skaters who are over cause they have been sleep deprived, horny and dealing with sprained ankles, after a four to five week journey. At the end of the trip, I have to interview them and grab the soundbites which are pairing up in my head with the visuals I have captured. Instead of getting political (since often that would hinder a second return to that nation) I tend to focus on the culture. People, customs, traditions speak for themselves. When we were in Bangladesh, we didn’t have to say that it was one of the poorest countries in the world, the images spoke for themselves. And honestly, we were focused on skateboarding from 10am till sunset in most countries, I am sure if we had interviewed people and had more of an agenda, we could have came back with more precise information than skateboarding fused with a bit of geopolitics. However, our audience was mainly skateboarders that were more thrilled to see the nitty gritty, in terms of skateboarding than news. I did often want to bridge and transition out of mainly skateboarding narrative and focus more on the locals which we started doing with the Africa pieces.
I’ve read that 30% percent of the proceeds from your show in a gallery in Hong Kong went to different NGO’s involved in skateboarding, such as Pushing Myanmar or Salad Days. That’s really great, however, I think that it’s an exception in the art world. It may have to do as much with the financial struggles of institutions such as museums and galleries as it has to do with ideology, but now in the 21st century, for example, some are still reluctant to return and repatriate colonial and imperial cultural artefacts. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but I’m trying to highlight the historical cost of our experience of culture. As an experienced world traveler, what would you say are the best practices of giving back to the communities which you’re visiting?
It just felt like a bit selfish to enter this world of Art without giving back to the subculture and skate communities in countries that need it the most. I am an advocate of systematic donation. People are often turned down by the fact that you don’t really know where your money goes. However anytime in a crisis, you see ‘World Food Program’ or ‘Doctor without Borders’ at hand. The great thing with donating to the SkateNGOs which I picked is that I actually know all the of them. I have met people they help and know it will do good things. So for me to donate 30% in Hong Kong and 50% in New York felt like the right thing to do. I have a day job being a film-maker, so art isn’t my main income, just a hobby which has had surprisingly a good reception. So far I have raised in total roughly 20,000 USD for ‘CubaSkate’, ‘Make Life Skate Life’, ‘Pushing Myanmar’ and ‘Salad Days’. Honestly, I was surprised myself.
In my opinion the best way to help is to just help in anyway one can.
If it means you flying to Rangoon, Myanmar and skating with the locals for two days and leaving your board there before going north to checking out temples, that is one way that is easy and convenient for everyone. You crunch your thirst for exploration, you teach Burmese kids some new tricks and don’t need to carry your skateboard for the rest of the journey (haha). But coming up with a form of art and then saving a chunk for proceeds to help NGOs is not a bad idea either. Everyone can do it!
OK, let’s talk a bit about your exhibition, The Decaying Stars. First, how do you feel among the Hong Kongers and the struggle they are going through? Or the struggle all of you are going through? It’s weird formulating this question, but you’re not exactly an outsider because you have been living there for some time now, right? But, at the same time, it’s a much broader discussion about identity and a sense of belonging. How do you feel about it? And how has it been documenting the past three years?
It is a touchy subject, since Hong Kong has become my home, but has also lost a lot of its core which made it such a fascinating city to live in. As I am writing this, it is still morphing and we don’t really know which direction it might head. It is certainly sad and incase I want to leave, I feel privileged that I have such a great passport which has open borders to most part of the world. Since acting our politically or voicing your opinion has totally diminished over the last two years, I think my photography will summarise how the city feels at the moment; a bit lost and in a struggle of identity in a nation which is not a nation, but rather holds an expiration date, being 2047.