Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who are these surfers?

I am writing a thesis exploring the idea that surf culture acts as a catalyst for inter-cultural connections. But who am I writing about? This needs more work, but here’s a little summary…

For many people, surfing is not just a lifestyle or a stereotype – it’s their identity and their culture. If we use a definition of culture as the process and framework by which we give meaning to our world, then we can see the significance this distinction has.

Stereotypes and imposed ideas have haunted surfing and surfers for a long time. In the 70s, competitions were started partly in order to validate surfing as a sport and as an activity. However now, there is a move away from the commercial, commodified side of surfing, and a growing interest in the history, people, styles and myths (within and beyond of competitive surfing) that have shaped and defined surfing until today. There is even a change in the way people are choosing their boards and developing their quiver, with an increasing focus on diversifying the kinds of boards used and with a resurgence in popularity of ‘retro’ boards – shapes, boards and designs from the 1970s and 1980s. This refocus on alternative boards and styles to those made popular by shortboarding, may also account for (or be accounted for by) the increasing number of women in the water, as well as the growing population of older surfers, who have maintained a commitment to the sport and the culture throughout out their lives. Competition forms an important part of this – a push for the hardware technology and performance board shapes to improve, an increased profile for the sport, an industry that (sometimes) supports the lifestyle, and a competitive edge that challenged styles, techniques and possibilities. The focus on competition and the lives of the ‘top 44’ has meant that the shortboard has dominated and that other types of surfing have lagged in popularity. Yet competition forms only part of the story and it is the other side of surfing that this project is examining; the culture and benefits of the everyday experience of surfing.

Surfing is an experience that people take part in every day, at many levels and in many different ways. There are longboarders, shortboarders, boogie-boarders, body surfers, surf-ski riders and the list goes on. For this thesis, which focuses on the surfing community of Byron Bay in particular, I will only be discussing those who ride longboards and shortboards. The styles of and motivations for surfing that go with each board-type can vary, but in the case of Byron Bay, I want to discuss the surfing community more broadly and I feel that to focus on one style over another would exclude large segments of this community unnecessarily. My focus is not on competitive shortboard riding, it is on the experience of fun and connection and I believe that can happen with whichever board a person chooses to ride

The act of riding a wave – whether it’s glide, power or pure fun – is a connection with the ocean and the world at a very simple level. This experience is best understood without explanation, but is instead something shared between those who have felt it and who love it. You can see it on the faces of those listening to the stories of catching a great ride, or of getting nailed – there is not just sympathy, there is empathy. This is where the community can be located; in the shared understanding of an experience.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Where have all the people gone?

I am writing a thesis about surf culture and a large part of that is about the community of surfing – local, national and global (see last post). I’ve been focussing my thoughts quite heavily on the local community aspect of surfing and trying (with great difficulty) to locate it in some concrete sense. There is a community in the water, but it can be fleeting, and the community on land is often based around competition. I know the community I seek is there, but I am having trouble nailing it down.

Perusing the still photography of magazines, books and posters, I am struck by the absence of people in the pictures. It’s rare that surf photography includes the masses that group at a break, instead choosing to reflect on either the wave in isolation, or on one surfer on one wave. The photographs that include the groups of people waiting at the break are to make a point or to show a more realistic landscape, but they are few and far between, and certainly almost extinct from magazines (except for, on occasion, the competition photographs). The tradition of these photographs exemplifies the complete individual experience of surfing – there is no-one else that matters on any wave. There is only the surfer themselves and their own connection and interpretation of that moment. These are the angles and perspectives chosen and these are the pictures that are encouraged by and saleable to the magazines.

So how can you have a community without the people who make it up? Why don’t we want to imagine them in our surfing ideal? How do we connect when we want to be alone?

And then there is the possibility that I have got it wrong. Perhaps the surfing community is something slightly less tangible than the kind of day to day relationships and instant identification that we often recognise as community. There is most definitely a group of people in Byron Bay who surf and who are united by this (just watch them rally around such issues as paid parking, or the funeral of a friend), but I think that I have been trying to fit the way that these relationships are articulated into already established boxes. Maybe the community I seek in surfing is actually to be primarily found in the shared experience of surfing and connection in the water. Maybe this is enough to tie people in this surfing community.

There is of course also the issue that with Byron Bay, I am discussing a small town, where the residents are already connected in many ways and on many levels; schooling, family, history, other sports, employment, etc. These connections and relationships also add to the connections that are felt within the surfing community itself. However, having said this, there is a definite inclusiveness that is felt once you begin to join Byron Bay’s world of surfing. My own experience is a testament to this. I have lived my life in Byron Bay, growing up here, just as my father did. I know many people in this town both deeply and superficially. When I started surfing and being a regular presence in the water, many of those relationships deepened or changed in some to reflect the experience that I was beginning to share with these people and the new understandings and commonalities that this reflected. People that I’ve been acquainted for years began waving at me from across the street, where before they would walk past. The older mal crew that know me through my father, who before would regard me as a silly girl (and probably still do!) started hooting at me and giving me advice and talking to me in restaurants. There was something about me that changed for them. I had taken on a part of who they were and could share this experience in a way that didn’t need to be articulated. I began to understand my home town in a new way, in both a physical and community sense.

I’ve developed new relationships to the ocean and the beaches. I saw the town and the landlines themselves from a new perspective out in the water and I became someone new to many people, to whom I was developing a new understanding of these things, ideas, feelings and experiences.

And perhaps that is where the community lies – in the shared understanding of that individual experience. Not in obligation and similarity, but in the moments that define the ride – the connections, the creativity, the interpretation, the sense of fun, the sense of achievement. This would certainly work better in explaining how surfers connect internationally, but it may also work beautifully in explaining the surfing communities more locally as well. There is a beauty in the space that is maintained in these relationships – no imposition, but an understanding that others maybe closer to home cannot achieve.

It does, it must be noted, seem a very paternal kind of community – all silent understanding, little communication – but that has also been the scene. Women, unfortunately, remain newcomers to the community, and it remains to be seen what impact their methods of relating and communicating are having.

Monday, August 14, 2006


I've been doing a bit of revision of my (incomplete) notes from Vin D'Cruz and William Steele's book, 'Australia's Ambivalence Towards Asia' (2006, Monash Asia Institute).

Part of the book discusses the difference in cultures creating a continuum with abstract (individual) at one end and concrete (community) at the other. The idea is that cultures fit on various places on this continuum, with western cultures tending toward the abstract, while asian cultures are located closer to the concrete end. Neither is completely one or the other. Obviously, this is an arbitrary analysis.

I am discussing the ways that surf culture helps to create inter-cultural connections by providing a starting point of sameness from which to explore differences. As part of this, I want to be able to discuss surfing as a culture in its own right - as a culture that ( to some degree) crosses national cultural boundaries and to explore the possibilities that this provides. I am arguing that surfing takes place in an offshore location (the ocean) that allows the creation of new power relations and relationships that are based on norms that are different to those on land, where the prevailing culture reigns.

In regard to the concept of the abstract/concrete differential, surfing is a strange culture, because it is totally abstract and yet totally concrete.

Surfing is an individual performance that takes place in cooperation with nature. It is a personal connection with a wave and it is an individual interpretation of what that wave offers. You cannot guess ahead what the wave will do, so surfing is a completely individual experience in that a) every wave is different and new, b) surfing a wave is one person on one surfboard, with their own style and method of interpretation of that wave based on their own personal history, goals and experience with surfing, and c) the way the person chooses to ride and interpret that wave is dependent on their skill level, experience, their mood and their hopes for what they can achieve. The major limitation on surfing is the presence (or otherwise) of waves, which does control to a large degree, what can be done in the water - what board is most appropriate, how long the rides go for, and the types of interpretations that can be performed on the wave (barrels, airs, turns). Other people can interfere or input in small ways such as being in the way, dropping in, hollering support etc, but these impacts are small in relation to the effect that the individual has on their own performance and experience. In the words of D'Cruz and Steele, it is complete individual freedom to "celebrate forms of independence and autonomy" (p180) - it is abstract.

On the other hand, every performance requires an audience. As surfing's popularity grows and more people are in the water, it is rare for a surfer to find themselves on their own at any break. It is a wonderful feeling to have the choice of waves to yourself, but a lot of surfing literature (and my own conversations with friends) reveal how much more common it is for people to go surfing with friends or in groups. These groups may be small, but the feeling of having your performance on a wave appreciated and recognised by your peers is, of course, enjoyable. Surfing is a culture, with its own history, language, understandings and etiquettes. In part, these are practical, ensuring conformity to rules of behaviour in the water for safety. Alternatively, they are ways of creating new power relations in the cultural location of the water. There also exists a saturated market of magazines, clothing, films, art, surf hardware and a highly competitive international competition, which involves vast amounts of money and prestige both within the surfing community and beyond. Surfing is haunted by stereotypes which help create a unity between people who both surf and reject the stoner/hippie/dropout image. People who surf regularly at the same places begin to recognise each other and respect is formed on the basis of a commitment to the activity, often regardless of skill level. A recognition is created of who is a regular - who belongs - at certain breaks as opposed to who is a newcomer or a tourist. It is a community of place that exists only in the water where the relationships formed do not necessarily cross over onto land.

So yes, surfing is both abstract and concrete; one not being able to exist without the other.

Further to this, there is the actual engagement with the ocean itself. As mentioned, surfing relies on the prevailing conditions to determine what is possible, which can be a source of frustration and anger for many surfers if they have been unable to get a wave very easily. Abstract cultures, such as general western culture, tends to focus on individual control over life, so perhaps there is some struggle to accept the realities that are experienced through the changing daily conditions. Often, surfers feel an entitlement to a wave - if they have been waiting for a long time in the line-up or if they have been surfing a particular break regularly for a long time ('That wave is mine'). Outside influences such as other people and the environmental conditions themselves then become antagonistic elements in the water. Perhaps more concrete cultures, who may more easily acknowledge that many elements of life are out of their control, are more accepting of nature's realities and provisions (waves, or not, both generally and personally).

Perhaps, with such a strong presence of both abstract AND concrete elements of life in surf culture, it is easier to achieve intercultural communication by understanding the abstract/concrete parts of themselves and their national identities.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Location, location

Looking over the first chapters of the work of Nick Ford and David Brown in ‘Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, embodiment and narrative of the dream glide’...

An important part of exploring cultures includes examining the locations in which cultural relations take place. It could be a town, a café, a school, a village, a hut, a park. The location may set the context in which the rules, norms and relationships are understood and the ways in which they are conducted.

When we consider surfing as a culture, we must consider the ocean as a cultural location, which shapes and defines the ways that surfers relate to one another. However, the ocean itself is not necessarily ‘cultured’.

The beach has previously been discussed as a cultural location. It has mainly been framed as a place where nature meets culture; as a liminal space that is neither merely nature nor culture but somewhere in between. Liminal spaces have their own rules that do not belong to the world we exist in usually, but neither do they break down all barriers and allow us to move into a new cultural reality. The beach is urbanised nature, where we are able to engage with nature, without having to leave the comforts of the urban world. When we go to the beach we bring along towels, chairs, games, food, drinks and friends. We manipulate nature to be something more like the cultural world we already feel comfortable with.

For surfers, one of their cultural locations is the ocean, which is further distanced from culture than the beach is. Surfers go beyond the breaking waves and cannot bring urban comforts with them to their active space. They cannot impose limitless uses upon the ocean because the ocean is not passive and defines its own use by its natural realities; swell size, weather, currents, animals and more. The ocean dictates the way it can be used. Surfers have had to create parts of their culture to fit in with the moods and rhythms of the waves and currents. At a most practical level, cultural norms surrounding etiquette and knowledge are in place to make this location as safe as possible for all participants.

Surf culture in the ocean has different rules than the local culture experienced on the shore. The ocean is a new location for relating and communicating. It is the location for a culture that is alternate to the one that is the norm on the land. There are different ways, different rules, different realities that are applicable that are necessarily altered from those only metres away.

In this way, the ocean is interesting to examine as a location for cultural relations. If the rules and norms are dictated by the place itself, then participants begin all relations from a common starting point. The barriers and borders that existed on land have shifted and the relationships begin in a space that has been chosen as one of relevance and interest in the lives of participants. The borderwork that takes place in this location is carried out on new borders that may be varied from any normal definitions of identity (national, religious, etc). Moving the space in which cultural relations take place removes inherent power relations. Certainly, new ones will be established in the new location, the ocean, but they are more recognisable to all in this shared culture and its shared location.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


'Borderwork in Multicultural Australia' by Bob Hodge and John O’Carroll (2006), explores the ‘borders’ that exist between cultures. These borders act as markers for territory, identity and values that are to be defined and maintained. Borders also allow us to decide who is included and excluded from being identified with what has been marked out by these constructed boundaries. Borderwork then, is a description of the ways that we maintain and overcome these cultural borders;

Borderwork is what we will call the many processes by which humans construct, maintain, police and negotiate a variety of relationships, whether based on similarities or difference, love or fear. Borders are often seen as the enemy of multiculturalism, as though multiculturalism is really only about harmony and ease of relationships. But multiculturalism is about managing differences and similarities alike, in ways that may be positive or negative in different circumstances, according to different perspectives. (p2)

Essentially, borderwork is the way we create and negotiate the cultural relationships that we encounter both as individuals and as nations. It is a process of “meaning-making” which allows the management of both connection and division. (p218) It is, in relation to the work I am doing, another way of framing intercultural connections and communication.

It is refreshing to note the inclusion of the idea of difficulty in negotiating relationships. This difficulty is seen as an inevitable part of the relationships between cultures, and is not overly problematised. Hodge and O’Carroll argue that we can have success with failure, or multiculture with racism, and that the existence of one should not mean a focus on the other. In fact, it is argued that focussing on one or the other creates binaries of understanding, which overly simplifies the issues. One tool suggested to overcome such oversimplification is three-body analysis, which encourages the exploration of other factors involved and moves from binary analysis to a study of the “dynamic multiplicity inherent in the situation.” (p220)

In the context of my thesis, this three-body analysis may be applied to the triangle of Balinese culture, Australian/Byron Bay culture and personal identity. Using these concepts, I am placing personal identification with surfing culture as an intersecting point between national cultures. This intersection allows a recognition of what is shared (identity), enabling an exploration of what is different (cultures). Without the third element, there is no point of similarity from which to begin. Interactions can occur in a new location (the surf), that is defined by the identity (surfing). This allows participants to perform their borderwork outside of a constructed cultural location and instead to relocate to a site that reflects the personally chosen identity.

Such interactions, based as they are on personal identity, contribute greatly to the development of greater cultural understanding between nations. We could go on to discuss economic benefits of such relations, but I would prefer to focus on the mutual benefits we gain as cultures from increasing our knowledge of the other, and consequently, of ourselves. Such ‘low-level’ and personal contributions to international relations may contribute more to regional understanding and tolerance in the long term than a school lesson, or a newspaper article.

Hodge and O’Carroll’s ‘borderwork’ concept fits beautifully with the way I am exploring cultural relations with this thesis. It is an inclusive concept that also allows the existence of difficulties and problems, without requiring their ultimate resolution. It allows the positives to survive and flourish despite the negatives. Borderwork is an ongoing process, for which there is no end game, merely a continuing engagement and development of relationships and ways of engaging on many levels.