AWS #1: Harry Meadley
Harry Meadley is an artist born and based in Leeds. He takes a conversational and cooperative approach to art making, often working ‘on location’ with galleries, arts organisations, and institutions on the development of projects that address how art operates in a social context.
Harry and I met up in Manchester to skate together and conduct this interview. We spoke about some of the parallels between skating and making art, as well as holding those two worlds as a distance. We also touched upon his current project for Leeds 2023, which involves working with the skate community in his home city.
Find out more about Harry and his work here: www.harrymeadley.studio, follow him on Instagram here.
Chris Alton: I first found out about your work when I was a student. I think you were probably going through quite a prolific period of making work and exhibitions. I don't really remember there being any works of yours that explicitly addressed skateboarding, but I had a hunch that you skated. Do you want to try and guess why?
Harry Meadley: Was it because I had a show called Stay Gold?
CA: I wasn't actually aware of that one! I was thinking of your series of shows called; Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. If I remember correctly, you had three pairs of Jerry Hsu's Emerica shoe; the mid tops. I think you wore each pair in the time between each show and then exhibited them as an object. Is that right?
HM: Almost. So, I used to only wear Emerica shoes since the age 16 or so. Mainly because This is Skateboarding (2003) came out which was a pretty definitive video for me, and I quickly became one of those ‘Emerica kids’.
I really enjoyed the non-skate shoe variations that Emerica made. They did these work boots; a leather work boot with Vibram soles. That was my staple winter boot and I was like: this is the perfect art shoe – if you can call it that.
CA: Looks nice, kind of hardwearing.
HM: Yeah. And through friends and skate shops I got deals on them here and there. I think in total I had five or six pairs, maybe more. I can't really remember the ins and outs of the work, but in Level 1, there were two or three worn pairs. Then I had a fresh pair that I started wearing at the opening. It became a little bit like an artist uniform. But it was also a way of signalling actually; having the Emerica non-skate shoe skate shoe as a way of clinging to some sort of skate identity within an art context. So I'm glad someone picked up on it.
CA: I do remember it pretty distinctly. Obviously I've got the wrong shoes, but at least I had a mid top in mind, which is close to a boot. Nerdy shoe chat out of the way, perhaps we could start at the beginning. So how did you get into skateboarding? What attracted you to it?
HM: So I was always a bit of a reckless kid. Anything that was a bit dangerous or thrill seeking appealed to me. Maybe it sounds a bit contrived, but just hurting yourself was sort of fun. There was a sort of casual violence, I guess, or self violence to my childhood. Which is not necessarily uncommon, but I think that drew me towards a lot of these things.
CA: Pushing your body, what are the limitations?
HM: Yeah, and a bit of adrenaline, and I dunno.... There's a weird sense of achievement in getting away with it, in a way, which I think came through in my – at least early – artistic practice. Not ‘getting away with it’ in a deceptive way, but pulling something off that you might not think was achievable. Or that there was a degree of risk; in the sense that it can go wrong or is unachievable. You want to try, and try and do it – and do it well.
When I was 11, I had really bad knee injury; I wasn't walking for half a year. I was vaguely rehabilitating myself and my older brother was in a band with a guy called Lee, who was your usual stoner skate type. He was always coming round to our house to make music with my brother. It was through him that I started by having a go on his board and then going out skating a little bit. Normally its your own sibling who gets you into to it, but I guess in my case it was a somewhat surrogate one.
This would have been when I was 12, turning 13 that summer. I stayed relatively locally within Harehills skating with a few friends who lived nearby. Then a couple of years later I did my work experience at Wisdom Skateshop in Leeds. That was my full in to the skate scene and it all sort of went from there.
CA: So you're a street skater primarily, right? What's the appeal of street over skateparks?
HM: Interestingly, I had a conversation with the Director of an arts institution about this and trying to explain the distinction between skating skateparks and skating street. To use a really loose analogy, I said, it's the difference between work in the studio and work in an exhibition. Maybe that's too simplistic, but it's that difference, right?
CA: Sure. One's a training ground where you can learn. The other is the 'proving ground'. For me, there's an authenticity to street because it hasn't been built for the purpose of skating. So you have to improvise with what someone has made for a different function.
HM: Yeah, and it's harder, you know. The surfaces are rougher, edges that you're grinding a rougher, there are over events taking place. It's not necessarily that it's more fun, but it's more of a challenge. So there's a greater sense of achievement. I think there's also something about wandering as well. You know, the act of going around as opposed to staying in a fixed place. You can have a better skate normally at a skatepark; more intensely for a longer period of time, but there's actually something enjoyable about exploration. Finding a new spot or skating an old spot you've not skated for ages and finding a new way to skate it. There's an explorative quality to it that you don't really get – to the same degree – at the skatepark.
It's interesting when I think about it in relation to age, as well as confidence. When I was a teenager, I skated street all the time; all my attention was on skating street and going on trips. That was the sole focus. Then, as I got older and wasn't skating as much and wasn't as confident with it; you find yourself almost relegated back to the skatepark. It wasn’t until four or five years ago when I really recommitted myself to skating again, and even then, after a couple of years of getting my confidence back, did my love of street skating came back too. Trying to film has become part of that, having the directive, and opportunity, of filming clips for someone else’s video – you can’t do that in a skatepark.
CA: You've somewhat preempted a question that I was going to ask. I was wondering whether it was a bit ham-fisted; sort of forcing these two things together a bit. But what do you think the art world equivalent of street skating, and the art world equivalent of a skatepark are? You've answered that...
HM: Yeah, but maybe a better analogy is that skateparks are like art school rather than the studio. I think skate parks are like art school in the sense that they're the primary social space that inducts you into a scene and into a community. In certain cities their street spots have enough of that quality as well, and skate shops are equally as important, but I think that – at least in Leeds – it's Hyde Park that's the Foundation course.
The irony is that a lot of these skate parks were built with the mindset, at least on the council's behalf, that it was like, oh, if we build a skate park, everyone will stop skating street. Not realising that if you build a skate park, you generate more skaters and more skaters who then want to skate street.
CA: And the skaters are better, so they can skate more of the spots.
HM: Yeah. But you know, I think the skate park is – for most people – the entry point. It's what stops you being an 'outsider skater'; to half-use a horrible art term.
CA: My kind of first encounter with art, or any form of visual media that had an impact on me, was through skateboarding. It was board graphics, photos, videos, even skate shoes. I was particularly enamoured with some of the Powell Peralta videos from the late-80s, early-90s; and still remember a section called How to Draw the Perfect Line with Steve Caballero. I was wondering if there were any examples of skate media that had had a similar effect on you?
HM: That's an interesting one; I don't know. Skating's just better than art.
I went to art school because I was into skating. I was making skate videos and running this website called Don't Mess with Yorkshire, and just starting to get really involved in skate industry stuff. My intention was to pursue a career in the skate industry; though it had already become a career for me at that age, oddly enough. But then I got hooked on the art stuff, and I somewhat separated them. They felt like two very different worlds. So it was a whole different set of references. It took a few years for some of those skateboarding references or ideas to creep through into my practice, I almost actively kept them apart. I almost wanted to protect skateboarding in some way. It's interesting to even try and remember how I was thinking about it at that time. I was conscious that I kept them apart; I had art friends and art stuff, and then I had skateboarding and skateboard friends, and they never blurred too much. Well, maybe apart from my art friends who also skated, but I only occasionally skated with them.
What I realised many years later – and I think this was when my practice actually shifted away from a more object-based way of working. It started to dawn on me that: oh, I'm making skate videos. There was no skateboarding, but my approach and my thinking around my practice felt like it did when I was a teenager making skate videos with my friends – wanting to document and share our shared practice. It didn't explicitly look or come out in the same way that a skate video would, but the approach and the sentiment behind it was almost identical.
CA: That idea of this is what we're doing. It's exciting. We care about it. Let's put it in a kind of package that other people can see...
HM: ...yeah, and being like, oh, this person is doing something really cool. I really like it. I want to share that with people. When I was younger, I was very fortunate that my friends were some absolutely amazing skaters who were quite well known. You might not be as good as them. But you can share your appreciation of what they’re doing in your own way. That started to come through in how I was thinking about making work and sharing and exploring other people's practices as much as my own.
CA: I remember there being a period of my life when I would get home from school and either go straight to the skatepark, or if the weather was bad, I'd hop on YouTube and watch skate videos. This was long before Thrasher – or anything like that – who upload multiple video parts a week. You really had to search for, and gradually find the people who were uploading skate content. And it was all low-res, gritty, DIY stuff.
You've previously said in interviews and in conversations that we've had, that you ended up at art school because you wanted to have access to better film equipment to make skate videos. I'm wondering how did you end up hooked on art?
HM: What art offered me that skating didn't was that there's a side to my upbringing that, for want of a better word, is essentially a sort of philosophical approach to thinking. Basically, I didn't expect to discover Conceptual Art. That was the thing that hooked me in. It tied into a bunch of sensibilities I already had in terms of abstract thought; ideas in their purest form. And that's something skating didn't really allow for. Yes, there was some good writing out there, which I was also doing quite naively at age 17 in Sidewalk Magazine, trying to engage with skateboarding slightly more critically. But this other part of me found a home in art. The same way that skateboarding becomes a sort of home for a certain part of your personality, art fulfilled the other part for me. I had very little exposure or understanding of any of those histories until I went to art school and then it sort of hooked me.
It also coincides with being exposed a little too soon or being a little too young to be thrown into the UK skate industry at that time. I was already, not necessarily jaded, but I think I was becoming conscious of or seeing some of the fault lines that exist within it. I was seeing a path laid out in front of me quite clearly, that became less and less interesting to just follow. I liked the unknown and the potential that art making – maybe somewhat incorrectly – offers you as a young person.
CA: You managed to preempt this question too. Like you, I held my skateboarding at a distance from my art making. Could you say a bit more about why you did this?
HM: How do I phrase this? I think I was more concerned with the judgment I might receive within the skate community about my art making, than the judgment I may have received in an art context about my skateboarding. And I think that comes down to a burned-in bias against art, that people see as pretentious. Contemporary art of the mid-2000s onwards, that I guess I fell into, in lots of ways was pretty pretentious. When you're within it you understand it and it all becomes normalised. But to people outside of that, using the pairs of Emerica boots in a gallery space as an example, some skaters might get it, but many might just see it as a joke. I can see why people would react against it.
So I it was more that I didn't want people in skateboarding to be as aware of what I was doing artistically. I don't know what I'd have expected art people to think of me if they knew I skated. But I think when you're younger, when you're in your mid-20s, when you don't come from privilege, you want to be taken seriously – in an art context at least.
So being a skater didn't necessarily seem like a thing that people would take seriously. It questions your commitment as well. It's the same in skating – maybe this is an outdated notion that used to exist – but if you did anything over than skate, it might be perceived that maybe you're not fully committed to skateboarding. And I think that mindset crossed over into: well, if you're not just doing art stuff, maybe you're not a fully committed artist
There's an aspect of – not keeping up appearances – but being conscious of how people perceive you.
CA: Totally. Even now I'm conscious that the things I make as an artist are part of my art practice. So there's this tension of having to make things that I consider to be legible as artworks by Chris Alton. It took me a while to get to a point where I felt comfortable making things that didn't fit within that existing, self-created, framework. I've started pushing at the edges of it a little bit now. There are things that I make which I just make for the pleasure of making them, which isn't something that I've done for awhile.
I'd like to circle back to like the idea of being taken seriously. Did you sort of reinvent yourself a little bit when you went to university and started art school? The way that I dressed changed quite dramatically. I went from skate-ready to shirts and smart shoes.
HM: When I was in art school, I finally found a place where I felt comfortable to somewhat explore different gender identities. Which I think was something that I did feel a small degree comfort within a skate context, compared to high school or the area I lived in. Whereas being at art school, all of a sudden I could be wearing female clothing and presenting myself in a different way, which was so exciting and meaningful to be able to do.
But I don't think I really changed or hugely reinvented myself. I felt more comfortable expressing aspects of myself more publicly. But because I didn't change city, I stayed studying in Leeds, where I was still part of the skate scene. I was still part of the the world I grew up in. So whilst people have a chance to reinvent themselves when they relocate, I didn't really have that. So I was towing these two worlds at the same time.
Thinking about this makes me realise how amazing the skate community is now. In that period of time since starting skating, which is over twenty years, it's quite radically transformed and is so accepting and so inclusive - way beyond art contexts. I think the skate community is far more actively welcoming and supportive than a lot of art spaces purport to be. And I think the acceptance of creative practice and artistic practices within skateboarding has really been embraced as well.
I think we can thank the massive number of female and non-binary skaters that have come into skateboarding, who've expanded that so much. Nowadays it doesn't feel at all uncomfortable for me to talk about my art practice in a skate context. That’s a real achievement - that I had no real involvement in achieving, but that I'm incredibly thankful for.
CA: We'd have been getting into skating at a similar time at similar ages and I remember it being such a boys' club and like you, I am coming back to it and I'm going, oh, amazing; there are so many women, non-binary people, queer people, all of these groups that self-organise meet ups. They have such an amazing communal approach to getting together and teaching each other.
I also feel like skateboarding has become more creative. I've always thought of skateboarding as a creative thing. But looking at what people do now, I've realised that I was somewhat colouring within the lines.
HM: I agree. What's also important to say, because it's easy to look at how great everything is now and then by virtue of that you generate a comparison to twenty years ago. And you go: well, it wasn't as accepting and it had all these issues and whatnot. But then, twenty years ago the wider society was drastically more homophobic, misogynistic, the gender roles were a lot stricter. And skateboarding at that time, for all of its problems that we can now see, was a space for wanting to be outside of that. It was a space for people that didn't easily fit into reinforced concepts of masculinity. There were female skaters that I used to skate with; a really small number and I know it was quite complicated for them. But I think skateboarding sits in relation to the wider culture and I think it's always been a more accepting and more inclusive pocket of society. It maintains a distance from the wider society, in the same way that art schools do. They serve similar purposes.
Above: JVC GR-FXM37 Camcorder c.2002, Harry Meadley (via @hcm2023e)
CA: You recently exhibited a small sculpture, which is a camcorder covered in skate stickers. Obviously, that's very closely related to skateboarding. Are there any other artworks of yours that have been influenced by skateboarding?
HM: My first commercial solo show – which was in the small basement space at Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam – was called Stay Gold. I knew I was naming the exhibition after the Emerica skate video Stay Gold, but I do remember trying to decide for the press release text, whether to mention that it’s a skate video or not. I chose not to mention it and just referenced book/film The Outsiders (1967/1983), where the phrase ‘stay gold’ comes from, which in itself is a reference to a Robert Frost poem.
CA: I wasn't aware that it was a reference to a poem.
HM: It's a Robert Frost poem called 'Nothing gold can stay’; and in The Outsiders, one of the characters, who has had this poem read to him – as he’s dying – tells his young friend to 'stay gold’.
There was an intention behind calling the exhibition Stay Gold. I was conscious that this was my first solo show entering into the commercial art world and knowing that it does change people and it does corrupt people. I wanted to send a message to myself through time to say “don't let this change you, stay young, stay youthful,” all the things that skateboarding brings out in you. I think that worked, because as time's gone I've found myself pulling away and positioning myself away from the commercial market. I guess I knew all along that wasn't the world for me.
Stay Gold is a skate video that's one of the last of the era of great full length videos. Andrew Reynolds has the final part, which is mind blowing. He was probably younger than I am now, but it was a sort of swan song. There’s an innocence and a beauty to that video in its intention. That's something skateboarding gives you just through the act of skating. For art making it's something you have to work to retain. You have to protect your innocence.
CA: With regard to protecting your innocence or stoking a fame, skateboarding has been doing that for me. Even though I'm doing this interview series and I'm doing some art related projects that overlap with skateboarding, I feel like it's a space that I can retreat to in some way. I think skateboarding has encouraged me to play again, and take more risks in my practice.
HM: That's interesting. I barely make work physically anymore, at all. I don't seek that sort of enjoyment through making, I enjoy it, but there's not the same tangibility or physicality when compared to skating. I've allowed skateboarding to wholeheartedly fulfil that for me now.
Above: Watch Harry’s part in PÉTANQUE (filmed and edited by Joe Allen)
CA: This might be a nice point to segue into your forthcoming commission for Leeds 2023's 'My World My City My Neighbourhood' programme. So perhaps you could say a bit more about the commission and how you're feeling about it, as someone who's previously tried to keep skateboarding and art separate. Now here they are meeting very explicitly.
HM: The open call for the commission was advertised and I read their ideas around celebrating different cultures within the city, different communities, different areas. They use this tagline 'letting culture loose'. And I correctly presumed that they hadn't in their thinking so far thought about the skate community or any sort of skate related cultural project as part of the wider Leeds 2023 festival.
So I wrote a, surprisingly for me – not demanding – but, forthright application where I essentially said: there is this amazing, longstanding and active skate community within Leeds that has had next to no real relationship with the council or the wider cultural sector within the city. But loads of other cities within the UK, within Europe and internationally, have been or are developing really exciting projects around the cultural role of skateboarding within cities and civic spaces.
I sort of tried to guilt them. It was almost like: Leeds has done nothing, and we need to do something. I think I was fortunate that whilst they were selecting the applications the Olympics were on, and skateboarding had a cultural popularity boost. I think that helped them realise that this is a community that could be served through this process and this commission. I didn't have any real explicit idea or proposal for what that would be, but the essence of the commissions is that they're co-created; that they are developed with the community. So it wasn't necessary at that stage.
I must say, more than anything that I've applied for or wanted to do, it's not been thought about in relation to my own practice or my own career or anything like that, but almost like a sense of duty. I started to realise that over the last three to four years I've been developing projects, working with lots of people, working with different communities, working with arts institutions, councils.
Basically I've learnt a bunch of skills that could be useful. It felt like the right time as well. My love and commitment to skateboarding has come back in, in a massive way. As artists – maybe not all of us – but, you and I, and many of our contemporaries, want to bring positive social change about as part of our work. Sometimes as artists, one thing we suffer from is not having our own communities. We're almost match-made with other communities. And it felt like this is a real chance to offer what limited skills or expertise I might have in trying to navigate and negotiate with these sorts of organisations to the benefit of the Leeds skate scene.
CA: You mentioned Reynolds and his age in his Stay Gold part. One's ability to skate at a certain level has a limit. Obviously it depends on how and what you skate. Tony Hawk skates ramps, which are lower impact, and he's still going at 50+. Although he's gradually retiring certain tricks...
HM: ...and selling them off as NFTs.
CA: Yeah, that's a bit dodgy...But for a skater like Reynolds, Stay Gold was his prime and he wasn't much older than 30. You and I are 30+ now, so I was wondering how ageing has changed your approach to skateboarding?
HM: In some ways, I feel I’m not even at my peak of skating. Which is interesting. At 34 you would imagine that you’re on the way out, essentially. But I've learnt loads of new tricks and filmed my first video part in the last couple of years which I wouldn't have presumed was a possibility or a reality that could be achieved. It's made me question my own presumptions about ageing even more. Yes, injuries become harder and take a lot longer to heal, but the more creative or inventive side of skating is something I've engaged with a lot more during this era. Like you mentioned earlier – skateboarding itself has changed, right? The sort of tricks people do and how people think about skating has altered.
CA: I remember the parameters of acceptable tricks seeming a lot stricter. Whilst Tony Hawk's Pro Skater did great things for skateboarding, I wonder whether the limited number of programmed tricks created a bit of a funnel for people who entered into skateboarding via the game. For someone like me, I wasn't able to see beyond what was doable in Tony Hawk's or EA Skate. Do you know what I mean?
HM: Yeah, I think it's also to do with the significance of skate photography in magazines, which is a lot less dominant than it was. And for the sake of skate photography, big handrails and big obstacles generally make for better photographs, essentially. So skateboarders, at least pro skateboarders, were incentivised to get photographs in magazines. To some degree it's the same as filming video parts, but getting a photograph in a magazines was a very valuable currency – especially a cover.
Like in many other fields, print journalism broke down and things switched to the internet and then to social media. It's less necessary to aim for tricks that will make for good photographs, as video has become way more dominant. That's allowed for a much more low impact, creative and multifaceted approach to skating to come through, which is not easily representable in photography.
I think we have a similar comparison with how a lot of artists of our generation thought about exhibition making and the importance of installation shots. Photographs of your work almost become a bigger currency than the work itself.
CA: You start thinking about how am I going to install this, so it looks best when photographed, as opposed to experienced in three dimensional space. Because the photo will been seen more, ultimately.
HM: That's what's really broken down. Not to say that there aren't still great photographs today, but I that 15-20 years ago that was an important factor that effected how people skated and what younger skaters wanted to emulate. It was; big handrail, big gap, how many stairs? Scale was as important as style. That is much less the case now. I think it's been better for skating than it has for art making, which is still a bit caught up on images.
CA: Yeah, it seems that in skateboarding, the result has been a broadening of what people do and how things can be represented. Whereas it feels like a narrowing if you're encouraged to focus on how something will look on a single social media platform; and at the moment, in the arts that's Instagram.
HM: Undertaking this Leeds 2023 skate project has required me to rejoin Instagram after many years away. I do have an explicit 'only skate content' rule though, as I want to maintain a distance from the negative impact it can have on you artistically.
CA: Yeah, I think your bio says something along the lines of “this is for skaters, link below is for curators” with a link to your website.
HM: Curators still follow me though, which is funny.
CA: I used Instagram as a professional portfolio for a long time. Fortunately my partner encouraged me to stop taking it so seriously. Now it's almost 50% skate clips.
HM: That's why you're one of the few artists that I follow. You've got enough clips to pass the test.