Progressive rider David Benedek is spearheading an inquisition into snowboarding’s status quo.
David Benedek is a collector. He doesn’t stockpile stamps in his basement or fill his garage with weird little trains. Nor does he lock trophies in glass cabinets, which – considering the amount of podiums he’s topped – would just about make sense. David’s impulse to forage for something he can hold onto for all time stems from a more visceral place. He collects snowboarding. He seeks out the people that have moulded it along the way, documents the stories that have given it shape and presents the shifting sands of history in a tangible form.
You see, as well as being one of the most progressive snowboarders Germany has ever produced, David makes things. He makes movies, like In Short and 91 Words For Snow, which capture the many varied, multi-layered narratives that help make snowboarding so endlessly rad. He puts those movies out into the world through Blank Paper Studio, the production company he founded with big brother Boris and fellow pro Christoph Weber as an excuse to do all manner of cool shit. And now, satisfying another creative itch, David makes books. One book to be precise, simply titled Current State: Snowboarding – a mammoth compilation of interviews with some of snowboarding’s most influential faces – written, designed and lovingly whittled out of what the thirty-year-old terms an “obsessive snowboardish philanthropy”. You see, David makes things, so that we can have things; his collection is ours to keep.
It’s a simple motivation, but one this inquisitive doer likes to bear in mind – especially when he’s grappling with the pressures of an authorial debut. And as we realise when we meet David at his Munich base, the urge to create something you can grasp with both hands can be a powerful force.
“Over the next months, I would like to write a book about snowboarding. Kind of a status quo report in which different people that are involved in snowboarding get to talk, thus trying to make a conclusion about snowboarding’s current state. I don’t have a clue how to write a book, but I think it is going to be an interesting experience and I’m already curious about the result.“ (November 29, 2008)
HUCK: Two years have passed since you first mentioned your ambition to make a book. What has been the outcome of that initial idea?
David Benedek: A book that takes form slower than I thought it would. [Laughs] Actually it was supposed to come out at the beginning of fall, but now it’s going to be February. I think I had unrealistic expectations and underestimated that it will take a lot of time to organise all by myself – from the finances to the design, right up to the interviews.
What was the best moment during the project?
When working on any project, there are always three moments that are amazing. The moment an idea develops a life of its own – when you feel this actually could work out and all of a sudden it goes whoosh! And hundreds of new ideas pop up in your mind that are all built on this very first one. Maybe it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s a bit like [how I imagine] you would sense greatness, or at least the potential for greatness. The second moment is when the production part is over and you put together what you have created – that anticipation of the actual result, which, on the other hand, can also be quite depressing sometimes when the product doesn’t match the expectations. Then, if you did not completely ruin it, you are soon holding something in your hands that is real – this is the moment when it’s all worth it. The moment your idea has become something real, something that you can touch. The time in between those three moments can be pretty dreadful, but you can make it from one to the other okay.
You’re normally at the receiving end of interviews. What drove you to start asking questions of your own – what were you trying to find out?
I was interested in the [current state of snowboarding] and what people think about it. There was a moment two and a half years ago when I realised I no longer knew which direction snowboarding was heading. Snowboarding seemed to have to fight for such a long time to establish itself and grow, but after succeeding it seemed like nobody had a clue where to go next. At least this is how I felt. With the interviews I wanted to find out what people from different backgrounds in snowboarding think about the sport and gather a collective opinion about its current state – the direction in which it’s heading and where it shouldn’t go.
How did you choose the people you interviewed?
My intention was to show a fair and democratic picture of snowboarding and not only speak to people that I already know and share my opinion. Of course, it still is a very subjective assortment of people that I considered as relevant and interesting. In the beginning, there were fifty names of which I finally interviewed thirty. Twenty-four interviews are now published in the book. I was especially interested in people from different cultural eras in snowboarding. Someone like Shaun Palmer, for example, who has been part of snowboarding since the late eighties, probably has a different image of snowboarding than a nineteen-year-old Jed Anderson.
Which interview surprised you the most?
Speaking to Scotty Wittlake was pretty interesting. Five years ago, at the peak of his career, he just quit professional snowboarding and nobody really knew why. I had filmed with him for one season, but didn’t get to know him really. I still remembered that he never wanted to earn any money with snowboarding and had a pathological guilty conscience towards the rest of the world. He even donated his pro model royalties to charitable organisations – which is a nice move, but I had the feeling that he could never really enjoy what he had achieved. In the interview he explained his decisions with so much self-reflection and self-criticism that it really amazed me. His anti-capitalistic attitude lacked a missionary hypocrisy and there was no sense of idealisation. This was pretty cool and somehow even heart-warming as it revealed a very unpretentious love for snowboarding. Scotty lives in Portland today, working as a bike courier, but during the winter he still rides three times a week – with the same drive. There is hardly a more authentic person than Scotty.
You’ve also chosen to take a step back from the snowboard industry over the course of the last two years. Was working on the book a trigger for this move?
The book certainly has got something to do with my own emancipation process. All of a sudden you are outgrowing something you have so long identified yourself with; I’m thirty now and at some point you start to look for a bit more depth than just double corks and the like. Snowboarding has a seasonal cycle and I lived within this cycle for ten years. For example, you always ride the same spots – in the videos you see the guys riding the same kicker and doing almost the same trick for five years in a row. You can’t do this forever. To break out of this rhythm, you have to find new objectives – Blank Paper helped me in doing so. One year we organised an event and the next year we made a movie. Now it is a book. I’m just about to grow out of all this [in a] pretty mellow [way], without hurrying myself up.
“Snowboarding will try to get more acceptance and grow without losing its roots. Our sport is appealing to the masses, but only in a limited degree – an old grandmother will never understand why this one switch backside 9 was especially stylish. There will be a limit, but this is nothing negative.” (February 8, 2008)
What did you find out about the current state of snowboarding during your own “emancipation process”?
It actually only demonstrated what I always suspected, but since the very first idea for this book came up, a lot has changed. Snowboarding used to be more set on expansion a few years ago and less interested in its own culture; the outside world was what counted. You had the feeling there was nothing more to come – that this was it. But when I look at it now, there is so much innovation and fresh input in snowboarding – it’s a [totally] different feeling. Snowboarding is getting back to its inner core. Of course there are more riders than ever, who are on NBC with their mainstream sponsor stickers, but at the same time you also see the drug-addicted ‘indie rail guy,’ the pow surfer or the split boarder. It is not only about 1080s anymore – it’s about innovation and creativity… It’s amazing to see how much creative progression we’ve experienced throughout the last two, three years.
Can you pinpoint a turning point when this period of progression sparked off?
No, I don’t think so. To me, it seems like everything always grows in a kind of breathing movement; it blows up, collapses, stabilises and begins to grow again. Snowboarding has passed the stadium of expansion and is going through its stabilisation at the moment, where it is all about innovation and not about the commercialisation of the innovation. Of course there are the Olympic Games and all of a sudden you see snowboarders invited to Jay Leno, but it is natural that there will always be a counter reaction, too. It is always like this; if something goes in one direction, there are forces that stretch to the other direction. In my opinion, snowboarding has over-stretched itself and now the whole culture is stabilising again.
Having interviewed such a cross-section of characters, do you think the type of person attracted to snowboarding has changed over time?
Only in parts. When someone like Shaun Palmer tells me that half of the guys that started snowboarding with him are drug addicts and the other half are in prison, I have to say that this is a whole different story. Today kids, including me, wear the latest brands from head to toe and get a lift to the mountain in their mum’s SUV. So yes – snowboarding did attract other, more rebellious guys back in the days. I think this is a normal process, initiated by the growth of something and the resulting regimentation. Today you see families visiting a rave next to pill-eating techno freaks. But actually, only the basic conditions change, not the personal feeling to be attracted to and feel part of a certain culture. When I see today’s seventeen-year-old kids that are enthusiastic snowboard mag subscribers, dress in the brightest neon colours and get pissed at parties it is the same exact thing that I experienced.
“I’m more on the technical side of snowboarding, but I don’t think that’s the most important part. In a way, I was just going the way of least resistance because that’s my talent and it naturally draws me to that.“ (April 29, 2009)
You were the first to land a double cork 1260 in 2006, but have since moved away from the contest scene. Did you feel that you had reached an upper limit after that crescendo – that there was nowhere left to go before the tricks became too technical, too dangerous?
No. I even had a two-page-list of tricks I still wanted to do. I also thought about filming a video part over the period of two or three years, only focusing on those tricks. But then I was looking at events like the Air & Style and Freestyle.CH and thinking, ‘What are you actually doing? This is bullshit.’ I simply do not have this crazy drive anymore that you need to ignore the risks when conditions aren’t perfect and unfortunately this is often the case at contests. As soon as you have lost the drive, you feel like, ‘Okay, I could do this now, but it would really suck falling flat on my face.’
This summer, Torstein Horgmo surprised the snowboard world with the first triple cork. Only a few months earlier, Kevin Pearce suffered a serious injury while training for the double cork in the pipe. Has the price of innovation risen too high?
No, in my opinion it used to be even more dangerous, when the riding level was not as high as today, but the jumps were. I think it is not the tricks, but the obstacles that are dangerous – even though they’ve improved a lot during the last years. Unfortunately there are still park shapers that want to stand out by building crazy features, thus putting kids at risk. That really sucks.
What kept you motivated over the years to attempt more and more complicated tricks?
I think most people have this primitive drive to improve and progress. For me, this was learning new tricks. It is the same for almost all snowboarders. You see something, think about how it could feel and work on realising it. As soon as these thoughts have built into your head, you make them rest there and at some point – it could be one month or a year – you know that you can make it. I’m sure that Torstein already had the triple in his head for one and a half years – you don’t come up with this just like that.
“Who influenced me the most? I think my parents, since there’s such a subconscious part to education. Even if you don’t think your parents influenced you, they still did.” (June 12, 2008)
Your parents are both from Hungary, a country that isn’t particularly well known for snowboarding…
That’s true. But they have both lived in Germany for decades. My dad escaped pretty movie-like, through East Berlin to West Germany twenty-two years ago. Even though snowboarding’s not their world, they always supported me. Of course, they keep asking me from time to time if I would consider going to university at some point, but they are not reactionary or conservative at all. Maybe due to their heritage in a country that was surrounded by fences – it was always important to them that my brother Boris and I could do whatever we wanted to do and I owe them a lot for this.
Now that you know where snowboarding is heading, do you have a better idea of where you are heading too?
Good question. Actually, I’ve been following my own path for a long time, aside from the conventions that a normal snowboard pro has to fulfil. So I think I will continue on this path – going snowboarding when I want to go and doing other stuff that I’m interested in the rest of the time. This year it was the book – next year it could be something else. Snowboarding doesn’t really draw me into one corner; last year I tried splitboarding, which was fun. But it could also happen that I’m looking for some [other] challenge and working on a trick that is still on my list. But generally speaking, I’m heading towards the creative world, the production of movies and books – I think this could be compensation for snowboarding. Somehow it already is…
You are one of the most influential snowboarders of all time. Why isn’t there an interview with you included in the book?
There will be a short introduction, written by me, and maybe a conclusion at the end. But as I was the one who did all the interviews, I’m already fifty per cent of the book. I think that’s enough, isn’t it?