Can you teach a revolution that should be self-taught?

DIY surfing wants you to buck the system! And stop buying all the things you can make for free. But in the cold, hard, green light of day, can you teach a revolution that should be self-taught?

Surfing, the Spectator Sport: in which a strange video gets me thinking.

On January 25, 2010, I was conducting my daily trawl of the Internet when I found myself at the Vimeo page 8941685 - Sea Movies – Stranger than Friction. The clip, which had been uploaded the day before, was in black and white and featured a lanky kid named Ryan Burch surfing head-high lefts on what appeared to be a four-foot block of refrigerator foam. He folded his nearly six-foot frame into a streamlined crouch as he swooped down glassy faces with unconscionable amounts of speed. One subtle tweak of his primitive, finless craft and he streaked across the entire length of the frame before grabbing rail to cut back, kick the tail out, or spin a 360. It was high-performance surfing, but not as we know it: neither progression nor regression, but some sort of renegade lateral evolution; a duck-billed platypus with a Kalashnikov.

It took a few more clicks to get to Korduroy.tv, the site that had posted the clip. There, I found myself in a virtual grandfather’s attic of DIY videos, surfing related and not. Check the page now and you can find an orbital sanding tutorial, Go-Pro camera videos from inside tubes in Chile, ding repair clips, James Brown demonstrating the hottest dance moves of the 1970s, cardboard surfboards, and Cordell Miller ripping apart Trestles, to name a few. It turned out, the man behind all of this was a guy called Cyrus Sutton.

“He’s a saviour,” exclaims Tom Wegener over a crackly Skype connection from his hippie’s wet dream home near Noosa, Australia. Wegener is the shaper behind the current alaia surfing craze and Surfer magazine’s 2009 shaper of the year. “Cyrus is probably the most important person in the surfing industry. He has the eye, the understanding, and the charisma to do more with surfing than anyone at the moment.”

Why? Because DIY, according to Wegener, was about bringing surfing back to the people. “The problem with surfing is that somewhere along the line, it became a spectator sport,” he says. “Today, counterculture in surfing is about fighting ‘The Quiksilver Machine’ and the stereotype of an ASP-ruled style of surfing.”

Wegener isn’t claiming to be anti-industry. Surfers and the industry have evolved into what a biologist would call an obligate endosymbiotic state; a mutually beneficial relationship in which one type of organism lives inside another and both depend on the other to stay alive. As far as survival tactics go, this one is a peach. Surfers have access to anything related to riding waves, and the industry makes a pretty penny. But what’s the price?

“Brilliant marketing has convinced kids that if they ride the same thing as everyone else they are a rebel,” says Wegener. “No one is sponsored to be a rebel.”

 Down to SoCal: in which I search for a hero amongst the homeless and deranged.

As a rule, I don’t trust anyone from Southern California. The region’s main contributions to the global cultural canon have been race riots, Richard Nixon, //The OC//, and porn. But I wanted to trust Cyrus Sutton; to believe in DIY. So with gas prices creeping above the $3.00 per gallon mark, LA on the verge of bankruptcy, and one in six Americans suffering from herpes (see //Business Week// if you don’t believe me) I decided to pay a visit to the glittering cesspool of American decadence and try to figure out if Sutton was a genuine countercultural hero, or just another half-baked surfer kid with a Flip camera and a never-ending supply of quasi-legal, medical-grade marijuana.

***

It takes about six hours to get from New York to San Diego in a plane. When I touch down, late Friday night, I find the nearest bus and head out to La Mesa where I’m staying with my friend Santa Ana, a man who never met a party he didn’t like.

No one had warned me that downtown San Diego is a convention centre for America’s homeless. At midday, it looks like a street party for derelicts. At midnight, it’s downright ghoulish.

“They comin’ fo me!” insists the woman beside me on the bus.

“They drive big Cadillacs and act like the president, but I know they really tryin’ to pin some shit on me.” Her weave sits askance despite compulsive adjustments.

I get off in front of an all-nude strip club called ‘Tens’. Santa Ana lives just next door.

“They are more like three-point-fives to fours, with the occasional five on weekends,” remarks Santa Ana of his classy neighbours, handing me a beer as I step out of the neon pink glare and into his house. “Hope you are ready to party, we’ve got to meet some of my buddies at a bar in half an hour.”

Sacred Craft – where old surfers go to pasture: in which I meet Cyrus Sutton, and one man brave enough to say it like it is.

Six hours later I’m hungover on the Pacific Surfliner to Ventura where Cyrus Sutton is hosting a booth at Sacred, a surfboard expo. The train cuts straight through the sun-kissed heart of American surfing’s wonderland; Trestles, Cardiff, Oceanside and Swamis all pass beneath the window while the bums writhe in their seats and howl at the injustices of the world.

***

Sacred Craft is a gathering of surfboard shaper clans and provides an interesting cross-section of the culture’s participants: 95 per cent male, all dressed in the same five clothing brands – it’s hard to tell anyone apart, though they all seem to know each other. If you didn’t know better you might think surfing was a quaint cottage industry, as long as you ignored the fact that it rakes in an estimated 30 billion dollars a year in global sales (see: ‘The Ten Percenters’ by Brad Melekian, The Surfer’s Journal, vol. 19, no. 2).

Like most tight-knit groups of people who control a lot of money, everything is groovy until you start asking too many questions. I spend the next few hours trying to bate people into saying something, anything, that doesn’t convey profound admiration for surfing culture, the surfing industry, and life in general. The closest I get is a phrase that I would hear often during my trip: “It is what it is…”

The Korduroy TV booth looks like it’s been designed by a derelict with an MFA. The chairs are made of cardboard, the posters are scrap paper, and the movies showing people making boards in their garages and backyards are projected onto a bed sheet.

Cyrus runs back and forth, politician style, shaking hands, kissing babies, enquiring as to the health of someone’s grandmother. He’s a tiny, yet perfectly proportioned man with a raptor’s stare that makes you want to believe anything he tells you.

Almost. The whole starving surf artist motif twinges my stomach. The cardboard chairs retail on the Internet for $300.00 a piece and it’s obvious that Cyrus and co are far too ensconced in the surfing Stepford family to be mounting a revolt against it.

“This is business as usual,” says a man sitting next to me. “Not to take anything away from it, but Cyrus is in business, just like Kelly Slater is in business. Surfing may look like the antithesis of the day job, but it’s still a job. Thirty years ago, Gerry Lopez didn’t have a job.”

It is what it is.

Lopez is here too. Though it isn’t clear if it’s because he wants to be, or because like some of surfing’s legends, he has to sign autographs for $25.00 a pop to make ends meet. He says he’s heard of Cyrus Sutton and believes that people getting back to making their own things is a positive step for modern surfers.

“Cyrus and his friends have figured out the secret of board making…” he says. I lean in closer, greedily expectant. Lopez falls silent and a wry smile slowly spreads across his face.

“It’s not that difficult.”

San-O with the Nine Lights boys: in which we talk goldfinch mutations, finless shapes and engineered commodities.

“I used to raise snakes,” says Tom Beck, as we drive south past the hoards at Trestles in favour of the uncrowded and softer peaks of San Onofre, “but Jeff was always into breeding goldfinches.”

Jeff Beck, Tom’s brother, is the man behind Nine Lights Surfboards, and has taken the DIY ethos to strange and delightful places. Some of his creations adorned the Korduroy booth at Sacred Craft.

“Yeah, the only problem was that they started inbreeding, and before long I had a bunch of mutant chicks with deformities hopping around like a kiddie soccer game,” Jeff laughs.

At San-O we go to town on Jeff’s epoxy and wood curiosities, slipping and sliding across the faces of waves that wouldn’t have warranted a second glance had we been carrying thrusters. Our only companions are the occasional pods of dolphins. In between sets, we talk about the convoluted dynamics of an industry whose heart is board making, but whose bottom line is clothing sales.

“Clothes drive the surf industry, not boards because the profit margin for shops is so much worse,” says Jeff. “This is one of the biggest ironies of the surf industry. The one thing that makes surfing what it is, is also the most marginalised.”

So how does a counterculture develop from a community that’s chosen to marginalise the very thing that makes it what it is?

Jeff shrugs, “Rebelliousness is an engineered commodity. You just have to buy the right uniform to be a surfer, punk, skater, goth, or whatever.  When a counterculture is considered a ‘movement’, it’s already well on it’s way to being turned into dollar signs.”

Ryan Burch walks like Gumby: in which Ryan and I consume 10,000 calories worth of candy bars, Frappuccinos™ and iced tea.

Before meeting Ryan Burch in Encinitas, three separate people told me to bring him a candy bar, “because he loves them.”

As it turns out, he brings his own and washes it down with a Venti Vanilla Frappuccino, avec whipped cream and caramel. I opt for an Arnold Palmer.

Burch is six feet of sinewy gangle who evokes Gumby –that bendy clay humanoid loved by American kids – in just about every way. Until he steps onto a surfboard. In the water he’s a Renaissance Man, regularly riding anything from a 6’0’’ to an 11’2’’ single fin, to a 4’6’’ hunk of foam, and riding all of them better than you. If Sutton is the brain of DIY, Burch and his preternatural wave riding is the face. The way he talks about surfing is entirely sensory based; how an Air Force test pilot might talk about planes.

“I’m interested in using the wave right, using it to its fullest extent,” he says, taking a large slurp of Frappuccino. “The DIY movement is very expressive. It’s your own style and what better way to express it than on your own board? I know exactly what I feel, and what I like and don’t like… so right now I’m just trying to make and ride boards that I can have the most fun on.”

Which is where the Lord Board comes in: 4’6’’ of white, closed-cell surfboard foam obtained from some friends at INT Softboards, designed using ideas from Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls written in 1946 by the engineer Lindsay Lord, chopped up in about fifteen minutes, and taken straight out to the surf.

People made fun at first, but no one was laughing when Gumby paddled out at a secret spot in La Joya when it was way overhead and lit the place up. Stay tuned for that footage.

Back at his car, he shows me the foam hunk, once broken and glued back together. In order to give the deck more tackiness, he’s scorched it using a lighter and a can of hair spray.

“Is DIY anti-commercial?” I ask.

Gumby pauses for a second. “Yeah… Hell yeah, it’s anti-commercial! I mean, we’re not ‘bustin’ down the door’ – I’m not fighting for equality in the line-up or proclaiming that I’m a ‘finlesser’, so we’re not really revolutionaries in that sense… but the industry is all about endorsements so it makes what we are doing unique. You don’t see people in the NBA making their own shoes do you?”

Top of the Hill: in which Cyrus invites me to tea.

Burch walks me up the Hill to Cyrus’s place, the oldest house in Encinitas. It’s a converted hotel owned by California chronicler Garth Murphy who has filled the place with artifacts from around the world, assorted paraphernalia, art, sculptures, antiques, bones, Americana and straight-up kitsch. In the space that’s left, he rents rooms to various creatives.

Cyrus has a room in the house, but he has made the yard his domain – reading and editing videos (how he pays his bills) in the tea house and wood working and shaping in a tree and bamboo-shaded corridor against one side of the compound. We sit on the tatami floor of the tea house, under a picture of Gerry Lopez giving the same smile that I’d seen when I asked him about the secret of board making. We are surrounded by stacks of books with titles like The Original Boys Handy Book, Eccentric America, The World is Flat, Meditations of John Muir, and Spanish for Dummies.  At the bottom of the Hill, the Pacific Surfliner rolls by.

“As a kid who was born in the ’80s, I’m part of a generation that came of age feeling like we had endless resources, time and money – everything was abundant,” he says, looking straight through me with his hawk eyes.  “Since then, the carpet has been pulled out from under us… we all thought we were going to go to college and get jobs and live like our parents, but it’s not happening. I wish it were still like it was for our parents, but we have to get used to it.”

And that’s where Korduroy TV comes in. “Korduroy TV is a bunch of middle-class, spoiled ‘80s kids who are trying to figure out how to toughen up and make things instead of buying things,” he says. “For my whole life, I’ve been told that if you want to be this, you have to buy this; you have to buy things to measure up, and that’s a shitty way to feel.”

Half Jokingly, Sutton refers to himself and his friends as “emo lumberjacks”, but his easy demeanor can’t conceal the seriousness in his eyes. “I think people are being sold values that are against their best interests. We are fucking brainwashed by Frankenstein capitalism, which is basically a feudal system where the kings and castles are Walmarts and big chains. They don’t want us to be free and happy and healthy, they want us to buy their medicines and make-ups and foods and clothes.”

The irony of starting a televised revolution isn’t lost on Sutton. When I suggest that he’s at the head of a counterculture, he snorts. “Counterculture is just a group of people doing free market research for companies so they can take those ideas and market them a year later.  Companies are so strong they literally own us, and you can’t rebel against that. Part of Korduroy is my realisation that all subcultures eventually become marketing campaigns.”

Then his face softens, just slightly. “My art is a personal exploration executed in a way that people can understand… What we still have is the ability to make things. So my only hope is to create something that has a viral message and speaks to people and speaks against the machine.”

Those words stick with me on the crazy train back to San Diego. Like Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, courage is “knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Epilogue: The Cosmic Children Festival, Liencres, Spain: in which I see if Cyrus’s revolution has already begun to eat its (cosmic) children.

A few months later I’m in Liencres, Spain, at the Cosmic Children Festival, talking to a kid who shapes his own boards, but doesn’t always know their dimensions. The festival celebrates Spain’s nascent surfing history and culture which, after a late start due to the mid-twentieth century dictatorship of Francisco Franco, has exploded over the last two decades.

Today, the standard high-performance shortboard still dominates the scene, but the demand for different shapes is growing due to the influence of foreign surfing media.

This is where DIY comes back into the mix, not as a lifestyle choice, but as a necessity.

“I used to see all these boards that I wanted to ride in magazines and movies, but I couldn’t get them in the stores, so I just started making my own,” says the kid, a blond Basque named Asier Agirre Mikelez. He is eighteen years old and has been shaping since he was sixteen. His favourite movie is Thomas Campbell’s Sprout. His favourite board is a 5’6” self-shaped fish. He doesn’t know the other dimensions because he didn’t bother to measure them. The name Cyrus Sutton “sounds familiar” to him, but that is the extent of it.

I ask him how he learned to shape and he shrugs.

“I just taught myself and drew inspiration from what I saw on the Internet and in the water. Someone helped me put the fins on my first board, but since then, I’ve just been experimenting.”

Who do you ask when you don’t know how to do something?

He looks at me for a long time as if he doesn’t understand the question. Slowly, that familiar Lopez smile spreads across his face.