Bike stunts and the reframing power of stories

I love watching stunt clips on YouTube. I couldn’t pull a stunt on a skateboard or bike to save my life, but they’re such joyful things to watch, I don’t care.

Reading the story of Danny MacAskill‘s rise to fame through these kinds of clips — and watching them — I was struck by how powerful his story was at reframing a particular notion in my head; that of ‘urban culture’:

[…] he leaps effortlessly over the urban infrastructure, landing casually on a front wheel, or bouncing gracefully along a flight of steps. It’s much like a bike-borne version of the urban running- and-leaping sport parkour.

The paradox is that all this was learned in a rural idyll, the village of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, where MacAskill was raised by a pair of seemingly indulgent parents. He returns to the Hebrides regularly, riding between friends’ houses on the island on a mountain bike. Even then, he says, he can’t resist the occasional trick: “A big skid is my favourite. It always looks cool, particularly if you end it with a good finger point.”

Street sports, fashion, music and underground (i.e. dynamic, progressive) culture are all framed relentlessly as urban phenomena. We even have the racially coy term ‘urban music’ because, of course, black people all live in the inner city. This winds me up on several levels.

It encourages a particularly uninspiring, derivative form of cultural production. Want to make your pop video look edgy? Slap in some shots of kids in hoodies on skateboards. Want to evoke an idyllic past? Time for a slow pan across a hazy wheat field in the late afternoon sun.

It closes up the possibility for dynamic culture in rural or suburban spaces. It perpetuates a rut of established thinking in which the only way to break out is to head for the Big Smoke, because to stay at home or move away from an urban centre is to be condemned to a life of commuting and car washing in suburbia, or genteel living, corduroy and wax jackets in the country. Why is it that the only things we have successfully imported into the countryside from cities are yuppies and a drugs problem? I say this with some grit, because I have recently moved out of the city to live more ‘with the land’. But I signed no deal to forfeit my right to enjoy a creative, vibrant, disruptive culture.

Perversely, urban life is frequently highly conservative, and comes with vast edifices of pomp, ritual and established norms that are just begging to be be taken down. Conversely, land beyond the concrete jungle is blessed with more marginal space; with opportunities to establish Temporary Autonomous Zones and get on with life away from the prying eyes of the authorities (parents or the state).

Now you may not agree with all of the above, but the content of that argument is largely tangential. It is sufficient for my main argument that I believe it. If you have sympathy, so much the better, for when you watch these clips, you may see the same glint of light. A light which reveals an alternative view of the world; a different perspective; a re-framing. Macaskill’s story doesn’t fit in the dominant frame, the one which I just described. To understand his story (bearing in mind that stories are just that, not literal narratives of facts), we have to shift to a new perspective, and come up with a new frame of reference.

I wonder how many suburban or rural kids watch these clips and realise that freedom is not confined to the city; that they can forge their own path without necessarily rejecting the environment in which they live. I hope many, because, as an outsider to the city now (and rural/suburban by upbringing), I think it’s time for a change. It’s time to reclaim the underground from the lazy metropolitan media and culture makers. To take back suburbia from the commuting classes, and the countryside from the armies of the retired and the hunting-shooting-fishing brigade.

And if you’re too busy for that, take a moment to reflect on the power of a story well-told to reframe a tired perspective and open up a new world of possibility.