Amorphous both literally and conceptually, The Crowd is the focus of Critical Mass, a 42-page dossier originally published in WIP magazine issue 07. It spans interviews with artists and football Ultras alike, as well as essays that explore the idea in many ways: throngs of skaters descending on an idyllic Scandinavian cityscape, religion and fuel shortages in eastern Europe, the future of crowd control. Accompanying these are various visual conceptions of the crowd, from archival footage gathered by video artist Rawtape that trace visual archetypes across different gatherings, to AI-generated images that reckon with the power of the masses in an age of misinformation and manipulation. As artist Clemens von Wedemeyer puts it: “Crowds form because the individual imagines something within it.” Exactly what is up to you.
Clive Martin travels to CPH Open, a skate festival known for its rambunctious revelers and raucous crowd scenes, which has improbably found a home in the otherwise serene Danish capital.
Images: Andrew White
I’d found myself outside a looming Victorian prison in the eastern suburbs of Copenhagen, looking up at the ominous, fortified main gate. A century ago, this would’ve been a place of great misfortune; the spot where they fling you back out into society with a knapsack and a few krone in your fist – but that day it was surrounded by several hundred of the coolest kids you’ve ever seen. All streetwear and dissociative stares.
They, like me, had congregated here with little more than a vague promise of seeing some skateboarding. But for now, nobody was getting in. As the numbers grew, so did the sense of agitation, which in turn, rapidly coalesced with the fuggy weed cloud above us. “Stop gatekeeping!” shouted one young joker at the anxious volunteers holding the door.
On the walk here, we’d passed through a concrete 1970s shopping center, where grizzled locals sank tins and jeered at a terrified tribute band playing classic rock standards in the central square. This part of town was nobody’s idea of Scandinavia – indeed it felt more like the Scottish Central Belt or a South Coast navy town than the sleek city break destination of the popular imagination. But CPH Open, one of the world’s great skate competitions, has always tried to show a side to the Danish capital beyond New Nordic Cuisine and the Little Mermaid statue.
At its essence, CPH Open is a skate takeover of a city; a festival of skateboarding spread across vast swathes of Copenhagen; at ad-hoc, pop-up parks, or at iconic or hard-to-access locations, including the world famous Tivoli Gardens and the mosaic floors of City Hall. In tow come some of the world’s most renowned skaters and teams. Imagine an event that sits somewhere between the Tampa Pro, Art Basel and Notting Hill Carnival, and you’ll get some idea of it.
William Lieberath-Frederiksen, the founder of CPH, explains how it all came about: “We ran a competition called Copenhagen Pro for a couple of years… and one day, we decided we wanted to do something different. Because skateboarding isn’t about indoor skateparks – those are training facilities. Skateboarding is in the streets.”
“So we did some events in the streets for a while… Then we realized we aren’t really that interested in skateboarding at all. We knew everything there was to know about it. We also knew that skaters weren’t coming to Copenhagen just to skate in a competition. There was something else drawing them in.”
“What we concluded is that they were coming for the city of Copenhagen; the infrastructure, the way you can bike around everywhere. How you can drink on the streets, smoke weed in Christiania, go to ‘the world’s best restaurant’ – all those stories you hear about Copenhagen. That’s actually what they’re coming for… freedom.”
“So now, we choose spots for their history, their relevance, and what they say about the city. We don’t choose locations because they’re good skate spots, because if you have good skateboarders, you’ll have good skateboarding, wherever.”
Year on year, CPH seems to get more ambitious, pushing the boundaries of street skating with increasingly exciting spots, concepts and competitions (as well as the notorious after parties). The 2022 edition promised to be the most creative yet, with spaces including a concrete bowl purpose-designed by legendary Danish skater Rune Glifberg, a takeover of one of Europe’s most renowned architectural parks and that abandoned prison on the edgelands of the city.
Although, hardly anyone actually knew that, because CPH keeps itself very private. In an age where every festival or sporting event has a carefully planned social media release, a pre-movie, an after-movie, an official capsule collection, CPH stands alone as a difficult outlier. There is no formal advertising, no press release, not even a date announced on the website. Those who know, know – and that’s the way the people behind the events like it.
“It’s not that it's secret, we just don’t tell anybody,” laughs Lieberath-Frederiksen. “At first, it was just a practical thing. We wanted to keep it like a family party… we want everything to be free; food, drink. So there’s no entry fee, no queues, you don’t pay to compete. Of course, we can’t do that for 6,000 people, but we can do it for around 1,000, 2,000 people.”
The day before, I had seen this in full effect, at the famous Superkilen Park, located in the Nørrebro district of the city. There is an all-year-round skatepark here, but for CPH the attention had moved to the ‘Red Plaza’ area of the park; now fitted with an array of ramps, rails, grind boxes, a soundsystem and a few thousand skate fiends. There was a giddy, good-natured excitement in the air. Social media and a few snatched whispers amongst the crowd told me that Nyjah Huston – arguably the biggest skate personality of our era – was in the house.
As somebody whose skating life ended with a suburban quart-pipe and a smashed coccyx, I couldn’t tell you who landed what. But as Lieberath-Frederiksen had suggested, this wasn’t really about skateboarding at all. It felt like more of a social experiment, an attempt to mesh physical activity with some kind of greater social project.
Looking around Superkilen, it was easy to reach for those cliches of ‘decency’ and ‘permissiveness’ that Scandinavian cities are so renowned for. The park was designed to unite the working class, immigrant-populated district of Nørrebro with the rest of the city – creating a usable, evolving public space for all. Superkilen is notable for the way it incorporates paraphernalia from all over the world; including basketball hoops from Mogadishu and three tons of Palestinian soil. And skateboarding, that famously democratic pastime, was a part of this vision from conception.
“In Copenhagen, and across the water in Malmö, you have cities that are actively reconsidering the assumption that skateboarding is damaging and bad,” says Kyle Beachy, author of the acclaimed skate memoir The Most Fun Thing. “In the same way that we put basketball courts around the city, or we build public parks, the city benefits from its citizens engaging with each other in new ways. A skate park takes up about as much space as two tennis courts, and the number of kids who can use a skate park at one time is exponentially more than the number of people who can use a tennis court at a single time.”
I ask Lieberath-Frederiksen – whose day job it is to run and maintain the city’s permanent skate parks – if there is something unique in Copenhagen’s mindset that allows for such a unique event series. Is there anything to stop other cities following suit?
“I’d like to say, ‘absolutely, it could happen anywhere in the world,’” he replies. “But there’s something about Copenhagen. Here, if you complain about it being too noisy, they’ll say, ‘you’re living in the wrong place.’ Not a lot of cities have the courage to say to their residents: ‘it’s not about you, it’s about the culture, it’s about the life – not just the box you live in.’ When I look at our politicians, I notice they’re pretty young, they’re not old, gray, weird people. They’re progressive thinkers.”
Although, it must be said in spite of this that Denmark isn’t quite the liberal paradise one might believe it to be. The Danish government is currently pursuing the same Rwanda deportation program as that of the UK, and there has been a worrying proliferation of anti-immigrant rhetoric among the mainstream parties. Many Danes will also tell you that the ‘world’s happiest people’ stereotype is little more than a myth. Yet this is still a country with an innate belief in social welfare. And that evening at Superkilen, something just felt better, no matter how concentrated to one part of Copenhagen this idealism may be.
As the weekend went on, I found myself catching various skate sessions, not just at the official CPH arenas, but all over the city, transforming municipal architecture into street sport arenas. I ask Kyle Beachy, who has been skating for over 30 years, how a skateboarder sees and interprets a city.
“The example I always use is that of the arborist – someone who works with trees,” he explains. “To walk through the city with them is to quite literally step into a different world; recognizing the trees, seeing illness in them, which insects have had their way with them. They understand the ecosystem differently. The way a skateboarder sees the environment is very different to how most people do; seeing stair sets not just as a conveyance between up and down, but potentially side to side. To see them as an obstacle as opposed to just a tool of movement. To be a skateboarder is to reconfigure your relationship to the urban environment.”
I’d come to understand skateboarders in a new way, thinking of them not just as daredevils or athletes, but as dreamers, psychogeographers, and urban planners in oversized t-shirts and loose jeans. There is of course a dangerous and visceral, occasionally bizarre element to the past time. The same forces that drive people to perform the same tricks, endlessly, in pursuit of perfection, also drive them towards nailed-on disasters. I saw this in full technicolor at the Vridsløselille Prison event.
With the skating yet to start, some attendees, seemingly not placated with a cold beer and a chat, started an impromptu competition on the patchy grassland of the old recreation ground. They had begun to pile up boards, truck-to-truck, seeing who could jump over them as they got higher and higher – an incarnation of the notorious Milk Crate Challenge.
I watched as the stack crept up, reaching a point that – and I swear to my maker here – must have been higher than the record for the Olympic high jump. Of course, it had become impossible, dangerously so, but one overkeen young man thought it doable. There was laughter, cheering, commotion, anguished silence and soon, a speeding ambulance. But that’s par for the course in skateboarding, the romantic and the ridiculous, all working as one.
Doomed stunts aside, one of the most striking things about a competition like CPH Open, is that it's barely a competition at all. There is little gloating after a perfectly executed kickflip, no beating yourself up when it doesn’t land. The people standing on the lips of the ramps and in the crowds aren’t there to shaft each other for a taste of glory, to grab the (small) winning fees above an arch rival. Instead the atmosphere is communal, convivial, supportive. Really, it’s more of a knitting circle than a grudge match.
“The way I’ve been thinking about this recently has to do with scarcity.” says Kyle Beachy. “So much of traditional sport is about how there’s only one winner, or how you need the best time or speed to quantify your performance. We’re now seeing that on every level – the casual weekend jogger looking to beat their best time, people counting how many steps they take in a day.”
“Skateboarding, down to its atomic level, is disinterested in that sort of scarcity. By and large, the nature of competition that one encounters at a skateboard spot has no interest in ‘the best’ – the notion that one person or crew will be the champion of that space. So what you see instead is a whole lot more mutual support… I can watch someone land their first kickflip and feel this empathetic joy in my stomach and in my chest.”
And for that, skateboarding is perhaps perfect for a forward-thinking city like Copenhagen. A pastime that inspires collectives, utilizes public space, reimagines the architecture and topography of the place. One big civic art project. But in an age where commerce is key; where every blank space or ill-used building is an opportunity for a luxury complex or co-working suite, many cities keep reaching for those leg-breaking steel notches that adorn handrails all over the world.
For now, CPH Open exists as an antidote to all that, a perfect use of space, but also a waste of it. A frivolous, important, pointless, beautiful display of the world’s most misunderstood hobby, all played out in one of the most dynamic cities. Much of the credit for CPH will fall on the town planners of Copenhagen, the chilled out local officials. But really, it’s the skaters who are driving this recontextualization of what a city can be. You probably wouldn’t catch any Pritzker Architecture Prize winners doing the Milk Crate Challenge, but that doesn’t mean they can’t impact our environments in similar ways.
This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP Magazine.