Recurring Themes, Part Six: Sleeper Artifacts

January 21st, 2008 | Category: Essays, Videos

“The essence of culture is found in all its artifacts.”
— Pete Robinson in Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World

During one of our mid-session chats at the skatepark recently, my friend Greg mentioned that a lot of the older guys he skated with at various parks, guys who’d skated back in the late 70s and early 80s, started skateboarding again after seeing the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary. I don’t know why, but this struck me as an odd phenomenon. I guess because it was a halo effect I hadn’t thought about.

Similarly, in Doug Pray’s 2001 movie Scratch, in interviews with a lot of today’s prominent turntablists, one of the questions was, “What made you want to be a DJ?” A large majority of the interviewees named Herbie Hancock’s 1983 hit “Rockit” as the defining impetus for their becoming DJs. This also struck me as odd since the main thing that stuck with me about that song was the video’s disturbing robotic mannequins (see below). “Rockit” is also a total anomaly in the Herbie Hancock canon, but it brought scratching to the mainstream with its infectious hook, based on the frenetic but rhythmic scratches of GrandMixer DST alongside Hancock’s catchy keyboards and mechanized vocals. Unbeknownst to me, it also had a major role in setting off what would become the turntablism movement — the DJ as musician.

RadI read a similar series of interviews with professional BMX riders a few years ago, and the same question was posed to the day’s top pros. Again, a large majority cited one cultural artifact as their starting point. This time, it was the 1986 Hal Needham movie Rad. Given my age, and the fact that I was already deep into BMX when Rad came out (I clearly remember going to see it the night it opened in my town in Alabama), I never thought that it would affect the sport the way it obviously did.

Along the same lines, Duane Pitre claimed Back to the Future (1985) was the reason he started skateboarding, and I’m guessing he’s not the only one.

These few examples demonstrate clearly to me that culture is about our relationships to cultural artifacts, and not necessarily their intended purposes. It’s about the effects of artifacts, and not the artifacts themselves. It’s about the ripple, not the rock.

I always cite James Gleick‘s Chaos as a turning point in my adult life. Reading that book turned me back into a reader and set me on my way to graduate school.

What cultural artifacts changed your path or had a deep impact on you?

Here is the aforementioned video for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (runtime: 3:25):

Further Posting: