The debate, such as it is, about the future of professional surfing has calcified into two main groups. The first enjoys professional surfing in the WSL mold. They tune into the webcasts, read power rankings, play Fantasy Surfer, and generally treat the sport as they would any other. I call this the Australian view of surfing.
The second group disdains the paradigm of competition on the grounds that it has made surfing beholden to corporate interests and in doing so, forced it into a homogenizing mold that sucks “soul” from it. Those who favor this opinion hold a more American view of surfing as the semi-divine pursuit of an elite, counter-cultural vanguard favoring freedom and hedonism over the restraints of the dominant, land-based culture. In this vein, surfers like Adrian Buchan and Adriano de Souza are viewed as boring, or uncool, while guys who have been marketed on the opposite end of the spectrum, like Dane Reynolds, Ozzie Wright, and Jamie O’Brien reign supreme.
Guess what? There is little to no difference between these two groups. In one, young men lug board bags around the world to surf in what is, at best, a strange and incongruous way to package a strange and incongruous activity, and at worst an elaborate marketing campaign. In another, young men lug board bags around the world in an elaborate marketing campaign. The waves are better, and the men are better looking, but other than that, “freesurfing” is just a creative way to sell soft goods.
I’m not a rabid fan of competitive surfing, though I do follow it and watch the occasional webcast. For all its shortcomings, one thing I like about it is that it still contains the odd unscripted moment. Nobody, least of all Billabong, wanted Joel Parkinson to lose the World Title in 2009, but no amount of corporate backing could save him. It was painful to watch. The highs and lows of competition also defined the career of Andy Irons, indeed made him the icon that so many adore.
In comparison, freesurfing has no unscripted moments because its only internal logic is to serve larger corporate interests. In fact, I think that the word “freesurfing,” in its current paradigm, should probably carry a trademark sign. It’s not a lifestyle; it’s lifestyle marketing dedicated to selling people their own culture based on hoary tropes like freedom, booze, drugs, virgin frontiers, innocent outlaws, willing women, happy go lucky bums, road trips when gas was under 5 dollars a gallon, cultural exploration before suicide bombers, living rough for the sake of your art, and on, and on, ad infinitum.
It’s all utter bullshit.
When Jamie O’Brien burns an ASP rule book in his video, which retails for $8.99 on iTunes, the decision to do so, whether his own, or that of one of the writers or producers of the film, is discussed, developed, and shot by a team of professionals, probably numerous times. It is not a spontaneous moment; it is not an act of deep-seated rebellion; it is the melodramatic pantomime of the advertising agent of a global snake oil brand. It is the recreation of the imitation of a symbolic act, a picture of a facsimile, less than meaningless.
O’Brien, aside from being an outstanding surfer, is a very savvy businessman. In this way, he is similar to that other oft-mentioned brand, Dane Reynolds. Reynolds, you will recall, penned what some called a manifesto when he left the World Tour. He outdid the grandiosity of even his fans, but in a, you know, ironic way, (cuz he was like, so over it, presumably) and titled it “A Declaration of Independence.” In it, he paints competition surfing as prescribed and stolid and his decision to leave it as a turning point in a personal quest for learning, growth, and high-performance surfing. Then he was free™! To surf how he wanted, ride what he wanted, and make an estimated $23 million dollars over six years to do it. Wait, what?
Behind the thin façade of Asperger nonchalance that Reynolds cultivates sits a man who, either through his own shrewdness or that of others, is very good at controlling the image he presents to his adoring public through the media. This, combined with great surfing, has made him the new messiah of all those people who want to believe in freesurfing™. What he either doesn’t understand, or more likely is unwilling to admit, is that his quest for freedom is, like O’Brien’s rebellion, just branding.
None of this lessens either surfer in my eyes. When they stand up on their surfboards, they are my favorite riders in the world. The same goes for their non-competing brethren, most of whom are simply are not cut out to consistently flourish at a highly competitive level. Freesurfing™ allows them to make a living doing what they love and allows us to enjoy their talents via web clips and magazines. You should respect their savvy as businessmen and brands. But whatever you do, do not buy their bullshit gospel of freedom and rebellion.
There is nothing, I repeat, nothing honest, or pure, humble, noble or soulful about chugging a can of Red Bull with a camera trained on you, while girls dance in the background. Same goes for plastering your body and your board with Quiksilver logos – no matter how “artsy,” or improvised they might look. These people are advertisers, and they or whoever sits just behind them pulling the strings are trying to fade you and everyone you know. It’s your responsibility not to let them.
I appreciate the big surf companies for producing great wetsuits, the occasional t-shirt, and indirectly paying me through money from the surf magazines I write for. I appreciate their goal of making a living and providing for their families. I appreciate that they love surfing. But there is a good quote from the somewhat overplayed graffitero, Banksy, which I’d like to refer to:
“You owe companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”
The future of surfing culture rests not on some media-invented, categorically false argument about competitive and freesurfers™; it rests on whether or not we are able to separate what we do from what we buy. In order to do that, we are going to have to take a long hard look at how we define “free” in a hyper-consumerist world. Twenty three million dollars to produce the odd web clip isn’t creative freedom; it’s corporate schilling of the most extreme kind. If we have reached the point when the difference between what our heroes want to do and what they are paid to do in order to sell us things has become indistinguishable, then we are looking at the death of this culture and anything it might have originally championed.
The upside is that there are still a few, honest-to-God free surfers left in the world. They are you, dear reader, and me, and all the rest of the faceless hoard who will never make a magazine cover or be paid to sticker our boards. We surf for free, and therefore are free to surf how, when, and why we choose.