Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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Dave Crellin: Troubled Waters

The Ocean as Contested Space in California Surf Culture

Dave Crellin "Troubled Waters: The Ocean as Contested Space in California Surf Culture"

“Troubled Waters: The Ocean as Contested Space in California Surf Culture,” is a site-specific intervention exploring the history of white supremacy, racialized exclusion, and erasure in the formation of the so-called “California Dream” in surf and beach popular culture throughout Pacific Coast leisure spaces. There are several levels to the project- an ongoing, multimedia installation taking place at surf sites along the California coast; activism within surf marketing and consumer culture to foster greater diversity and representation; audio recordings highlighting first-person narratives from surfers of color relating their experiences, and a website to engage, challenge, educate, and importantly, encourage opportunities to lend support and signal-boost organizations that are painting a new portrait of surf culture, pushing back against narratives that have typically been presented.

Troubled Waters: The Ocean as Contested Space in California Surf Culture is an intervention, an accountability, and a call-to-action.  A series of surf stickers, mimicking those that exist throughout surf culture, have been placed in well-established surfing locales along the California Coast, from Santa Cruz to San Diego. The QR codes embedded in the stickers lead viewers to contemporary and historical archival material that illustrate the undercurrents of racism and hegemony throughout surfing’s colonial history, problematizing the rendering of surf and beach culture as an egalitarian realm, open to all. At selected surf spots on the coast, I engage in conversation with surfers and other beachgoers, recording their reactions and comments as further documentation. I have also contacted local businesses that profit from surf marketing and culture to create pathways that foster greater diversity and representation in their visual advertising landscape, and the “histories” they present to that end. 

The accompanying website provides access to further viewing and reading that engages the history of surfing through a critical lens, in both scholarship and popular culture, audio recordings from surfers of color relating their lived experience with surfing and racism, links to websites and organizations of color that are reclaiming the ocean and beaches on their terms, inscribing a contemporary chronicle that imagines an oceanic ecosystem of diversity, equity, inclusion, and encourages opportunities to lend material support to these organizations. 

I was raised in Southern California and spent almost all my time at the ocean. As a white person, I grew up ingesting a false narrative about the history and culture of surfing and beach life. A story that normalized and foregrounded white experience, while erasing the participation and historical precedent of people of color in creating, defining, and shaping the sport of surfing. This project was borne out of a sense of anger and shame to have been part of a racialized culture that created and allowed such intolerance and divisiveness to exist, all the while espousing values purported to lie at the heart of surfing- equality, community, inclusion, and respect. I came to the realization that to honor the generative lessons that I believe the ocean and surfing offers, we must be willing to look deeply and critically at the whitewashing of surf culture, its participation in perpetuating racism, and the lack of representation and inclusion that persists in surfing, in all its aspect, to this day.

Otherwise, the echoes of racism and exclusion will continue to lie beneath the surface of the waves, as a form of oceanic pollution, hauntological detritus, coastal decimation, and climate disaster. My hope is that this project instantiates a reckoning and reevaluation in white surf culture, brings greater awareness to surfers of color, scholars, activists, and creatives working to change surf culture, and opens further space to reimagine the beach and ocean as places of equity, inclusion, diversity, and community.