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Ted Barrow is an Instagram skate critic

DM him a clip and get a review

Words by Max Olijnyk

The first I heard of all this was through a group message from my friend Riley: ‘You guys up on Ted’s new critical page?’ I followed the link and there it was: the perfect Instagram feed. Each post on SwitchbackFeedback is a skatepark clip followed by a brief critique by this guy Ted Barrow. The clips are all submitted via direct message, and the skaters featured range from Ted’s friends (he lives in NYC and hails from Austin, Texas) to random kids in Eastern Europe, and the occasional pro. Astutely observed and unapologetically intellectual, Ted’s self-filmed feedback on everything from the skater’s trick selection to the looseness of their pants is quietly devastating and hilarious. His is the voice of a ‘classical’ upbringing through the schoolyards, curbs and VHS tapes of ’90s skateboarding; of spotting the ‘tells’ of fake style; of assessing someone’s character through their choice of shirt; of a skateboarding obsession born in childhood and carried through to middle-age. Hey, I could relate to him.

‘Noted, loved and followed,’ I replied to Riley’s message. After weeks of prioritising his posts perhaps even over the welfare of my own child, I decided to get in touch with Ted, who works as an art historian and curator, and pick his brain a bit. I even sent him a clip.

MO: What gave you the idea to start your feedback account?

TB: It really came out of group chats with other skaters. I realised we share footage and there’s all these weird inside jokes and commentaries, weird fan fiction that happens—it’s super weird, right? That’s a part of skateboarding that’s always existed but it doesn’t get a lot of coverage, because it’s bizarre and funny.

It is an aspect of skating that is missed in the mainstream media, but it’s always bubbling underneath. I’m on the other side of the world to you, but I can tap right in. It really is the magic of the internet.

That’s the thing. Somehow it moved from the spot where you hurt feelings with your friends, drew blood and tears, to the internet. It’s fun for me and it doesn’t take up a lot of time, and it gives me an opportunity to look at a lot of skateboarding. Also, I believe that skateboarding became what it is through shit-talking and critique. As inarticulate skateboarders can and should be, we are good at identifying what’s wrong or right about a trick or a skater, or how they’re dressed or something. My feed is almost a pastiche of how I judge skateboarders. I want to say something that occurs to me while watching every clip.

It’s very constructive, even when you’re really critical of what they’re doing. You’re quite gentle about it; it’s not vicious at all.

Honestly, I’m the most insecure skateboarder. I wouldn’t want anyone ever to say to me what I say to these people. On the other hand, they sent me their videos and they have to expect something’s going to happen. But I always get a sense of the temperature of the water—if someone seems like I can say some wild shit to them, then I will. If they’re like, ‘Hey man, don’t be too hard on me,’ then I’ll try to respect that. That’s the thing: skateboarding is like the coolest thing, right? Even the worst skateboarding is still rad, because it’s skateboarding. So you can, at any moment, say the most sincere appreciation and paeans to this radical activity to which we all belong, or you can say, ‘No, it fucking sucks.’ I think that’s what’s great about skateboarding: it’s unequivocally rad but also profoundly subjective.

Yeah, and it’s like anything. When you’re talking about skateboarding you’re actually talking about life.

Hopefully. I mean, more so when I’m talking about pro skaters—when I get a street clip.

That’s the rule, right? When someone sends you a street clip, you tell a story?

Yeah. I just decided at first that there was only going to be skatepark clips, because I think park clips are less serious and they’re also what we all see on Instagram. So many people ignore that rule and send me street clips, so I was like, if they’re going to send me a sponsor-me video, I’m going to tell them about my brushes with fame. I’m very aware that the stories are all super pathetic.

I love it, because it’s a behind the curtain view of skateboarding; but also it puts a limit on it and stops it from turning into anything else.

I’ll probably run out; I haven’t got that many pro stories. Let’s turn the tables, what if I sent you a street clip? What’s your favourite pro story?

Okay, I was driving a van for a tour when I was 18 years old and Mike Vallely sat shotgun the whole time. He was filming a documentary at the time.

Was his documentary called Drive?

The one before, Stand Strong.

Ah okay. I just thought it was ironic he was filming a documentary called Drive and he was being driven around.

We’d stopped at a petrol station and I was filling the van, and he was like, ‘No no, Max, let me do it. Hey, film me pumping gas,’ and I just went inside and paid while they filmed it.

Oh I fucking love it, man. Holy shit. That’s a good one; I like it a lot.

You seem to be a natural performer. We get these little hints about your personal life through the feed, is that deliberate?

No, they’re not deliberate; they’re basically what’s on my mind. It’s a weird thing; it’s like rehearsed spontaneity. I sometimes think I can condense what I feel into a 45 second blurb; but sometimes, something personal will come out.

I should say I’m finishing my PhD in art history, and I’ve been a teacher and a tour guide. So the storytelling and the presentation and the lecturing and even to some extent the critiquing are skills I’ve cultivated in other fields.

I always thought skateboarding speaks for itself and it’s very hard to write about. I’ve tried to write about it in the past and I hit a wall where I’m either saying the same thing that Craig Stecyk said in 1976, or I’m trying to explain the dynamics of a backside kickflip to people who don’t know how to push down the street. I think that being this feedback person is utterly ridiculous; it’s absurd. But all of skateboarding is equally as pointless and absurd, so I want to combine these two pointless things.

But isn’t everything pointless in a way? Isn’t writing about art pointless?

Yeah, definitely.

But applying that level of interrogation and the vernacular, and turning it into an intellectual pursuit when, you know, Grant Taylor’s the best skateboarder on earth, is kind of the point.

I agree. I think there’s a difference between trying to explain art and skateboarding, though. Art is a medium that is designed to communicate. I don’t agree with the statement a lot of artists make: ‘if you don’t make art, you don’t talk about art because you don’t understand art,’ fuck that. It’s a symbolic language that we live with and think about, and it informs our culture in profound ways. Having someone like me if not explain it, then ask questions that open up that work of art to people; I think is an important thing. I don’t have to be an artist to do that, whereas I don’t want anyone who doesn’t skateboard to know about skateboarding. But I also think that there’s the activity, there’s the culture, then there’s the industry—those are all separate. The activity is sacred; the culture is ludic, it’s satirical; it is strangely intellectual. When I started skateboarding, I read every magazine. It gave me a language, a wardrobe…

Everything.

…a culture. It was a thing I felt I belonged to. There were bad things to that as well, like the fucking goofy boy pants and all the stupid trends that we all adhered to and still adhere to. Then there’s the industry, which is its own thing too; it’s a necessary evil. But I think that the act of skateboarding can’t be talked about. It is truly performative and sacred but luckily there is this very rich culture surrounding it.

In one of your posts, someone was saying, ‘What gives you the right to critique this?’ and you were like, ‘I think I’m perfectly qualified.’

I realised this maybe a decade ago, when I wanted to do an oral history of skate plazas. Luckily I had access to a lot of people who skated the (Brooklyn) banks, so I sat down with dozens of these old New York locals. What I realised was that people who were in the thick of it, the best skaters and the most notorious board-jackers and thugs, they were the people who talked less. They were weirdly tacit and somehow diplomatic, whereas the people who came to the banks and watched all those people, they had the best stories. I’ve always been in an extremely tertiary position. I knew from an early age that I was never going to be sponsored, but I loved the culture, I loved the activity. I’ve been doing it for three decades and I still love it, I’m still stoked on it. I’ve never had that ego thing of, like: ‘I’m the best here.’ I got to watch the best, everywhere.

When skateboarders are like, ‘You can’t do a fucking backside noseblunt so what are you talking about?’ Like, fuck you. You think I haven’t seen a backside noseblunt and can’t figure it out? I know what they look like, and I know a good one and a bad one.

It’s interesting what you’re saying about the levels, because I know when I skate, I am reminded and humbled and it makes me appreciate the way I engage with clips and stuff.

I have been around high-level skateboarders, and they’re not the most observant people. I’m drawn to them and think those dudes are amazing, but they’re not noticing what I’m noticing. They’re just clearing their minds so they can do something insane, which I get to think about for the rest of my life. I still skate and I don’t really push myself, I just try to maintain. But I am so far from the point of ever clearing my mind; I’m overthinking everything. And this isn’t a critique on you, but in that clip you sent me

Oh, yeah.

The frontside ollie over the hip was nice, but you were thinking about your roll down the bank when you landed it. I could tell because I do that same thing. It’s the self-consciousness and awareness that happens when you’re older, because you are worried about getting hurt and you do have a lot of other things on your mind. You are overthinking skateboarding, as much as you don’t want to and you know it’s a cardinal sin, you’re doing it. You know what I mean?

I totally do, and it reminds me of another one of your posts that cut quite close to my bone. You were giving the guy props because he was 35 years old and still skating, but you also felt like he was using that as an excuse. I do that.

When you’re younger, you’re good and you’re landing shit more, you don’t give yourself a lot of self-props; it’s frowned upon. But it’s okay to be old and not give a shit, and get stoked on doing something dumb. And luckily for guys like us, Instagram came around and you can get props from everyone. If I were a kid, I would fucking hate me. They should not get it, because I remember seeing those old guys and they were fucking pathetic.

I hated those old guys!

Those old guys were so much younger than us.

But somehow it’s okay.

It’s probably not okay.

But I think the industry has adapted as well. It embraces the old guys in a big way. It puts weight on, you know, Gino (Iannucci) and so on. That’s as it should be, I guess.

That’s a good observation.

I also wanted to talk to you about fashion, because it’s a part of the culture that isn’t discussed much, and it’s so important.

To me it’s really interesting; it’s no longer about progress or evolution, it’s like a post-modern pastiche of something that happened before. Kids can watch all the ’90s videos on YouTube then they can get the big jeans. Clearly I prefer Ethan Fowler from A Visual Soundthat’s my fucking ideal for skateboard fashion. It looks great; it’s clean, it’s classic. Not that he didn’t change; he changed in really awesome and crazy ways. But that look was perfect and that skateboarding moment was perfect for me. I dress like shit, and I know the fashion stuff is the most pointless stuff I say on this thing, but I also think it’s rare because no one else is talking about it. We all think about it and we all talk about it.

And it’s such a clue to a skater’s personality, especially on the blank canvas of the skatepark.

That’s a good way to put it. The skatepark is very much a blank canvas because it takes you out of the urban context you would be in.

I feel like the visual language of the industry-produced skate video is becoming quite archaic and weird. I get so sick of hearing people talking about how hard it is to film a video part, even though I know it’s terribly difficult and important. To me, the skateboarding going on in your feed is way more interesting and is more engaging, and it tells me more.

But do you think we’ve become lazy? We can only get skateboarding in 15-second snippets?
And fuck people who complain how hard it is to make skateboard videos and all that. These are people who had a career in the late ’90s when there was a lot of money for some weird reason, but all the classic videos that I grew up on were filmed on shoestring budgets. It’s not like the industry’s changed that much. You can still make a long video, it’s just no one wants to watch it because there’s other shit that’s more compelling out there. You can watch Tiago switch back tail a house.

Do you have a plan for where it’s going to go from here?

There’s no way to monetise it. If I continue to have things to say about these clips, I will continue to say things about them. At first I was like, I want to do this on the pros. Like I want Daewon to send me a clip and I want to make fun of his beanie. But then I was like, maybe not. I think it’s better for whoever sends me a clip to get critiqued.

Is there anything else you want to say?

As an art historian, I’m a different thing to an art critic, but Robert Hughes is my favourite critic. The byline for the account is: ‘Nothing if not critical’ which is the title of his collected book of reviews. I think he was amazing. I think that if there needed to be a skateboard critic, it should be someone like Robert Hughes: kind of polemic, verbose, pugilistic and often quite wrong.

Have you just sort of described yourself?

I hope so.

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