Photo by Jason Magid @jmagmedia
This one was a doozy. It’s been on the shelf for a while. I had three separate discussions with Abraham Dubin, aka Orange Man or Abe, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to compile it all together. Many skaters are worth examining as an artist, and Abe has helped me parse through some of the ways that presents itself. What I have here is a longer interview with him about his work presented alongside some of his video pieces, sculptures, and collages. We didn’t get into his non-video stuff, but I think they offer a nice emphasis to his process and philosophies.
When it comes to releasing work, you could practically set your clock to Abe. His weekly uploads have made it nearly impossible to keep this piece current, as he outpaces anything I’m thinking about by a mile with new uploads. In the end, I realized that’s fine – I believe this stuff will be worth accessing for a while. I see Abe as a skater who is truly building a lifetime’s body of work that will contain more and more layers as time goes on. Casual followers may be familiar with his colorful getups or his delightful and convoluted board contraptions – the making and skating of which is a trait he shares with fellow Fancy Lad team rider Matt Tomasello. A slightly deeper dive may have led to his YouTube channel where he meticulously chronicles his skateboard life to a point of near obsession. It’s skateboarding that approaches performance and video art. This characteristic is what drew me deeper into his world, past the normal perspectives of skate culture, to learn about him as an artist.
He comes from the South Shore of Massachusetts – Plymouth, of the Pilgrim fame – and started skating around the middle school years when many people do. He’s almost two decades into it now. So, if you’re sick of Orange Man or think he’s got a shtick, maybe keep reading and see if we can’t change your mind.
What type of skating were you first into?
I remember going to a used sports store with my dad and getting one of those flexy translucent yellow banana boards. I wasn’t really trying to do tricks, I thought they weren’t for me. I kind of thought you just make up your own tricks – which is sort of the case. I didn’t know there was this whole rule book – that came later.
How’d you progress? What kept you skating and moving into learning tricks?
By the time I was a teenager I was skating with a solid crew of neighborhood guys. One of my buddies – Mike Decker – was the best around so skating with him helped me because we kind of used each other to measure ourselves. I guess that’s kind of how it goes. You need people there who are at a similar level to keep pushing you and keep you interested. Of course we were also obsessed with all the videos. That was a huge inspiration. If you don’t watch skate videos I don’t even know how you come up with what tricks you want to learn. You can’t make all of those up on your own! No skating exists in a vacuum.
When did you start turning towards “Orange Man” in your skating career?
I didn’t really have a “career” before Orange Man. We would film but it wasn’t for anything more than a homie video. But then my buddy Nick AKA Big started Fancylad – I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time – and he said “I’m starting a board company so you should move back.” I eventually moved back to Massachusetts and we started to skate together more and I saw the video that they were working on. I thought it was so experimental – everything about it was a critique of skating and skate videos. Now we had a “reason to film.”
So did you kind of make yourself a video identity?
That’s absolutely correct.
How did you settle on your persona?
There were a couple of really eccentric guys in my hometown. One was Yellow Man who was obsessed with yellow and sort of looked like a wizard. This other guy Red Man dressed in all red. I think he had some sort of mental disability. For some reason they happened to live in the same South Shore town – Hanover – and were both obsessed with one color and lived in their own reality, sort of. That is to say, they kind of warped the reality of everyone else who encountered them because they were proof that you don’t have to buy your cargo pants at Old Navy. Or that you don’t have to go to high school and immediately find your job or go to college. There’s endless options and endless parallel dimensions you can take your idea of self. And then red and yellow make orange.
It seems more or less like five years ago you started uploading your own stuff to YouTube. When and how did you start filming yourself?
I kind of think of these videos as my diary. They’re not necessarily the greatest trick that I’ve ever done. They’re more about “this is what’s going on in my life.” This week or this month or even just this day. I want to express something that I can’t even put into words and just kind of capture the moment.
Your videos really do act as a journal – I learn things about you. For instance, I found out you got married from one of your videos. Why include these personal bits?
You ever hear of the concept of the “second brain?” I think of my notebook as a second brain and I think of the camera and a finished video as a second brain. Even if it’s not a precious moment, I still want proof of it. I think that’s a lot of why we as a culture are obsessed with documentation. We need to prove to ourselves and others that we exist. It’s part of a larger question – not just that I exist – but I like to prove that this experience is a lucid dream. We have so much potential to create whatever we want with that.
What do you film with?
I wanted to thank my buddy, Dave Darling. He let me borrow his Sony handycam because he believed in me and knew that I wanted to make my videos. I’ve been basically buying a series of that same camera since. It’s like the cheapest one you can get but it’s still HD and I kind of just run it until it eventually breaks because it’s just a plastic thing and my board seems to be magnetized to it. It’s kind of like having a crappy board – you’re not as afraid of getting it destroyed. You just express yourself until it’s completely destroyed.
There’s a real sense of your body in the world and space around you. It seems like a performance – do you consider that you’re filming yourself and putting it on YouTube as a performance?
Of course. I’ve always thought that skating is a performance art but it’s not pushed enough in that direction. It’s more in the direction of ice skating. It’s like a dangerous dance. There is a direction in there. I do consider myself a performance artist. Being Orange Man is that.
That gives a lot of your work an almost Dadaist edge, like Outsider Art in the skate world. I don’t think you bake it in there on purpose but you seem to have a gleeful disdain for what’s popular in mainstream skating.
My biggest inspiration is finding what is considered cool and then trying to break that down. Which is the complete opposite of what it should be. If you’re feeding what’s cool then you’re just as much a part of the capitalist system as everything else.
Where do you think you fall on the spectrum of skateboarding videos, one side being absurdist abstract art and the other being an advertisement?
I almost don’t think there is absurdist abstract art in skating. I think skate video production has increased a lot in the last few years to where things are tasteful like a music video and not heartfelt enough. They’re still plainly packaged. I think I’m more on that side of the music video. It’s supposed to be, as I said, a kind of video diary. At the end of the day I want to leave things raw.
How did this apply to one of your longer, more recent projects, EITHOR OR. That had this whole mirror/symmetry motif and you were pushing it right around when Verso came out…
I was thinking about Verso when doing that, though I actually had the idea and started it before really linking it to Verso. Then the timing kind of worked out. It’s not about doing amazing tricks ambidextrously, it’s just about the board itself being ambidextrous. I’ve been thinking about this for a while with all the boards that I make – skateboards are kind of all alike in that all the pieces are interchangeable. The modern skateboard is refined to a point where all pieces are compatible with each other and the skateboard itself is a mirror image of itself.
I was so excited about the Mark Suciu video but then I saw it and it seemed to me to be still industry-standard skateboarding. There was nothing new or conceptual to it. So I was thinking “industry standard skateboarding” leads to an “industry standard” skateboard and thinking about how a skateboard exists as a post-industrial revolution “product.” They’re mass produced and they’re meant to be easily replaced and all the pieces can replace themselves. I sort of went off on a tangent thinking about how the skateboard is a thing that can be easily disposed of and replaced kind of like all skateboard content now. Or skateboarders themselves. Also I was trying to do a skateboarding video that doesn’t really involve skateboarding. It’s just about the board. The board is doing the trick.
You were making an art piece. A skateboard art piece, if that’s how you want to view it.
Oh, absolutely. That’s what I’m going for. I think what makes anything fine art is the simplicity of idea which leads to less effort in execution. Something so concept-heavy that there’s almost nothing to it physically. A single line on a canvas representing the “divine” or something.
What do you think that says about other pieces, such as Verso. I’m not trying to set you up here, but just since you mention it. How would you say that compares? Is that the same kind of art?
I would say no, it isn’t. I don’t think it’s art and I don’t think it does what it sets out to achieve. But I do like that it’s one of the first mainstream conceptual videos, at least theoretically, and I like that it is meant to be pretentious. There’s a lot of pretentiousness and elitism in skateboarding but not that much in the intellectual realm. It’d be interesting to see if that evolves any further beyond one college-educated skater who is kind of a self-proclaimed artist. It’s an interesting new image. I’m tongue-in-cheek about it and I like the idea of the artsy side of skateboarding being pretentious just as a gag.
So, with EITHOR OR or even shorter-form projects, what is the start-to-finish process of making a video?
Often, it has to do with the location. Before the invented boards or the total mockery of skating, my main love and interest was spots and how something that seems so ordinary to someone can be the most fantastic thing to someone else. A lot of the time I’m out on my bike and I’ll be creeping along very slowly and I’ll find something and circle it. Stand real close and stare at it. I keep a notebook or I’ll take a picture of it on my flip phone. That’s usually the main stimulus. Sometimes I’ll measure the spot with my little measuring tape and I’ll figure out that if I build a board specifically tailored to it I can make something happen. I may not have thought of a board before I see the spot. The spot is speaking to me in a kind of way.
Sometimes it seems like you focus on a color or shape or infrastructural cue in a spot.
Totally. I think that once you notice one of a certain type of spot you start to see it everywhere. You’re thinking about it and looking for it to present itself. If I’m looking for a tiny sliver in a wall for me to barely slip through with a board I’ll start seeing them everywhere. It becomes kind of a scavenger hunt for a collection of how many different spots of a certain type are in my specific area and how many are even possible to skate.
I can relate – if I see a spot in my neighborhood that I think is skateable and pass by it every day without skating it I start getting antsy about it. What does the spot hunt feel like for you?
Finding spots for me is like an animal finding a water oasis that will keep it alive. It’s more spiritual than anything. I’m gathering these moments or supplies as my “nuts and berries” that are gonna sustain me through the mundane work week. It’s really more for my soul. I think we aren’t challenged enough in a real-world survival way. I like to find a healthy challenge that will maybe beat me up or make me feel physically exhausted or mentally drained. Generally, for people like me in modern society, survival is pretty much guaranteed. And in that, apathy and depression is rampant.
What do you do for work?
I’ll tell you straight up – I don’t make any money from skating. Some people have gotten the wrong impression about that in the past. I’m proud to have to work because it kind of keeps you grounded. I work for a bike share. What that entails is riding my bike around the city basically tuning up rental bikes. In that, I have a ton of opportunity to notice city infrastructure changing or all the architecture that could be used for certain tricks.
You use a lot of angles and extreme closeups that seem like they don’t portray the skating that great but in the end does. How do you make your filming decisions?
A lot of people have asked me “why so many angles” – that’s their main critique. Sometimes I find it bizarre and unnecessary myself. I think it’s that I’m truly just enjoying the process. I’m in a meditation mode or trance where I’m doing it over and over and getting better at it and it’s becoming more my true voice as my body becomes more adapted to it and I’m mentally more in tune with it. The more I film it from different angles the more I might achieve what I’m actually envisioning. Ironically, achieving what you’re actually envisioning is almost impossible. Often, I’ll use the first land because it has the most character and because it’s not refined. But, on the whole, I want it to be a medley – especially because I use classical music that kind of uses the same themes over and over. I want it to have as many notes as possible. Kind of like Mozart, even – too many notes.
Tell me more about the music – what’s your mindset behind it? How do you go about picking it?
Lately my process for choosing music has been putting on the local Baltimore classical radio station. If something comes on that really strikes me, I’ll just start filming my radio. When one little piece is really speaking to me I’ll chop it up and find a home for it. In a way, it’s like a temporary spot. It’s almost like surfing a wave. This music is coming in and it’s like the most temporary ephemeral thing. You can’t really stop or pause it, you just have to get it while you can. That’s how a lot of spots are. It might be destroyed tomorrow or have a car parked in front of it. You just have to get there while you can.
Also, my wife is a classical violinist so I’ve been exposed to a lot of stuff through her repertoire. She’s really been – instrumental – hehe – in exposing me to classical music. Part of the reason classical works for what I’m doing is because its all variations on a theme. There’s kind of this back theme that is driving it and then a lot of variations within it. Modern rock and stuff that is typically in skate videos is not as multi-layered. Using classical music is one part ironic and another part positioning it as a valid art form. Like a ballet or a technique-based dance or musical art form. I think of skating in terms of music a lot because it’s a totally involved physical and emotional thing.
Do you decide on the length of your videos beforehand? Or is it based on what you shot? The way people react to the video seems varied to me – some of the longer ones have the most views compared to some of the shorter ones, like “The Golden Ticket.” What’s up with that?
The ones that are longer I put a lot more care and thought into. They’re projects that may have been going for a few months. They’re a lot more important to me so I kind of shop them around to see if an online magazine will host them to feel a bit more validated in my efforts.
I’ve had the opportunity to have stuff on Transworld and other places. I had this sort of show on the Thrasher site, “Orange Mansion,” that me and one of my best buddies growing up made together.
Then there’s also the other ones that I just went out skating and this is what I found. Those I don’t feel the need to get them out there as much because they’re kind of more for me. There’s something cool about the fact that it’s not well publicized. If you listen to indie music it’s kind of more fun if the band is not well known. It’s more personal to you as the audience. For instance, when you approached me to say you enjoyed my YouTube videos I thought “Wow, most people don’t even know about them or care.” So you’re interested in a different aspect of what I do. With that I feel like we have a connection even though we barely know each other.
I feel that from my side too! I relate in a way. I like the medium of YouTube a lot and I like how you’re using it.
I grew up with YouTube. For me, that’s the way you put stuff out. Instagram still hasn’t really set into me as a truly established point of expression. It’s too short. I often max out my little instagram edits. It’s only 60 seconds long. The younger generation has a shorter attention span I guess or as a working adult maybe you don’t have a full 5 minutes to watch a video. You gotta take care of kids, get back to work, whatever it is.
I think we’ve gone through the gist of it here. Anything else you’d like to add?
I have one question for you, actually.
How’d you find my YouTube in the first place? Was it through Fancy Lad or my Instagram?
It wasn’t through Instagram. I must have seen a video posted somewhere. Maybe it was through the Instagram explore page, actually…I don’t even remember. I lurk. I sort of have a daily YouTube regimen, though thankfully I’m falling off it a bit. I love finding someone who’s constantly making stuff but isn’t necessarily famous or sponsored. I knew your skating from Fancy Lad so it must have come my way somehow.
Just curious. Because people who prefer my personal YouTube…I’m curious about them.
I feel more reverence in the practice of taking in media on a computer.
Oh, for sure. You can sit there and eat a meal.
I feel more like I’m in my home or my space. I guess kids feel that way with their phones.
Remember there was a time we were saying the computer screen is too small compared to a TV? Now we’re saying the phone is so small compared to a computer screen.
And the TV is too small compared to a movie theater. Maybe we’ll be looking at our fingernails soon.
It’s all a projection on your own retina.