Doctor of Philosophy
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Warren, Andrew, Soulful work or selling the soul? Cultural production and the custom surfboard industry, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, 2012. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3486
This thesis documents custom surfboard-making as a distinctive cultural industry, drawing on archival and ethnographic work with eighteen surfboard workshops and their eighty-seven workers operating in four renowned surfing regions: O`ahu Hawai`i, southern California, Gold Coast and Illawarra regions, Australia. As a cultural industry, custom surfboard production is tightly linked to physical geography. Focused in coastal settings, board design is driven by the creativity of key individuals who seek to produce a faster, smoother and more responsive ride for surfers specific to prevailing waves and surf breaks. Unlike many other forms of commodity production, surfboard markers are not detached from their customers; instead makers depend on local surfing communities, providing a customised experience where the consumer meets with and even surfs alongside the craftsperson. Surfboards are thus central to surfing participation, sharing important cultural origins, stories and rituals.
The production of surfboards is, however, in a state of flux. Since the 1950s the international growth of surfing as an industry has been driven by convergence with other popular culture and media industries (TV, sport, tourism, fashion, film and music). This has given rise to transnational firms including Billabong and Quiksilver that package the surf in the form of equipment, clothing and fashion accessories. Such firms now dominate a multi-billion dollar industry with tentacles spreading into various other lifestyle and leisure pursuits. Against a background where consolidation of corporate power and offshore manufacturing have up-scaled surfboard production, I document how independent custom workshops survive in surf-friendly coastal regions.
They do so through their use of two cultural production systems. The first enrols hand-based crafting methods and emphasises customisation. Here surfboards are made to suit local environmental conditions and individual surfers: customers pay high price for quality, hand-made and personalised products. This system relies on artisanal skills gained over years or even decades, and specialised, embodied knowledge, where artisans produce boards for consumers they know and will see riding them. Board-makers are iconic individuals within regional surf scenes, and take great pride in the practice of crafting tangible cultural products in this way, by hand. Yet this system of production is vulnerable to growing external competition from imported, mass produced boards. Hence independent workshops have increasingly turned to a second system: one that has speeded-up production following a computerised process that generates replicated boards for mass consumption. Relying on networks of surf retailers, sponsorship of professional surfers, and niche branding strategies, independent surfboard workshops can through automation make more boards than is possible through customisation, and thus potentially access wider markets for their products.
While fifteen of the eighteen participating workshops have shifted production towards the use of mechanised technologies – to varying degrees – all but three maintain hand-shaping techniques, guarding hard-gained skills while lending cultural capital to their customised surfboards and brand identity. Their ageing makers – all of whom are men, the outcome of the highly gendered surfing subculture – consequently survive precariously in financial and logistical terms, the result of limited production capacity. Working hours and conditions have become erratic and irregular, rates of pay fluctuate across short temporal scales, skills development is informal and there is a lack of succession planning amongst an older generation of craftsman.
Why hand-makers ultimately persist with uncertain, lowly paid and demanding jobs relates to the emotional transactions surrounding this form of cultural work. To understand meaning and value in this cultural industry I adapt the notion of an emotional terrain to expose the attachments and passions of surfboard-makers to their jobs. While uncovering deeply pleasurable pay-offs – surfboard shapers frequently described it as ‘soulful work’, making artful physical artefacts they saw being used locally, that linked to regional traditions, and in which they could take pride – there are equally significant unpleasurable experiences where workers are open to exploitation. Here discourses of ‘flexibility’ and ‘lifestyle work’ within surfing subculture mask more sinister conditions for labour. As surfboard production has shifted from labour-intensive to capital-intensive methods, automated production has become a flashpoint between workshop owners and their workers. The advent of automated production only increases the sense amongst these precarious workers that they make ‘soulful’ products using rare, inherited skills, valuable to surfing subculture beyond purely ‘economic’ considerations. I argue that for symbolic goods like surfboards, analysis can fruitfully combine political-economic considerations (competition, work place relations, labour markets, technological change) with greater sensitivity to local subcultural settings and the emotional transactions of cultural work. In the surfboard industry subcultural motivations powerfully drive design and production, and persistence with precarious forms of work. Hand-shaping survives only because of embodied and emotional connections to the work and to surfing subculture more generally.