x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Life on skid row

Examining the mysterious art of burnouts and the people who make them.

The Canadian film-maker Ariella Pahlke next to a tire skid mark in Terrence Bay, Nova Scotia.
The Canadian film-maker Ariella Pahlke next to a tire skid mark in Terrence Bay, Nova Scotia.

Sixteen years ago, Ariella Pahlke moved out of her small Canadian city, Halifax, into a nearby rural community. With work and friends still in the city, the filmmaker began a routine of regular commuting on a route that offered not much variety in scenery. But something on the road itself began to catch her eye - long, black trails of rubber. "I started to notice the marks," she recalls. "Then I started to really notice them. I had favourites, they would fade, new ones would appear."

Pahlke began to ask her neighbours about the marks, and learnt they were known as burnouts, produced by accelerating a vehicle while the brakes are engaged. As ominous as they are black, skid marks can often denote some terrifying calamity or near-miss, a signal of hair-raising danger more effective than any erected road sign possibly could be. But for Pahlke, the sense of peril of these streaks of rubber was secondary. She saw them more as a deliberate expression, a creation of drivers engaging in a basic human drive to leave a mark.

Some drivers in her area were interested in making their mark. But some were more absorbed by the noise and smoke generated from a burnout. It was actually the noise and smoke that nudged Pahlke's casual interest into high gear. Burnout ruckus interrupted a walk she was enjoying with a friend visiting from Los Angeles. Her friend assumed there was some sort of emergency, and was surprised to learn it was a deliberate undertaking.

Both women are filmmakers, and the conversation naturally turned to the potential of this subject as a film project. Pahlke took her curiosity to the internet. She discovered an international community of burnout fans and participants, posting footage of their best efforts on YouTube, and in some cases bringing a deliberate aesthetic planning to the process. San Francisco's Guy Overfelt, for instance, equips his 1977 Trans Am with tyres of various colours for burnouts, and calls his car a "drawing tool".

Or Lori Hersberger of Switzerland, whose artistic practice has involved video, sculpture, performance and painting, created a show in New York City in which drivers performed burnouts on a blocked-off street. As she investigated the burnout phenomenon further, Pahlke began to develop an idea for a documentary that would look into this intersection of the arts with rural car culture. "I had this fantastical idea that I thought would never happen, but I wrote it into the treatment: bring some of the artists and some of the drivers together for a show of some sort, sponsored by an art gallery.

"I was interested in exploring the relationship between them. If they were going to create a performance together, how would they decide what would make a good show?" She pitched it to a local gallery, and the "fantastical idea" became reality. The exhibit was launched with a public burnout demonstration at a rural location 20 minutes outside the city. A chartered bus shuttled people from the gallery to the site, where, from a safe distance, they witnessed a sort of burnout ballet. Several cars' tyres were destroyed in the process, and the smoke was thick. Hersberger participated, along with a number of local drivers.

Toronto artist Steven Laurie was also there, demonstrating some of his rubber-burning inventions. Laurie applies his Masters of Fine Arts degree to his self-described "blue-collar" interest in hobbies involving vehicle customisation and modification, creating strange, stylised machines based on revving engines and burning rubber, but with no practical function - in effect, motorised sculptures. The audience, a mix of burnout fans and art lovers, hooted and roared with excitement.

Afterwards, the crowd shuttled back to the gallery to view paintings, videos, photographs, and live elements such as Ben Morieson's video game enabling players to create their own virtual burnouts, and Lukas Pearse's performance of music he composed translating tyre marks to musical notation. The gallery exhibit ran for a month, and was one of its most popular shows. Throughout its run, it drew the same diverse audience the burnout demonstration.

Pahlke recorded it all for the documentary, and wrapped up her filming at a Hersberger show in Lyons, France. She began editing in October and will deliver the documentary to Canadian broadcaster Bravo! in early 2009. "Our goal is not purely to be entertaining, although we hope it will entertain," she says. "But we are also trying to raise questions. We are interested in the idea of spectacle. The notion of people being attracted to risk."

motoring@thenational.ae If you have your own burnout footage, Ariella Pahlke may want to include it in her documentary. Contact her at apahlke@yahoo.ca