Meet the NYC art student who’s slid into sight with his frictionless freedom. This is the electrifying zing of Byron Bay’s Ari Browne.
“Yeah, I just got out of the shower and I’m sitting here nude. In the sun. It’s quite pleasant really. What are you up to?” After informing him my clothed body is planning a full day of clothed activities, I discuss the idea of catching up later to interview him for Surfing World. “Great,” replies Nude Ari. The man who threatens to turn finless surfing into something truly revolutionary – revolutionary in terms beyond simply spinning wildly on a wave – turns up to the interview fully clothed. Minus shoes of course. One of his fellow art students had used flour as snow as part of her installation earlier in the day, and as we sit on the edge of Bangalow Creek, Ari’s dangling his dusty white feet into the water as we discuss matters of surfing and art. “Man,” he grizzles, “It feels like I’ve got bread between my toes.”
Ari Browne answers the phone i n the nude. Thankfully it's only a voice call.
SW: You’ve just about finished an Arts degree. Have you always been artistically inclined? AB: Yeah, I went to a school that promoted individual expression. That came naturally to me anyway, but the school nurtured it. I come from a creative family too, and it’s always been something I’ve found fulfilling, relaxing and stimulating.
How would you describe your painting style? Look, it’s so varied it’s hard to pin it down to one thing, but I like approaching things in a way that’s relevant to the medium. If I’m doing a painting I like to treat the paint like paint. Materiality is a big thing for me. I was just doing some printmaking and it’s interesting for me to reference the history of printmaking while I’m doing it. My art has always been a combination of the materials I like working with, the ideas that I like, and making them fit the themes I want to convey. It’s about using those tools to be an effective communicator. Something like that.
Is there a central theme that runs through everything you do artistically? It’s always changing. I move around a lot but have always liked popular culture. I always liked landscapes too. It’s hard to talk about it objectively and answer the question, what it is exactly I do, because I don’t think about that a lot.
You talked about pop culture references; what kind and what era hold an interest for you? It’s interesting to look at contemporary popular culture, people like Caitlin Jenner and everything that’s happened around her and how all that stuff works in the States. It’s such a weird world, pop culture. I try and express it humorously although it’s hard to avoid a bit of darkness creeping in.
You spent time recently studying art in New York. Yeah, I did six months at a place called the Pratt Institute. It was crazy. It was an exchange for six months and I got there in the winter and it was freezing. It was the year of those big blizzards. It was just as valuable as a cultural experience for me as it was academically. I had heaps of beer to drink and there were so many dive bars there. I think I saw them all.
How did a kid from Byron find his feet in the big city? I felt displaced for the first month, trying to understand everything, but after a while I realised that was unachievable and I just needed to relax and stop trying to think about everything rationally and logically and just cruise. I guess I was overwhelmed for a while and the energy of NY was so intense and the proximity to people at all times was trippy for
"What do I do? I'm out of control the whole time, so maybe people see me and think I'm out of control the whole time. I don't know. Maybe that sums me up."
me. And I guess those things all added up, but fuck, it was one of the coolest experiences. It’s such an amazing city and such an appropriate place for what I was studying too.
Did you go over on your own? I was cruising solo. Toward the end of the six months I flew to LA and met my girlfriend and mates and we bought a car and drove south into Mexico. I tapped out at Salina Cruz while they went to Panama. That was a cool trip in itself.
Was the experience of being a Byron surfer in New York imprinted on your art? A lot of my work was to do with my experience of being there. I bought a pushbike and one of my favourite things to do was just cruise around take photos of people doing stuff – or not doing stuff – and I turned that into a little zine with some drawing and collage. That was one of the best things for me, cruising around the city, people watching. I did meet this Aussie guy who’d been living there a while, a guy named Banjo Mclachlan.
Isn’t he a photographer? I remember seeing his shots of Ozzie Wright a few years back. Yeah he is. He’s mates with Ozzie and a really good photographer and he works now as a paparazzi photographer. He was great to hang out with and knew the city and rode around on his pushie too, taking photos. I also had cool Korean housemates from school, these hardcore gamer dudes, and they were pretty sick. Did New York feel a long way from home? No, I didn’t think about it so much. It was so stimulating. There were times thinking back I just remember waking up knowing I had the day off and thinking, what will I do today? I’m in New York with a whole day to look around. I was too overwhelmed and stimulated by new things all around me to even think about home in that way, but there were times for sure I wouldn’t have minded just heading down the beach for a surf. I actually had boards and a wettie there with me, but the logistical, freezing nightmare of going surfing was too much. It was absurd. It would’ve been cool to go for a surf, but I preferred not to contract pneumonia.
I was looking through the alumni of the Pratt Institute and it’s a famous, eclectic crew that’s come out of there. In order on the list were Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Redford… and Rob Zombie. Who are they? Who’s Robert Redford?
He’s a famous actor. And Rob Zombie is the singer of White Zombie in the ‘90s, the only white guy allowed to wear dreadlocks. Speaking of being in
character, I’ve seen your clips and you can slip into character pretty easy. Do you surf in character, or do you surf as a pure expression of the true self? I’m not in any character. Maybe I’m a more hyperactive version of myself, I tend to get excitable, but nah, I just try and be myself when I surf because I think it’s one of the few times in life you really can.
If you were watching yourself surf and didn’t know yourself, what assumptions would you make about your character? Good question. I don’t think about that really. I hope my love for surfing comes across. It’s such part of my identity, which is a massive cliché to say I suppose. I don’t know; it’s a hard question. [Pondering] What do I do? I’m out of control the whole time, so maybe people see me and think I’m out of control the whole time. I don’t know. Maybe that sums me up.
What’s your learning style? Are you the kind of guy who likes to learn things on your own, or do you like a bit of instruction? Especially if problem solving is involved I get great satisfaction in putting things together myself. If I get something that comes with instructions I get great satisfaction in not using them and trying to put it together myself. I don’t know if it’s the same with the rest of my learning. I like realising you’ve learned something of your own accord and found your own solution, but I value a good mentor or a good professor.
Do you have one of them in surfing? I’ve always loved Ozzie’s surfing. I remember I used to watch Doped Youth every afternoon. I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and still think it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I like people who express themselves. It’s hard to go past Curren, but there are so many. But I like the fact Ozzie is still having fun. I like people who are playful in the ocean and who are playful in the waves and doing things on a wave that are unexpected. I like Ozzie doing a cutback then chop-hopping out of it. Something you don’t expect. I got off on that for sure, not knowing what someone’s going to do. And a guy like Dane is good for that, kind of wild and erratic but in total control at the same time.
How do they teach art? It seems a hard thing to teach. What did they teach you in New York? My painting professor in New York was an abstract expressionist dude who’d had his 15 minutes of fame, got exhibited in the Guggenheim I’m pretty sure. I think he was a big deal once upon a time. He was a really dogmatic teacher; this is what you do, this is how you do it, you don’t do it any other way or fuck off. He didn’t say that of course, but that was his energy. But I kind of liked that. Okay, I need to do it this way. I’ve had a very open approach to learning most of my life so it was nice for it to be suddenly clear in black and white.
If surfing is indeed art, then is finless surfing high art or an insane person painting with his fingers? For me it feels more substantial. It could be a higher art for me in that it changes my approach and even changes the way I process all the information around me while I’m surfing. It’s a different mindset and a different set of rules and different criteria for what’s the right thing to do. You’re more connected… even though you have no fins. You get feedback from the ocean in different ways, which is cool. I get more unexpected surprises than I do surfing a board with fins. I’ll be going along a wave and something will happen and I’ll find myself thinking,
you know, I can never recall that ever having happened to me before in my whole life. I have that thought a lot, going finless.
The thing that always gets me with finless boards is how fine that line is between the board driving hard on the thinnest of rails and the board just wanting to break free and spin like a Frisbee. It seems to create this electric sensation coming up through your feet like dragging your feet across shagpile carpet. It is like that, it requires me to concentrate more than I would if I was surfing fins, and that goes back to how it changes the way I see things on a wave. I don’t know if I put it into words properly. It’s not my consciousness, it changes my… perspective. That’s it, perspective. I’ll kick out of a wave and I can’t remember it because I was so… what’s the word?
Absorbed? That’s the perfect word for what it is. I get lost in it. I’ll kick out and I won’t be able to remember what I just did and that doesn’t happen when I surf with fins. I’m more absorbed and stimulated so it feels like a greater thing for me when I’m surfing without fins. Even just going down the line is an achievement sometimes.
What do you see when you’re surfing finless and looking down line at Lennox and there’s 50 metres of wall lining up? Do you see a million possibilities? Do you see too many possibilities? Do you see any at all? I think that I think less, and try and just glide. I rely on… I don’t want to say instincts, but that type of thing. Less a logical and rational type of thinking. It’s more flow which is a simple way to explain it. It’s contradictory in a way, that the board is very free but also sets limitation on the way you can surf it, and I have to accept its boundaries. There’s only so much the board can do and that’s also the joy of it, pushing that threshold of what I can make it do. [Cracking up] Is that an answer? After surfing a finned board for a while, what’s it feel like surfing a board with no fins again? It’s good to have control!
Are we trying too hard to paint them as different things or are they all just surfing? It all feels like surfing to me but they feel at polar ends… not quite opposite but adjacent, and things cross over between them all the time. That crossover can be interesting. I love it all. There’s no bad surfing. I get pretty restless and I ride a different board pretty much every session and that’s a big part of my surfing, almost the defining thing. Swapping is good. It’s only limiting in a way in that you can’t… there’s all these different disciplines I’m partaking in and I’m trying to improve in all of them but spreading myself a little thin.
The jack of all trades. Mastery is harder when I’m always changing out. But in the end it’s all about having a paddle.
It seems a very generational thing. My generation we were so applied to a limited number of things and specialising was what you had to do, while your generation swaps boards every five minutes, jumps jobs, travels to places you’ve never been and seems to have a more open view of the world. It’s pretty true. It’s a more flexible approach to life.
You were born in Newcastle but have lived in Byron most of your life. Who would I be talking to if you’d stayed in Newy? Err… Johnsy? [Cracks up]
Are you a product of Byron? I probably wouldn’t have been so openminded and experimental in the surf. Maybe I could’ve ended up there if I’d stayed in Newy as I’m naturally inquisitive and don’t like doing the same thing over and over. I’m restless like that and I like change and Byron is always changing. People don’t give you scathing looks here if you’re doing something out of the ordinary.
They give you scathing looks if you are doing something ordinary. True.
What’s the most normal, stock standard, board you ride? I’ve got a Hypto Krypto, which was so popular, but in perfect waves that thing was fucked up. I loved that board. Apart from that my most normal board would be my hydrofoil boogieboard.
Who designs your boards? Everybody. The Rabbit’s Foot, the finless board I ride a lot was shaped by Ryan Lovelace. I’ve got a 5’1” fish I’ve been surfing out The Pass that I made myself with the wide point really far forward, which is a nice thing. I said to myself I’d love a small wave board that paddles fast and surfs fast and I found that. I was stoked. I couldn’t believe I came so close with that board. I’d made a couple of dud boards before that, but that was the first board I nailed. I called the board The Golden Age of Dog Rooting, which is another story in itself. But The Dog Rooter goes really well.
What about The Lazy Susan? A mate said to me, “Imagine a disc on the deck of your board that spins around while the board goes straight,” and I went, “Let’s go!” Straight to Bunnings. That was fun doing that, just a little disorientating. That spun me out.
Where does finless surfing go from here? [Laughing] Down the line? I’ve always dreamt about doing an aerial manoeuvre on a finless board, that’d be pretty special, but I don’t know if it’s in my skill set to be honest. I don’t know. Somewhere it’s making people happy.