Archives for the month of: April, 2017

I have been involved with co-organizing and running an international, interdisciplinary conference Mobilities Literature Culture, which took place at Lancaster University at the end of last week. It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable research events I’ve participated in, bringing together artists and academics working in a variety of fields from science and technology studies through to mediaeval history, literary theory, tourism studies and continental philosophy. The conference opened with a superb plenary presentation by my friend Kat Jungnickel on Victorian women’s cycling costumes, ‘Secret Cycling Selves: How Victorian women negotiated multiple mobile identities through patented cycle wear’. Focusing on the 1890s and drawing on archival research her paper examined the sometimes elaborately engineered cycling outfits designed and patented by Victorian women to allow them to ride bicycles safely, comfortably and, crucially, with minimal verbal and physical abuse. Riding a bicycle – even one with a step-through frame – in a voluminous walking skirt with petticoats, bustles and corsets was both difficult and dangerous as the metres of fabric could easily get tangled in wheels and chains or snagged on other bikes, vehicles or obstacles. However, for some middle-class women riding in ‘rational’ clothing such as bloomers was too radical a gesture, since rational cycling wear was revealing (exposing the movement of the legs), was regarded as non-feminine, and was also politically confrontational, closely associated as it was with the suffrage movement. The ingenious solution for the designers discussed by Kat was to engineer skirts that could be transformed into practical riding apparel when cycling, and could be converted back to a skirt when the rider dismounted (as if she were a discreet Victorian superhero). For the presentation, Kat wore a Victorian outfit and concluded the presentation by climbing onto a chair to demonstrate the Bygrave ‘Convertible’ skirt (which she manufactured from the original patent with a research team) using hidden cords to gather the ground-length skirt into knee-length festoons that would allow the rider to mount and ride a bicycle easily and with attracting undue attention.

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Action-academic Kat Jungnickel (photographed by Jo Taylor) demonstrating the Bygrave skirt.

Blurring the boundaries between academic presentation and performance art in quite a unique way, the paper also exposed the huge gaps in histories of the bicycle and cycling culture with regard both to women cyclists, and to the central role played by women in developing and manufacturing bicycles and the accompanying technology. The paper was derived from the research project, Bikes and Bloomers, and is the basis for a forthcoming book.

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The conference closed with a preview screening of Edith Walks, the newest film by director Andrew Kötting, a prolific film-maker, writer and visual artist whose films have been preoccupied with landscape, movement, travel, and literary and cultural histories (and who, in the sort of serendipity that structures all of his work, happened to have worked with Kat on one of his early projects, Mapping Perception). Made on the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the film is a fragmentary, comic account of a 108-mile walk made by Andrew and five others, from Waltham Abbey where some of King Harold’s body parts are supposedly buried, to St Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a weathered seafront statue of a dying Harold in the arms of his ‘hand fast maiden’ ‘Edith Swan-neck’. As Andrew explained in the Q and A afterwards, the film is a visually rich ‘bricolage’ that was largely shot on iphones and is accompanied by a soundtrack that blends location sound, music and samples in a similarly dense collage. Andrew, who is dressed as the ghost of Harold in the film, was accompanied by his close collaborator Iain Sinclair, performance artist Claudia Barton – who was embodying Edith – photographer Anonymous Bosch, and musicians David Aylward and Jem Finer (late of the pogues). The point of the walk, Sinclair explains at the beginning of the film which was shot in the run-up to the EU referendum, is to ‘explore English values’, and the film’s central argument is that history is not consigned to the depths of the past but continually resurfaces in the form of reconfigured narratives and unanchored images; as the writer Alan Moore observes at one point, ‘the past is never put away’. It was an extraordinary film as well as the perfect conclusion to the conference.

Andrew related in the post-screening Q and A with my friend Brian Baker and myself that his approach to film-making and creation was dependent upon ‘happenstance’, and it is clear with a number of his films that he is concerned less with telling stories, than with staging encounters or loosely planned situations and then documenting on film and video the unpredictable ways that these encounters play out. One of the things I have always found powerful about Andrew’s films is that they encourage you to look differently at the landscape around you, to see its strangeness, but also to notice and reflect upon the significance of small details, of connections and repetitions, contingency and coincidence.

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Edith Walks (Kötting, 2017) – Aylward, Barton, Kötting, Finer

As an example, having written a short blog entry about bicycle music last week, I was struck by a brief scene where the motley troupe intercept a couple of cyclists on their walk and begin making music from their bicycles, Finer and Aylward using violin bows to play the spokes, while Barton sings along with them. As Andrew explained, in ‘playing the bicycles’ they were also ‘playing the landscape’

While the bicycle has been a topic for song-writers and musicians since the 19th century, there is a rather more specialized history of music made with bicycles that encompasses avant-garde experimentation and novelty. This well-known clip of a young Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963 is a nice example of a performance that sits mid-way between comedy and glorious, atonal noise.

This rarely viewed YouTube video of somebody ‘performing’ John Cage’s 4’33” on a bicycle raises the question of what constitutes music perhaps more radically still than Zappa’s improvised performance.

What made me think about this was coming across a clip on late-night TV a couple of weeks ago of the British synth-pop group Depeche Mode playing the song ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ on Top of the Pops back in 1984. I know the song well, but it wasn’t until watching the clip that I realized the clattering noise in the song was produced by a drumstick held against a spinning bicycle wheel, a technique that Zappa also uses above. Depeche Mode were supposedly influenced by contemporary ‘industrial’ groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept., who built their own percussion instruments and incorporated found objects, motors, and pneumatic drills into their armoury of noise-making machinery. It’s unlikely that Depeche Mode had seen the Zappa clip in a pre-internet period; in any case, many young kids have taped pieces of card to their bicycle frames so that they flick against the spinning spokes, allowing them to pretend they are riding a motorbike. What is striking is not so much the parallels with Zappa’s music, but the fact that the instrument they are using seems to be an appropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture. Duchamp made the object as a soothing visual distraction to gaze at in his studio, but the band have found a different use for it as a jarring aural distraction, an interruption of the smooth surface of the synthesiser music that complements the song’s weighty themes – teenage suicide and a sadistic God. However, rather than a pretentious or naive dilution of avant-garde experimentation – an accusation that could be levelled at Zappa’s performance – it seems to me to be a technologically creative solution to a search for an expanded repertoire of noises, and it also demonstrates vividly the way that, however ephemeral, ‘modish’, or formally simple it may appear to be, popular culture is always embedded in complex cultural histories and aesthetic traditions.

iur.jpegMarcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951 – 3rd version)

I was fortunate enough this Easter, to be able to see the Law of the Journey, a new show by exiled Chinese activist artist Ai WeiWei, mounted in the National Gallery in Prague. The show brings together some recent epic work that addresses the refugee crisis in a dramatic register including the title piece, a huge inflatable boat carrying dozens of passengers made from the same material suspended above a series of quotations from writing by Franz Kafka, Socrates, Edward Said, Vaclav Havel and others. Like a giant children’s toy, it is a temporary, mobile monument to the thousands of adults and children who’ve drowned in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe in the last decade.

IMG_7279.jpgMy son studying Law of the Journey (Prague National Gallery)

Among the pieces included in the show were also a couple of bicycle-related works. Ai has been making art from bicycles for some time now, and has produced some immense sculptural installations constructed from ‘Forever’ bicycles, the most ubiquitous Chinese brand. Some of these structures, such as those exhibited in Tokyo in 2003, Taipei in 2012, and San Gimigniano and Toronto in 2013, involve anything from several dozen to several thousand identical frames and wheels welded together to form geometrically dense, architectural spaces through which the viewer can walk.

IMG_5412.jpgIMG_5409.jpgOne of Ai’s ‘Forever’ bicycle pieces exhibited at the Royal Academy retrospective, London, 2015

Like much of Ai’s work this has a political register; as well as citing Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture and a tradition of minimalist art, they are a visual crystallization of a society structured by mass production and the homogeneous, industrialized urban environments that many of us live in. As Ai has declared, ‘China is producing for the demands of the market [and] my work very much relates to this blind production of things’ (Bingham 2010: 24). Juliet Bingham recounts that, in his art practice, ‘Ai has often taken objects and rendered them useless’, and, indeed, the bicycle sculptures transform this most useful of objects into something entirely devoid of use-value – into art (Ibid. 25).

More recently, the bicycle sculptures have found an echo in the piles of discarded hire bicycles left on the streets in Shenzhen. Like artless copies of Ai’s intricate assemblages, these tangled heaps are a sign of the changing significance of the bicycle in China where, as elsewhere, car ownership is a desirable indicator of social status.

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The brand name, ‘Forever’, lends this commentary upon the over-production and irrationality of a market economy a chillingly dystopian tone, but in addition to this broadly critical commentary, the later pieces also serve as memorials to Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who was arrested in 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Having made allegations of police brutality, Yang was executed in 2008 for an attack on a police headquarters and the revenge killing of six police officers. With the trial held behind closed doors, Yang’s became a cause célebre since, for some commentators, Yang’s action was seen as a form of protest against an oppressive regime. Considered in this context, Ai’s works put the bicycle to use as a vehicle for political protest.

IMG_7263.jpgIMG_7266.jpgWith Flowers (details) (Prague National Gallery)

An example of this in the Prague exhibition was an installation in the gallery café entitled With Flowers (2013-2015). The modest exhibit consisted of the artist’s bicycle – significantly perhaps, a Taiwanese ‘Giant’ bike, rather than a Chinese brand –  propped discreetly against a wall, and colourful digital prints of bouquets of flowers with dates, pasted around the room. The piece was created during a two-year period in which Ai was banned from travelling outside China. In protest, he placed his bicycle outside his studio and put a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket every morning until the travel ban was lifted and his passport was returned. In a very simple way, the association of the bicycle with freedom of movement, takes on a political significance in this work. The second related piece of bicycle-art, displayed in a gallery of ceramic pieces, was a bicycle basket made from porcelain. An improbable object, it transforms the mundane plastic basket and gaudy flowers into delicate, intricate work of art. As subtle as any of his works, the object establishes a link between activism and traditions of decorative art in Europe and China, and it also represents a defiant insistence upon beauty in the face of political repression.

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Bicycle basket with flowers in porcelain (2014) (Prague National Gallery)

Reference:

Juliet Bingham (2010). Ai WeiWei: Sunflower Seeds (London: Tate)