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I was 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.

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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)

gyIuPd5E.jpg-large.jpegBy far the most striking film I have seen in the last year was the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 Napoleon. Running at just over five-and-a-half hours (although in early screenings the film apparently ran to around nine hours), it is an example of the level of exuberant formal experimentation and stylistic refinement achieved by European directors before the introduction of synchronised sound film in the late 1920s forced filmmakers to adopt a far less dynamic aesthetic. Given its date, the film has a somewhat troubling political message. It is a stirringly nationalistic account of French history that reveres Napoleon as not just a brilliant military strategist, but a charismatic saviour of the nation who embodies the spirit of the Revolution (and Albert Dieudonne’s fascinating performance as Napoleon is suitably intense). In the present moment when fascism, nationalism and xenophobia are once again on the rise across Europe, and populist demagogues are becoming increasingly powerful, the re-released film takes on a new and disturbing urgency.

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However, the most arresting and celebrated aspect of the film is its frenetic, varied style, which includes multiple exposures, super-fast montage editing, rich tinting, split-screen effects, and an extraordinary final battle sequence that expands to fill three screens, an innovative device that Gance termed ‘polyvision’. It remains breathtakingly spectacular, even when viewed alongside contemporary blockbuster effects movies. Throughout the film the camera is wildly mobile as Gance mounts it on sledges, horses, carts, cars, boats, pulleys and a pendulum, and even, with ironic aptness, a guillotine. This is no stylistically conservative heritage film, offering us picturesque, static views of the past; History, in Gance’s film, is depicted as an interval of dynamic, chaotic exciting instability and violence. At one point, while shooting an uprising in Corsica for the first part of the film, in order to produce a further variation on the mobile shot, the film-makers also used a bicycle as a dolly, with the camera-man sitting astride the bicycle and facing backwards, the camera strapped to the frame for stability while crew members pushed him along the street in front of the rampaging crowd.

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Gance is not alone in experimenting with the thrilling narrative possibilities of camera mobility. Cinema in the 1920s is full of examples of films that explore the medium’s capacity to produce the illusion of physical movement. Gance’s German counterpart, Friedrich Murnau, for example, was preoccupied with achieving what he termed the ‘unchained camera effect’, working with camera operator Karl Freund to develop new techniques that would allow the camera to plunge and soar freely. As historian Lotte Eisner records, this experimentation culminated with his 1924 film The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)  in which ‘the camera was taken from the trolley and put on a crane, or attached to Freund’s chest while he rode a bicycle, and so on’ (Eisner 1973: 75). However, the theme of this current project is the exploration of the historical relationship between the socially and culturally revolutionary technologies of the film camera and the bicycle, and so it couldn’t be more appropriate that they intersect so directly, albeit briefly, in the production of Gance’s singular revolutionary film.

Reference:

Lotte H. Eisner (1973) Murnau (London: Secker and Warburg)

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I came across this bottle of Chilean ‘Bicycle’ wine in a local shop last week, and picked it up out of curiosity since I was surprised, given the forensic scrutiny to which the sport is currently subject with regard to doping, to learn that the Tour de France has an ‘Official Wine’. In some respects this should not be surprising as the Tour has pioneered the commercialisation of sport, and as Robert Penn observes of the first velodrome racers of the late 19th and early 20th century, ‘Cyclists were the highest earners in sport: in fact, modern professional sports marketing effectively began with them’ (Penn 2011: 159). Moreover, alcohol has a close relationship with cycle racing as it has long been common for riders to use alcohol as a performance-enhancing drink, as well as an anaesthetic to help them endure the pain and cold of multi-stage races. For example, the classic documentaries La Course en Tete (Santoni, 1974), Stars and Water Carriers (Leth, 1974) and Vive le Tour (Malle 1962) all include sequences in which thirsty riders raid cafés during the race, stuffing their jerseys with bottles of champagne, wine, beer, or, as former racer Jean Bobet chuckles on the voiceover commentary to Louis Malle’s film, ‘Even water, if there’s nothing better’.

This ritual is no doubt partly a matter of machismo, as road racing is traditionally an exceptionally macho sport, and partly a matter of national cultural traditions (best epitomised by the sequence in Santoni’s film in which Belgian racer Eddy Merckx is shown sharing a glass of red wine with his infant child at the dinner table). However it is also testament to the intimate historical relationship between cycle racing and alcohol (along with other drugs and stimulants ranging from cocaine through to strychnine), an inter-relationship that was behind British rider Tom Simpson’s fatal heart attack near the summit of a baking Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour, his death brought on by a combination of amphetamines, alcohol and dehydration.

It has become increasingly evident over the past couple of years that systematic drug-taking is endemic across international sport, but in this respect too, cycle racing appears to have been at the forefront since,  from the beginning of the sport, the combined pressures of professionalisation and impossibly tough races, have invited athletes and their coaches to experiment with substances that will enable the riders to cope. As Jacques Anquetil, winner of five Tours, observed in a column he wrote for the periodical France Dimanche after his retirement, ‘If you want to accuse me of having doped, it’s not difficult. All you have to do is look at my thighs and my buttocks – they’re veritable pin cushions. You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year in all weathers can keep going without stimulants’ (Howard 2011: 240-241)

The fact that it is not French but Chilean wine – albeit from a  vineyard whose name makes punning reference to the wine expert as well as to the dedicated sports fan – is initially surprising, but on second thoughts, it is entirely appropriate given the global nature of contemporary commercial sport.

‘À votre santé!’

 

References

Paul Howard (2011) Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape: The Remarkable Life of Jacques Anquetil (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing)

Robert Penn (2011) It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (London: Penguin)

 

‘The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed’, writes Samuel Beckett in  Mercier and Camier (1974).

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When attending a sell-out concert in Manchester last week, in which American director John Carpenter, backed by a band that included his son Cody, played theme music from his films as well as music from his last two albums, my friend Brian Baker mentioned that a bicycle turns up in Carpenter’s 1987 horror film, Prince of Darkness. The film tells the story of a group of scientists and research students who are summoned to an abandoned church to spend the weekend studying a glowing green flask that has been discovered in the basement. Rather than stay the night, one of the assistants decides to leave and is cornered in the alley behind the church by a group of homeless people who have been possessed by the satanic power that is now spilling out of the flask and have surrounded the church. One of these shuffling zombies, played by rock star Alice Cooper, picks up a broken bicycle frame and impales the bewildered student on the top tube. They all watch silently as he falls forward and then comes to a halt, bouncing slightly, propped up on the wheel.

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Perhaps because of its association with children, the bicycle only seems to make rare appearances in horror cinema. Exceptions include the British thriller And Soon the Darkness (Fuest, 1970) about a couple of female friends on a cycling holiday in France who are pursued by a killer. However the most well-known example is The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), in which the young Danny pedals furiously around the vast, empty, haunted hotel on his little tricycle. As with the British thriller, the machine leads him into a series of dangerous encounters, culminating with his investigation of room 237, which the hotel caretaker had warned him to stay away from.

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However, the most comically grotesque ‘death-by-bicycle’ scene appears in the science fiction film Turbo Kid (Whissell, Whissell, Simard, 2015). Sharing a nostalgic affection for popular culture of the late 1970s and early ’80s with the TV series Stranger Things (2016) and the film, Super 8 (Abrams, 2011),  one of the pleasures of watching Turbo Kid is identifying the allusions to the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Miller, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Richard Stanley, and Troma studios, as well as later TV series such as Power Rangers.

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Set in a contaminated, post-oil wasteland in which people rely on bikes for transport, the BMX-riding teenage ‘Kid’ models himself on ‘Turbo Rider’, a character in the precious comics he collects. The film-makers clearly took great delight in filming the gruesomely inventive prosthetic effects as hands, limbs and heads are severed and skewered while the patient actors are showered with blood and pelted with viscera and chunks of meat, but perhaps the most gleefully disgusting sequence is an interrogation scene which begins with the victim waking up to find himself tied to a chair. When the canvas hood is taken off his head he looks down with horror to see that his stomach has been sliced open and his intestines, which are spilling out of his body, are attached by a cord to the rear wheel of a bicycle. Of course, he immediately tells the sadistic, one-eyed ‘Zeus’ (played by Michael Ironside, star of Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981)) exactly what he wants to know and asks desperately, ‘You’re gonna help me put these back in, right, please?’ Zeus, clearly disappointed by the speed with which he spills the beans, asks ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to set this up?’ The bewildered victim just stares at him and Zeus chuckles warmly, ‘I’m sure you’ll understand’, signalling to his sidekick to start pedalling.

The use of the bicycle as improvised weapon in these films is an intriguing reminder of the historical association of this technology with violence. One of the most important early precursors of the bicycle, the ‘Laufmaschine’ (running machine) or ‘accelerator’ patented by Karl von Drais in 1818, appears to have been conceived by him as a military vehicle, and he tried to demonstrate its potential by staging races with stagecoaches. As Jim Fitzpatrick argues in The Bicycle in Wartime: an Illustrated History (Star Hill Studio, 2011) thinking about the history of the bicycle in relation to warfare allows us to understand the role of machinery in soldiering and organised violence more generally. And, as he recounts, the history of the weaponisation of the bicycle is extensive, ranging from the use of bicycles as vehicles for transporting troops and military equipment, through the use of the bicycle as weapon (with rifle and machine gun mounts or, occasionally as a concealed pipe bomb). In a broader sense, we might note the symbolic function of the bicycle as the tool of colonisation, with British diplomats and settlers using them to travel around India in the late 19th and early 20th century from hill station to hill station.

More broadly, the pneumatic tyres that propelled the bicycle boom of the 1890s, and made John Dunlop a billionaire, were made from rubber harvested by slaves in the plantations of ‘British Malaya’ among other places and so the history of this machine is saturated with violence. Samuel Beckett’s comically oblique observation from the absurd novel Mercier and Camier is a reminder that, for all the utopian enthusiasms that have circulated around the bicycle throughout its development, there is a darker side to the history of this product of industrial modernity.

A short song by Lancaster band, The Lovely Eggs, about a chance encounter between flared trousers, alcohol and a bicycle, which seems to be a polite response to the comically nihilistic 1976 Ramones song, ‘Now I wanna sniff some glue’. This song was apparently prompted by jealousy over a friend who had paid leave from work after breaking their collar bone in a fall, but I think it is also a love song, a song about wanting to be swept off one’s feet and bowled over.

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Bicycle film festivals are a phenomenon of the current cycling boom, presenting new bicycle-themed films to audiences, as well as collating older films. As well as various one-off events, such as the cycling-related programme of the 2014 Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival that coincided with the first two Yorkshire-based stages of the 2014 Tour de France, there are regular events such as the European ‘International Cycling Film Festival’ and the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’. In July I attended two days of the ‘Bicycle Film Festival’ in Brighton, although, appropriately enough, this is a mobile festival that also visits the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico and Australia later this year.

 

The programme brought together a very eclectic group of short films and, as one would expect from a festival that is inspired by an enthusiasm for bicycles and cycling cultures, the films were largely celebratory, and were sometimes underpinned by an idealistic, optimistic ‘bicycle politics’ or activism, such as Cranks (Kyo-Min Jung, Tom Michelow, 2016), a film about a volunteer bike-repair workshop in Brighton conceived as a critical response to ‘throwaway culture’, or Cycling Circle (Jean-Marc Joseph, 2015) a film about an entrepreneur setting up a small-scale bicycle messenger business in Lebanon, a country that is intensively car-dependent. While the majority of the films screened were documentaries, there was a wild Estonian animation, Velodrool (Sander Joon, 2015) about cigarette-obsessed racing cyclists, an Australian black comedy, Bear (Nash Edgerton, 2015), about a boorish bloke who plays a misjudged practical joke on his girlfriend’s birthday as she is cycling through the bush, and I want to ride my bicycle (James Chamberlain, 2016), a brief comedy about a man who goes on holiday to Centre Parcs with his bicycle, ‘Denise’, and is shown talking about his feelings for her and lounging in the sauna with it. Absurd though it was, the film captures the intimate, fetishistic relationship some cyclists have with their bikes, a point that was made clear by the fact several audience members had brought their folding bikes with them into the auditorium and were sitting next to them watching the films.

 

There were several examples of the extreme sports documentary including In Search of the Storm (Shaktiraj Jadeja, 2015), an Indian film about three friends who set out to ride ‘fat bikes’ through the Himalayas in the winter to reach the border with Tibet. This type of film, variations of which feature kayaking, horse-riding, skiing, mountain running, and climbing, has a number of well-established generic conventions: spectacular landscapes, a blend of professional cinematography and low-resolution footage shot by the participants, narratives that are based around journeys, and talking-head interviews with the protagonists who emphasise repeatedly how difficult and extreme the arbitrary challenge they’ve set themselves is, and also how the challenge represents some sort of metaphor: these narcissistic extreme athletes are continually ‘finding themselves’ on their travels, becoming more psychologically and emotionally complete as a result of successfully negotiating an unclimbed alpine peak or navigating an unexplored river.

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The film that left a particularly sour taste was Ethiopia Epic, which, like many extreme sports documentaries, was essentially a promotional film for the sponsor. This short film – far from ‘epic’ – showed European and Canadian professional mountain bikers tearing around the Semien mountains in Ethiopia. One of the riders having explained how unique the challenge is, the film then shows them riding their bikes over rocky peaks and then riding past farmers and villagers, pulling wheelies and jumping off ramps, and even racing through a building in the centre of a hill-side village of basic wooden shacks topped with corrugated metal roofs. The film epitomizes a culture of poverty tourism in which the crowds of smiling children dressed in filthy, patched and faded clothing are part of the colourful backdrop to this physically challenging and unique holiday. As one rider reflects to camera, ‘Man, you can’t get that experience anywhere, and we had to do this work to get up there and have this sort of in-depth experience with the culture that we wouldn’t have otherwise.’ For these riders, the world is a source of intense, consumable experiences, and it seems the spectacle of extreme poverty adds intensity to the experience of travelling at speed through unfamiliar and dramatic landscapes. It demonstrates, inadvertently, how extreme sports culture is a reiteration of an extractive colonial worldview that sees the world as its playground. It is there to be exploited, albeit under an alibi of cultural engagement and self-improvement.

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This worldview was shared to some extent by the keynote film of the festival, Lucas Brunelle goes to Chernobyl (Brunelle, 2015). Brunelle, a former racer and courier, has produced some stunning films using a helmet-cam rig to shoot hyper-kinetic point-of-view footage of the terrifying experience of riding through urban traffic, particularly during illegal ‘alleycat’ races. In this film, partly prompted by the director’s Ukrainian family heritage, Brunelle meets a group of people in Kiev and, after being dropped in a forest at night, they wade across a river into the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and then hike cross-country, carrying their bikes over their shoulders before reaching the city, where they camp in abandoned buildings. They cycle around the empty city before returning to Kiev where they have a party to celebrate the trip. The film inevitably recalls Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and, indeed, one brief shot shows a cyclist passing a concrete bus shelter graffitied with the word, ‘STALKER’, suggesting that Brunelle may be aware of this parallel, but the contemplative stillness of Tarkovsky’s film is replaced here with a constantly mobile camera and choppy editing, slow-motion passages providing only occasional relief. It is a frustrating film as there is virtually no information offered about the place and its history, or the identity of Brunelle’s companions and how he knows them, and the reliance upon the mobile camera means that we are also not able to see much of the place. Having made his way to this location – without explaining why it was necessary to do it in this ‘extreme’ way when organized tours are available – all he needed to do was film the space. Static shots and still photographs of this abandoned city would be fascinating enough. Instead the film culminates with the ‘Tour of Chernobyl’ as they ride together through the city and an abandoned funfair, accompanied by music, Brunelle high-fiving one of his companions. Having capered around this vast memorial to the dead and those still dying from the effects of the reactor explosion, they come across ‘the infamous claw’, a highly radioactive hydraulic grab that was apparently used to clear rubble from the reactor, whereupon Brunelle dons rubber gloves and films himself fixing a vinyl sticker to it bearing his signature logo. In voiceover at the end of the film Brunelle reflects that, having visited over 60 countries, this was his most moving trip, however the film reinforces the impression that, like the cyclists in Ethiopia Epic, he sees the world indiscriminately as a series of more or less exotic, exciting spaces through which he can ride his bike.

 

Far more interesting and moving were two historical accounts of road racing. Milk Race: On and On (Stephen Green, 2016) compiled 16mm footage of the Tour of Britain (sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board) shot in the 1960s, accompanied by commentary from two of the successful riders who featured in the clips, Les West and Roger Pratt. It was a fascinating window into a period when cycle racing was still the province of enthusiastic amateurs. Davis and Connie (Ben Ingham, 2014), is a documentary about another two retired (US) racers, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, who also raced in a period before professional cycling became a corporatised sport; Carpenter’s last race was the road race in the 1984 Olympics – scandalously, the first women’s cycling event to be held at the Olympics. It is a touching portrait of an apparently equal relationship – Davis recalls being starstruck when he first met Connie, who was older and far more successful than he was – and it takes a melancholy turn as it is revealed that Davis is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. There is an irony in one of the fastest racing cyclists in the world being afflicted by a disease that slows him down radically, but he draws a surprising parallel between the calm experience of being in the ‘vortex of speed and noise’ of the peloton when ‘everything is slowed down’ and the experience of Parkinson’s in which everyday tasks become more difficult and focused and, consequently, take on a heightened intensity.

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The most inspiring film of the two-day festival, however, was also one of the more modest films. Mama Agatha (Fadi Hindash, 2015), is a documentary study of a Ghanaian woman, Agatha Frimpong, who runs a course in Amsterdam to teach other immigrant women to cycle. Her students are mostly middle aged and older from a variety of countries including Suriname, Pakistan and China, and have a deep affection for their polyglot teacher, ‘Mama Agatha’. Agatha has helped hundreds of women to learn to ride and the film follows the progress of some of her pupils from learning to straddle their bikes precariously in a gym, learning to negotiate vehicles in an underground car-park and, finally, venturing onto the road in groups. At the ‘graduation ceremony’ when they tearfully receive their cycling proficiency certificates in front of their families it is clear how profoundly important it is to these women to be mobilised in this way. In other words, the film makes a powerful argument for the bicycle’s potential as an empowering machine, giving these women who are marginalised by age, gender and ethnicity, a greater agency and independence.

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The bicycle has generated a vast amount of writing, ranging from technical manuals, journalism and sports reporting though to autobiographies, plays, and novels.  In one of the richest works of cycling literature, Need for the Bike, French experimental writer Paul Fournel reflects upon one aspect of the relationship between cycling and literature, observing that:

‘There are a lot of walker-poets, who write their verses to the rhythm of their feet: the Rédas, the Roubauds. Cyclist-poets are less numerous, it seems, but that’s due to inattentiveness, since the bike is a good place to work for a writer. First, he can sit down; then he’s surrounded by windy silence, which airs out the brain and is favourable to meditation; finally he produces with his legs a fair number of different rhythms, which are so much music to verse and prose’ (Fournel 2003: 127).

Interviewed for Jon Day’s Cyclogoegraphy, which blends an autobiographical account of Day’s experience of working as a bicycle messenger in London with philosophical reflections on the meanings of cycling, Fournel also suggests,  ‘The bicycle is a literary vehicle, a good place to think’ (Day 2015: 94).

This is a lovely pun, and, of course, it is one that a number of writers on cycling have used, but while the bicycle is a good place to think and work for writers, it does not always inspire great work – or great graphic design. William Saroyan’s 1952 memoir is one of the better contributions to the genre. A playwright and novelist, Saroyan attributed his skills as a writer to cycling: ‘My bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style from riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything’ (Saroyan 1952: 11). The first-edition dust jacket of Saroyan’s book is suitably stylish. Inevitably, almost every book on cycling features a bicycle on the cover, but this is one of the most beautifully simple designs, incorporating tiny drawings of bicycles into the polka-dot pattern, the doodled frames looking like letters as much as depictions of bicycles.

The 1975 UK paperback cover of Ralph Hurne’s 1973 novel about cycle racing, by contrast, is one of the crudest covers I’ve come across. In the 1970s, Hollywood producer Carl Foreman (who had produced High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952) and Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957)) bought the rights to adapt the novel as a feature film that would be directed by Michael Cimino and would star cycling fan Dustin Hoffman, before Hoffman fired Cimino and hired Danish director, Jorgen Leth. The project eventually went nowhere when Cannon Pictures went bust in the early 1980s (although Hoffman latterly made a cameo appearance in the Lance Armstrong biopic, The Program (Frears, 2015)). It is pure pulp fiction and, although it has apparently acquired a certain cult status among cycling fans, is poorly written and gratingly misogynistic – a relic of nastier, pre-PC culture in which the foul, lecherous protagonist, a veteran cycle racer who ends up coming out of retirement to race in the Tour de France,  repeatedly refers to women as ‘it’. In both cases, it seems, you can judge the book pretty successfully by looking at the cover.

References:

Jon Day (2015) Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier. London: Notting Hill Editions

Paul Fournel (2003) Need for the Bike. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Ralph Hurne (1975), The Yellow Jersey. London: Pan Books

William Saroyan (1952). The Bicycle Rider of Beverly Hills. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

See Feargal McKay’s scathing review of Hurne’s The Yellow Jersey and a brief account of the history of the uncompleted film adaptation: http://www.podiumcafe.com/2010/12/25/1895570/the-yellow-jersey-by-ralph-hurne

Among the many films about bicycles and cycling, films about bicycle messengers constitute a significant sub-genre. Delivering messages was one of the first uses velocipedes were put to in the 19th century and throughout the history of the bicycle, which is itself a communication medium, it  has been used to deliver messages. The first bicycle messengers appear in cinema in the early 1900s, typically functioning as a narrative expedient, as with this early Keystone comedy, Bombs! (Griffin, 1916), featuring the comedian Al St. John (whose skills as a trick cyclist in vaudeville theatre had led to his employment as a screen performer a couple of year earlier).

St John makes a brief appearance as an insolent bicycle messenger, cycling up the steps of a building and into the office of the newly elected mayor and stealing a cigar from one of the office workers before unwittingly delivering a parcel bomb. Even this early on, the image of the bicycle messenger as maverick is already in place.

The bicycle messenger begins to move into the foreground in the 1980s (as bicycle messengers begin to appear more prominently in TV dramas literature, and autobiographical writing) and the film Quicksilver (Donnelly, 1986), which features Kevin Bacon, whose previous film Footloose (Ross, 1984) had made him a star,  establishes the template for most of the subsequent films about bicycle messengers in terms of plot, characterisation, cinematography, and a mise-en-scene of loading bays, alleys, underpasses, lifts, reception desks and diners. It tells the story of a stockbroker who quits his job after making a catastrophic loss and becomes a cycle courier.

However, one of the most comprehensive surveys of global bicycle-messenger culture is this feature-length documentary The Godmachine (Steffen, 2007), which has just been posted on youtube.

Made by a New Zealand-based film-maker, the film is built around interviews with couriers working in different cities and, alongside an advocacy of bicycle-use in cities, it gives a nuanced account of the attractions of this profession and the global culture that has emerged around it. It is partly celebratory, as is suggested by the title, which is derived from the mystical reflections of Auckland-based courier Mike Nailer, who regards cycling as ‘the creation of energy’, but is also attentive to the hardships of this punishing job. A New York messenger, Kevin, describes the messenger community as a ‘family’ but also reflects that he doesn’t know many people who have stuck with the job for more than ten years. ‘I’ve seen over the years, like, ten, fifteen guys die. Messengers, you know? I’ve seen girls get wracked up. […] It’s kinda like this – like a big machine you know, and people get grinded up in it every once in a while.’ It is a telling comment that recalls the famous opening scene of the British New wave film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) in which the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) (who operates a lathe in the Raleigh bicycle factory) relates his maxim: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ Kevin’s observation challenges assumptions that the shift from industrial production to a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘information economy’ results in emancipation, equality and the end of work.  The figures of the cycle couriers populating these films remind us of the vast army of workers doing poorly paid, physically dangerous, sometimes deadly work in order to keep the modern city moving.