Archives for posts with tag: Brian Baker

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’

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Science fiction is a very loose generic category of film and literature but a defining component of much science fiction is the narrative presence of a futuristic, anachronistic or impossible technological object, a narrative MacGuffin that provides a rationale and motive power for what takes place within the story.  Perhaps for this reason, as a product of 19th-century technology the bicycle does not feature heavily in science fiction film and literature since, on the face of it,  it is not an obvious signifier of the future (although the utopian discourses surrounding the bicycle’s revolutionary potential suggest it as an obvious focus for speculative accounts of decelerated, post-oil futures). Blade Runner (Scott, 1984), which includes a brief shot of a peloton of children skimming through the dark, rain-drenched streets is a rare exception in mainstream cinema. In that context, the bicycle has a dual significance both as a symbol of a catastrophic future in which the roads are choked with traffic, and the environment wrecked by industrial pollution, and also as a symbol of an ‘orientalised’ future in which the West is culturally and economically transformed by globalisation. A bicycle also makes the briefest of appearances in Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), the apocalyptic adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!, where the protagonists have rigged up a stationary bicycle to generate electricity. Perhaps the most famous image of the bicycle in science fiction cinema is that of the young boy Elliott taking flight on his Kuwahara BMX bike carrying the eponymous alien in his basket in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982). In  Spielberg’s fantasy film, however, the bicycle is not so much a signifier of futuristic technology as the means by which the magical powers of ET  is demonstrated, and it it is an important symbol of childhood fantasies of freedom and independence (and of course, in US cinema, the bicycle is almost invariably treated as a child’s vehicle).

Motorbikes in various forms are a slightly more visible presence within SF cinema from the speeder bikes of the Star Wars films or the light cycles of Tron (Limburger, 1982) (designed by visual futurist Syd Mead, also the design consultant on Blade Runner who recently railed against the ‘eco-elitism’ and ‘specious folly of Los Angeles bicycle advocates), through to the streamlined sport bikes streaking around Neo-Tokyo in the animated manga adaptation Akira (Otomo, 1988), or the steam-powered mono-wheel in the steampunk anime Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) (above). However, as is revealed by the growing popularity of the e-bike and recent reports about ‘mechanical doping’ – the concealment of miniature motors inside racing bikes – the distinction between motorcycle and bicycle is increasingly unclear.

A fascinating edition of the beautifully designed feminist cycling ‘zine, Taking the Lane, compiled a number of short SF pieces under the title Bikes in Space: A Feminist Science Fiction Anthology.  Published in 2013, Bikes in Space makes a significant contribution to the modest field of bicycle-related SF and has been followed by two further volumes, but what has set me thinking thinking about this topic recently was reading The Star Diaries (1971) by Polish writer Stanislav Lem. An anthology of stories written over a period of 20 years and broadly based on Gulliver’s Travels, it consists of often absurd and satirical accounts of journeys through space among which the protagonist Ijon Tichy encounters two bizarre mutations of the bicycle and includes illustrations of them in his journals (drawn by Lem himself). The first of these, in the 20th voyage, is  ‘the chronocycle’, a machine that allows the rider to travel through time and provides the premise for an increasingly convoluted and farcical story about attempts to refashion and improve of the earth’s history.

chronocycle.jpegThe second, encountered in the 25th voyage, is the ‘procyte’, a humanoid creature that has evolved with a large wheel fused to its legs.

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What is striking about these two versions of the bicycle is that they encapsulate key aspects of the experience of cycling. On the one hand, the bicycle is a prosthetic extension of the body, allowing us to travel much faster and farther than we can on foot. When we ride a bike we become a procyte, a cybernetic fusion of human and machine. On the other hand, the bicycle is a time machine, compressing distances and accelerating movement. Moreover in its early years the bicycle was a marvel of new industrial technologies, a sign of a future of privatised, individual mobility, a sign of a technologically transformed society, but as it was superseded by the automobile and the motorbike it came increasingly to signify the past, evoking a slower, pre-industrial, non-urban past. The appeal of cycle touring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the opportunity it afforded town and city-dwellers to travel to the countryside and immerse themselves in a rural environment apparently unaffected by the frantic progress of modern life, moving from one temporality to another. Bicycles allowed the rider variously to travel forwards and backwards in time. As my friend Brian Baker has written in the rich essay ‘Man-Machine’, the mechanism of the titular time machine in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel is described in a way that makes clear that it is in fact a bicycle’, and so, ironically, there is nothing new in Lem’s chronocycle. However, what is interesting about Lem’s absurd contraptions is the economy with which they capture the subjective experience of cycling, reiterating the point that for all its mundanity, cycling is both a strangely mechanical activity – the repetitive operation of a machine – and also an activity rich with identifications and fantasy in which cycling from a town into the surrounding fields can involve an imaginary passage from the present to the past.