Archives for posts with tag: music

There have been many songs written about bicycles since the 19th century, but I hadn’t realised until recently that Hawkwind’s 1972 space-rock classic, ‘Silver Machine’ was one of them. I’d always assumed the song was actually about a motorbike, perhaps because I was introduced to it by a biker friend when I was a student. However, it seems that Robert Calvert wrote the song after reading the speculative essay, ‘How to Construct a Time Machine’, by avant-garde playwright, novelist and obsessive cyclist Alfred Jarry. Calvert noted that the impossible machine described by Jarry was really a bicycle, consisting of flywheels, chain drives, gears and a rigid, ebony frame.

 

Indirectly, Jarry’s short piece identifies a key feature of the bicycle, which is its capacity to alter our experience of time and space, allowing the rider to travel much faster than was possible on foot, effectively shrinking the distance between locations and the time it takes to travel that distance. As he explains, ‘Without the Machine, an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat.’

Or, as Hawkwind put it, ‘It flies sideways through time.’

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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’

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.

Bicycles play an important role as the intimate mediating machinery of childhood. They offer children physical, emotional and symbolic independence, and are also a means of social interaction – of play, competition and performance. For example, it is striking how intense many people’s memories are of being taught to ride a bicycle by their parents, which suggests it is a paradoxical moment for us; learning to ride a bike is a moment of close physical and emotional contact, and of traumatic separation, and so the meaning of the bicycle is similarly ambiguous, symbolising both freedom and isolation.

This song, ‘Riding Bikes’, released last year by the American rock band Shellac, captures the childhood experience of childhood friendship mediated through bicycles in a typically succinct and sparse fashion. The singer and guitarist, Steve Albini, explains the song in the following way:

“Riding Bikes” is in the context of children or adolescents riding bikes, where it’s a mindset and an activity put together. Like, you and your friends go riding bikes and that implies a certain degree of intimacy or closeness with your friends. You’re not just riding bikes, you’re having adventures, you’re breaking things, you’re stealing things, you’re causing minor vandalism — all that sort of stuff.