Bicycles and Bodies at the Edge of Roadway Design
Curry, Laura Elizabeth
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Within the discourse on environmentalism and transportation, artists and activists have engaged the bicycle as more than a means of transportation. For an American culture infatuated with the automobile, bicycling has taken on new meaning. Far beyond simply moving people from one place to another in an economical and ecologically friendly way, bicycling can now be understood as a set of symbolic acts intended to subvert and critique automobile culture. For example, artist and author David Byrne advocates for a burgeoning culture of bicycle riders as part of a transportation revolution. Commute Clot, (also known as Critical Mass), a monthly public cycling event in over 300 cities worldwide, situates hundreds of bicyclists, riding en masse usually at rush hour, as activists on busy urban streets, promoting an active, physical and frequently dangerous confrontation between the motorist and cyclist. Even without the in-your-face confrontation staged by Critical Mass, the material and social conditions of urban cycling can be anything but pleasurable. This project engages media and technology to explore and articulate the roadway as a landscape of frictions between the unprotected flesh of the cyclist and the unyielding metal of the automobile. The topic emerges as especially timely and urgent because the symbolic value of the bicycle as a healthy and environmentally positive option to automobiles frames this opposition anew as a conflict between carbon powered and human powered movement. The daily confrontation between the motorist and the cyclist, however, involves a real level of danger. To articulate the non-motorist's relationship to the roadway, I consider the bicycle within potential hostile contexts such as roadways without bicycle lanes, locations with extreme weather, and shared roadway space where the non-motorist's bicycle awareness and bicycle knowledge are less evident. As an artist, I am drawing on the data of the lived bodily experiences of the bicyclist in order to reveal the complexity of social-spatial relations embodied in the non-motorized roadway. Through doing so I am specifically interested to challenge urban design and transportation policies that create hegemonically fraught roadway spaces. Such institutionalized design processes, like those found in urban planning, whether top-down or participatory, tend to be abstracted, where the embodied experience of the roadway users are not considered in the planning discourse. Because the body is missing from the planning dialogue, a public perception evolves where the roadway is assumed to be a space for motorized vehicles. This perception is marginalizing if not life threatening for cyclists and other pedestrians. Casting others' and myself as the quantified interface with the roadway systems using audio recording, photography and interviews, I track the mental and physical experiences of others' and myself while on the roadway. My projects Rest Stop Bike Repair Shop, and Bike Date become platforms for promoting a phenomenological approach to critical roadway design. From a ground up, grass roots-based activist art practice, it is my hope that these planning and design processes can become more informed and influenced by the lived experience of non-motorized roadway inhabitants.