Last year a bright neon orange bike showed up in front of our neighbour’s store at Model Citizen. It sat there for a few weeks until me and a couple of people at the White House art studios started wondering who’s bike it was. Since we are a group of emerging artists, we can’t afford transportation like cars. Some of us even have a hard time paying public transportation fare (since 3$ a ride can add up with our meager budgets!) so we rely heavily on our bikes to get around Toronto. The bikes we can afford are usually second-hand/used and break down a lot. Lots of cyclists salvage deserted bikes for usable parts and recycle bikes headed for the dumpster.
So you could imagine our amazement when this bike showed up glowing as if a gift from the gods! Practically brand new, tires full of air and possessed wonderful accessories like reflectors, handle bars and a basket. We waited and waited and waited, and after a month of it just sitting there unmoved we decided it was fair game. When we tried to remove its usable parts we realized that they were in fact unusable because someone had primed/spray painted the entire bike, sealing all bolts and screws, seizing brake lines, sticking the gears and pretty much rendering it completely useless. We stood there puzzled, trying to figure out what the point the was. Why would someone take a perfectly good bike and make it totally unusable? Was is just meant for an aesthetic ornament?
Then I remembered a few years ago there was this project called Ghost Bike which was an international project that used white bikes as signifiers, or urban landmarks, for cyclist fatalities. I remember seeing them all over Toronto as Toronto’s cyclist community used Ghost Bike as a form of social awareness and protest against the City for cyclist rights and safety issues. They would lock up bikes are dangerous intersections and locations of cyclist fatalities. The Ghost Bikes had an eerie presence as if they were tombstones scattered among the city streets like debris. Since I thought that maybe this project was related or perhaps similar we decided to look it up on the internet and see if we could get more information. The first image we came across was this:
Scary, isn't it?
All of our jaws dropped (aka WTF?!?!?!). First of all, why would Toronto’s notorious Mayor Rob Ford, who is known for his cruel and unsympathetic stance on bike lanes and cyclists, be doing on a bike?! Secondly, why was it this same neon orange? What did it mean? This was all very shocking and confusing so I decided to do more research into the matter.
Here’s an article by the National Post that talks about Rob Ford riding into council on a neon orange bike and hamming it up for the cameras. Big photo opportunity centralized around an art project turned political feud. Turns out two artists who run the Ocad student gallery decided to paint a deserted bike in front of the gallery neon orange and create a garden in the basket, then they got a ticket from the city for vandalism. If you didn’t already know, Ford (like many before him), is on the anti-graffiti crusade band-wagon. I guess busting street art “vandals” just looks so good in the headlines to taxpayers but doesn’t it make you wonder: “Aren’t there bigger problems that need solving?” Adam Vaughn had some interesting quotes about street art documentation and cultural protection and he used this neon bike thing as an example. With support from the City, the two young artists started The Good Bike Project, which is similar to the Ghost Bike Project, but using colour coded bikes to signify different cultural landmarks throughout the city (neon orange representing the visual arts). However, the two artists: Caroline Macfarlane and Vanessa Nicholas felt that Rob Ford’s actions, as well as other counciler’s use of their project was a form of political hijacking for their own agendas. They had no idea Rob Ford would jump on their bike and use it for a photo opportunity and they felt a serious backlash from the arts community once this made the media. Here is an excerpt from an email interview I had with Vanessa and Caroline:
“Our hearts sank soon thereafter when, against our express wishes, Mayor Ford initiated an impromptu photo-op with our bike, which we’d left on the floor of Council in order to field questions from reporters in the media gallery. Within minutes the image of Ford sitting astride our bright orange two-wheeler was all over Twitter and Facebook, making it easy for outsiders to confuse the initiative as the Mayor’s own. Ford’s agenda was confirmed the next day when we realized that his assistant, Tom Beyer, had started a Facebook page and Twitter account for our project, which he then insisted on managing for us.
This sequence of events marked the first in a series of shortcomings and broken promises that left us largely alone to realize a project started at the City’s prompting. As it turned out, the City never connected us with sponsors, was unable to coordinate all of the bicycle deliveries we requested, and did little to help us transport bicycles to our project sites. To add insult to injury, Mayor Ford never replied to the letter we hand-delivered to his office, in which we advocated for the protection of the Jarvis bike lane and politely asked him to explain how he could support our project whilst also giving cyclists something to protest. Furthermore, no one from City Hall donated as little as one dollar to the campaign we started on the crowd-funding site, RocketHub. We worked on this project for part of every single day between June and October; and the City’s failure to sustain the fervor of interest and support of those early days shows a lack of respect and appreciation for the long-haul work of artists and art administrators.” -Vanessa Nicolas and Caroline Macfarlane of The Good Bike Project
One can’t help but ask the question: Why would the City attempt to derail an art project that the City itself helped initiate? As unfortunate as it is for the artists involved, this project highlights and acts as a perfect example of how contradictory the City is towards the rights of its citizen cyclists and local artists. The more I read about this issue, the more I realize how important it is for citizens and artists to use “the Bike” as an art object, as a medium, because whether you intend for it or not, riding a bike right now in Toronto is a political act. Now, I’m not saying every bike rider is a tree-hugger or an activist, but what I mean is that there are ulterior motives within current Toronto politics and “The Bike” is hitting a strange chord with politicians. Is it because of the oil industry? The recession? The fact cyclists don’t pay for gas, insurance or parking spaces? Is that the reason cyclists are demonized in the media? Who knows, but the most important fact beyond all speculations, is that our rights to safety on our city streets is slowly being taken away from us, and that riding a bike in the eyes of many car-commuting conservatives is seen as an act of defiance whether you like it or not.
Painting by Matthieu Leferve
After last summer and heading into fall, Torontonians mourned the tragic deaths of two Canadian cyclists: Jenna Morrison, a pregnant mother and yoga teacher and Montreal artist Matthieu Leferve. Both were killed by trucks with wide turning trailers, and both drivers were not charged even though both deaths were considered “preventable”. What is even more scary is the increasing tensions between cyclists and motorists. 2 years ago, I myself was the victim of assault and roadrage. I was assaulted and my bike damaged when a strange man in a Black Toyota Tacoma decided he would “teach me a lesson” for crossing queen street on my bike while he was stuck in traffic. Despite the fact he followed me, assaulted me and spouted hateful remarks about me being “gay” (because I have short hair and ride a bicycle???), the police interrogated me as if I were the assailant even though the man who assaulted me was 3 times my size. Why does riding a bike put you at a disadvantage? Because, like I said before, whether you like it or not, riding a bike is considered a rebellious act. The only reason the police let me go is because I had a clean record, and the strange man already had reports written up on him all having to do with road rage. Other than that, I swear from the looks in the cops eyes, I was guilty because I was an artist and a cyclist aka: up to no good.
Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve learned a lot from this whole situation. I know this article is currently painting a dark picture, but there is a lot of good that can come from all this. I know that personally, after the assault, I dealt with a lot of issues. There was the bitterness, the lack of faith in our police service, but overall, the fear of getting back on my bike. For a brief moment, I was scared of getting back on the road for fear of assault, pissing off the wrong driver, or finding myself again at a disadvantage because I was a cyclist. But maybe that’s what this is all about. Perhaps fear is the tool to get you to buy that car so you can feel “safer on the roads” or perhaps, take the TTC because it’s the “safer way”. I just simply refuse to be bullied off my bike by road-raging drivers with delusions of self-righteousness or by politicians who drive to work everyday making decisions that potentially put myself, my friends and family at risk.
Last summer, fellow artist Jeff Garcia initiated a PSYCH BIKE Workshop. He invited the community to come to his artist residency space, Halo Halo Village, and get creative with their bikes with lots of provided materials and found objects. The three main functions for the Psych Bike: 1. anti-theft (because of personalization) 2. Road Safety (because they’re flashy drivers see you coming) and 3. It looks PSSSYCCCHHH!!! Taking cues from the Scraper Bike Movement originating out of Oakland California, Garcia’s Psych Bikes has more of that Toronto-Canadian-psychedelic-urban-folk-trash-art inspired edge. At the workshop I decked out my bike, giving it a new paint job, flashy rims and also helped others with their bikes. What I enjoyed the most about this project was the smiles it produced while biking down the street. Children and adults alike would stop and smile, and I even received compliments from other cyclists on the street. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by positivity by riding a bike. Even car-drivers would roll their windows down and compliment my bike. Who would have thought?
In the end, despite all the negativity and politics that has been circulating around cyclists and bike lanes, I think it’s really important for people to get out there on their bikes and do something positive with them! MORE THAN EVER, now is the time to reclaim this whole situation and steer it away from the negative side where politics take it. Bike initiatives like Critical Mass and Art Spin are good places to start by participating in activities that celebrate cycling and promote public safety. In general, bikes are an amazing invention and when used as a tool or medium for artistic expression you can really make an impact on the world and people around you, and have a fun time doing it too.
See you on the streets!