May 22nd, 2008


Fixated on the fixie

My new post to The Post-Materialist is about fixie bikes: the fixed gear cycling craze which is currently putting hipsters in Tokyo, Berlin, London and New York astride scary stripped-down bicycles without gears or brakes, and spawning blogs and film festivals about the bikes, the code of honour, the way of life. The post started with an opening I happened to look into, an opening on my street of what I thought was a new art gallery, but which turned out to be a cycle workshop run by the sort of people who'd otherwise be making art, and organised visually like a gallery.

The piece was a great excuse to use this picture of my Tokyo friend (and fixie fiend) Alin Huma. It's a photo I've been fascinated by ever since it appeared on his blog last month. It shows Alin just after a prang in which he fell off a bike (his son Meta put his foot through the spokes). Alin admits that even though the accident itself was totally real -- it "hurt like hell" -- the dramatisation of his wounds in the photo became a sort of performance; he becomes Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, or possibly Brando in On the Waterfront. There's a tough-guy cool which emerges, as well as a Nietzschean sense that riding bicycles is "living dangerously".

There's so much more I want to say about this image, and these bikes, than I could squeeze into my Times column.

Code of honour: I often find myself defending as new forms of honour things that others dismiss as fads. What do I mean by that? I think it's already encoded in Alin's self-portrait. His accident, here, isn't just a random misfortune. He "wears his wounds with pride". Like a soldier wounded in a battle fought in the name of a just cause, he feels there's something more important in life than mere safety. In fact, you could almost see cycling, and its attendant aesthetic, as "something worth dying for". The New York Times actually removed the phrase "to die for" from my text, replacing it with "must-have". But I wasn't just making a gruesome joke about cycling being dangerous. I really meant that it was important that fixie cycling -- like skateboarding -- is both difficult and dangerous. To understand why, you really have to go to non-Western places, places where Being is more important than Having, and where people -- including scary people like suicide bombers and kamikaze -- place higher values on certain ideals, certain codes of honour, certain loyalties, certain aesthetics than on life itself. Or you have to go to the chivalric codes of the middle ages. Cycling is, after all, a mechanized form of chivalric equestrianism.

Return to Modernism: One thing you'll certainly see in that mindset -- a mindset actually prepared to die for a particular aesthetic -- is a complete repudiation of smirky, spineless postmodernism, in which people quote endlessly and nobody commits to any set position, let alone admits a willingness to risk danger and death for it. And for that reason I think -- laugh if you like! -- the fixie trend is pointing a way beyond postmodernism. Partly, of course, its aesthetic is a return to Modernist ideals. The racing bicycle frame is a Modernist design, and Alin cites the Modernist maxim "form follows function". His blog is full of admiration for vintage bikes built in Karl-Marx-Stadt and featuring mechanical age components no longer available. You can't help thinking of Kraftwerk, too: the way their cycle of Modernist tech-celebration started with cars, progressed through radio and trains and spacecraft and computers only to culminate in bicycles. Some might consider that bathos, but not at all: the bicycle is the ultimate symbol of man and machine in harmony, and it provides a visceral thrill no spacecraft ever could. And the fixie fixes that thrill and amplifies it by putting man and machine and road even more intimately in touch with each other.

Post-bit atom: If the current cycling craze is partly a repudiation of postmodernism, it's also a repudiation of (or perhaps just a complement to) the digital world which threatens to suck us all in and disembody us and all our cultural production. With a bike, you get out there into First Life. You use your real body. You run real risks, and there's no restart button if you fuck up. Put most simply: while you're on your bike you're not on your computer. But, by the same token, there is a connection between these new bikes and computers, just as there is between today's art and computers. It's the connection of negation, of complementarity, of something being made necessary by something else.

Collapsing the craft / art distinction: I didn't talk to the people who run the bike workshop gallery across the road from my house, but I did an imaginary interview with them in my head, during which they told me "We went to art school, and made art, but got more and more interested in making bikes. We don't see it as very different from what we did before, except that when we were making sculpture you couldn't touch it, and certainly not ride it." And at that point I ask them something about the Japanese tradition, in which art tends to be applied art, and use dignifies rather than diminishing things. And we nod our heads sagely and agree that, in separating spirituality from everyday life and art from craft, the West has got things terribly wrong.

Open source: Although I see fixie bikes complementing and / or negating computers and all they stand for, there is one computer principle -- a code of honour in its own way, for its own otaku community -- which applies here, and that's open source. When I interviewed Alin for the Times, he told me: "The bike itself is so simple, made of just ten or so parts. To be able, in a matter of seconds, to open and hack the whole bike is excellent and empowering.” The fixie is, in other words, a sort of Unix-cycle!

Viral ecology: There's a danger that making people ecologically-conscious can end up preachy and worthy. What you need is something viral, something viscerally compelling, something cool as fuck, which is also something green. And fixie bikes are that: viral ecology with the urban credibility of skateboarding and the rebel cool of smoking combined. No more sermons! On yer bike!

Distinction strategy: We were talking earlier this month about shifts in graphic design style as a sort of distinction strategy, a game of catch-up in which one set of designers keep throwing wobblies, keep embracing ugliness and absurdity in order not just to "make it new", but to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the client-pleasing coffeetable hacks who hobble along behind, copying and pasting. The fixie trend is also a distinction strategy. It's a way for hipsters to say "I'm not just another suburban bozo with a car". But it's also a way for the West to say to China: "Okay, you all have cars now. Well, we're onto something else: bicycles." Which is ironic, since the West used to laugh at China for wobbling around, in its billions, on bicycles.

Limitation as flavour: Finally, a point I did manage to work into the Moment piece. Limitation is what gives something flavour. Nobody wants a bassoon that can also sound like a guitar, although for a while synth makers gave us digital sampling synths which were supposed to be able to make any sound known to man. It turned out, though, that people wanted synths that sounded like synths -- analog synths, the ones that didn't sound like anything else. Well, fixie bikes are like that. They're like Lomo cameras, digital synths, vinyl record players. Their limitations -- the things they can't do -- are a crucial part of their lo-fi charm. It's amazing how few marketers and manufacturers understand the value of limitation. People don't want you to be able to -- or claim to be able to -- do it all. They want you to be able to do one thing, and have a flavour.

This, by the way, is also why postmodernism is failing. Nobody wants a culture which eats and quotes all others. That culture, that society, will turn out to have no flavour of its own. Nobody will be able to remember what it was about, and nobody will be able to revive it.

(All images courtesy Alin Huma. Ride safe, mate!)