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Fixated on the fixie - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 08:08 am
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!)

78CommentReply

lame_no_antenna
amber and softly
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 06:39 am (UTC)

messenger vs. hipster

there are divides in "mono-subcultr" as well.


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lame_no_antenna
amber and softly
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 06:47 am (UTC)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOKy8Xf-1dY

watch that, it kind of illustrates how fun such a simple device is.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:06 am (UTC)

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Not fixies, but the way that postmodernism and computer life seem to infantalize us all.

I think you nailed it - people want flavor, not endless choice and distraction.

Lately I've been craving boxing matches, not flame wars. Evel Knevel, not David Blaine. Danger and sacrifice, not entertainment. The very idea of sacrifice seems to have been left out of the pomo equation. But something in our nature, or our blood, or maybe in the dna of the planet itself, seems to demand it.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:22 am (UTC)

molly


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sirwilliam
sirwilliam
William
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:13 am (UTC)

Portland Oregon seems to be the epicenter of fixie culture. I think it's a bit silly and macho, but if it makes riding a bike more sexy, I'm all for it. I go for macro-bikes: last fall I bought a 45lb Dutch bike with fenders, 8 gears, dynamo lights, a bell, a built-in lock, pump, and a frickin cup holder. It's the ultimate in practical commuting. Plus it has brakes.





Edited at 2008-05-22 07:16 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:28 am (UTC)

Yeah, I'm also not macho enough -- or possibly too macho -- for those skinny fixies. My bike is like yours, a heavy shopping bike Alin used when he was here, and calls The Panzer. In fact, he credits it -- or a reaction against it -- with triggering his current interest in fixies and track bikes.

Oddly enough, neglect has made my orange Panzer more and more like a fixie. It doesn't have any gears, and the brake cable snapped. I'm not doing any stunts, though; it's a challenge just to make it go and stop. Especially stop.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:31 am (UTC)

falling off yer bike, even David Byrne's doing it:
http://journal.davidbyrne.com/


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 07:58 am (UTC)

Two broken ribs, ouch!

But where are the photos of David looking like a New Wave filmstar?


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dmt81
dmt81
Lorenzo
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 09:04 am (UTC)

Why yes, I'm developing a crush on Alin Huma's photos. The third one down in particular (gomibukuro) is quite striking.

I went through 4 fixies in 3 years. Stolen, confiscated, stolen, sold.


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skazat
skazat
Alex à Paris
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 09:13 am (UTC)

I've started riding a bike a few years ago - ever since I stopped skateboarding (and ditched the car), to be honest. Now it seems that the bike I ride is the new skateboard. I'm non-plussed about that, to me the bike - and it is one of them - fixed geareded kind, is just transparent. I do errands, I ride the bike, I work out, I ride the bike, I go on a date, I ride the bike, I want to make a political statement, I ride the bike, I go on vacation, I ride the bike. The bike is on me, like me pants are on me (I'm hardly outside without them). My pants are rolled up to become compatible with the bike. If it's a culture, it's not something I can see, because I'm immersed - "on the dot" as you may call it - on something very tiny and small, but something that surrounds me at all times. A very lovely and lonely place. You have an interesting perspective as an outsider to this bike riding and I enjoy reading about it. But! what I really hope you can do is, ride the bike too. I don't care what kind or for how long or for what reason, but such an integral part of my life can be studied and it can also be shared. Get a bike with brakes, gears, lights, fenders, a bell, strobing LED wheels, a cargo bucket for a kid - it makes no difference to me.


Here's last week, riding down a 2600 foot mountain, on a fixed gear, going very fast. 100 miles that day. It's not what everyone does on a fixed geared, but it's what I do.



If you want fixed geared tricks, might I suggest the coin pick up?



Oh, and here's my last big crash - on a fixed-gear. Wear your helmet, kids. (I did). Extra points if you can make out the poster in bg.

FALL




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lame_no_antenna
amber and softly
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)

WR interact poster! i forget who the model is tho.. glad to hear for helmets, i know a bro who has put himself in a coma after crashing!


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god_jr
god_jr
D-L Alvarez
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 09:26 am (UTC)

Throughout this article something you said early on worked like a red flashing light over all the rest of the text following. "...no brakes..."

Really, none? as in, not even the old-school foot brakes?
For about a week, the brakes were broken on my bike and I had to stop by slamming my feet down on the pavement, Flintstone's style. It was hell on both my shoes and my nervous system. Is this really about aesthetics, or is it just the Jackass generation on two wheels? I mean, there's nothing very aesthetic about trying to brake with your feet. All the streamline design of the bike is negated as soon as that Chow-dog wonders into your path, and you look as graceful Mr. Bean in your attempts not to hit it.

My brakes are fixed now and I love them. I love all my safety accessories (except I stopped wearing the helmet--even I have some aesthetic principles): and not just the ones on the bike. I love how Berlin really provides for the cyclist, with bike paths and bike-conscious motorists. In New York, I never took my bike out of Brooklyn or Queens, having rational fears of the way cars treat bikes in Manhattan: like something smaller than them.

I'm all for bike culture and have been most my life. I got my first bike as a Christmas present when I was still a kid, and I've had one ever since. I've never owned a car in my life and believe that in large cities they're a luxury. I have even managed moves from one apartment to another without automobiles. But please, not without my brakes.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 10:07 am (UTC)

Well, the nature of braking on a fixed gear bike is that you do it with your muscles, restraining the rear wheel directly through the pedals.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 09:36 am (UTC)

I find this post intriguing for various reasons. It certainly nails a real about-turn in your thinking. Go back to Click Opera posts of a couple of years back, and you're a vociferous champion of postmodernism. You're praising Michael Jackson as the ultimate postmodernist icon, your big themes are that those seeking an authenticity are acting in bad faith, you're revelling in your own fakeness, your fascination with Japan is tightly bound up with the notion that it's the most postmodern of countries, your sense of the superiority of femininity is also linked to its postmodern sensibilities, you're endlessly ripping into rockism... But now you're somewhere else, it seems. A nu-rockist, perhaps? This whole notion of a "code of honour" and wanting "something to die for" is not only ultra-masculine, but it's also a search for some kind of authenticity, it's Romanticism. Anyway, I'm interested in your philosophical journey, but I'm wondering whether it's really possible to return to some kind of modernism, whether that in itself isn't a postmodernist move. Was Mishima's death a Romantic last-of-the-samurais type end? Or more of a postmodern farce?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 10:12 am (UTC)

I don't think anything is timeless, including postmodernism. PoMo is rooted in time, and its time is drawing to an end. I enjoyed a lot about it, but I'm now -- like many others -- looking for the next thing. The trouble is that:

a) Some of the non-PoMo things are untouchably toxic (like religious fundamentalism).

b) PoMo has this knack, as you point out with your Mishima line, of dragging escapees back. Anything non-PoMo can be PoMo again if you're not careful.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 10:51 am (UTC)

"a mindset actually prepared to die for a particular aesthetic" - oh come on that's a bit rich. The people who ride these unsafe bikes are willing to put other people at risk by tearing about the place on unsafe bikes and in the UK at least illegal bikes - that's not cool.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 11:47 am (UTC)

Jesus, I needed to see exactly none of that. And onto image blocker you go.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 11:49 am (UTC)
lol bitter Dutchie

PS: OMG BIKES THAT'S SO NOVEL.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 12:21 pm (UTC)
Cycle of life

Pomo or Lomo, I'm unambiguously ambiguous, though I certainly don't want any of these fixie freaks ramming into my slow, heavy, fussy, faggy, feminine bike (with a reclining backrest!) with their streamlined brakeless two-wheeled lubricated phallus. (Bad enough these crazy kids on their 'boards when I'm flaneuring down the sidewalk!) Was it Jarry who said a bicycle was more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace? No, that was Marinetti about Bugatti... But, anyway, Christ, uphill bicycle races, and so on.

Nevertheless, I've always thought bicycle shops were the most beautiful of sculpture galleries, and from my first Raleigh to my last dying Schwinn, I--well, I must admit I ride my little scooter more these days on this hilly island.

Personally I hate undergoing even the indignity of a broken fingernail, so I'm not into all this jackanape jackassery. Help us make postmacho, sissy, lead-bottomed bikes the cool thing, Momus! Then I'll jump in your wicker postman's basket. Might I honk your horn?

x-z


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(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 12:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Cycle of life

Oh, by the way here's something today from your Old Gray Mother in Manhattan which the ever-distractable Momus might be interested in:

"“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.” (From an article on wisdom and the aging brain.)

x


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC)

"In fact, you could almost see cycling, and its attendant aesthetic, as "something worth dying for". (....)I really meant that it was important that fixie cycling -- like skateboarding -- is both difficult and dangerous"

I have to say that this fixie stuff just sounds like another fad, sorry to say. All this macho 'wear your wounds with pride' crap is just a way of justifiying the stupidity of using a bike with no brakes!
Reminds me of the clowns in Nathan Barley 'the rise of the idiots' riding around on bikes of assorted silly dimensions babbling into the 'latest handheld twit machines'. Frankly anyone who claims cycling is 'something worth dying for' has, to put it mildly, a twisted set of priorities.

Don't get me wrong, i'm not against bikes, or people playing about anfd getting creative with mechanisms and experimenting. It's just the stupidity wrapped in an aura of 'coolness' I don't like.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 02:50 pm (UTC)


the 'riding with no brakes' idea is nonsense or at least misleading. as nick says above back-pedaling is breaking; (you might need a bit more muscle than pulling a lever but the result is basically the same); add to this the fact that a track bike weights about 7kg which means very little inertia, + most people who ride with 'no brakes' tend to use pretty low gear ratios. any vehicle with any kind of braking system requires a certain ammount of space to come to full rest... so do fixies. moreover track frames have pretty steep geometry which means steering is very sharp and responsive and can itself become a form of emergency brake. in fact most people i know who sport brakes on a fixed gear bike never use them - an emergency thing, the equivalent of using the handbrake on a car in traffic.
of over 20 bike accidents i've personaly hears of in the last month or so all the bikes involved had brakes.






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never_the_less
never_the_less
critical sass
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 01:27 pm (UTC)

If someone put a foot in your spokes, you'd crash whether you have a fixed gear or freewheel.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC)

Alin was actually on an ordinary bike when his accident happened. You don't travel with a child on a fixie.


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 01:33 pm (UTC)

If people want to die on their brakeless tard bikes, it would be nice if they did so without hurting others. In typical shitheaded, hippie fashion, they've gone ahead and decided that THEIR useless, pointless lives need to be spiced up with some artifically-created danger and in doing so, also decided for OTHERS that their own lives are to be placed in the roulette spin, as well.

It's like people who drive drunk on purpose for the thrill. I welcome their deaths and rejoice in the erasing of their collective stupidity, but what about the people they hurt and kill who didn't assent to playing the retarded game?


Why can't people with a penchant for hurting themselves throw themselves off of tall cliffs in remote areas like the olden days?


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xaotica
xaotica
:: regarder of the cries of the world ::
Thu, May. 22nd, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)


has a person on a fixie hurt someone? i've only ever heard of them hurting themselves.

it's definitely more dangerous in some cities than others. here in seattle, i consider it quite dangerous. but in flatter cities like portland it doesn't seem so bad.


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