Friday, June 8, 2007

Johnny Payphone of Rat Patrol

In keeping with the bike-loving, consumerism-vexed/obsessed tone of this blog, I've got one more interview with Johnny Payphone of Rat Patrol. RP is non hierarchical as far as I can tell, but Johnny is a good spokesperson, as is clear by his fantastic musing on all things interesting. Here we have strong ties, weak ties, imagined ties, bricolage, community, anti-community, branding, the infamous HABITUS, Hebdidge-esque stuff oozing out the seams, etc etc etc. I’m happy with it as a closing note to the official period of Relationally Cate-ring to the blogosphere.

Thanks, readers. Followup comments to all things soon to come.

RC: Could you describe a little bit about what Rat Patrol is about?

JP: We're a trash and chopper club. Beyond that each member is welcome to manifest the club in the way they see fit, provided it doesn't reflect negatively on other members (so no cop-fighting or car-window smashing). There's a natural cycle to it- ride through the alleys, find bikes in the trash, weld them up, ride them through the alleys... very self-sustaining. Mostly we like just cruising around, maybe drinking some beers on a railroad trestle. But it can be a powerful influence on your life because you will see people living their dream. We're told all the time that "anything is possible" but you really have to see someone applying that to their life before you figure out how to do it to yours.

RC: on to freak bikes: where do the parts come from? how do people learn to make freak bikes? what does it mean to ride a freak bike?

JP: Some of it is about customizing your own transportation the same way you'd customize your outfit, or put stickers on your laptop, or whatever. But really the key is that these bikes are fun to ride. Riding around on something really fun, while people yell encouragement all day, has a tremendous effect on your state of mind. It puts a grin on your face.

The parts come from the alley, or apartment cleanouts, or scrappers. We have open build days where we share the knowledge but you do the work (no handouts here). Most of the time we have an open build at 1048 W. 37th on Sunday between 12 and 6. A few times a year we don't open the shop due to special events but for the most part if you stop by you can make a bike. We have a big pile of frames so all you need is elbow grease, maybe some beer, maybe a few bucks for supplies. Stop by! Note that sometimes Saturday night makes it hard to open promptly at noon Sunday.

RC: how about all this kind of appropriation of freak bikes? I think it was last summer that Brooklyn Industries had a freak bike in their display, and now someone is having freak bike classes in NY. It seems like freak bikes have become (at least) a commercial image. If you agree, what do you think about that? if you don't, tell me that too.

JP: Well, every single counterculture in history has been exploited to some degree. This is what the coolhunting jackals do. But some trends are inherently uncommercializable, such as anticonsumer junk cycling. You can't sell a pre-made, brand new junk bike, it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be custom to your body. But then again you can't sell graffiti but there's plenty of merchandizing around that culture.

Fortunately in the bike club world we've seen this happen before and have all been very resistant to co-option. We've had offers from Puma, Coke, MTV, Adidas, etc etc... Vice Magazine came to me and said "you guys are cool we want you in the magazine" and I said "kiss my ass" and so they called us stupid weirdos in the issue... a great reminder of how vipers always smile so big but will bite you in an instant.

In the end I don't have any problem with individuals making money off their passion. Most corporations, though, don't even care what the thing is, they just want the trend. It's just like the media- are they interested in the truth, or do they want a story? If a large corporation really wanted to promote our values they'd do so in a world-improving, nonconsumer way. But of course Coca-cola's not going to do that. But, for example, there was an independent film made about Bike Club last year and the filmmakers have been extremely generous in donating proceeds from ticket, merch, and DVD sales to our African charity. They know they're exploiting a culture and they're trying to atone for it by using the film for good. This is the middle ground between gross corporate exploitation and broke-ass individual self-righteous poverty.

RC: Can you talk about the network of rat patrol groups around the world? What kind of relationships are formed/aided there. If I ride with Rat Patrol in Chicago and then went to hang out with rats elsewhere, what kind of reception would I get? Where would I find them?

In the early days of bike clubs I noticed two other clubs (BLBC [Black Label Bike Club] and Scallywags) rapidly expanding so I granted a chapter to anyone who asked for one. But the hardest thing about having a bike club is having a bike club, so most of them fizzled out. Generally it takes an in-person exchange in order to convey our spirit. I'd say you'd find chapters whose culture varies but none of us can take ourselves too seriously, just look at the bikes!

If anybody travels between chapters they're usually well received. Being in a bike club is pretty much an invitation to crash with and party with any other club in the world. How many weirdoes do this worldwide, anyway? 2000? 3000? We simply have to be friends.

We have chapters in Chicago, UK, Lafayette, New Orleans, Ghana, Oz, Tanzania, Nashville, Winnipeg, D.C., Detroit, Ottawa, and Belgium.

RC: on a related note, when I went on a ride, everyone said "once you're on a ride, you're in." What do you think about that?

In the past I've always advocated involuntary press-ganging of anybody who rides with us, ever. In reality it's much more about self-definition. Of course you don't have to be "in" the club if you don't want to, because what does it mean to be in? Each person chooses if they want to wear our colors.

But I've noticed that there's extremely high turnover in the first year, so I always suggest that people spend their first year listening instead of speaking.

To me, personally, you're a prospect until you get that year patch. Lots of people are just looking for something to belong to, so they latch on without examining what we are. Then when we turn out to be- gasp- about riding bikes and digging through the trash (and not, say, an artificial family or an anarchist protest group) they leave. This always happens within the first year. Here's a hint, folks: No matter what your group is, if somebody gets a tattoo of your logo within three months of meeting you, they are looking for identity and not for your club.

RC: How about how rat rides interact with the modern urban setting? Everyone wizzing by one another, no one paying any attention, then they see some weird bikes and fun loving kids being awesome. Could you talk about Rat Patrol peoples' place in cities?

JP: Let's face it- people's lives suck. This culture discourages creativity and uniqueness with an iron fist. Sometimes I actually get angry that riding an unusual bike is considered unusual at all! Each person *should* be creatively expressing themselves. Instead they labor to cram inside some social structure that leaves them empty and artless. Rat Patrol rips them right out of the rut if only for a moment. It's a little bit of magic in a dull grey world. We give a lot of bikes to kids because that's when they still believe in magic. Kids never question that there's a guy dressed like a monkey on a tallbike, because they are still learning and everything is new. It's amazing how often kids see us when their parents don't- most people will ignore the elephant in the room. This invisibility is what makes us subversive- to the authorities we're this charitable neighborhood dork club, but secretly we are tearing down the very structures that give them authority, by injecting magic into people's lives. It is revolutionary, but not in that "let's win people to our cause by pissing them off" style of most modern activism. Instead we use shared joy and whimsy. Can you see how this all really has nothing to do with bikes?

Untitled: “what’s your biggest fear?, sidewalk chalk on sidewalk.”


This piece, in keeping with Carmen Suchecki’s participation in the class, is unpretentious and refreshing. The visuals of the sidewalk confessions themselves are uncomfortable and honest. The fears are easy to relate to, or at least to understand. It’s simple. I want a little more. I like that.

I like that, in contrast to Carrie MacQuaid’s confessional work, these confessions had no intermediary. People not only voluntarily gave up very personal information, but wrote it in oversized brightly colored letters in a public place – all by themselves.

I think this intensifies questions raised by MacQuaid’s work. Why would people divulge this information? Granted, they work in very different ways, but overlap along a similar theme of public vs. private. Suchecki’s public fascinates me. What on earth draws people to answer this chalked question? Is it our desire to regress to childish honesty? In that case, the medium is very encouraging.

Maybe given the option to acceptably indulge in such a rudimentary childhood pastime makes us feel that we can say anything fairly insignificantly. We used to write “Johnny loves Jessica” or “Matt smells like Miss Storts’ socks.” Now we can write “I’M AFRAID OF STDs AND MEDIOCRITY” with the same kind of humorous tone, knowing our “biggest fears” will be washed away with the next rain. Is that the allure? Johnny certainly doesn’t love Jessica anymore. And Matt smells great and gets lots of dates. Maybe if I write that I’m afraid of marriage, it won’t be so scary anymore if I wait long enough. I’m keeping an eye on the weather forecasts.

issues of access?

Adam’s piece was the most entertaining to visualize for me. Though, as I think he noted himself, there are a lot of open questions and potential criticisms here. He is separating himself from a group of less privileged people – presumably in reality and absolutely in the construction of his project. You could easily accuse him of being socio-economically condescending, presumptuous, culturally elitist, etc… but isn’t that what education is all about? Especially an education in “art theory and practice” of all things?

Ok, I jest, but honestly, to really get anything from this project, I think you have to take those things as givens: and I think Adam has admitted and apologized for them in a way. We all know these things, we’re not pretending they don’t exist, but they are the context within which these posted items function. There you go.

From here, what do we have? I am much more interested in Adam posting his class notes than the posted notes that remain. He is entering a community as an “other,” it’s not the other way around (again, presumably in one sense, definitively in another). He is leaving his traces in this place. What will these reactions be?

Of course people could just think it’s weird, which is probably the most likely response, but it’s interesting to think of others. Of course, the first that comes to my mind is disgust. Who is rubbing this shit in our faces? Or it could be confusion, or, possibly, intrigue. Clearly, no one would objectively gain from any information posted.

The next thing I wonder is: what if he ran into an interested party while posting these notes? What kind of interaction would that yield? Would it bring those possibilities to his attention? This is what I want to see. I want to see good ole brother electron running into one of the recipients of his experimental posting and hashing out the why’s who’s and what’s.

at least a little valuable

Stephen Nyktas placed. He placed various items in various public contexts and thought about how someone might use the objects. A quarter, a marker, a tennis ball. He wanted these items to be just enticing enough to pick up.

What I found interesting was that I found myself questioning how valuable these objects were. Or, perhaps more appropriately, questioning if people would find them valuable enough to take them.

I think I’d agree that people don’t often pass by a quarter as opposed to a nickel or dime, but I found myself wondering, would people pick up a pen? Would I? How about a tennis ball? Echoes of parental warnings of “where that thing’s been” vs. the value we are socialized to assign to dime-store type items enter the dialogue in this piece.

Conversely, I don’t think the placed items could have functioned appropriately were they much more valuable. A large bill, for instance, or a camera, an ipod. These things carry the meaning of lost items rather than left items.

As the piece does exist, what does the value of these items, specifically in the American throw-away context, mean for the interaction with the unseen future recipient? Is this a sector of the gift economy? Does Stephen function as a benefactor or a careless consumer? (Obviously not as a person, but as a player in this interaction…)

To me, as an extension of the relational elements of this project, the issues of how we think as consumers is very interesting. Stephen notes that the uses of the objects may be “even a little bit exciting to find.” What I’m interested in is what, besides minute excitement, might be felt by passers by. Disgust at the previous owner’s carelessness? Proud indifference? “This passer by has about 20 tennis balls at home, thank you.” Fatalistic luck – maybe they absolutely needed a pen that second to write down a phone number or address. Of course, all of these reactions would be slightly subconscious and fleeting, but it certainly is fun to think about.


Lee Ravenscroft of Working Bikes Co-operative

Mr. Ravenscroft is the founder of Working Bikes, a Not-for-profit organization that diverts abandoned and unwanted bikes from the waste stream. They accept donations and rescue bikes off of junk-trucks in line for the scrapper (I've seen this, it's pretty incredible).

Please do check out their website, This is a very efficient and helpful organization. They also have some pretty neat bikes.

Working Bikes had a piece in the A+D Gallery DIY show. "Pedal-power," in which they described how to convert an old bike into a person-powered generator. Like many pieces in the show, the Y in DIY would have to be relatively determined or technically skilled to DI. In this case, however, Working Bikes is pitching this idea to the world via Chicago gallery-goers. If Ding IY means a drastic change in your lifestyle, well, maybe that determination will bubble up after all.

I thought this was an interesting twist on the tone of all the pieces in this show. I contacted Mr. Ravenscroft to get his thoughts on the piece.

RC: For those unfamiliar to Working Bikes, could you briefly describe what the organization does?

LR: Working Bikes Co-Op collects donated bikes and recycled bikes. we repair about 1/2 of the bikes to be donated locally or sold at our humble store at 1125 S. Western.

With the proceeds from the sale of bikes we ship the remaining 1/2 to developing countries.

RC: I saw Working Bikes' contribution to the DIY show at the Columbia A+D gallery. Do you know how Working Bikes got involved? What was the goal there?

LR: The goal of the bike machines is to spread awareness of our Co-Op.

Also we believe in using bicycles and human power to alleviate people's petro-chemical dependency.

1/3 of the world has no electricity in their homes. Most rely on kerosene for light. Pedal power provides an alternative to the use of kerosene, which is dangerous and expensive.

With a bike generator, one can produce the power needed to have home lighting, watch TV, listen to the radio and run small appliances.

RC: So, the A+D gallery was presenting a show of DIY "art" projects. Among my peers, there was a lot of discussion about what the projects or pieces really were. Some said craft projects, some said items reflective of activism, some said engineering projects ranging from "sophomoric" to "pretty neat" to "useful."

Regardless of any kind of value judgments about how "arty" any of these items were, how do you feel the Bike Machines work operated within an art gallery setting? How do you feel it reflects upon Working Bikes to be involved in an "art show?"

LR: I think activism is a good description. I want to show that one can produce energy for lighting and entertainment for 1/5 the cost of solar energy using a broken bike and a broken electric scooter.

RC: How do you think it reflects upon the show (or the gallery) to include a group like Working Bikes?

LR: I hope that we were a credit to the show. As a primarily volunteer organization we have no marketing department. We rely on the generosity of others to spread the message of recycling, human power and an end to the car-culture that is ravishing the planet.

The show was an opening to the Green Festival. The Green Fest was an opening to bike machine installations in several Schools and festivals.

I believe that if people don't use human power in the first world they will not use human power in the developing world. The problem with global warming resides here and counter measures need to begin here.

RC: Has Working Bikes ever participated in something like this in the past? (presenting projects in an arts context)

LR: No, but this opened up the Green Festival and several other opportunities.

RC: In comparison to a lot "activist art" groups or collectives, I think Working Bikes does a very concrete service on a pretty incredible scale. I've seen some of the work you do, and I'm familiar with a couple of “arts activist” groups in Chicago. Now, I may be under-informed, but it seems to me like many other groups are all talk. Do you have any thoughts about these groups? How about their involvement in shows like this: empowerment through Do It Yourself!

LR: Many of the young people who volunteer or on staff with our co-op have art backgrounds. I hope that they see that we have an art component. We are restoring beautiful old bicycles and putting them back in service.

Working Bikes has changed the aesthetic for what type of bike peoples ride in Chicago. Before the Co-Op (BC), people were riding mountain bikes from Target. Now they are riding retro 3-speeds made in Chicago or Europe that they got from our Co-Op.

For the last 3 years the Co-Op has sold about 3000 bikes a year for 1/2 their appraised value. Over 90% are from the last millennium.

For the last 3 years we have also given away 15000 bicycles either in the US or in the 3rd world.

That adds up to about 25000 people on bikes over the last 3 years.

MC #2

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

MC #1

I started my week of obnoxious quirkiness in public places on Monday afternoon. Here's my first urban encounter. And yes, I did wear a blue wig, because why the fuck not?