Wheeled Apparitions

Bicyclists' high-profile political statement is also a savvy urban-art installation.

Motorists often don't notice cyclists until they wonder what that scraping and screaming sound is beneath their SUV—oh, a bike messenger wrapped around the bumper. Anyone who regularly pedals in Seattle—this writer included—knows that even the most constant vigilance and defensive tactics can't save you from the driver distracted by latte and cell phone. So it was a terrific bit of guerrilla art when, the night before Monday, Aug. 1, GhostCycle volunteers deployed 40 white-painted old bicycle hulks around the city to greet the morning commuters. Each numbered bike corresponds to an accident story on the group's well- designed Web site (GhostCycle.org), which also contains more incidents and safety tips.

It's all a part of the group's mission to promote bicycle safety awareness among both motorists and cyclists, explains a spokesperson who goes by the nom de guerre Alex. "Be safe. Be careful. Share the road." The whole project took several months and cost a few hundred dollars; accident stories were solicited via the Web site beginning in May. Then the old junkers were collected, painted, placed, and digitally photographed for the Web site on the night of installation. Alex doesn't mind that the city and some property owners are already removing the GhostCycles: "We knew a couple might be taken down pretty quick. We didn't care. We didn't plan on leaving our trash out there forever. We don't have plans for more bikes. The Web site keeps going. We might expand [the statistics and stories]."

Like a lot of site-specific installations outside the gallery, the GhostCycles are perishable exactly by reason of their prominence. Lampposts, telephone poles, and other markers of the urban landscape are appropriated in much the same way a cyclist does when he locks his bike to one for a few hours. Only here there is no cyclist, only a remnant, an unclaimed bike—like those scavenged, abandoned carcasses one often sees rusting and disappearing down to the frame. First the wheels and seat vanish, then the salvageable components, until only the skeleton is left. What makes the GhostCycles creepy and effective as art is that they're whole but the rider will never return for them. All you've got are their anonymous cyberstories.

In this way, though the GhostCycle activists took their cue from prior, similar operations in Pittsburgh, New York, and San Francisco, there's a connection to a deeper tradition of memorials and art. Empty shoes are part of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Empty boots have been used in anti–Iraq war exhibits (including the traveling Eyes Wide Open, which visited Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion last April). Just recently, Steven Spielberg had empty clothing flutter from the sky in War of the Worlds. While none of the accidents commemorated by GhostCycle were fatalities, says Alex of the artwork, "It has a lot of visual impact. [It's] a heads-up awareness piece. It's 3-D, it's in your face."

Bad art, like Hammering Man, has an unwelcome way of sticking around in Seattle; it becomes permanent, kitsch, a tourist destination. You have to see it, then photograph it, to safely forget it—another check mark on the First Thursday gallery walk. Good art can be ephemeral. Soon, one suspects, the GhostCycles will become ghosts themselves—chains cut, removed, but not forgotten. Every time I pedal past the intersection of GhostCycle #39 (at Queen Anne Avenue North and West Mercer Street), closest to my home, I'll think of riding more safely. I can only hope motorists share the same inclination to signal their turns and check their mirrors before pulling into traffic. It's the feeling you get after seeing a ghost: cautious, apprehensive, haunted.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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