The art of two wheels

By HermineBloom

Almost 10 years ago, Brendt Barbur was riding his bike on the frenetic streets of New York City—a normal affair for the avid cyclist who grew up amid BMX culture—when he got hit by a bus. As a result, a bruised yet inspired Barbur set out to depict bicycle culture as he saw it.

Bicycle culture, Barbur said, can typically be defined two ways, and one is more obvious than the other. To the average cyclist, government-regulated infrastructure, or bike parking and safety, for example, is important. But biking as a lifestyle more aptly defines biking for Barbur and hundreds of thousands of cyclists around the world, who have inspired and even created their own film, art and fashion.

In the same year Barbur survived the accident, he founded the Bicycle Film Festival, an organization devoted to showcasing bike-themed film, music and art. Currently, the BFF travels to more than 40 cities a year, including London, Tokyo, Sydney and Seoul, screening films by Spike Jonze, Cheryl Dunn and Michel Gondry, alongside unknown filmmakers. The BFF also produces two to four films a year.

On the last leg of its 10th anniversary tour, or its “biggest year ever” according to Barbur, the BFF will be in Chicago on Feb. 25 and 26, and Barbur is confident his grass roots organization has helped people celebrate bicycle culture throughout the past decade.

“The artists and cyclists make the BFF happen, I’m just steering it,” said Barbur, reflecting on the past 10 years. “That’s why it’s in so many cities.”

At a typical festival, the main attractions are the screenings of bicycle-themed films curated by the BFF staff and art that incorporates bicycles. After-parties with well-known deejays and pre-arranged bike rides are woven throughout the schedule, producer of the BFF headquarters Jen Whalen said. In most cities, biking in groups to and from the film screenings and organized bike races are common.

The impetus for founding the BFF was Barbur’s accident, which exposed him to the contempt many people have for cyclists.

However, he said people reacted to the scratches on his arm with, “Well, that’s your fault for riding a bike.” Shortly thereafter, he had a surfing accident while visiting Hawaii, which resulted in a mangled face, he said, but peoples’ reactions were altogether different, which was an indication of the way most people perceive bicycle culture.

“When I told them I was in a surf accident they were like, ‘Whoa, you surf; that’s cool,’” Barbur said. “In society, people who bike, generally speaking, are poor, dirty and are kind of social rejects. Remember ‘The 40-year-Old-Virgin’? He rode a bike to work.”

Whalen cites passion as the reason for the BFF’s overwhelming success in reversing this stereotype, noting the organization is mainly volunteer-based.

“It takes a lot of support from people [who] might not work for the festival and the bike communities in each city,” said Whalen, who became involved with the organization as a volunteer.

Speaking from experience, Whalen said she’s been riding a bike since she was a little girl, though didn’t quite take it as seriously until high school.

“Since then, if I go a day or two days without being on my bike, I don’t really feel that alive,” Whalen said. “Biking is a really important part of my life. I enjoy biking with friends, racing bikes, everything about it.”

For people like Whalen, it comes as little surprise the BFF was well-received out of the gate, and Barbur said that’s still true.

“It’s just bigger,” Barbur said. “We’re doing the same thing. It was in my house, and now we have an office and a staff. There was no venue for all of the creative things I saw and people want to see that in biking. [The fact] that anybody even comes still blows my mind sometimes.”

In fact, Barbur said the first festival he threw in NYC sold out. He recalls riding his bike to a cheap, Greek grocery store in Queens to prepare a spread for the entire reception.

“The whole [reception] was full and the food was gone,” Barbur said. “[Meanwhile], my sister and I were handing out flyers that had no artwork on [them]—they just said Bicycle Film Festival in bold letters and we typed out the programs.”

The first BFF art show was held in the basement of Anthology Film Archives—a film archive center in NYC founded in 1969 by Jonas Mekas, or “the father of avant-garde film,” as Barbur put it. This year, the art show and reception took place at the sophisticated Dash Gallery in NYC, where everyone in attendance was greeted with paparazzi flashbulbs.

The art show is now formally known as Joyride Art Shows, which the BFF gave birth to a few years after it was founded. An all-inclusive traveling show, Joyride showcases work of famous artists as well as the average bike messenger who happens to be a photographer, Whalen said.

Photos by Jonze and BMX rider Edwin Delaros made an appearance in NYC this year at Joyride.

“Jonze has his roots in bikes as well,” Barbur said. There is little nepotism involved when they curate, he added.

Compared to other cities, Chicago hasn’t been as receptive, admits Barbur who last visited in 2009. He attributes lackluster attendance to what he sees as Chicagoans’ penchant for either intimate events that are hyper-local and neighborhood-oriented or corporate-sponsored behemoths like Lollapalooza. Rarely does a medium-sized event garner the same kind of response, Barbur said. Still, he is hopeful for the upcoming festival in The Windy City.

“We’re coming back more conservative to rekindle the festival in Chicago,” he said. “At first, we came in full on, but maybe it can find its own way.”

One of the films on the tour, “Empire,” is a 46-minute look at urban cycling in NYC and directed by bike messenger Christian Thormann and his friend Luke Stiles. The film will be shown at 9 p.m. on Feb. 25 at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave.

Thormann said he started working as a bike messenger six or seven years ago and began motor-racing two years ago. The recent Fashion Institute of Technology graduate cites the San Francisco-based bike messenger documentary “M.A.S.H” as inspiration for his film.

“When ‘M.A.S.H’ came out, somebody had to do that [in NYC] and nobody was stepping up,” said Thormann, who learned to edit film as he went. “I was a big fan of those films, so I was like, ‘Why don’t I just do that?’”

After meeting Barbur in the NYC bike community, he submitted “Empire” to the festival, which he said was instrumental in gaining exposure for his work.

He said the message of the film has to do with having fun on a bike and not getting hurt.

“If you’ve never been to NYC, this is what the bike messenger culture is like,” Thormann said.

Through large-scale screenings of “Empire” and other films and similarly-themed films, the “40-Year-Old Virgin” association Barbur mentioned is fading.

“It takes an adventurous, creative frame of mind to get out there on your bike,” he said. “The architecture of our homes, urban planning, the way clothing is designed—as you see the bicycle become stronger [in our culture]—you will see all those things change.”

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