Volume 9, Issue 2: Fall 2013
Conference Summary: IJMS Conference, London 2013
Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferriss
On 4-7 July 2013, the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies convened its third annual conference in London, England. Held on the campus of Chelsea College of Art and Design - University of Arts London, the conference featured over 80 attendees, including nearly 40 presenting papers. Scholars represented institutions across the globe: Italy, Greece, Spain, Romania, England, India, the United States and Canada. The presenters’ academic specializations were as varied as their national origins, as attendees heard from experts in psychology, history, textiles, engineering, law, film, fashion, literature, business, painting, music, and photography.
The methodical, charming and altogether impressive Caryn Simonson, of Chelsea College organized the conference, with help from her colleagues at the institution and support from Prof. Chris Wainwright, Pro-Vice Chancellor, of Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon colleges, and George Blacklock, Dean of College, as well as stateside assistance from the IJMS conference coordinators: California psychologist Lisa Garber and Alex Ilyasova of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Essex local Tim Fransen provided invaluable and creative web design and his former student, Alex Thraves, documented the presentations on video. Caryn, Jo David and Rachael Homes (of Space Station 65) curated a fascinating exhibition of motorcycle photography, art, and memorabilia. Exhibition goers were entertained by Country Dirt, a local band whose members included Dean Blacklock. In addition to attending three days of presentations, attendees met to eat and interact at local pubs and, on Sunday, boarded a classic double-decker British bus for a trip to the Ace Café, a hallowed site for motorcyclists, as it was the place for Rockers and Mods to see, be seen, race, and settle disputes.
The conference took off in style with a dependably amusing and jaw-dropping lecture from everyone’s favorite female world traveler, Lois Pryce, author of Lois on the Loose and Red Tape and White Knuckles: One Woman’s Motorcycle Adventure Through Africa, whose effervescent humor contrasted with the facts of the outrageous, appalling, and genuinely frightening experiences of her most recent trip to Africa. (Don’t miss her account of riding through mine fields in Angola!) Her next trip, to female-friendly Iran (heh-heh) may well be more relaxing.
Ellis Pitt offered an intriguing and provocative account of how current social and economic changes will be affecting the motorcycle scene. His approach featured observations about large-scale alterations in notions of work, play, technology, and social interaction, and how these may well change the face of motorcycling.
Given the scholarly bent of the conference and its presence at a college of art and design, some of the more intriguing contributions came from those in the fine arts. Catrin Webster’s “Immanuel Kant, I Can” compared the notions of movement in painting and journeys on a motorcycle as types of spatial inscriptions on canvas and landscape. Her philosophically perspicacious weaving of these two movements was highlighted by a series of paintings, the beauty of which were reason enough to watch and listen. Tom Helyar-Cardwell provided some depth to our understanding of the patch club jacket by situating it within the larger context of the battle jacket, illustrating his observations with his amazing photo-realistic paintings of historical battle jackets from, among other places, China, as well as a pair of creative visual riffs on the biker patch vest. Tim Arrowsmith challenged conventional views of the motorcycle jacket as the standard gear of rebellious riders in the first half of the twentieth century. The image, popularized in films such as The Wild One, is contradicted by first-hand accounts from riders of the period, as well as catalogues and advertisements. The contemporary resurgence of motorcycle styles from the 1950s and ’60s was the subject of Nick Clements’s engaging presentation, which showcased his photographic work on revival subcultures.
Memoir was another theme of the conference. Long-time participant, California psychologist Lisa Garber, presented another chapter in her absorbing series, “The Voice Inside My Helmet,” expanding her work with a poignant account of a final motorcycle ride with a terminally ill loved one. Charles Johnson integrated his memories of the rock band Rush with observations regarding drummer Neal Peart’s book Ghost Rider, about his healing motorcycle journey following a series of family tragedies. In his account of a 3000-mile ride from Cambridge to his birthplace, Lisbon, Sergio Fava explored the nature of the journey and home, while Eryl Price-Davies recalled his stint as a dispatch rider in London, tracing the changes globalization and technology have introduced.
Other presenters focused on the physical experience of riding, from Matt Healey, who advocated the benefits of adventure riding for health and development—both mental and physical, for younger and older riders—to Riders for Health cofounder Barry Coleman and his daughter Kim, who highlighted the life-or-death significance of motorcycle travel by health workers in Africa. In an original application of philosophy drawn from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Coleman offered an eye-opening defense of Pirsig’s concept of quality as key to sustaining the machines that transport caregivers and medicine.
Technologies old and new sparked lively debate. Reg Eyre observed how what “counts” as a motorcycle is as much its social and cultural situatedness as its technology, illustrating his claims with visual materials from early New Zealand motorcycling. Sculptor Ed Allington recounted his efforts to restore a rare Harley-Davidson alloy 750 XR, the most successful racing bike in motorcycle history. Christian Pierce described how one iconic British manufacturer, Royal Enfield, has been revived in India, where it now fashions its bikes as distinctly contemporary vehicles for a growing economic market. Sushil Chandra and Sudhir Atreya argued that, while feminist debates rage, Indian bike designers remain fixed in traditional understandings of gender difference and have (as yet) failed to adapt bikes, such as by reducing seat height, to accommodate a growing market of female riders.
Other speakers also contemplated the future of motorcycle design. Paul Blezard offered a spirited, lavishly illustrated defense of “feet-first” or recumbent motorcycles as safer, more practical and more economical. Anthony Bieybuck outlined his visionary plan to design and manufacture a truly “green” vehicle, a motorcycle constructed of chemically treated grass polymers. He advanced a compelling argument that biomaterials can substitute for metals and petro-chemical plastics, envisioning a future for transport in marginalised rural areas across the globe that could transform economic and political power relations.
The politics of riding and road use was itself a theme. After providing a survey of rights organizations in the UK, Chris Hodder argued that motorcyclists, devoid of any natural rights, must define and defend the rights they claim. Randy McBee similarly offered historical context for rights debates in the US by examining conflicts between motorcyclists and automobilists after World War II, owing to the unprecedented expansion of the number of registered motorcycles on the road by the 1970s.
Gender conflict not only emerged in Chandra and Atreya’s talk about Indian biking, but in Julie Willett’s analysis of one male American writer’s columns from the 1970s. She problematized easy understandings of Easyrider’s Bob Bitchin’s attitudes as misogynistic, suggesting he may have advanced a playful or parodic chauvinist attitude. Steven Alford similarly challenged uncritical assumptions that early safety bicycling engendered female emancipation. He argued that technological developments should be understood within the context of economic relations, observing that only those few women who could afford a vehicle could have reaped the benefits. Sue Brown examined the contemporary impact of gender distinctions on an impressively large sample of male motorcyclists, contending their embrace of conventional definitions of masculinity may impede their recourse to health services. She argued that “being a man” is causally linked with gendered health inequalities such as earlier death from coronary heart disease, social deprivation and suicide. Intersections of gender and class introduce further complexities. Ramona Marinache’s study of female motorcyclists in Romania demonstrated that a feminisation of moto-mobility is occurring, establishing a new dimension and stage of motorcycles’ gentrification in the post-communist era.
Gabriel Jderu has categorized stages of motorcycle culture in Romania, tracing an initial period of upper-class adoption, followed by a socialist era of democratization, and culminating in a contemporary period of motorcycling as an identity project, through social affiliation and lifestyle choices. Other speakers engaged with issues of identity as well. Nicolas Christakis studied 20 female motorcyclists in Athens whose life stories feature motorcycling as a means of negotiating gender definitions. In an analysis of her own riding practices and identity as a Japanese female living in the UK, Esmerelda Miyake demonstrated that ethnicity and gender are entangled. Exploring the fictional identity of singer Lana del Rey through an analysis of her music video Ride, Emmanuelle Dirix raised complex questions about authenticity in relation to identity and to biker culture.
Related questions about the intersection of the real and fictional were raised by Australian author and biker Loukas Mexis, whose novel Flat Track is set in California in the 1960s and ’70s, transmogrifying his own passion for flat track racing into a fictional character’s experiences. David Walton discussed how writers in 1970s, commissioned by the New English Library, created pulp fiction representations of outlaw culture presumably based on real groups, such as the Hells Angels.
Debates about fiction versus nonfiction also emerged in Steve Koerner’s survey of motorcycle literature. Defining the term broadly, Koerner divided literature about motorcycling into categories from memoir to travel narratives. David Walton provided a useful survey of types of traditional motorcycle documentaries before analysing Closer to the Edge as a contemporary departure influenced by reality television, wherein focus on motorcycling is displaced by a personal focus on, for example, TT rider Guy Martin’s amusingly inarticulate and salaciously candid revelations about his sexual life.
The motorcycle itself can be a cinematic character, argued Marina Cianferoni in her analysis of two rare examples of European film shot in the 1920s. The second, featuring a photographer taking his Excelsior Superior X through the Dolomite mountains, fused the enterprises of riding and filming. Emerging simultaneously in 1895, modern cinema and the motorcycle have had long symbiotic careers, as Sandra Martinez and Antonio Sanjuan Perez documented in their comprehensive survey of motorcycles on film. They shared the results of their exhaustive research, categorizing over 2000 films featuring two-wheeled vehicles. Filmmaker Miguel Grunstein presented his own experimental film, Absolutely Nothing, Next 22 Miles … A Fugue for Motorcycle. After immersing the audience in an aural and visual approximation of riding, he shared secrets of the film’s complicated composition. (Click here to access the film on video, then insert the password ijms2012.) His film reminded the audience that the next best thing to spending three days talking about motorcycles is actually riding them.
As this brief overview of the conference presentations demonstrates, using a technological device such as the motorcycle as an academic focus reveals to scholars what broad, interdisciplinary possibilities for research such a device can offer. Attendees left the conference open to the prospects of new intellectual horizons, as well as those traversed by the motorcycle itself.
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