Volume 8, Issue 1: Spring 2012
The International Journal of Motorcycle Studies Conference
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
June 7-10, 2012
For the second time, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs hosted a dedicated group of scholar-motorcyclists for the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies conference, June 7-10, 2012. Over 40 participants from the U.S., Canada and England gathered to share their research and discuss all things motorcycle.
Several conference participants considered the politics and history of motorcycling and its cultural representations. Charles Johnson offered an historical narrative of patriotism among bikers, which provided a context for two compelling analyses of popular culture representations of riders and riding: Rick Stevens traced the role of the motorcycle journey in Captain America’s gradual transformation as an icon of masculinity from the 1940s to the present, while Jeffrey Montez de Oca examined motorcycles in the film Black Rain (1989) as embodying the trade conflict between Japan and the U.S. In his review of On Yer Bike!, a short-lived British bike magazine published in the early 1980s, Eryl Price-Davies showed how the magazine’s punk sensibilities reflected the structure of feeling characteristic of the times. Randy McBee presented an original analysis of the events at Hollister in the context of labor and mobility, contending that the “outlaw” image that emerged may have its roots in anxieties about “transients,” “vagrants” and “hoodlums,” wage laborers who were not permanent community members. The contemporary, tight-knit communities of coastal Ecuador were the focus of Kimbra Smith’s presentation. She documented that motorcycle ownership has introduced ambivalent responses to globalization and modernization. David Russell demonstrated that the motorcycle’s value varies among the community of collectors and boldly offered a matrix for predicting and determining a specific bike’s value in the contemporary marketplace.
Questions of risk and danger were raised in presentations by Robert Wonnett and Jane Davis. Wonnett explored the conflict between the motorcycle, which he argued could legally be considered a symbol of public expression, and the road, conceived of as a public forum. Davis discussed the transformation of one road linking North Carolina and Tennessee, U.S. 129, into “the Dragon,” as an example of motorcycle tourism.
The rider—the upper half of the motorcycle—was the subject of three presentations on fashion. Suzanne Ferriss argued that, in the transition from the bicycle to the motorcycle, practicality and usefulness, rather than stylishness and display, dictated riders’ choices of gear. Focusing on the same era, Alexandra Melick highlighted women’s dress reform and developing styles of specific riding costumes. In her engaging analysis of two contemporary fashion advertisements—one for Chanel, another for Longchamp—Caryn Simonson analyzed the luxury brands’ uses of “heritage” motorcycles (Ducati, Norton) to reinvent themselves for twenty-first century markets.
The machine itself took center stage in several analyses. Steven Koerner offered insights into the “strange death” of the British motorcycle industry in the 1970s derived from the research he conducted for his recently published book. Bikes of the 1980s were the subject of Christian Pierce’s investigation of technological history, as he surveyed attempts (mostly failures) to design and market turbocharged motorcycles. Steven Alford considered the process of innovation itself, arguing that the prevailing image of an individual creator—a genius or tinkerer—fails to capture the complexity of technological change.
Many presentations featured the motorcycle as the source of personal transformation and creative inspiration. In interviews with motorcycle journalists, Cheryl North-Coleman determined that their literacy practices embodied the ideals of successful writing--authenticity, identity and audience—and suggested that their examples may have implications for the teaching of writing. As if to offer compelling confirmations of North-Coleman’s thesis, Bernadette Murphy and Lisa Garber read moving narratives about their personal relationships to the machine and to riding. Murphy described her decision to learn to ride as a reaction to her father’s death, as an embrace of life: for her, the act of riding is life changing. For Garber, riding on Los Angeles’ freeways—a potentially life-ending enterprise—heightens her awareness of time and space, resulting in unexpected insights into fate and desire.
Several presentations demonstrated how issues related to gender have become significant to motorcycle studies. Mark Austin and Patricia Gagné described how their friendship has affected their ethnographic field research on motorcyclists. They argued that little attention has been given to the possibilities for research offered by a mixed-gender, non-coupled research team. Fictional, rather than actual, gender issues were the focus of presentations by Sheila Malone and Chris Bell. Bell argued that within the masculine narrative of The Transformers, the motorcycle is pictured as frail and weak. Analyzing an impressive variety of media forms, from comic books to television, Malone surveyed how Batwoman and Batgirl have used the motorcycle to destabilize male-dominated culture, challenge heteronormative standards and transform images of disability.
The conference culminated with a screening of Miguel Grunstein’s experimental film Absolutely Nothing, Next 22 Miles. This short film, scored by Donald Rubinstein with his original composition, “Fugue for Motorcycle,” immersed viewers in an arresting aural and visual expression of riding. Following the screening, Grunstein offered behind-the-scenes glimpses of the film’s composition, describing the collaborative process with Rubinstein, how he incorporated sound recordings of his BMW and Ducati as components of the soundtrack, his artistic inspirations—from the films Koyaanisqatsi and Un Chien Andalou to futurist paintings by Giacomo Balla—and his complex cinematic manipulations of images of engine parts, the motorcycle, the landscape and the road.
As even this summary indicates, the conference exposed participants to a heady mix of topics from an astonishingly diverse range of perspectives. What it cannot convey is the passion and intensity of discussion that emerged in response to the presentations and in casual conversations between sessions and over dinner (and drinks and breakfast and lunch). A documentary filmmaking team—Eric Ristau and Geneva Liimatta—interviewed participants about motorcycling and Don Troop, a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, sought to discover what attracted them to motorcycle studies. And one of the attendees, Carter Edman filed a dispatch of his own on the "Hell for Leather" magazine's website (download a PDF copy here).
To get in on the action yourself, mark your calendars for June 2014 when we return once more to Colorado Springs. Watch the IJMS website for announcements: ijms.nova.edu.
The journal thanks Conference Coordinators
Alex Ilyasova and Lisa Garber for their hard work!
Images and text copyright © International Journal of Motorcycle Studies