Art that spoke to me

by Martin Thomas   May 17, 2011  

Rider Spoke (Brighton)

Cyclists often speak of the reflective state of mind they get into on their bikes. Certainly for me there’s something about the combination of repetitive exercise and constantly changing scenery that calms me down and puts my mind into a semi-detached state – mildly engaged with the process of cycling, avoiding peril and taking in scenery but otherwise free to roam.

I think more clearly and more creatively on bike rides than I do sitting at my desk (where I’m paid to think clearly and creatively, irritatingly enough). On my bike I solve problems, dream up schemes, work through irritation.

So my ears pricked up when I heard about Rider Spoke, a… what would you call it? An artistic endeavour? A game? A bicycle and technology adventure? by Brighton-based artists’ group Blast Theory. They describe it as “a work for cyclists combining theatre with game play and state of the art technology”, which will do I suppose.

Nick Tandavanitj from Blast Theory explained how they came up with the idea: “All three of the lead artists at Blast Theory are cyclists and we know how good cycling can be for helping you process your thoughts if you’ve had a row or a bad day, for example. It also gives you a greater sense of freedom than walking does because you can go further with less effort. And it’s interesting to cycle just for the sake of it, without any particular destination in mind.

“We wanted to find a way of combining these aspects of cycling and involving the interaction of lots of people. Rider Spoke is what we came up with.”

The idea is that you clamp a handheld computer to your handlebars, stick some headphones on and then cycle around, following the instructions you’re given. A frankly rather seductive female voice tells you to find somewhere to hide then answer a question. You can decide whether to listen to other people’s answers to the question or provide your own.

The questions invite you to reflect on your life and the people in it. You answers are recorded and you can then listen back to them or press on to the next hiding place and the next question.

My own experience of Rider Spoke began inauspiciously – through no fault of Blast Theory, I hasten to add. The thing is, I have odd-shaped ears that simply won’t hold on to the in-ear phones that you get with iPods and everything else these days. There’s no groove in my ears into which to slot the buds, so they simply fall out. The enterprising folk at Blast Theory suggested I use surgical tape to persuade the phones to stay in and this worked…up to a point. I had to constantly adjust and re-tape as I cycled along – hardly the best way to get into a reflective state.

And I suppose that leads me to my only real issue with the experience: I think to really feel the benefit of it you’d have to be in that meditative state that only comes with a decent length ride. The Rider Spoke experience lasts about an hour, which wasn’t long enough for me to let go of the day’s distractions and relax fully into the process. I could have done without the computer reminding me how low its batteries were every five minutes too.

Minor gripes aside, I found the experience very interesting. As I pedalled around, trying not to feel too self-conscious about the tape covering my ears, I did find myself looking around with fresh eyes and seeking out the unusual in familiar surroundings.

I was prompted to think about all sorts of things by addressing the deceptively simple questions. Being asked about the last time I held someone’s hand in the street, for instance, sparked off a whimsical reflection on how quickly my kids are growing up and how they'll soon be at the stage of preferring the idea of physical torture to holding their dad’s hand in public.

Other people’s answers were fascinating, banal, amusing and shocking, ranging from one woman describing the life and death in captivity of her Islamic fundamentalist father to another gleefully exclaiming how much she enjoyed the biggest secret in her life and how there was no way she was ever going to share it.

Finally I was invited to record a promise to myself. I settled on something that certainly wasn’t original but is no less worthy an aspiration because of its lack of invention. Who knows if I’ll stick to it? And who cares? What really matters is that I found the Rider Spoke experience fascinating and stimulating – and a great excuse for a quick bike ride on a Sunday evening.

Rider Spoke has appeared all over the world and was in Brighton this month as part of the ongoing Brighton Festival. It’s finished now but Blast Theory have plans to do it again so if you want to take part, keep an eye on their website.