Published July 2009
It’s the stuff of nightmares: A clear fall afternoon in Manhattan. Van driver opens his door. Door hits bicycle. Bike and rider get shoved into passing bus. (The story takes a hairpin…) Bike rider, former SF denizen Brendt Barbur, eventually dusts off injury and indignation turns the experience – and his insurance settlement – into a teachable moment. That was the inauspicious genesis of the Bicycle Film Festival. The festival became a way for Barbur to earn more respect – and personal space – for his fellow two-wheelers while sharing his love of the bicycle culture. Now in its 7th year and an international event (Lisbon, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Stockholm, London, etc.) that draws 250,000 people, the BFF just landed in San Francisco for its five-day run.
Barbur envisions the event as an arts and cultural celebration. As such, in every city the festival starts off with a concert called Bikes Rock! “The DJ’s and bands we have at Bikes Rock! and our other events are also bikers. So it’s just another way to get people excited about riding their bike.” I heard that the local shows Tuesday and Wednesday night at the Independent hit just the right note of freedom and fearlessness with two sold-out concerts by the Italo/Japanese trip/pop band Blonde Redhead. (Gave up my tickets to take my dog to emergency.) BFF publicist Jill Meisner described the trio’s tight set as “Maybe the best concert I’ve ever been to.”
So, what I did get to was the second event in the festival, the joyful art show called, aptly, “Joy Ride.” The shows run through Saturday at both the edgy and ambitious Ever Gold Gallery in the Tenderloin and at Market Street Gallery (it just completed a show featuring skateboard decks) in Hayes Valley. This is the first year Barbur decided to mount the exhibits at two different spaces, “to encourage people to bike from one gallery to the other” he says. It’s heartening to see some vibrancy creep into what has become a somewhat staid landscape in the City’s art world. The galleries chosen to host Joyride reflect the same vital energy that has more recently become the hallmark of the East Bay’s experimental art scene (fed largely by Oakland’s California College of Art. A good sign: Ever Gold was founded by recent graduates from SF Art Institute.)
The exhibit features photography, painting, multi media and prints including such varied pieces as anime-like images (created by a NY collective that calls itself “I Love Dust”), a wall of individual hand-stitched bike line ‘drawings’, a heroic neo-industrial image spray painted on found metal, antique-looking photo emulsion images on cardboard and even handlebar streamers that spell out what Barbur feels is the essence of the urban bike culture: “Freeeee.” James Newman’s series of photos of international bike messengers (Newman was one himself, as are several of the artists) being made into a book.
As I hoofed it from the Market Street gallery en route to Ever Gold I imagined that every bike rider I saw was heading for one or another galleries, and judging by the crowds, that may have been the case, as both venues hosted a steady stream of visitors arriving on their bikes throughout the evening. Barbur and I must have crossed paths between galleries. Waiting for him to return back to Ever Gold for our interview I starting getting impatient as the evening wore on, expecting him to zip up on his bike at any minute. I dropped the impatience as soon as I saw him exiting instead from a cab, his right arm in a sling. “I did it in New York – it was pouring rain every day of the Festival – we still had 17,000 attend in spite of the rain – but I fell while riding across the bridge.” Was he still sanguine about bike riding, “Of course!” he cheerfully replied.
“This is the most ambitious art show that we’ve done in 9 years. We have a lot of artists and we’re taking it to more cities in North America. A lot of these artists are quite accomplished.” He stops to give an old friend a ‘half hug’ carefully avoiding the broken collar bone. “The level of the work – both the artwork and the films – has risen dramatically. We have lots of movies from France, Italy, Japan.”
After nine years the Festival is finally getting sponsorship from the bicycle industry itself, primarily from European based companies. “42 below (Vodka) has also been a great supportive sponsor,” he adds. (I skipped the Gold Sprints official after party at the Cellar sponsored by 42 Below.)
If Barbur has a mission it seems to less of the political statement than a ‘let’s have a party!’ variety. Actually, there’s a literal block party on Saturday in the Mission. Capp Street at 16th will be closed off from noon to 6 PM before the film screening at the Victoria. “People should buy their tickets ahead of time because it always sells out,” he says. Check the on-line schedule for Friday and Saturday’s shows. One of the ‘Urban Bike Shorts’ (Saturday 9 pm) includes footage of Oakland’s B Janky of the hyphy group Trunk Boiz, whose tricked out scraper bikes (think speaker wires on handlebars instead of plastic streamers) playfully capture the urban bike culture.
So, have there been tangible results for bikers in cities hosting the festival? “It’s difficult to track but the fact the festival still exists and grows (in the first year 1,000 attended) and that we’re able to include people in the bike scene as well as also serious artists who like bikes – that says a lot.”