Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"CLOSE THE ART/LIFE SPLIT ETC." A Statement of Artist Intent for Greg Curnoe Bike

Greg Curnoe was famous for his manifesto-like declarations. My logo is taken from Wyndham Lewis's BLAST, itself filled with manifestos. So a manifesto-like declaration of artistic intent for Greg Curnoe Bike.


Greg Curnoe's retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2001 was called "Life and Stuff."

It was called this not only because Curnoe's art was ABOUT life (mostly his own life), but also because it questioned the borders separating art from life. This work, for example, is a collage of bus transfers, arranged to tell the story of an everyday trip in ordinary London, Ontario:

The Mariposa T.T. print is a good example of Curnoe questioning the borders separating art from life. Its subject, for one thing, is not traditionally artistic: although it is a very NICE bicycle, it is a bicycle. To emphasize the "real-life-ness" of the subject, it is reproduced in exacting and pedantic detail: it is represented in 1:1 scale, with no transformation of size; its wheels are laced exactly like the originals, with the right crosses and spoke holes in the right places; all the logos and decals and advertising ephemera are reproduced; facts and historical details are recorded in a comprehensive list of every part on the bike and where it was purchased. Despite all this real-ness, it's a beautiful print. One of Curnoe's intentions was no doubt to deny that bicycles are just life: that they are already, even before they are painted, in some sense works of art. Maybe this is why he painted it from the non-drive side, where the normal way of photographing a bicycle is from the side with the cranks, the gears, the derailleurs. Look at a bicycle from the other side, even though it is the same thing, and maybe you'll see it in a different way—as ART.

Indeed, Mariposa T.T., for all its real-ness, is not a bike. You can't RIDE it, for example. The most obvious real-life characteristic of a bicycle is its USE: with help from your legs, it transports you (more efficiently than any other device on earth) from one place in the real world to another place in the real world. The print can't do any of this. In this sense it is USELESS.

Baudelaire compares the poet to an albatross: in flight, in the realm of the ideal, he is an elegant "prince of cloud and sky"; but landed on the deck of a ship, in the real world, he is awkward, "weak and gauche." "His giant wings," Baudelaire says, "prevent him from walking."

The bicycle in Curnoe's print looks anything but awkward. But try to mount it, try to ride it down the street. It is at home in the ideal. It is a prince of cloud and sky. Its bright colours prevent you from riding it.

I think of Mariposa T. T. as a TRANSLATION. In translating Baudelaire's poem "L'Albatros" into English, you would want to be as accurate as possible—to get both the poem's "message" and Baudelaire's way of conveying it across to the English reader. But you would not ever be able to get all the nineteenth century French effects across in the very different medium of twenty-first century English. Mariposa T.T. is a translation of a 3D bike into a 2D bike. It is very faithful to the original, and it shows immense respect for the inherent artfulness of the original. But it is also very different—primarily because it is, after all, a work in a very different medium than the original: because it is a translation of life into art. Some things, such as the bicycle's USE, are lost in this translation.

What is the difference between life and art? In Wyndham Lewis's novel Tarr, one character describes art as "Life with all the humbug of living taken out of it." Life is accident, contingency, randomness, the practical, the necessary, the given, the real. Art is order, pattern, harmony, the possible, the imagined.

These differences come out clearly in a brilliant photograph of the Mariposa T.T. print standing in front of some real-life bikes, one of which (the green bike on the left) is its model:

In a photograph, all bikes are reduced to 2D. But though it is the same size as the other bikes and has the same parts as the other bikes, the Mariposa T.T. print sticks out like a sore thumb. If it's an albatross, it's one that has swooped down but not landed. It makes the other bikes look awkward and gauche. Hanging up like pieces of meat, they belong clearly to LIFE: they are dirty, worn, USEFUL, yes, but dull in colour, leaning at random angles, hung with worn tubulars, some are missing wheels, etc. The ART-ness of the radiant, perfect, useless print is clearer than ever when it stands next to its original. The mutations Curnoe made in translating the LIFE-BIKE into the ART-BIKE are clearer too. The original dull grey cable housing is turned red; a black saddle becomes rainbow-coloured; brown tires turn vibrant orange; dark grey brake lever bodies become purple; a grey chain turns red. And a plain green paint job turns three shades of green, two shades of yellow, orange and red. To some extent this is to replicate the real-life way that light falls on a painted tube—to some extent this is a naturalistic, REALISTIC effect—but the effect is so exaggerated that it passes right through the REAL world and into the impossible world of ART.

Curnoe wanted to deny—did deny—the ART/LIFE SPLIT. But still he could not help himself as an artist. He would not be fully confined by the given, the actual, the factual. Using his imagination and his aesthetic sense, he translated life into art.


Greg Curnoe Bike is a translation of this work of art back into life. It is "The Albatross" translated back into French from the English translation.

When you translate something out of one medium and then, ignoring the original, translate the translation back into the original medium, there are bound to be numerous ARTEFACTS. For example, consider this translation:
Original: Greg Curnoe Bike is a translation back into three dimensions of a two-dimensional work of art that is itself a translation into two dimensions of a three-dimensional bicycle. 
Translated into French (Google Translate): Greg Curnoe Bike est une traduction de retour en trois dimensions d'une œuvre à deux dimensions de l'art qui est elle-même une traduction en deux dimensions d'un vélo à trois dimensions.
Translated back into English (Yahoo Babel Fish): Greg Curnoe Bike is a translation of return in three dimensions d' a work with two dimensions of l' art which is itself a translation in two dimensions d' a bicycle with three dimensions.
It's similar—it's made up of the same words as the original, and is in the same medium, though non-English artefacts like d' and l' survive—but it's different. It no longer makes any sense, for example.

In translating Mariposa T.T. back in to three dimensions, I have preserved as many of the ARTEFACTS—dangling Ds, lumbering Ls—of Curnoe's translation as possible. I wanted it to be quite clear that this is similar to the original Mariposa, but that it is different—that it no longer really MAKES SENSE as a bicycle—that it is obviously something doubly translated, and not mistakable for an original.

I want Greg Curnoe Bike to CLOSE THE ART/LIFE SPLIT: to be LIFE (3D, subject to aging, accident, chips, cracks, crashes; rideable, fast, comfortable, properly-geared; straight, properly-aligned, well-brazed) and to be ART (unreal and impractical in its colourfulness, stylized, odd, and unnatural in appearance). I want it to stick out like a sore thumb in a room of dirty bikes; and I want for it to be possible to then ride it out of this room full of dirty bikes.

It is LIKE the original bike and LIKE the Curnoe print but MISTAKABLE for neither. While Curnoe translated the LIFE-bike into an ART-bike, guided by his AESTHETIC sense, I have translated the art-bike into an ART-LIFE-BIKE guided both by my AESTHETIC SENSE and my ATHLETIC NEEDS.

For example, the handlebars. Curnoe preserved many features of the LIFE-bike: the brake levers have no hoods, because this is a time trial bike and you are always riding in the drops, and since brake lever hoods add weight, and you want your time trial bike to be as light as possible. The handlebars are only wrapped on the drops, for the same reason. But he added a few things in the translation into an ART-bike: red housing emerges from the brake levers, and the lever bodies are purple.

In my translation I wanted to preserve as many traces of the Curnoe translation as possible. I use red housing, since it is possible to get nice red housing that works well, for example. But mine is not a time trial bike—I don't want or need a time trial bike like the one Curnoe wanted or needed—so I've wrapped the bars all the way around, though I've left the clamps exposed, to preserve another trace. And since it's not a time trial bike, and I will ride in the drops, on the tops, in the hoods, and all over the place, I need a soft place on the brake levers to put my fleshy, real-life hands. So I get softness and preserve another artefact by using clear brake lever hoods.

Then the split cable housing on the top tube. In the Curnoe painting, an uninterrupted length of cable housing runs along the top tube, clamped in place by Campagnolo clips. Aesthetically this is very nice: it makes a long solid red line, crossed by three nice top-down silver/black strokes. But mechanically it is not desirable: all that housing is heavy and introduces unnecessary friction; and the clamp-on clips add weight and dig in to the paint. So I've used brazed-on split cables, but located them at 12 o'clock on the top tube and used red cable donuts (three of them) to replicate as much as possible the look while maintaining function.

Then there are the fenders. It would be impossible to preserve bright orange tires. Yes, you can buy orange tires—but LIFE will quickly relieve them of their brightness and their orangeness. They will become dull and dirty and brown. But fenders can be bright orange—and while the insides will get very dirty, the outsides will retain their lustre.

These FENDERS are in fact an almost perfect symbol of what I'm trying to do with Greg Curnoe Bike. On the one hand, because they are painted orange and are bright and shiny, they are ART. On the other hand, since they perform the very mundane function of keeping rainwater off my back, keeping dirt out of my drivetrain, and stopping rocks from hitting my paint job, they are LIFE. But they also protect ART from LIFE: dirt and water and rocks want to throw themselves into the bike and age it—my wheels throw up a constant ART-DESTROYING SPRAY—but my fenders keep it off, while at the same time being orange and ART-ish themselves.  Riding with such fenders is a practical way of closing the art/life split.

And of course the paint job. It is simplified from the Curnoe version, for practical reasons. (I can only afford to pay so much for the paint job, and Noah has only so much time to spend on it.) But it preserves as many traces as possible of the Curnoe translation. It is as far as possible a LITERAL translation of Mariposa T.T.

And since it exists in three dimensions, and since it is covered with a glossy clear-coat, it reflects the LIFE and light around it, creating different effects all the time, reflecting the sunlight when outside, a book when it's in my living room, brick when it's leaned against a wall. It's an ART-screen onto which LIFE is projected.


The decals are among the few things that have survived more or less unchanged through all the translations. Curnoe kept them both because he wanted to emphasize the REAL-ness of the bike and because he appreciated them aesthetically—as decoration. Mike Barry also seems to have intended them primarily as decoration rather than as advertising: he put a Campagnolo decal on the seat tube, for example, even though the bike had Weinmann brakes, TA cranks, a no-name seatpost, etc. This decorative function is underscored on my bike since the products "advertised" (Reynolds 531, for example, or Campagnolo Nuovo/Super Record components) are no longer produced. Since there is no athletic downside to a dove on the fork blade or slanting seafoam numbers on the seat tube, they stay.


I am no expert in art history, but I think I am justified in saying that a major focus of art in the twentieth century—particularly the second half of it, I believe—was shifting emphasis from PRODUCT to PROCESS. Artists have wanted us to look less at the finished object—the painting, the sculpture—and to concentrate more on how it was made. I remember seeing a work at the Tate Modern that was a map and notebook, showing where a particular sculptor went to gather the materials needed for a sculpture that was not itself displayed. Curnoe too was interested in PROCESS, as the bus transfers above (for a journey home and back to his studio) demonstrate.

A Toronto artist named Paul Butler recently commissioned Mike Barry to produce three replicas of the bicycle Curnoe depicted in his famous "CLOSE THE 49TH PARALLEL" painting. Paul Butler himself did not PRODUCE the object: Mike Barry made the bike, and Noah Rosen painted it and wrote CLOSE THE 49TH PARALLEL ETC. on the top tube. Since he did not produce it, he cannot strictly focus on the PROCESS, either, since Mike and Noah engaged in that process. Paul Butler (who describes himself as "a post-disciplinary artist") is instead going to USE the bike—to RIDE it, in the areas that Greg Curnoe rode the original. (An exhibition of some kind will take place at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the same place that hosted Curnoe's Life and Stuff retrospective, from the 17th of September to the 27th of November of this year.)

The following analogy illustrates the differences between these two apparently similar projects. A contemporary artist stumbles upon a document that leads to the discovery, in a field in southern France, of the precise orange tree from which the six oranges that modelled for Van Gogh's "Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges" were plucked. This tree is still alive, somehow, after 123 years, but has ceased to bear fruit. The artist consults with experts, fertilizes the soil, and when the tree produces an orange, he picks and eats it.

What I have tried to do is produce a new kind of orange that looks like the orange as painted by Van Gogh (a literal rendering: with sharp edges separating areas of light and shadow, with thick brushstrokes of colour) but that tastes like a normal orange and has all its nutritional properties. Then I have documented the creation of this new kind of orange. And soon I will eat it. My project encompasses PRODUCT, PROCESS, and USE.

I have PRODUCED Greg Curnoe Bike, along with Noah Rosen, who has painted it. I have meticulously documented the PROCESS of its creation on this blog (this post participates in that process). I tend to regard the PRODUCT as more interesting than the PROCESS, but I acknowledge that the latter holds some interest, and has aesthetic significance of its own. I would go so far as to say that the popularity of handmade steel bicycles at the present moment is due largely to the aesthetically pleasing process of their creation, lovingly documented by framebuilders on their blogs and flickr pages.

I will also USE and RIDE Greg Curnoe Bike. And while I doubt this will be the most interesting part of the project to my readers, it will undoubtedly be the most interesting to ME. As much as I like making bikes, as much as I have enjoyed planning this one and writing about it on this blog, I much prefer RIDING them. (Paul Butler, in this sense, is on to something, and captured something that also seems to have been true of Greg Curnoe himself). Rolling down my street on my way to the library; coming out of a wooded section on the narrow path next to the Humber; feeling spent after pushing myself to up the Rattlesnake Point climb; listening to gravel rattle in my fenders on a zoo ride; lying in bed and, as I close my eyes, seeing some phantom apparition of a road rushing toward me—THAT is what I like most about bikes, if I have to choose only only aspect.

I made this bike to look at, yes, and to write about—but also to ride. I have given it generous clearances so that I can use big fat tubulars and ride on the kinds of roads I like; I have given it big gears so that I can go quickly down these roads and keep up with my riding partners (one of whom—the fastest of whom—is my collaborator Noah Rosen); I have given it a saddle I find comfortable, pedals I find comfortable, brakes I like.

PHASE ONE—the CLOSE THE ART/LIFE SPLIT phase—is done. PHASE TWO begins now. Now it's not so much about COLLAPSING the distinction between art and life as it is about observing the struggle of art and life. It's DRAMATIZE THE ART VS. LIFE ANTIPATHY, ANIMATE THE ART/LIFE AGON, or something along those lines. I'll document this too, by writing about the rides I take and taking pictures of the bike in the places it carries me. I'll show how ART struggles against LIFE as I go on these rides—I'll show how the bike gets scratched, where the rust begins to form—and I'll fight life with cover-up paint, with nail polish, with soap, with grease.

Greg Curnoe Bike is preserved in the above photo—seen from his more USEFUL drive side, but still looking like an albatross—at the cusp of the transition from PHASE ONE to PHASE TWO. TIME NOW TO RIDE HIM (to London, soon, to visit Greg Curnoe's former studio, hopefully), and set the PHASE TWO contest in motion.


Bruce McDougall said...

Spectacular bike, Adam. I've always believed you could ride Greg Curnoe's bike. Now I know.



BF said...

Brilliant job on the Curnoe bike. Kudos to you and Noah. I know Greg would have been quite tickled with it.. I bet he's smiling at it right now.

Ciao Bella..


James Black said...

I've been following the odyssey of the Greg Curnoe bike, and it's great to see it finished and gain this personal insight into your project. Congratulations!


James Black

yenrod said...

Steels the real deal man !!!!!