Bikers Bring Art to the Masses | WBEZ
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Bikers Bring Art to the Masses

Tomorrow is the last Friday of January and a cold day for Critical Mass, a monthly event where bikers swarm the city streets. But this month an art show is giving riders some creative inspiration for braving the elements.

The strange contraption hanging in front of the Mercury Café looks mostly like a bicycle.

DUFFY: With a roll bar, running from the front of the front wheel all the way over to the back of the rear wheel.

That's Travis Duffy, and he's dubbed this vehicle the Flip Bike. 

DUFFY: So I can slam on the front brake and roll upside down on it back onto my wheels.

The bike is one of two sculptural pieces and dozens more visual pieces on display as part of a Critical Mass art show. It includes works inspired by and related to the monthly meet-ups in Daley Plaza when hundreds of bikers crowd city streets. Cathy Haibach is a mass participant, and has helped curate the art show for years.

HAIBACH: You go on these rides and you look at the way they build their bikes, and decorate themselves or wear costumes. They're just creative, energetic people.

Which makes this art show a natural outlet.

HAIBACH: But what it is is “A” critical mass art show. Anyone could do a critical mass art show. This is in no way linked to any leadership because as we know, critical mass doesn't have any leadership.

Haibach is handing over most of the curatorial duties this year to artist and fellow participant Steven Lane. 

LANE: I didn't know what I was going to have.

And there's a reason. No submissions are turned away, and all of the artwork comes in the night before it's hung. Lane says that process is a reflection of how Critical Mass comes together.

LANE: I had to realize this is a lot like the rides. We never know where we're going, it's a very spontaneous group. So the whole experience is driven by participation. This art show had to behave like that.

The show acts as a centerpiece for other Bike Winter events in Chicago. They include a spoken word performance at the Mercury Café; tomorrow's Critical Mass with local band the Polkaholics; and a highly visual protest of the Chicago Auto Show in February, where riders will be dressed as crash test dummies. This time of year, Lane says that creative synergy among the biking community is important.

LANE: It was conceived as a mechanism to get people to come out for the winter months. Most people think 'Well that's your downtime I mean who's going to show up for that?' But we're inspiring a lot of people to get on their bike and come out in the winter.

And it's been working. Or at least it seems that way standing on the intersection of Grand and Milwaukee during the cold morning commute.

ambi: street intersection

GREENFIELD: Boy, look at all the cyclists here.

That's John Greenfield, who has been involved with Critical Mass for a long time and served as chair for Bike Winter.

GREENFIELD: Two people already waiting for the red light, here comes a third, a fourth and a fifth one coming. Almost like a bicycle traffic jam. It's really not such a difficult thing to do. People get bundled up to wait for the bus or the L and you really don't even have to dress as warm as that to bike during the winter time.

But the art show feels different this year. What was once an effort to maintain interest in the biking community over the cold winter months is now a gauge on the future of the Critical Mass tradition.

ambi: café

Back inside the Mercury Café, Lane points to a large white wall covered in fliers, newspapers and other documents.

LANE: This is sort of the informational wall – press clippings over the last year. We have articles ‘Has Mass Ride Run Its Course?” “Citywide Bike Ride May End In Autumn.”

Last September, some of Chicago's major media outlets picked up on some carefully placed rumors that the 10th Anniversary ride would be the final one. And that attention put some pressure on Lane.

LANE: People would be coming up to you 'Is it really ending? Is that true?! Oh my god, but I just started this Summer! It can't end now!'

And that uncertainty is a big reason for Lane's increased involvement this year. But as Bike Winter's Greenfield explains, the rumors didn't have much of an effect.

GREENFIELD: It was a great publicity stunt. Something had to be done to get a bunch of news articles written about the 10th mass. I think the cool thing is younger folks have stepped up and started organizing events related to Critical Mass.

LANE: If you show up, you keep it alive. The fact that somebody walks away and declares it over, they can have that opinion but it's not really their call.

As a movement without formal organization, no one can declare that Critical Mass is either alive or dead, but the community surrounding this art show is still going strong. In the dead of winter, that's a promising sign of life.

Check out the schedule of Chicago's winter biking events.

The 11th Annual Critical Mass Art Show is up at the Mercury Café through February 1.

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