The Graphic Method Bicycle (1979)

"The Graphic Method Bicycle" (1979), in Dutch "Grafische Methode Fiets" is a performance conceived by Dick Raaymakers. It was performed first in 1979.

The Graphic Method Bicycle (1979)

Graphic Method Bicycle (1979 / 2008)

The Graphic Method Bicycle is a performance with the features of an installation. A nude man sitting on a bicycle is pulled forwards extremely slowly by a motorized winch and steel cable at a speed of a fifth of an inch per second on a track some thirty feet long. As he moves, the cyclist is lifted up off the saddle by one of the pedals extremely slowly. This forces him to make a normal dismounting movement. At the same extremely slow speed, he must swing his leg over the saddle without touching it or leaning on it. In fact, slow-motion movement of the kind usually seen only on film or video is here executed in real life.

As a research project, The Graphic Method Bicycle aims to record exactly what happens when one tries to bring back to life a photographically recorded movement – in this case, a man getting off a bicycle (as if, through a reversal of time, an insect trapped in amber is suddenly released). This objective is exactly the opposite of what Etienne-Jules Marey sought to attain in 1885 when he dissected flowing movements into sequences of snapshots and fanned them out onto a single photographic plate, a so-called plaque fixe. This method – which Marey called “chronophotographic” – enabled the researcher to analyze the procession of frozen moments of motion at his leisure. He could now literally lay his hands on a two-dimensional replica of formerly three-dimensional, spatial movement wherever and whenever he pleased.

Had Marey wanted to do the opposite and projected the fanned-out images on a screen rapidly one after the other, he would have synthesized the photographs into a cinematic replica of the original motion. This would have been possible, only it would have changed his position as a scientific observer, someone who is always active, into that of a passive moviegoer, sitting motionless in his seat and letting the images flow past him: socially speaking, a serious alteration.

The title of The Graphic Method Bicycle is inspired by Marey’s graphic work. Out of the hundreds of experiments Marey conducted, Raaymakers chose the one involving the dismounting cyclist for this project, because it best lent itself to a theatrical enlargement of the graphic method. Moreover, this experiment allows a reverse course to be taken, i.e., from fixed photograph to dynamic process – in other words, from a static two-dimensional photographic image (amber) to three-dimensional living motion (the insect flying away).

Despite the fact that Marey obtained his image transformations in a laboratory environment, the photographic results were chiefly hailed by the public as artistic. Though this was not Marey’s objective, it tells us something about the background and meaning of the oft-used concept of “the beauty of technology.” The Eiffel Tower is reputed not only as a technological achievement but as one of aesthetic beauty. The same goes for vintage cars; the Bugatti is the best example. In The Graphic Method Bicycle, the goal is the opposite: as an operation, a performance, the work is meant to be carried out solely in an artistic environment. Only there can watching a cyclist move forward at a snail’s pace be judged according to artistic criteria. In short, the work dramatizes a scientific experiment for the benefit of art.

The Performance

A characteristic of performances of The Graphic Method Bicycle is that the bicycle moves so slowly that it appears to be standing still, like the big hand of a clock. The bicycle is pulled from the front by a cable straight down a specially prepared track. The cable forms a closed loop through a pulley at the end of the track: the bicycle forms part of this loop as a link. It has been empirically established that the slowness of the riding becomes truly effective when the cyclist covers the whole thirty-foot route in thirty minutes, bringing the speed to about a fifth of a inch per second.

The cyclist starts his dismounting action from a seated position. For a few minutes, he does not move; then the winch is turned on. From this point on, the cyclist must perform the dismounting motion of Marey’s model as accurately as possible, with one exception. When the pedal that expels him from the bicycle seat has reached its highest point, the bicycle is no longer pulled by the cable but restrained by it from the back. This allows the cyclist to keep his balance on the pedal that is in its lowest position. For this reason, the flowing movement with which the swinging leg moves toward the standing leg – contrary to Marey’s example and against all the rules of gravity – is completed evenly in extremely slow motion. 

In accordance with Marey’s plaque fixe model, the cyclist uses his right leg as his standing leg. He swings his left leg to the side of the bicycle facing the observer (the audience). The riding direction is thus seen by the spectators as going from left to right. This direction is not without significance. In scenographic terms, movement from left to right is an optimistic, positive motion towards life. Movement from right to left is an irreversible journey towards death. In The Graphic Method Bicycle, the former is used, because the cyclist in this dramatized version is, as it were, pulled out of the amber of time and the photographic plane he was trapped in years ago and brought back to life. It is as if he is rising from the dead. Such a temporal reversal can be achieved only through enormous effort. After this superhuman exertion, the cyclist is actually more dead than alive. Still, he has managed to escape, and this is the actual subject and meaning of the performance.

Also in keeping with Marey’s model, the cyclist in The Graphic Method Bicycle is naked. Nudity was necessary for Marey to study the human body in all its detail during the dismounting motion. It is the same in the performance. The bicycle itself is also “naked” and functions as an extension of the cyclist’s unclothed body. Connections to a number of physiological measuring instruments are also clearly visible on the cyclist’s body. These sensors monitor his heart, breathing, and muscular and emotional activity during the dismounting action, and acoustic signals are amplified and loudly transmitted to the audience.

The aim of all this is to enlarge the human body to auditorium size. A larger-than-life soundscape is an indispensable part of the picture, for it renders the hidden power of a practically motionless yet immensely active and focused human body not only visible but also audible to a large audience. Two loudspeakers are positioned facing one another, one at the start and one at the finish line. The first plays mainly the sounds of human movement, the other mostly the mechanical sounds of the pulling device. The sensors’ requisite electronics are mounted on the back of the bicycle.

In contrast, the rest of the equipment is placed out of sight of the audience. A forty-foot cable connecting the sensors on the cyclist to the electronic equipment lies loose on the floor, trailing behind him like an umbilical cord.

The Tools

The following items are needed for this performance: a specially designed bicycle; a highly athletic rider; a powerful winch with an extremely strong gearing mechanism; a number of audiophysiological devices for measuring heartbeat, breathing and muscular and emotional activity; sound amplification for reproducing the measuring devices’ results at auditorium volume; lighting equipment; and a stage set resembling something between a laboratory and a setting for art.

The bicycle is a model from Marey’s time: a “bicyclette.” Its main feature is the close transmission of pedal force via the chain to a small sprocket firmly attached to the rear axle. The effect is that when the bicycle is stopped, force from the rear wheel is applied to the pedals and thus both the rider’s feet. As long as the bicycle is moving, the cyclist must take this force into account.

Dismounting from a bicyclette is essentially different from getting off later models, which are equipped with a so-called freewheel. In older models, the moving bicycle actually ejects its rider from the seat when he wishes to dismount. The rider must calculate this moment so as to get off safely. For the trained dismounter, this moment comes when the pedal he is standing on has reached or just passed its highest point. He hops off with a virtuosic jump while the cycle is still moving and briefly runs alongside it.

Something similar takes place with the bike used in The Graphic Method Bicycle, albeit in extreme slow motion and without the expert hop. Here, too, the respective cogwheels of the pedals and rear wheel are tightly and securely coupled. The pedal that turns along with the rear wheel will cause the rider to be ejected from the saddle with great force.

The height of the handlebars must be exactly right so as to give the cyclist optimal support when he dismounts. The bicycle itself has an oblique, adjustable side wheel that prevents cycle and rider from toppling over. After all, the bike and rider practically stand still during the whole trajectory, in a slightly slanted position; this requires a sturdy, well-built side wheel at least ten inches in diameter. Moreover, the bicycle must be stripped of all superfluous accessories, like brakes, mudguards, chain guard, lights, etc. The frame, tires, pedal rods, handlebars and wheels are painted matte black. Just as in Marey’s laboratory setup, the cyclist’s white body contrasts sharply with the dark, photographically black background. The tires of the bicycle grip the floor with the help of a black rubber mat. The bicycle’s course is cordoned off with ropes, not only to keep the audience at a safe distance but also to spatially isolate the performer and his performance.

[Text from Dick Raaymakers: A Monograph, 2008]

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