Jacques Rancière and the art of bike planning

Quite a few ambiguities could be ironed out if we stopped pretending that bicycle planning was some kind of science, and accepted that it is an art. The first hint that it should be viewed in this way comes from peoples motivations to cycle. Never mind the motivations of poor people; their numbers are shrinking—we always hope. Think of what motivates an affluent person to cycle for transport. Reports I’ve seen indicate a whole range of aesthetic drivers: experiencing the city; experiencing nature; feeling attuned to ones body and bike; reliving the bicycle’s heyday in the late 1800s, etc.. Sure, your bike gets you to work, and probably faster, but if that is your sole motivation you don’t use deodorant and I will not approve your trolling comment.

Defining bike planning as art needn’t mean schoolchildren all painting birds on the pavement or any more gravy for malingerers who call themselves “artists” when you or I would just call them “tossers” or “lazy”. Since the end of art (a moment Arthur Danto attributes to Warhol’s “post-historical” works) philosophers of art have been working on theories that bring art back to earth—that make it useful. The theory I’m going to write about here comes from Jacques Rancière.

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Rancière isn’t so concerned with artists’ work per se, as who artists are working to please. They are working according to what he calls the “ethical regime” if their work is ideologically driven. They are working according to the “representative regime” if their work aims to please other artists and those artists’ normative definitions of what art is, and is not. They are working according to the really good one, the “aesthetic regime”, if they do not steal away from the masses in conceiving their art, but instead work with the masses in achieving their aims.

He’s an odd character, dishing all his contemporaries for being latter day Platonists. However, as I wrote in this paper, an understanding of Platonism is the best key to unlocking Rancière’s own notoriously convoluted layers of jargon. Plato said paintings and plays were not art. Well made ships are. Geometry is. Basically, making anything useful with an understanding of that useful thing’s corresponding idea in an unseeable realm is what Plato calls art. And that’s the kind of practical definition of art that Rancière works with as well.

I personally think Rancière’s dishing of Platonists is some kind of Freudian projection. His most famous doctrine is that the powers that be, and their police, distribute all that we are able to experience with our senses, making everything else unsayable, unseeable, unhearable, etc.. Think of that moment when the police say “Move along folks, nothing to see here”. Don’t the folks have every right, actually, to stand on the footpath and gawk? What the folks are able to see is distributed, and/or concealed. Rancière is very Platonic thinking this way: no one fixates on the existence of a sensorial realm unless they have read shit loads of Plato. Otherwise they would never think of the world in front of their eyes as a “realm” in the first place.

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Time for Dr. Behooving to tie these stray threads in a knot. Bike planning can be seen as a practical art, which according to Plato and Rancière means it’s authentic. But let’s not let the art of bike planning serve ideologies, like environmentalism or increasing trade for shop owners. If we did that the art of bike planning would belong to the ”ethical regime”. And let’s not let it be hijacked by wankers who call themselves “artists” just because they went to art school. That would bring the art of bike planning into the ”representative regime”. Instead, the art of bike planning should serve the needs of the masses, and involve the masses in the design process. Exactly how you would do this, I’m not 100% sure. Perhaps through charrettes? Perhaps through the kind of observation of peoples desire lines that Copenhagenize Consulting have undertaken?

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Being Rancièrian sounds simple at this point. But wait, there’s a catch. Remember, he believes the powers that be are keeping things from being seen/shown, heard/said, or indeed thought. If you stop and ask who the fuck is Jacques Rancière, you will see he carved his own niche by saying riots are genuine politics, and that whatever we do when we lobby or elect politicians is just a farce. This shifts the art of bike planning from the gentile environs of city hall to the street and guerilla actions at 3am in the morning.

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Goddammit, he’s right. Cajoling politicians really is just pissing in the wind. The Dutch and the Danes got bike infrastructure because they were ready to rally. A few years ago I met Charles Komanoff, famous for reinvigorating—or should I say radicalisingtransportation alternatives back in the 80s. During his tenure, transalt started stencil campaigns. Next came the bike and pedestrian plan. Next came Sadik-Khan, who completed the mission Charles Komanoff started with stencils.

I accept I risk being labelled a dangerous academic for linking these threads: Jacques Rancière advocates civil unrest (which he calls “dissensus”) and has a theory of art that revolutionary minded bicycle advocates could easily wear as a badge. And history suggests, change would result.

Share this with your intellectual friends from the Occupy movement. They can round us all up together.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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11 Responses to Jacques Rancière and the art of bike planning

  1. So being subversive is about showing the masses things that the powers-that-be don’t want them to see? That’s a good model for activists. I’ve been cooking up a stencilling project myself, just looking for the linoleum at the moment. It will say “door zone” and be painted in narrow bike lanes.

    Also been wanting to paint a banner to wear on my back (on my upright bike of course) that says “sorry – no bike lane” so the cars stuck behind me know why I’ve taken the lane. Haven’t figured out how to make it disappear when there is a bike lane though.

    You’ve also reminded me of guerilla bike lane marking, and the glued-in-place coffee cup experiment.

    I agree, talking with politicians grinds you down and gets nowhere. That’s why the State bicycle organisations, who rely on the politicians for their bread and butter, have to compensate for their disillusionment by concentrating on their “corporate objectives” and have boards stuffed with accountants instead of with artists.

    BTW, 2nd last para – “treads” should be “threads”.
    Last para “you” should be “your”

    • Steven says:

      Your T-shirt and stencil ideas are pure genius! Don’t keep us waiting for photos.
      Thanks for pointing out typos. As usual, I’m posting after two glasses of wine.
      Okay, you got me: what’s the glued-in-place coffee cup experiment?

    • James says:

      Your shirt stencil could read “Sorry, bike lane impracticable to use”. That should cover your arse when there isn’t a bike lane available, or if like most bike lanes, it really is a load of stinking manure.

  2. BTW, the wankers didn’t go to art school. They did engineering.

    • crank says:

      As a proud engineer and vigorous masturbator, I can’t disprove your point, although I don’t see the relevance?

    • Steven says:

      Precis: Nik has had a recent bad experience with some engineer, and Crank has gone blind ;)

    • James says:

      Nik probably has encountered one too many civil engineers. What more can you expect from people with gravel in their pockets? Jumped up surveyors…

      The real wankers, in my opinion, are the so called bicycling advocates, who rubber stamp some of the worst facilities imaginable.

    • crank says:

      ha, walked into that one! i suppose you could suspect some of our local traffic engs of being blind. either that, or such enthusiastic monkey spankers that they are too sore to hit the saddle.

    • Steven says:

      Any chance of women using my blog as a discussion forum just went down the gurgler.

  3. The glued coffee cups were disposible take-aways, glued at intervals onto the road along the edge of a painted white-line bikelane. Somewhere in North America a few years ago.

    Before the coffee cups, the cars drove in the bike lane.

    After the coffee cups, the cars kept out of the bike lane.

    I don’t think the City adopted it as an engineering standard.

  4. Nick zintilis says:

    I dont get all of it,but I love your zest!

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