Welcome to The Spokesman, our bi-monthly bicycle column written by French Clements, a San Francisco resident and distance cyclist who considers it pretty routine to ride his bike to Marin County or San Jose and back. He belongs to a club, the SF Randonneurs, and is active in numerous aspects of the cycling community.
Defining Eric Staller's best-known artwork is like summing up a great city: You can't do it easily. Moving sculpture? Urban interventions? Art you can lock up outside? I still don't know.
But also like a great city, there's some communal vitality that's key to understanding his work.
The Conference Bike is a good example:
Now numbering 300 worldwide (including nine on Google's Mountain View campus and two in Golden Gate Park), this obviously insane contraption unites seven pedalers and offers a variety of commercial and social applications. They're an ideal way, for instance, for disabled folks, especially the visually impaired, to ride a bike and get fit. There's also Staller's Lightmobile, a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle covered with 1,600 tiny bulbs blinking in a dizzying concert of patterns. (Riding in it was the closest I'll ever come to feeling like a celebrity.) There are his "light paintings," photographs taken in New York in the '70s, for which he opened a camera's shutter and used a wand of light to trace the city's late-night streets and squares, free of bodies but full of brightness.
This is my last column as The Spokesman, as I've become untenably busy. So I wanted to write about something special. And Staller is special. He's local too, since moving here from the Netherlands a few years ago -- if you've ever been out in the Mission and seen that tiny black Fiat with the bowling pins that slide in and out of the car's side panels, that's Staller or his wife, filmmaker Sietske Tjallingii, out for a jaunt. Staller, who was born and raised on New York's Long Island, prefers to commute on a massive old Dutch bike with a bell the size of a hamburger. We sat down this week for a chat that touched on Slinkys and gyroscopes, what the future looked like to the past, and the phrase "AMERICA FUCK YEAH."
Your work seems to reside at the intersection of the utilitarian and the absurd. The Conference Bike, for instance, and the Lightmobile. Why?
Yeah, there is a sort of wonder about everything I do, but also a sense that maybe someday this will be practical. It comes out of my optimism that I grew up with in the '60s. You had the space program; JFK was president; there was a sense that every American boy must grow up to build a better mousetrap. There was a futurism -- not in metaphors alone but in actual visions of the future. Ronald Reagan was the spokesman for General Electric, saying, "Progress is our most important product." Scientific toys were more influential on me than looking at art. [Staller holds up a Slinky and a gyroscope.] My pieces all look simple, but there's a complexity underneath. People come up to me and ask "How did you do it?" But they don't really want to know all the details. So I tell them, "It's magic." Kids believe it, and I want adults to believe it too.
When and how did you hit on transportation as one of the underpinnings of your work?
The "aha" moment was when I thought "I'm gonna take an old Volkswagen and cover it in lights." Driving it around New York wasn't just for the people in black at some gallery, looking at some inscrutable artwork. Look, the art came to your street! It gave you a gift! It was a like a calling. I was gonna continue using the work in a larger context, to knock down the ivory tower of the art world. To understand my work, you don't need to know about art. Art is very effete, for an elite audience. It's exclusive. It doesn't want a larger tent, really. Because of that, the art world is disappearing up its own asshole.
So transportation is a method of short-circuiting traditional art viewing. Still, Americans can be a little funny about art made for the public sphere. When public art does succeed, what's going on?
It's probably a generosity of spirit that comes through -- an "aha" moment or an awe that the art inspires. There isn't much of it, but Christo is my favorite example. He has a Pied Piper effect -- people don't give a damn about most things but they fly around the world to see that. It's joyous, inclusive, invites participation. It's a big tent. Whereas most art is tight, boring, didactic. I'm thinking about Richard Serra.
In 2010, you moved to San Francisco after working and living in Amsterdam for 15 years. What are your impressions of our bike culture?
In Amsterdam, bikes rule. Cars are the second-class citizens. You can do the dumbest things on a bike there. You're not gonna get doored. You're not gonna get people being aggressive. The bike is so ubiquitous as a primary means of transport. And I miss that -- I was in better shape then. I bike less here now. I have a place to keep my car here, and that wasn't the case in Amsterdam. People are tougher, more robust there too. We'd bike everywhere, no problem. Look at the obesity problem here! It's a metaphor for the county's political thinking. The land of plenty, the land of waste. Look at the all-you-can-eat special. Why would need to eat more than you need to be full? Let's use up fossil fuels till every drop is gone. That's imperialism. It's like the South Park guys said, "America, Fuck Yeah!"
With all that going on, where do you see biking in San Francisco headed, especially as compared to other cities?
I do notice how busy the bike route on Market Street is. That feels very Amsterdam at times. And the Wiggle is a great amenity. But what's happening today is the realization that the American dream isn't all it was cracked up to be. People getting in cars, driving their 20 minutes to work and back home in time for their martini, exhausted. Look at the suburbanization of America, with downtowns gutted by shopping centers. People are moving back to city centers because they've realized that this is where the vitality is. They don't want to live in Palo Alto next to the fucking Gap.
Do you see San Francisco ever turning into Amsterdam?
No, because it's too spread out. But there's a whole segment of our culture that does not want to own a car. Which is a start.