Saturday, 24 March 2012

Why Style Matters

I had been writing notes for a piece called Why Style Matters when I read Chase Gouin's article on the ART magazine website titled "Memes to an End". I found it very thought-provoking and wanted to write a reply that tied in to some of the ideas I already had.

Catching a Meme

Chase makes an interesting comment about the transmission of memes - units of culture, behavior or style - and their effect on trends in BMX. I agree that memes are likely to have more influence over us than we realise and that we have a responsibility to be mindful of where the current of trends may take us.

While I don't think Chase goes this far, to take the next step and argue that this amounts to riders being brainwashed is difficult. This argument closely resembles the Marxist charge of 'false consciousness'. It goes something like "You have been brainwashed, and the fact that you deny being brainwashed is evidence that you have been brainwashed". The trouble is that there seems to be no situation where the person making this argument could be proven wrong. Any evidence to the contrary is taken as part of an elaborate cover-up. It is for this same reason that conspiracy theories tend to have such longevity.

As far as the effect of memes goes, the best we can hope for is an awareness that this kind of influence is going on. I think this is the point Chase wants to make, but I'd also empahasise the positive effect that the memes have. Essentially, we wouldn't have culture without them. Our world is made up of the complex interplay of our behaviors on each other. It's scary to think that you are are less individual than you think you are, but it's also exciting to realise that you're in an evolving cultural community to which you are fundamentally connected.


I strongly agree with Chase's statement that Flatland is more than a sport, but artistic/creative as well. But is is for this reason that I disagree with his comments on bike set-ups. I'm sure we can all relate to Chase's desire to see bikes that are designed with the functional aspects of Flatland in mind, but I believe that this constitutes a narrow view, and one that does not pay enough credit to the artistic/creative elements of riding.

To make a huge generalisation, my experience of Flatlanders is that they are, for one reason or another, often rational and analytical people (not to mention predominantly male) who want to justify everything with a logical argument. This puts them in an interesting position bearing in mind that they are engaged in a creative artform.

The Function Victim

Reading Chase's comments about the functionality of a bike reminded me of an excellent interview with the British potter Grayson Perry. In it he remarks that "Men rationalise their love of aesthetic things under the guise of function". I remember reading this quote and immediately thinking of the kind of conversations Chase describes where a rider is trying to justify a trick or bike part in rational or functional terms - as if it would be wrong to say "I just like it" or "It feels right". My guess is that we are much less rational than we believe, but a certain sort of personality will always try to find a rational justification to their actions - I'm certainly one of them!

Why Style Matters

So where does style come in? Well, I would argue that style is the word we seem to use in Flatland to describe that which separates our sport\art from things like motor racing or gymnastics where individuality is curtailed in an effort to maximise functionality and standardise content.

Style fills the gap between these sports and Flatland and this is something that should be celebrated. The fact that our discipline is artistic is why, in my opinion, a 'less-functional' bike set-up is acceptable. It is the role of art to question and challenge ideas like 'functionality', 'creativity', and indeed 'progression'. From an artistic point of view it is exciting that a rider once decided to remove his brakes and that some riders today do Flatland without the use of pegs.

Having said that, there is the real danger that Flatland might be led down a narrow alleyway from which it may struggle to return. It is import to recognise how fragile our Flatland culture is. It is a tradition of highly disciplined physical movement that has been passed down from one generation of riders to the next, and it's sad to think that we may get to the point where a whole chapter of flatland tricks only exist on a finite number of video archives with no riders left that can actually perform them. It might seem an unusual thought for a sport that is preoccupied with innovation and progression, but this is a real possibility - and a very sad one.

Two Rules of the Internet

The way that we choose to preserve our Flatland tradition is an open question, but articles like Chase's are a great way to raise our awareness to the influence our constantly changing environment has on riding. Certainly, the way that Flatland culture operates has been permanently altered by the advent of the internet. I think that this has changed or accelerated things in at least two related ways.

Firstly, the speed at which we can exchange information about other BMX riders has, in my opinion, caused riding styles to appear to converge. I don't think this is exclusive to BMX culture, I believe the same thing is occurring in things like popular music and fashion.

Secondly, we now have the opportunity to see many more riders like ourselves. This is exposing us to the fact that there are actually loads of riders that are quite similar. If we had the internet in the 90's we'd probably be saying "Wow, everyone's got a Hoffman Big Daddy, everybody's doing the same tricks!"

That said, I think that the first point remains a concern even if you factor out the effect of second one.

It Might Be Your Fault

I'd like to finish by making a point that some people may have heard from me before. Some of today's pro riders come under fire, for 'selling out', stopping progressing to cash in, riding a trendy bike set-up. My response is that we may well not realise how good we've had it.

I would argue that riders like Chase (and Martti) have, in a sense, ruined flatland. They are totally exceptional characters who made huge sacrifices in their lives to see how far they could take their riding. Once they reached the top of the game they didn't let up, they kept pushing the limits. They didn't rest on their laurels to cash in, they didn't showboat, and they didn't get preoccupied with trying to make flatland 'cool'.

To judge one of today's pro's by this standard is to be very strict. Chase and Martti are responsible for tricks and video parts that have never been repeated and we must face up to the possibility that they never will.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

What is Freestyle?

Freestyle used to be the word that separated BMX racing from what grew out of it. Today the term is not as widely used as it once was, but what do we mean when we use the word Freestyle?

Freestyle vs. Freestyle

The first thing to notice when listening to BMX riders is that there two different meanings of the word ‘freestyle’ in common use. The first represents one of our sports guiding principles – there are no rules and no restrictions. You can express yourself any way you like. Furthermore, you don’t have to learn anything you don’t want to, there’s no rigid structure to riding.

The second definition of ‘freestyle’ comes up when people talk about ‘doing Freestyle’ or ‘Freestyling’. This refers to the instinctive stream of tricks that an experienced rider can become immersed in. In this sense it can be likened to the modern definition of freestyle in rap. The rider, to some degree at least, makes up the combination of tricks as they go along, moving from one position to the next unplanned position in a natural, spontaneous expression - or flow.

To reach the point where a rider can flow in this way, they usually require a significant degree of bike control and reasonably broad vocabulary of tricks. So, in some sense, to fully experience freestyle in this second sense, you need to have some kind of rigidity to your approach to riding. Many pro riders stress the need for beginners not to skip the basics; that the early steps in riding must all be made in order to avoid problems with the later stages of development.

It could be argued that those riders who are the most creative are also those who have the greatest mastery of the bike and a larger repertoire of tricks. How flow fits into this is not clear. Do some riders find it easier to get into flow and so find it easier to progress with riding? Or is it that as a rider improves their overall bike control and trick vocabulary that they find it easier to get into flow? Either way, there is undoubtedly a correlation between riders that excel and those riders that easily get into psychological flow.

The Rules Can Set You Free

To investigate this idea further I would like to explore a pastime which requires just as much intense focus and solitary practice as freestyle BMX – the game of chess.

It should be noted that based on current estimates there are more possible chess games than atoms in the universe. Despite the practically infinite number of potential games, chess experts since the 1950’s have been keeping a record of each of the moves from each major tournament - this archive is now accessible online. This catalogue is huge and it has become an essential requirement for any chess master to memorize thousands of these games. Understandably, some players say that this database has ruined chess.

Today, high-level chess games proceed very quickly as the players run through the moves of a game that both players know has already happened. This will continue until the game reaches the point where both parties recognize that the particular combination in question has not been played before. This is the point at which chess commentators will remark that the game is now ‘leaving the book’.

Up to this point, the moves have been largely made based on the rigorous study of thousands of chess games which have now sunk in to the instinctive level of implicit memory. It’s often said that chess players recognize a pattern on a chess board like most people identify a face - they recognize it automatically and often know how to proceed in an instant.

What is interesting about this moment is that within the strictly rule governed arena of chess, the player in question now has a profound sense of freedom. All the different possibilities are open to him, but not only that. His years of training and complex implicit memory of the game allow him to meet this freedom in an informed and enriched way. In short, a novice could not sit down at the chess table to make the next move and experience that kind of freedom in the same way a grandmaster does.

Two Concepts of Liberty

The dilemma of these two versions of freedom is not exclusive to BMX riding. In his lecture Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin identified a tension between two notions of political freedom.Negative Liberty, he argues, is the freedom from interference by other people – the idea that you can do whatever you want.

Positive Liberty, in contrast is about having the power and resources to fulfill your potential. This is achieved through a process of self-mastery and the removal of structural limitations in society. For example, you may be perfectly free to act however you want to (Negative Liberty), but at the same time your potential may be inhibited by structural problems such as poverty, classism or racism (a lack of Positive Liberty).

As Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap concludes, historical attempts to promote Positive Liberty have resulted in a society’s personal freedoms being infringed. On the other hand, he remarks that societies which strive towards an ideal of Negative Liberty tend to lose a sense of meaning or purpose. As Berlin concludes, both concepts of liberty exist as valid but unattainable ideals in modern society.

A similar thing can be said of the two concepts of freestyle in BMX. While we would all uphold the principle of freedom from interference in riding, it is also important to recognize that many riders who have achieved the highest level in our sport have done so through a meticulous project of self-mastery. They have imposed strict rules on themselves and through this process, it could be argued, have developed a deep meaning and purpose from riding. The reward for all the hours of practice and sacrifice are the fleeting instants of Freestyle Flow, where the rules and trained techniques fall away from one’s mind, leaving the precious moments of creativity that we call Art.

Further reading and listening:

Radiolab Podcast: Games

The Trap documentary by Adam Curtis

Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin