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Joe Sharkey: Critical Mass: The Cyclists of NYC Rise Up

May 1, 2012

Haniya Rae interviews the Critical Mass agitator and artist.


Photograph via Flickr by Abe Bingham.

I met Joe Sharkey of Critical Mass at an opening in Chelsea. He handed me a flyer proclaiming “Cyclists of New York: Rise Up!” that listed a few dates of bicycling events. He excitedly explained Critical Mass as a form of an art happening, a spontaneous gathering of like-minded participants. Happenings are often a display or performance without a set agenda, other than a certain meeting place and time. Critical Mass itself is a satirical “Flashmob” performance, as an exaggerated mass of cyclists ride to critique current hierarchies of road traffic. The last Friday of every month, cyclists join up at a designated location and ride together as a large group through city streets. From its early 90′s origins in San Francisco, the cycling event has spread to dozens of cities worldwide.

–Haniya Rae for Guernica

Guernica: What made you want to take on Critical Mass? You’re doing May Day as well? I’m assuming you’re not alone…

Joe Sharkey:
You want a little bit of my background?

I’m originally from California; I went to art school in San Francisco. That’s where I first started riding in Critical mass. It was really an enlightening experience for me to participate in a non-hierarchical spontaneous bike ride which was very much subverting the dominant paradigm of cars in the streets. That became a really important space for me, when I was living in San Francisco. Coming out to New York, I was aware of the history around critical mass in New York City. Critical mass is a world-wide happening—

Guernica: Right, I was watching the twitter feed update: Miami, London, Chicago—go ahead—

Joe Sharkey: That’s one of the great things about it, in addition to being a horizontal, spontaneous community gathering that’s non-commercial—that’s a big part of it, the non-commerciality of it. It’s worldwide, and cyclists all around the world experience the same sort of conditions with sharing the road, or trying to share the road with automobiles. It’s part of what I love about it.

I came to New York back in 2008, being somewhat aware of what the situation was here in New York. The situation here was that New York City had a small Critical Mass team in the mid-90s, but it wasn’t until the early part of this century it really took off, and started to get really huge numbers of people, 500, 1,000, 2,000. The largest critical mass in New York City, from what I’ve heard, was about 6,000 people. And, in 2004, in conjunction with the Republican National Convention, the law enforcement approach to spontaneous gathering was happening. Prior to that  [the idea] was to facilitate it and to allow for the passage of massive group of cyclists together to go through to the streets. And then, in 2004 because of the Republican National Convention and the protests surrounding that, you had a crack-down on Critical Mass because it’s a very easy target, I would say, for the police to find people who were interested in it, or who had more anarchist tendencies or are inclined to protest. So, in 2004 there was a mass arrest, in August, right before the RNC.

It’s an important space for me, it’s a community space, it’s a space where anything is possible, and you’re practicing creating the streets you want to see filling them with bikes instead of filling them with cars. You have a lot more community, a lot more fun, and a lot more safety instead of what is in the streets, and that was a revolutionary idea for me.

I like simple solutions, so my practice became to promote Critical Mass by writing the place and time at certain places in the city where I knew cyclists would see them. For example the Manhattan Bridge has this great sort of curving approach for the bike path.

Guernica: I wanted to ask about the chalk drawings/signs that you do for Critical Mass.

Joe Sharkey:
When I came out here and got involved in the critical mass scene or the bike scene, there was a fatigue among people who were really invested in making sure Critical Mass happened. As a happening it wouldn’t occur if no one knew about it. And so my approach, being a sort of luddite, I like simple solutions, so my practice became to promote Critical Mass by writing the place and time at certain places in the city where I knew cyclists would see them. For example the Manhattan Bridge has this great sort of curving approach for the bike path. And there’s a cement wall that goes along that approach, and as you’re riding up you’re looking at the cement wall basically and so I started writing in chalk there to promote you know, “Critical Mass is going to be at Union Square, Friday, 7pm”

It’s interesting, because you end up feeling kind of silly certainly, though as an artist I guess I should be used to feeling silly, but you feel kind of silly standing there writing something in chalk on the wall and people are just on their commute or they’re racing by and they dont even care to stop and look at what’s being done. But for me it’s definitely satisfying because the people who notice something like that are the people who i want to come, personally. And that has expanded. A lot of my critical mass promotional efforts are centered on the bridges just because they’re choke points where cyclists are sure to pass by. But I’m been using chalk, ever since Occupy Wall Street to try and promote things, and literally put the word on the street. And if you can draw more beautiful letterforms or put some sort of drawing or illustration in along with the words you’re going to get something thats really going to attract people’s attention mode. And it’s fluctuating between poetry or full-on drawings that I spend a lot of time doing, and it’s all kind of ephemeral to be washed away by the rain. Fortunately my expectations are pretty low, but I’m always delighted when people come up to me and say they saw it and they came to critical mass, or people see it and write it up on their blog.

For Critical Mass updates go to https://twitter.com/critmasspanic

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