“Using a material that comes from a bike reveals how difficult it is to escape from the energy-dependent world, and our dependence seems to be growing exponentially.”
Ever wonder what happened to that punctured inner tube you tossed after your last ride? Chances are, you gave it as much thought as you give the rest of trash you hauled out the curb last week. Jessica Moon Bernstein, and artist from Boulder, CO, has given a lot of thought to the fate of that lowly inner tube, and what it suggests about consumer culture, globalization and the fate of this little planet we call home. These are the themes behind her installation called Ourruberos, a massive sculptural work made entirely of inner tubes that literally took over the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. We talked to her about bikes, art, and the challenges of being a thoughtful consumer in a global economy.
What do you remember about your first bike?
Jessica Moon Bernstein: I remember it was metallic purple and how excited I was to see under the Christmas tree. I remember crashing on it numerous times trying to ride without training wheels.
Your work touches on recycling, sustainability, globalization, disposability and the effect they have on the natural world. What led you to using bicycle tubes in your Ourruberos installation?
JMB: It happened by accident I suppose. During my art residency at Anderson Ranch Art Center near Aspen, CO, I was searching around for some new material to use. In the closet I found some bike inner tubes. The tubes spoke to me as I love to ride bikes and have had my share of flats. I started cutting them up and arranging them into different formations. Soon I needed more tubes, which at the time became difficult to find as it was winter and most bike shops were low on supply of used tubes, so I sent out mass mailings and phone calls to bike shops across the country. It was pretty cool to get a package of used bike tubes from shop located in Florida. To me each inner tube contains a story, for instance, some tubes have traveled vast distances and to numerous places, others have been patched a plethora of times by their owner in order to prolong the tube’s life span, some tubes have barely been used, while others are filled with horrible slime.
Does the bicycle as a machine or as a mode of transportation play a role in your creative process?
JMB: I often get great ideas while on long bike rides. I actually used my bike for an art show titled Artist’s Footprints, part of the Biennial of the Americas focusing on sustainability issues. I rode my bike and pulled a trailer that contained my art which was a tent created from discarded plastic shopping bags. I transported the tepee from my studio in Boulder to the exhibit in Denver. I traveled by bike to eliminate my carbon footprint completely, thus making the project totally sustainable.
Your installation of Ourruberos at BMOCA creates the sense that it’s taking over the gallery space, like an organic, growing presence. Did you plan every element of it in advance, or did you let the space itself dictate and inspire some of the forms?
JMB: My plan was to create an organic formation that does encroach or overtake the room. There were numerous obstacles in the space to deal with such as fire alarms, fuse boxes, existing architecture, fire code, as well as lighting issues; so in the end the space dictated where the art piece would grow and how. It is or actually was a growing piece. I continued to add to the piece while also taking some footage. I still need to finish editing the images that will show a time-lapse video of the Ourrubberos growing in the space.
Bicycles present an interesting paradox: As an alternative to motorized transportation, bikes can reduce the demand for fossil fuels and their impact on the environment. But the business of manufacturing and distributing bicycles on a large scale is incredibly resource- and energy-intensive. Is that one of the themes you’re exploring in your work?
JMB: Well, simply looking at the inner tube, an object rendered useless once punctured is interesting. As a cyclist I use tubeless when I can, but even the tube is a very minuscule part of the cycling industry that uses natural resources and goes on to become waste. I do explore the theme in my work as I hope Ourrubberous demonstrates. Using a material that comes from a widely believed eco-friendly machine — a bike — reveals how difficult it is to escape from the natural resource and energy dependent world and our dependence seems to be growing exponentially. Our lifestyle seems very dependent on using some form of energy from natural resources. I have tried to avoid using plastic but it’s an extremely difficult task to avoid plastic during the course of just one day. I often think that humans act as a virus consuming and infesting the planet. It sure is hard being a human these days, watching pristine fauna and flora disappear simply because we exist and do what we do best, consume and reproduce. This is why I make art; art is an outlet that helps me cope with this disconcerting paradox.
You’ve traveled to nearly 30 countries in Europe, Asia, Central America and South America. If it’s possible to generalize, how is consumer culture in the U.S. different from other parts of the world?
JMB: I don’t think it is any different; our consumer culture has hit other parts of the world. We are melding into a global culture based on consumerism and ruled by corporations. Not too long ago I believed indigenous cultures should remain intact, maintain their traditions, but I have learned that culture is not a static entity, it must change and adapt to the developing dynamic world. I can only hope future generations find the value and need to maintain their cultural traditions and language, but those our my views which I cannot impose onto another culture. I live in a country where consumer culture originated, who am I to say a kid should learn a traditional instrument from their county instead of becoming a DJ?
On a related note, what do you think American cyclists can learn from countries such as China, Denmark and The Netherlands where the bicycle is more popular and accepted as a form of everyday transportation?
JMB: Well, my perception is a bit skewed since I live in Boulder, an extremely bike friendly town. We have a huge network of bike trails to commute on, going in every direction. Boulder recently implemented the bike share program B-cycle, a concept that originated in Europe. We also have great bike lanes on most streets throughout the city.
I wish the same was still true for China or at least for Beijing. My first visit to China was in 1992, the streets of Beijing were jammed packed full of bicycles. Rush hour flowed furiously with cyclists pedaling in a critical mass taking over the streets. Astonishingly, ten years later I found the car to be the primary mode of transportation in Beijing. It is extremely rare to see a cyclist on the roads. Last summer, thousands of vehicles bogged down in a more than 62-mile traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet expressway. The traffic jam lasted nine days, which emphasizes China’s growing road congestion woes.
Any new projects in the works that you can share with us?
JMB: I would like to get back into painting on some type of discarded/recycled surface. I recently returned form a trip to Cambodia, an incredible country with amazing people. The interactions I had with Cambodians and learning about their daily life and recent history left a great impression on me. I often gain inspiration from my travels, so I predict my next body of work will be greatly influenced by this trip.
What would you like people to take away from your work when they see it?
JMB: To question the material, its use, where it came from, and where it might end up. To notice the beauty in something otherwise deemed useless. To ponder the way we live in today’s consumer based culture. I also create whimsical pieces of work, which make people smile and laugh. I find the most enjoyment when I watch people interact with my work.
If you had to choose one bike to ride for the rest of your life, what would it be?
JMB: Oh man, that’s a perplexing question! I have six bikes in the garage: a 1940’s Schwinn cruiser, Schwinn varsity 1970’s cruiser, cyclocross bike, 29er single speed mountain bike, and a road bike. I guess the bike I would choose would be a bike I do not have but I am hoping to acquire soon: a geared 29” hard tail mountain bike.