Among its many manifestations, Vancouver's advocacy movement spawned something interesting in the 1990s and early 2000s — a strong culture of media and performance arts.
As much as the early protests by The Bicycle People incorporated an element of street theatre — inspired perhaps by one of its parents, the environmental movement — it took until the mid-to-late '90s for creative genius to truly strike,
There was the Rocky Dino Opera, T.Raax for Mayor, and of course the more sanguine and sophisticated Momentum Magazine. The various cultural expressions of transportation cycling appears, in retrospect, to have buttressed the advocacy scene, like saffron in a pan of paella. Not the first thing people think of, but an integral ingredient to the mix.
And without it, somehow, the dish just doesn't work.
RedSara, through her vision and leadership, and much like the bike art culture within which she rolled, was integral to advancing the Vancouver cycling advocacy movement forward for a good portion of the past two decades.
I was supported all through my life as an artist. Since I was a baby — paintbrush, paint all the way up. My mom was an artist, and still is an artist, and I was always given opportunities to express myself creatively. I'm really lucky.
A Toronto native, RedSara grew up with a bike, but came to the same place many do whilst embracing the torturous existence that is teenager-hood.
In grade 11 and 12, I got really into fashion, and somehow couldn't reconcile my fashion and my bike. I stopped biking because it didn't fit.
Which is such a strange motivation, but it goes with a teenage girl making choices based on appearance.
University was at UBC, and it was the start of RedSara discovering who she really was. And it involved some mentorship from some people at the front lines of a new form of activism that emerged in Vancouver at the turn of the millennium .
Jim Green was a downtown east side housing activist and politician, and a long shoreman union guy. And Michael Ames, the director of the Museum of Anthropology — he really kind of radicalized the museum in terms of making it a living museum that acknowledged that these cultures were not dead.
They were mentoring me in a course that was about looking at our world, called the Anthropology of the Downtown East Side, but we weren't looking at the downtown east side, we were looking at ourselves. We were taking the anthropological lens and shining it on our own culture of greed and consumerism, individualism.
So I was starting to wake up politically, and they were challenging me to ask these questions about who my community was, and where I belonged.
I could just stop this post here. Thank you, goodbye, that kind of said it all.
Because at the very least, it says a shit-ton about the motivations for a fair number of people in the advocacy community who, at some point, woke up and made the connection between themselves, their world, and the bicycle. Not from the perspective of waking up with all the right answers, but waking up to all the right questions.
What was the bicycle for me? What does it represent today? What could it become in the future?
The day I graduated from university, all these lights were turning on for me — bicycling, art, being politicized, and engaging with a sense of community, who my community was.
I remember asking on my graduation day, what does it mean to feel connected to the natural world? It seems like that might be part of the answer to our environmental problems.
That was the question that was with me through all this work promoting cycling. Through it all has been all this yearning to not be doing harm to the planet, and not be harming other people, but to be living well and lightly on the earth.
But that's skipping ahead. Skipping past the good part. RedSara got to that question through a process of re-immersion into her own, natural world. Back on her bike.
I'm just finishing university and I was living relatively close to UBC, starting to expand my range and realizing I can bike downtown. I started going further and further.
And I started realizing — whoa, I'm being kicked to the curb here. There's no space for bikes.
I met Darren Haynes, one of the directors of the Bike Kitchen at UBC. He was the one who told me. "Hey, you should come to Critical Mass."
Ostensibly of virgin birth (there are no organizers, only participants — everywhere it occurs), Critical Mass was in its early days in Vancouver. It hadn't yet reached the status of popularity or infamy, and of course it had immediate appeal for someone of RedSara's pedigree.
[Darren] had this fancy red bike. He said, "I'll ride with you there." So I just joined him, because it sounded interesting, and I'd had this growing experience of feeling unsafe riding my bike on the city streets.
And it was just blissful. I felt like we were taking the streets, like direct action, like taking the longings that were in my heart, and putting them into practice in the world.
And doing it with other people as well — wow. The feeling of it.
At the time I didn't realize the legacy, how many people had been working in bicycle advocacy already. I wasn't aware of any of that.
So I just showed up, and was like woo-hoo, this is amazing! I'm coming back next month!
And so RedSara did return. Back to those questions she had upon graduation, it's almost as if her chance meet-up with Darren needed to happen. That perhaps, without a fateful trip to her first Critical Mass, she might not have answered some important questions about herself. About who she had always been.
I started to realize that I was identifying with cycling. I was identifying with Critical Mass, I was identifying with myself riding a bike, which brought me back to my, just the pure pleasure of being a child and a young adult riding a bike, before I got self-conscious about how I looked. What a wonderful time to have that awakening.
I started picking up art again — it's all around the same time. And I think what it was was me becoming engaged in the world again after my teenage years. The art revival really coincided with my taking up cycling again.
Can you become an artist, or are you born an artist, and must you grow to recognize it? Embrace it, or rediscover it — which is it? Whatever, the only thing that matters is, it's a process. It must be recognized, and committed to. And perhaps more importantly in the realm of collaboration, it needs to be given a name. Name it, in some ways, and it becomes real.
I was influenced by my neighbour at the time 12midnight, who was also an artist. He had given himself his own name, so I was like, alright, I need a name.
I decided to be RedSara, because I was always red-faced, because I was biking, because my hair was red, because my politics were red — many reasons.
And because I got tired of telling people on the phone who it was. I'd be like, hey it's Sara, and they'd go oh which one?
There was definitely some marketing and branding of myself happening around that time with my art. I thought people would buy my artwork more if I was also an activist, so by buying a piece of my work, they were supporting my activist work as well.
I was really developing an identity as an activist. And I was selling shows.
She was also getting involved in her community in fundamental ways related to the growth of advocacy. Helping people.
The main thing that caught me was Our Community Bikes. It was on the activist thread the way I identified, a do-it-yourself, teach others to do it themselves, sort of empowerment philosophy. Not so much working at the organizational or non-profit level.
Her involvement at Our Community Bikes introduced her to Jim Hoenle, with whom she founded PedalWorks, and then PedalPlay — a bicycle arts organization using pedal power technology for other applications. Though PedalPlay, RedSara helped make 'chopper bikes' for local performances and pedal-driven cycle devices, the fundraising efforts of which primarily went to assist rural residents of Guatemala.
And it also furthered RedSara's interests in fusing bike culture with art.
At the parade of lost souls, a group of about eight or ten of us rode our choppers around, set them on fire, and created this beautiful spectacle about burning the SUV.
I found my politicization and I found my community through Critical Mass, and the cultural pieces emerged. I found that core identity of belonging within activist cycling.
So the influences were Pedalworks, building these choppers, and out of that came the Margaret Charles Chopper Collective, which hosted a whole bunch of different kinds of cultural events. And mostly just rode around and drank beer.
As part of this — and now we're really pulling out those saffron threads — RedSara and her friends were introduced to performance art-related collectives, and 'chopper gangs' in other cities up and down the Pacific Northwest, most prominently Portland. And most importantly, The Sprockets.
The Sprockets are a women's performance collective — pink and black are their colours. And as soon as some of the women in our bike community saw that, we thought oh that's the next step.
We always saw Portland as a couple of steps ahead in terms of cycling and infrastructure. There are these innovations, and these bike routes, and just a good scene down there. So when we saw the Sprockets we realized, alright Vancouver, let's see what we can do here.
Thus was born the B.C:clettes.
I can't even remember how we jammed that out. Red, black and shiny. But it brings up the point that the B.C:clettes were a collective.
We met weekly. Our friend donated some spotlights and we tried it out in the back alley with some spots. Oh my gosh, it was so good.
There was about twelve to thirteen of us and we rehearsed weekly in public spaces — down at Robson Square sometimes. We put a lot of time and energy into it. We worked really, really, really hard at it.
As a basis for comparison — and only if you haven't seen them, because otherwise it's not a terribly apt comparison — they were like STOMP. But women. And they danced with bikes, wheels, and most importantly, with empowerment and wry, Canadian humour. You know — red, black and shiny.
They also toured. First, across Vancouver, from bike event to bike event. Then, down to L.A. as part of a week-long tour ("we had gigs booked all the way down the coast"). And finally, the Gulf Islands; 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Wheelie Fun Tour.
Something RedSara mentions only fleetingly, and certainly brushes off as simply part of the cost of being able to remain an artist, is the burnout. It's something that comes up with many other advocates — the meetings, the administration, the unpaid time, and in the case of the B.C:clettes, the bookings, scheduling, communications, and everything else that comes with blazing your own trail.
With RedSara, as an artist, it was doubly so ("I converted my living room into a studio. It was beautiful — so nice. I look at it now, and it's the most squalid rental I could ever imagine living in, but it at the time it was mine, and I could do what I wanted there"); yet today, even as busy mother of young child in one of the most expensive cities in the world, it's obvious she wouldn't give any of it back. Not for a second.
We would pile out of the van all beautiful, all in our red, black and shiny. It was incredible.
We realized it was making a difference. Every show women would come up to us and say this is really meaningful for us. Seeing women on bikes, and seeing us represented in this traditionally male-dominated world.
And I think the reason for that is because the streets weren't very safe, and for whatever reason there's a lot more men in that cohort, those already convinced that cycling's a good idea, and are willing to take risks in order to do it.
And so we were right around at a time when the coming together of the infrastructure and the bike routes. And then our presence, I think, encouraging a larger segment of the population to get on their bikes.
Because it's cool and fun, and we're awesome. Those things came together to open up new space for a lot more riders.
As with all collectives, thing changed with the B.C:clettes over time. People moved away, had babies, or perhaps just lost the thread. Other fresh faces came on board. But eventually, and like all good things, the B.C:clettes came to an end.
RedSara continued to work as an artist, to try new things, and never lost track of where she came from. Today, she has her mind on a variety of topics and themes that seem very much in character, harkening back to her UBC days. Especially as it relates to the natural world, and people who are holding on to it, trying to protect something at risk of being lost, and using whatever powers at their disposal to do so.
I really appreciate the work that Tsleil-Waututh are doing as protectors of Burrard Inlet and keepers of the water. They have stepped really bravely into the public eye, and they're becoming increasingly radical, starting with legal challenges. Now it's coming to last resort, where they're having to say we're going to put our bodies on the line here. Because this has got to stop.
And so I still think that cycling infrastructure, while it's not as urgent as the work that Tsleil-Waututh is doing, there's a matter of urgency here, it's visionary in the sense that it connects protection of the natural world, people's experience in the world connecting to this land.
But I also know there are things that are more important for the health of First Nations populations than bicycle infrastructure.
Where do we go from here? RedSara told me she's still thinking about it. And I could see the old energy is there, the desire (perhaps the need, like an internal commitment) to make things happen. And it's very much connected to her sense of inner nature, and how it connects to the outside. The questions this dualism has prompted, and the answers she has created for herself.
And so I realize now that was a Buddhist question I was asking, and that's part of the idea of interdependence. That we aren't apart from the energy of the sun that shines to illuminate the lettuce, that we then eat.
There's no separation. You can't have lettuce without sun. You can't have self without sun.
So it was a natural progression I think that I continued to investigate that thread of Buddhist thinking.
And it's been a great joy for me that it's still in my life.