A few summers ago, my friend Kay invited me to a music festival that was happening in Union Square. Her boyfriend Robert was working on the sound production, and also playing live as a musician for the festival. She had mentioned to me that all the electricity for the performance would be made by bikes. I was unsure of what form this would take. Within minutes of arriving, to my surprise (and sweaty delight) we were summoned up on some of the bikes on the side of the sound stage, that were engineered to convert human energy to power the entire performance.
I recently talked with the creator of the NYC Celebrates Water Festival (NYC's first pedal-powered music festival) Ariel Agai, who produced and largely funded the event on his own. It started as a reaction to a documentary film by Josh Fox called "Gasland" in which the director undertakes a cross-country investigation of the hidden dangers of gas drilling. A timely film, it was produced as the biggest domestic gas drilling boom in US history began its sweep, using hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). After watching the film Agai asked himself, "Now what can we do? What can we do that is creative and interesting and goes beyond just pointing the finger at the bad guy?" he explains "I didn't consider myself an environmentalist, but I could not ignore the fact that all these new technologies heralded as progressive by our government posed inherent and legitimate dangers."
The development of the idea for Pedal Power NYC, a continuing project that was the centerpiece of the 2011 Water Festival, came together in parts. Agai explains that Pedal Power's tagline "Natural Ass Human Power" was at first a wordplay: "We were joking about using natural "ass", intend of natural gas, but I didn't know what the concept was yet - the idea of using power generated from cycling actually came after!" Agai had worked extensively in live music production and as a DJ, and knew the project would involve music in some way. When he finally put the vision together, it was realized with the help of engineers who helped convert the "natural ass" power of humans riding bikes to the many production components (mics, amps, monitors etc) involved in a live music performance.
While the sensory spectacle and novelty of the festival surely piqued audience interest in using technology to harness alternative energy sources, what did the festival achieve, other than a raised awareness of natural gas drilling, and some fierce dancing? It may have helped slow down, however slightly, the progression of fracking in New York State. "There were a number of bills and votes coming up at the time that directly concerned natural gas drilling in New York, and we managed to collect over 1,500 signatures against fracking - not by getting in peoples faces, but they were collected from audiences members actually seeking out information and engaging with the festival" Agai explains, "to this day they (New York State officials) are yet to make definite decisions on the issue because of the resistance from many different groups." *
This philosophy of approaching activism from a more creative, uncommon, and even entrepeneurial angle (though he believes the direct approach of a protest is just as necessary) extends to Agai's ideas about the relationship between sustainability and art in general "I think there is enormous room for the promotion of sustainability in art - with a degree of sensibility. It shouldn't be the driver of a work, but it should be apparent so long as the artist shows an engagement with society...I suppose it comes down to the touch the individual has on it. There are lots of buzz words and labels used to mark certain creative works "sustainable" - but it might be more effective, for example, if someone is looking at an art work and develops their own relationship to it and opinions on it, they might quietly start to think and change."
Professor of Media Studies at The New School, Christiane Paul writes, of sustainable art-making: "Art obviously will only be able to explore and speak to the sustainability of culture if it finds ways to sustain itself" and "Environmental art has a long history, but digital technologies have provided new forms of engagement in this field." Pedal Power NYC and Agai's festival (and current work on a natural ass powered album and corresponding films) can be defined in a variety of ways, depending on context. In artistic terms it could be considered a work of music, an installation, a happening, or choreography - and it connects to ideas of ecological sustainability through the blending of technology and physical human energy, and existing as sustainable in itself.
Agai jokes about how connotations of the words "sustainable" and "green" don't have the sexiest vibe, which may be true in some cases, but the experience of exercising on a bike while rocking out to a band whose sound you are a vital part of, quite belies his jokes. The more connections we find between the health and functions of our bodies and those of our attitudes, surrounding communities, and natural world, the more we are made aware of what a stupendously delicate balance we are in, and how it is respecting these very connections that will enable us to resist against threats to it.
* "New York's health commissoner says he plans a recommendation to Gov Cuomo "in weeks" on whether the state should approve hydraulic fracturing. Some observers have raised concerns that waiting for results of a scientific study on the technique could delay a decision on allowing fracking in New York state, but Cuomo said Monday that "nobody ever said that we were waiting for the studies to be finished" March 11, 2013, copyright The Associated Press.
Pedal Power NYC is a project of the umbrella organization The Human Grid, created by Ariel Agai.
Check out video footage of the process of mounting and rigging the bikes, and of human powered rehearsals here.
Photos from: http://ecomomwarrior.org/?cat=12