Monday, July 25, 2016

Of Things Illuminated


Over the weekend I attended a rather wonderful show that a friend was involved with. It's kind of difficult to categorise, but essentially it was a public art installation - an "illuminated sculpture trail," where a series of enormous, imaginatively-shaped lanterns, constructed of willow and papier-mâché, were placed throughout indoor and outdoor spaces, for visitors to wander amidst in the night.

The main part of the show was in a space about a mile out of town, and attendees were encouraged to walk from the town centre to get the full experience. So leaving our bikes behind, we strolled along a completely unlit series of backroads, along with dozens of others.

A few things struck me about this. First, how utterly dark it actually was without the benefit of my bicycle's headlight, or any other source of illumination. It is not often I wander about like this! Considering that, I also found it interesting and somewhat surprising that none of the public were carrying torches (flashlights) or sporting hi-viz attire.

The latter is becoming increasingly common here, not just for cyclists, but also for pedestrians. There are people walking their dogs in luminous vests, runners in reflective gear even in the daytime, schoolchildren wrapped in hi-viz sashes to cross the road. Yet on this occasion, everyone must have decided collectively that to wear reflective garments of any kind would compete with the experience we were about to share. And so we walked, a procession of disembodies voices, until the path in front of us turned aglow with a garden of fanciful shapes. It was truly a beautiful show.

Coming from a background of writing about cycling, it is hard for me to perceive luminosity in a way that is not politicised. Even now I could not help but notice that the sculpture trail was effective precisely because it stood out in contrast to the darkness around it. Had everything else been illuminated as well, the sculptures would not in fact have been highly visible. It is an argument often applied to the role of hi-viz in urban cycling and walking. Not to mention, of course, the countless debates about the choice to wear hi-viz versus the expectation for persons to do so, tied to the larger question of where the focus on road safety should be directed.

While I never much worried about being seen when I lived in cities, the past three years of rural nocturnal commutes have been very different. In the countryside, I never quite feel lit up enough, no matter how brightly I might adorn myself or my bike. Despite being given every indication that drivers who pass me can see me (I am probably given more space at night than in daytime) I still don't feel altogether comfortable on the twisty, pitch black country roads, and tend to avoid travel at night if I can. It is a subjective perception of un-safety rather than one based on facts. But subjective perception is what colours our experiences and overall quality of life. And mine drives me to feel anxious about my visibility on the dark rural roads.

Despite all of this, I am still not fully convinced that it's "good" to be highly visible - at least in the manner that current hi-viz trends encourage us to. Which is to say, in a way that cannot be switched on and off at will.

Walking back from the sculpture trail later that night I saw something quite funny... a luminous teenage couple making out in an alleyway. Unbeknownst to them, their vigorous hand movements over each others' bodies were brilliantly lit up under the headlights of each passing car. They were wearing sporty tops with reflective cuffs, poor things. I had to force myself not to watch this intriguing light show.

There are other scenarios that are not conducive to luminous wear (being pursued by an attacker comes to mind). But at any rate, one problem with reflective stuff is that it does not give us a choice - essentially forcing us to be noticeable at all times. And while this isn't a problem when it comes to items such as vests and sashes, which can be donned and removed easily, perhaps it explains while attempts to integrate hi-viz into more integral pieces of clothing are less popular. Ventures to offer reflective paint for bicycles and bicycle parts tend to get mixed receptions also.

There are instances when we want to be visible. And there are instances when stealth presents an advantage. Being able to flip back and forth according to not just personal, but situational, preference, is key. And an interesting problem for designers of luminous objects to tackle.


25 comments:

  1. You can't have everything.

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    1. So try very hard to choose the better things.

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  2. I thought about this a lot when deciding whether to get my bike frame finished with a reflective coating. And I decided against for the same reason you describe. Clothing... Some manufacturers use reflective panels and cuffs that can be visible or hidden. This does add bulk but it is one solution. Inspired partly by a post of yours about DIY hi-viz boots, I have done something similar to some shoes and jackets. 3M tape is my friend and it is removable!

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    1. You can go to town with the tape on your bike as well : )

      See: Emily O'Brien's Trompe l'Oeil Lugwork

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  3. I really appreciate your comment about sometimes it being desirable to be stealthy. I mentioned this once before on another forum and I was assailed with negative comments from the peanut gallery. Some people confuse being low key or Stealthy with being invisible which obviously is not possible. But, I agree sometimes it's best not to be noticed, fly under the radar as it were. - Mas

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  4. The new breed of LED lights are so well designed and bright they seem (to me anyway) to obviate the need for a lot of reflective items on the bike itself.

    I wear a Nathan night running vest and reflective pants cuff cinches (London based Muxu socks with a reflective ankle strip when wearing shorts) when riding in busier areas at night.

    While I fully understand your reluctance to ride in the dark, FWIW I find riding on quiet empty roads or paths at night almost supranatural. With sight limited the other senses really kick in. Of course the feeling disappears quickly when a noisy old car comes blasting by.

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    1. It depends on the area. When I cycle for transport, a big part of my commute is along a main road. This road is fairly quiet by most standards, but when cars do appear they tend to drive fast (especially at night it seems), and what I worry about most is reaction times should they approach me coming from around a bend where I am not visible until the last moment. I am not sure how rational it is for this to be a concern that is specific to the dark, since the bends-induced visibility issue is there just as much in the daytime. But again, it's about the subjective feeling.

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  5. From an artist point of view, when one does public sculpture one has to put up with the realities of the space and the ways people move about. When outdoor night events happen here lights from smartphones are constantly snapping on and off creating an additional dance. It can be both frustrating and interesting and I was actually surprised to hear one event organizer encourage their use and asked that a certain hashtag be used. I guess it's the world we live in!

    The performance piece done by the two in the alleyway sounded very conceptual, with discreet reflective moments ;)

    With regard to reflective or hi-viz clothing that, too, gets complicated. Like you, I carry a vest in my panniers for times I feel particularly vulnerable at night, otherwise I just wear normal clothing. Anything with reflective panels has simply been uncomfortable and unattractive.

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    1. Heh. Makes me realise that the last time I had a proper exhibition (I am a painter, but have not been actively exhibiting for some time) was in the pre-cameraphone era. Hard to imagine now the cruelty of there being nothing else for the poor gallery goers to do but look at the art!

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  6. When running or riding, I have the odd bit of hi-viz stuff, and don't necessarily shy away from it. I don't necessarily lean towards it, either.

    I think that it's a problem, however, in that I see it becoming another means of "victim blaming" similar to helmets. Much like "was he/she wearing a helmet?" has become the first thing out of people's mouths when a driver hits a cyclist, question number two will be, "was he/she wearing an orange vest?" Funny how "was the driver paying attention to the road?" is a question that never seems to come up.


    Wolf.

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    1. They already do mention the victim's clothing choices in many instances of reporting drivers hitting cyclists and pedestrians. It fits the narrative of referring to such incidents as accidents.

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    2. I've yet to read an article about a bike accident involving injury/death where clothing was mentioned. Didn't know this was a new thing. Do you have links to such reports, I'd like to learn more about what's reported with regard to the causes of accidents involving bicycles and vehicles. There are so many factors at play.

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    3. first result after a very quick perfunctory search:
      http://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/1054568.crash_cyclist_was_wearing_dark_clothing/

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    4. I wonder if Anony@10:58 lives in an area where walking/cycling is not a "normal" means of transport?
      I don't think it's common to note what clothing is worn by injured cyclists in my area (Ohio), either. At least it's not something I've particularly noticed, though it will catch my attention, now.

      Wolf.

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    5. It's always sad news to hear about a cyclist getting hit by a car, especially at such high speeds. The above article was interesting as it laid out some of the possible reasons, apparently no bike lights or reflective tape, dark clothing, unlit section of the road, and alcohol. Strangely, I think alcohol is involved in many fatal accidents. When I'm out on country roads at night I go out of my way to take full responsibility for being seen, or as your title stated, to be illuminated.

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  7. I enjoyed the scene in the first season of Portandia where Fred Armisen cycles around with a whistle in his mouth.
    Sometimes, in my experience, it's more about being heard than seen ;)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3nMnr8ZirI

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    1. Funny that, I've developed a piercing scream that I deploy when a driver seems about to hit me. They've obviously not seen me, so I move on to my next line of defence. It also makes all the surrounding drivers look, and I'm hoping their reaction is that the offending driver must be the problem. Because why else would that poor woman be shrieking in fear of her life? Silence isn't an option. If I'm going to get hit, I will go down loudly. Withe my cycling-induced TY

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    2. I've shouted "Don't!" at drivers who looked like they were considering cutting across my line of travel. Not sure whether it worked because they heard me, or because my facial expression terrified them, but I'm just glad it did.

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  8. I find it interesting that people worry more about being seen in a dark unlit area (rural) compared to a city setting (brightly lit). In reality I suspect that in the city you are just another set of bright spots against a back drop of 10's if not 100's bright spots (do we really think all drivers see us against a backdrop of other lights). In a rural settings, light (including light reflected from Hi Viz clothing) where light is not expected is much more noticeable (except to drunks but those are more common in rural settings anyway). To summarize, because we can see well does not mean others (drivers) will see us given all the other competition for their eyeballs.

    Oh, and the public art exhibition sounds like a great experience. Public art can be so surprising.

    Eggman

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  9. After being run down by a car I no longer shy away from bellowing a warning at any inattentive driver that is about to hit me - if they get a fright, it's educational. No words needed, just a primeval scream.
    I too find riding at night in the countryside safer than during the day. Lights are visible from a distance in the darkness and vehicles leave more space when overtaking.

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  10. When I regret having reflective clothing on….While riding home after a social night out and needing to pull over and take a pee….

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    1. Oh goodness, that hadn't even occurred to me!

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  11. Modern People, with all our Gear and Clutter, really struggle to add anything nice to the landscape. I know we're not going to give up our Blinkys and Bells, Hi-Viz Vests or Panic Whistles, just to make the place more natural and beautiful, but we typically fuck up the scene when we show up in numbers. You know?

    To experience a Full Moon or a distant Thunderstorm in a way that allows us to forget about ourselves a bit and pay attention, first requires one to get away from as many of ones fellow Humans as possible. So when something like this comes along that seems to naturally encourage people to slow down and look around in a deeper way, WITH OTHERS, is nice. Hopeful even. I'm not surprised that it was Art that did it.

    Spindizzy

    P.S. Now that you've lived there a while, does the "Art Scene" seem more accessible and open over there compared to over here? There's more opportunities to get ones work out in public around here than there used to be but it's still tough to get in if you're not one of the Kool Kids. This exhibit would have had me pretty desperate to participate.

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    1. Dunno how this world works, especially with regard to art. So, I sit at the same set of park benches at the end of most days, for five or six years now. I observe everything…water, sky, trees….in all seasons. So this last month the landscape has changed noticeably with parades of people walking by with eyes attached to their phones (or whatever they're called) and I find it remarkably interesting, even artful in the ways in which they have created a rhythm which echoes so much of what I see in nature. They miss what I see but add to it as well….They're engaged in new ways and I am, too. Weird.

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  12. I do not wear hi viz clothing or have anything of this nature attached to my bike - I don't rely on drivers being able to see me via high visibility apparel - I rely on my ability to assess drivers, the environment, hazards and avoid incidents.

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