bikers, trickjumpers, and an aspective vision of cyberculture
At the city of Munich’s southern fringe, bordering to the rich people’s pseudo-gated-community Grünwald, there is a quite remarkable location to be found right at the river Isar’s shore. In between the forest’s majestic trees there is a literal chaos of ramps, ridges, holes, rootwork, and hillocks. There you can see youngsters and not-so youngsters—the latter coming close to belonging into my age-set—speeding and jumping havoc on mountain-, downhill-, and BMX-bikes. The site’s local name is “Bombenkrater” [German for bomb shell impact crater], because the unique structure of the terrain was created during World War II when the U.S. Air Force tried to hit a chemical facility and the nearby bridge across river Isar, but missed badly. During the 1980s, when BMX-bikes became en vogue, the site for the first time was appropriated as a training and tricking ground by artists on two muscle-powered wheels. Somehow the bikers never gave the place away again, but handed it over to the next generations, now mainly riding mountain- and downhill-bikes, but the BMXs are still there as well. Over and above the basis produced by the U.S.-bombs, the terrain is furtherly and continuously reworked and “improved” by means of shovels and hatchets. The occasional flood waters “helping out” as well. Nearly all around the year you can see bikers doing amazing drops, jumps, and tricks down there. “Bombenkrater” has become something like a local household name, both meaning the place and the bunch of local riders to be found there on a regular basis. If you do not have the good fortune to be able to go down there whenever you like and watch the stunts live, head over to the community’s website ↑Bombenkrater München and have a look at the extensive material stored there.
A good friend of mine, by far deeper into mountainbiking than I ever was, just recently asked me if I had seen the “long video” of the Bombenkrater. I had seen several clips from the website, but couldn’t remember a 25min-piece. So he shoved me into a basket-chair on his balcony, placed a glass of beer into my hand, his laptop on my knees and forced me to watch ↑“trail porn II” [25:39min | .avi | 173MB]. What this people are able to do on their bicycles is truly striking. The footage was not entirely shot at the Bombenkrater, but also at other locations, at purely artificial sites, during contests, and within the city itself. “Streeting” is the bike-analogon to skating, if you wish, really worthwhile to watch. I did not know for example that it is possible to grind with a bike, too. There are beautiful scenes, shot after sunset, featuring sparks dramatically flying from a BMX’s alloy frame while grinding along a concrete ledge. There is much more in the movie, but I won’t repeat it here [go and watch yourself, please], instead I will relate the the pieces of evidence that made this entry go into the ‘fieldnotes’ category and not into ‘off topic’.
Apart from the literal contents of the clip I very much enjoyed the very high and professional production values. Absolutely comparable to those of top-notch trickjumping-movies shot in digital gamespace [see ↵infinite trajectory and ↵event horizon 2]. But there are more similarities on a slightly less abstract level, concerning style, camera angles, editing, use of after effects, music, sound, and the peculiar kind of visual humour in particular. And then suddenly the shock … there are not only ↵meatspace-biking-scenes within “trail porn II”, but also scenes from “Counter Strike” (CS—↵Minh Le & Cliffe 2000). What the hell have scenes from CS, a team-based tactical first-person shooter (FPS), to do inside a videoclip showing off amazing stunts on MTBs and BMXs? To fathom this I went back to bombenkrater.de and scrutinized its contents.
The website consists of nested subsections, delivering all kinds of information on the place itself, the crew and its activities. For example the ↑local riders section has links to profiles. All links but one lead to subpages, which are not standardised, but highly customized in appearance. Obviously the people profiled do not envision the subpages as mere information dumpsters, but as a means of personal expression online. In the “Misc” category of the bombenkrater-website’s ↑photo section I found pictures showing casemods. Among them there is a computer with a window in the shape of the Bombenkrater-München logo. Meatspace hardcore bike-tricking intermingles with practices stemming from computer- and online-culture. Now you may suspect that this is evidence for the overlapping of distinct spheres, but meanwhile I prefer another perspective.
In the academical discussion dealing with researching online communities the issue of in how far the offline contexts of community members have to be surveyed, taken into account, and drawn upon for an ethnography, is highly contested. When I had plunged to a certain depth into the Max-Payne-modding community, I came to the conclusion that for this particular case interaction mediated online suffices for the ethnographer’s needed access. First of all, neglecting singular exceptions, the community members themselves exclusively interact online with each other. Last but not least because of the fact that here we are dealing with a truly transnational community, its members being literally scattered all over the globe. Secondly the mutual trust, the personal and social proximity between the members of the community’s core is of such a high degree that information about their offline contexts is exchanged and discussed not only on a regular, but highly reliable basis.
For example, I do positively know that certain members of “my online tribe”—which initially condensated around the shared interest in modifying commercial computergame-software, mind!—are adept skateboarders and/or martial artists, others are deeply enmeshed into the art and practice of graffiti-spraying—the latter being a social and cultural practice, too—especially if driven beyond the boundaries of legality. Another instance of appropriating urban landscape. Perfectly matching how kr33p once described his stance towards trickjumping-servers for “Quake III Arena” (Q3A—↵ID Software 1999):
This quote contains a whole array of valuable cues concerning gamer culture:
The skate-park metaphor, the feeling of “hanging out together” there, the values of sharing and reciprocity, and the practice of collectively and informally exchanging and passing on the embodied knowledge of doing trick-moves, which hardly can be verbalized [see ↵snaking and strafejumping]. By talking about embodied knowledge and performance it becomes quite obvious that one aspect which joins the likes of hardcore computergamers, Q3A-trickjumpers, skateboarders, inline-skaters, mountain- and downhillbikers is of course the flow-experience. But the flow-model can not account to the whole intricate phenomenon observed, it only sheds light upon an aspect. For example it neglects the cultural practice of appropriating and reworking environments—be them of the “natural”, urban, or digital kind. For my argument here I would like to focus on this very aspect of appropriation, because it has to be emphasised that Q3A-gamespace was not meant for trickjumping. Neither were the city’s stairs, walls, handrails, and concrete benches for skating, nor the place called Bombenkrater for doing tricks on mountain bikes. All three spaces have been culturally appropriated in unpredictable ways.
Another point is that in all the mentioned milieus technology plays a decisive role. In particular that appropriable, modifiable, and reworkable kind of “lo-hi-tech”. I will explain what I mean by this composed term. What makes a given technology to be regarded as hi-tech? Being state-of-the-art or cutting-edge in its peculiar context, right? The bikes used by the people riding the Bombenkrater are cutting-edge in their own respect. This machines are highly customized and modified and thereby made able to serve in the task of appropriating the Bombenkrater’s landscape ↵by mastership and in an artistic fashion. “Artistic” in the twofold meaning of “artiste” as a skilled and adept performer—or a gymnast of sorts—and performance as art. Now for the “lo-” part. A mountain bike does not constitute a closed, unaccessable system with which only members of the hermetic circles can tinker, possessing esoterical knowledge and tools, having access to gigantic resources, themselves being shrined away behind the walls of industrial complexes or science laboratories. The streetwise are able to deconstruct, modify, and rebuild a mountain bike. This makes the technology of the bikes in question “lo-“. Although “the street” will never be able to construct this bikes from scratch, because for producing the very parts industrial power, infrastructure, and technology are indispensable. Even in the case of selfmade parts the home constructor is dependent on the industry, as machine tools like milling cutters and engine lathes are needed. Both kinds of machines in turn can not be manufactured by garage-bricoleurs. To a certain extent computer hardware falls into the same category of lo-hi-tech, as the succesful practices of overclocking and casemodding show [see ↵the taming of the boomslang and ↵lo tek nexus].
While diving into the information on the Bombenkrater there of course were more associations coming to my mind, e.g. with ↑William Gibson‘s ↑bridge trilogy, prominently featuring the guild of bike-messengers, and to transient0’s brillant ↑“A Coder in Courierland”. This associations brought me to a path which ultimately led me to the conclusion that we have to broaden a definition of cyberculture, not restricting it to things having to do with the impact of computer- and Internet-technology and/or bio- and nano-technology upon culture and society [see ↵Escobar 1994], even going beyond the notion of ↵cybernetics as a tacit but paradigmatical cultural topos, and including everything reflected and/or informed by artefacts [literature, movies, computergames] belonging to the genre of cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk not only reflects and ponders upon all the above mentioned issues, but tremendously influenced, and still influences, the way technologies are created, viewed, and used. Cyberpunk ideas and topoi experience an enormous worldwide diffusion via all kinds of media channels. Those narratives and images are not only informing visions of our contemporary world, but also practices of how to live within this world, and how individual and communal identities are constructed and expressed. Furthermore cyberpunk very early on clearly communicated that meatspace and cyberspace are not world’s apart, not distinct universes, not separate realities as the unholy dichotomy real-virtual so often seems to imply. Rather they are aspects of the same Lebenswelten. Case, the main protagonist in Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (↵Gibson 1984) is equally at home on- and offline, he acts and lives in cyberspace as well as in meatspace. Just as the mountain bikers of the Bombenkrater do. Playing online FPS-games, engaging in gamer- and Internet-culture, casemodding, producing digital movies of stunts [no matter if done in game- or physical space], appropriating and reworking technology and environments, are all aspects of the same kind of lifestyles, manifestations of cyberculture. That is the way we have to view cyberculture, just as the anthropology of religion sees ritual and belief not as forming a sphere of their own, but as being aspects of culture. Seen from a sociocultural anthropological vantage point this is not the information age, but the era of cyberculture.
But how to theoretically approach this phenomenon? In a nutshell my broader and abstract perspective on what cyberculture is comprises a set of interwoven aspects, namely the cultural appropriation of technologies and environments, and community and identity building and expression on the basis of shared practices revolving around appropriation. Furthermore all of that is multimedially informed and given shape by ideas and topoi reflected and re-/produced in cyberpunk, which that way are simultaneously modified, recreated, and added upon. Less abstract, on the more tangible level of ethnography, the anthropologist’s task is to fathom and get a vision of what lies behind the observed practices and interactions of a given community—the flesh with which the skeleton of the mentioned abstract principles gets clothed in everyday real life. The task is to understand the metaphorical and symbolical web of ideas built and rebuilt by ever-changing, interlocking feedback loops of the associative kind.
All this trails of thoughts may well bear similarities to jumping into midair on a bike and then trying to touch down without having the hands on the steering rod. But it can be done. See …