Friday, 25 September 2015

Ratting, Dwelling, Thinking -or- Being and the Art of Motorcycle Ratting

Disclaimer - I am not a biker. I do not own a bike, I cannot ride a bike. I struggle on a pushbike. These are the ill-informed views of an outsider looking in.

Five months ago I was approached by a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, the N.I.Rats, to make a documentary about them. This was about the height of the brief. There was no clear agenda in the form of a point that needed to be made, or clear arc in terms of a storyline to be relayed; just a passion and energy for what it was they were interested in - Ratbikes. On the face of it a strange fit for an architect and PhD student, but as things progressed the ideas coalesced and began to work together - something it might become easy to over-intellectualise (I'll be doing that shortly), but probably simply deriving from a group of passionate people who decide to do something together and who have clear ideas for how they believe things should and could be, but are non-fundamentalist in their approaches. The film rolled onwards, eventually becoming the 40 minute long piece 'Rat's Tales' which premiered at Culture Night Belfast, 2015, and will continue to develop for at least the next year.
Now for the clumsy over-intellectualising.

The set of theories I have been working with are beginning to point towards an explanation of how we reach an understanding of the raw phenomena received by our senses, suggesting that we never have any access to either 'reality' or 'truth,' but only ever our own interpretations and viewpoints which we chose to adopt as 'reality' and 'truth.' However, while always being attracted to Martin Heidegger's theory of Dwelling from which these ideas (and the title of this post) derive, I have always been skeptical of social constructionism, which these ideas can quite easily develop into. This is when we can move forward into Mythogeography.
Fonzy's 'Tramp Pot'
Phil Smith's set of theories allows us to understand that, when we are constructing our own reality we are making use of an all too easily-accessible set of myths, ready-made explanations and interpretations for phenomena - 'scripts' for how to act, interact and dwell when we perceive them. This is a game which the post-modernists became aware of, but where they give the playing of these games a privileged position, Mythogeography removes it by showing how we are all unavoidably doing it, all the time. To be aware of this isn't enough - to be aware of when it is appropriate to take part or to deviate from these social scripts is the real trick.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
The culture of Ratbikes serves as an illustration of these ideas. Initially, Ratbikes appear to be an aesthetic choice. There is a distinct post-industrial look to many of the bikes, as illustrated by the link to the Mad Max film series - rusted machines of urban warfare, rife with militaristic machismo and the cliched 'heavy-metal thunder' mythology of Easyrider and Steppenwolf. When interrogated, however, Ratbikes emerge as a practical necessity for many Ratters - the need to keep the thing running in order to get from A to B, the basis of Heidegger's notion of building in order to successfully dwell, as Aaron and Tom explain in the film.

  • AARON "A true Ratbike is years upon years of fixing absolutely everything possible with nothing that fits, making..."
  • TOM "...making it work..."
  • AARON "Aye, making it work. If one hammer doesn't work, get a bigger hammer. You know, if a spanner doesn't work, cut it. Do whatever you want to it..."
  • TOM "...use whatever parts you can find. Cut, weld, staple, bolt..."
  • AARON "That's a tre Rat like..."
It is clear that initially this isn't a choice at all. Eugene explains "I think everybody who was a real biker had a Ratbike at some stage, whether they knew it or not. Everybody cobbled together what they could. We didn't always have money," something which is made clear by the story, as related by Gareth 'Eazyrider' Tuff, of Fonzy's first Ratbike. "He ended up with his 400 bandit. It never ran right. It was held together with tape, cable ties...I can't remember how many times it broke down. But I think that's where part of it started for Afonso, was keeping that bike alive."

The aesthetic of the Rat, therefore, is the result of the creative problem-solving of it's owner who is unable to rely on the conventional means of motorcycle maintenance. The act of painting the bike matte-black, initially intended to cover up the fact that the vehicle has been ratted, has now become subverted to be a source of pride - a way of drawing attention to the fact that it is a Ratbike. This becomes the point of departure when the elemental act of building and dwelling begins to intermingle with the mythology of the Ratbike.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
There are, very broadly speaking, three dominating Ratbike mythologies. The first, and perhaps original, is the militaristic survival Rat - deriving largely from the military vehicles of the second world war. The military vehicle would be tough, rugged, abused and, subsequently, bodged and cludged in-the-field and on-the-move to keep running. The owners of such bikes relied on them to keep them alive, and probably, as Eugene suggests, didn't think of them as Rats. There is a romantic truth about these bikes - potential 'pure rats' - the spirit of which Ratbike owners seek, and do so by augmenting their vehicles with Iron Crosses, guns, bullets, knives, saddle bags and even bullet-holes. Secondly, there is the angry-hippy Rat, inspired largely from the distortion of 1960s Americana, Ratfink hotrod and hippy culture which occurred in the early 1970s and is probably typified by the notorious involvement of the Hell's Angels with Woodstock '70, the perceived death of the Summer of Love. These are aestheticised vehicles, with a vicious and sardonic sense of humour, often daubed with politicised slogans and icons, ranging from the crudely drawn to the elaborate professional paint-job - subversive, witty and mean. Finally, we have the fantasy Rat, highly aestheticised apocalyptic vehicles inspired largely by the Mad Max franchise. These can be viewed as a subtle blend of the previous two, a fantasied version of the 'true' survivalist Rat, with the humour of the angry-hippy less the cynicism.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
These broad mythologies come complete with their own set of iconographic modes-of-Ratting. As the Ratter spirals gradually away from the 'true' rat (as, for example, they learn more about keeping bikes running from others or improve their financial position making Ratting less necessity and more choice) they make a complex set of decisions, largely reflexive and automatic - driven not only by the mythologies but also that original 'pure' practicality of keeping the thing running. So when, for example, Eugene suggests that everything on his Blitzkrieg trike has a use, it most certainly does, but the gearstick does not necessarily need to be made out of a .45 pistol, nor the pedals drilled-out rubber bullets. The decision has been made to aestheticise the trike as a militaristic survival rat. The mythological script is there and it is followed automatically.
Bop's 'Spawn of Satan'
That being said, this may sound like an accusation of lack of imagination. On the contrary, the bed of Ratting culture, that idea of keeping the thing running at every cost besides the financial, ensures that creativity is at it's very root. Eugene's trike is seen as a successful Rat because it adheres to the script, playing the game so-to-speak, but does so in a surprising and novel way. There is no other vehicle like Blitzkrieg, it is the unique product of Eugene's unique set of decisions, both practical and aesthetic, which will never reflexively occur again.
Eugene's 'Blitzkrieg'
Lastly, we come to the idea of the Ratbike as a piece of equipment, but not, like other things which help us achieve our projects and goals throughout the day, a static object. The Ratbike adapts and evolves as it's user's needs change. This, as with the 'pure' Ratbikes born out of extreme situations or financial constraints, may be strictly practical. If the bike breaks down, it needs to be physically changed in order to get it running. But, again as we move towards aesthetics, the Ratter's relationship with or understanding of the mythology might slip - their politics or tastes may change and with them, the bike. The equipment is therefore an extension, not only of the body, but the personality - or rather an idealised and mythologised version - of the Ratter, things constantly in flux and never fixed.

The dualist nature of body and mind collapse in the realisation of the Ratbike - a singular object of necessity and political action.

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