Sometimes it begins with simple, absent-minded window-gazing. Allowing one’s eyesight to wander beyond the window pane and rest, sprawling in the framed view. The lulling flux bodies and cars in motion, going to school, going to work. The quality of overcast June gloom morning light, the roar of the nearby freeway and local bus. You can sense, perhaps intuitively, there is something for you.
And then in, the repetition of a daily routine, certain things come into focus.
For Romeo Guzman, it was bicycles. Lots of bicycles on Tyler Blvd. At first his west-facing window revealed mornings full of teenagers on BMX bikes en route to school (folded Pee-Chees crammed deep under armpit), or work-boot señores pedaling mountain/street bike hybrids to work (lunch bags clutched at handlebar). Then throughout the day he noticed a whole array of bikes and riders occasional single-speed “fixies”, beach cruisers, some rusty, squeaky-wheeled, others chromed and customized. Then he noticed bikes on Garvey Ave, and Santa Anita Blvd and Valley and Peck and all over El Monte and South El Monte. Bikes in the blazing noontime sun, bikes chilling in the grassy shade outside of Yoshinoya.
Ever since the distinct bike culture of El Monte and South El Monte made itself evident to scholar, writer, and recent El Monte resident, Romeo, it has not released its strong grip on his attention. Now he’s hoping bikes will capture yours as well.
In his project for the South El Monte Arts Posse’s “How’s the Water?” exhibit that will take place on July 27, from 7-10pm in several public locations around Arceo Park in El Monte, Romeo takes a close look at bikes and riders in El Monte and South El Monte. His project incorporates printed and projected photographs, as well as video to capture these bodies in motion.
Romeo began to give his observations a more methodological approach, taking note of distinct characteristics of bike riders, bikes and ways of riding (street or sidewalk) during designated times of day. He even recruited his cousin and South El Monte resident Melissa Guzman to help log the details of a total of 99 bikes and riders in the course of a day.
Rather quickly, this project became about more than mere gazing and his methodology for the photography project revealed a need for more than flash observations crunched into hard data. It required actual engagement with the riders. So Romeo and collaborator Jason Gutierrez hopped on their own bikes and began to talk with riders about their bikes. In the process, they were able to shoot portraits that reveal the relationships that bike riders develop with their bikes, the bike riders’ personalities, as well as how they use their bikes to occupy public space, particularly streets.
But what if bikes occupied other public spaces besides streets and performed other activities besides getting the rider from point A to point B.? What if you could bring the diversity of bike riders together all at once and asked to perform improvised and choreographed bike “dances”?
Approaching these questions required a new step in community engagement: participation, more specifically, performance. Romeo invited bike riders of all ages, styles and bike types to participate in another kind of photo shoot on the emptied lot of the former Pontiac car dealer on Valley Blvd (slightly east of Peck Ave.). Romeo later learned that his grandfather worked as a mechanic in this same dealership in the late 70s.
For this event, a group of 10 bike riders and 3 photographers (Juli Grigsby, Lester Lawenko and Christopher Velasco) were asked to participate in a performance, with their bikes/cameras, with each other, and with the space, opening up a series of questions including: What is changed in a bike rider that is asked to temporarily reinvent him or herself as a performer while also transforming the space from a dead block of asphalt, to an activated space full of possibilities for creative movement and engagement? What happens to the relationship between riders, artists and spectators/potential participants? The results were…. well, you can check it out for yourselves on July 27.
In the meantime, check out this interview with Romeo Guzman.