A bike is something, but almost nothing!: The White Bike Cycling Through History

In the mid-1960s a unique artistic and political movement emerged in Amsterdam from the remnants of the dying, far-left “Ban the Bomb” movement and a highly experimental performance art scene based around spontaneous “Happenings.” The movement took the name Provo (short for provocation) and lasted two years as a serious effort that “culminated explosively in a spontaneous five-day riot” (Richard Kempton) in June, 1966.

Provo, which declared itself as an explicitly anarchist organization, stands in contrast to the disjointed and confused political intentions of many other student and artist political movements around the world during the 1960s. The abstract focus within the radical uproar of the 60s contributed significantly to its ultimate fate of reformist compromise with the system, which deflated its revolutionary momentum and allowed it to fizzle out.

Provo functioned as a spontaneous and creative group while maintaining very serious demand on society. The statement of their creation declared its reasons for existence and its dedication to anarchism:

-Because this capitalist society is poisoning itself with a morbid thirst for money. Its members are being brought up to worship Having and despise Being

-Because this bureaucratic society is choking itself with officialdom and suppressing any form of spontaneity. Its members can only become creative, individual people through anti-social conduct.

-Because the militaristic society is digging its own grave by a paranoid arms build-up. Its members now have nothing to look forward to but certain death by atomic radiation.

Provo’s focus was very environmental. Their concept of pollution stretched to include visual and noise pollution. Their re-envisioning of a liveable world and urban environment was one suited to an artistic movement.  Robert Jasper Grootveld, a founder of Provo considered the “Prophet of Amsterdam” and “genius of the absurd,” developed his logic and strategy of capitalist overthrow through what started as an intense one-man anti-smoking campaign.

Moving from tobacco, Provo took on car culture, pasting fliers with crude images of cars in a traffic jam emitting smoke and noise pollution represented by crudely written repetitions of “kanker, kanker, kanker” and “bram, bram, bram.” True to their name and mission, the text on the flier was highly provocative, declaring

if you see a car emitting lots of poisonous gas, take its number and phone 81206 between 4:30 and 5. Provo will move into action-and we know how to deal with them!

Provo may have been one of the first groups to initiate an organized campaign against car culture, a struggle that has found roots and flourishes today. It was this analysis that would lead Provo to launch the White Bicycle Plan.

Provo’s strategy for challenging power revolved around two tactics: regular “Happenings” and the introduction of a slew of White Plans for social reconstruction. Happenings, either politically charged performance art or highly artistic protests, usually began with Provos defacing a famous statue (usually the same one for several weeks in a row) and lighting afire objects that they declared to be symbolic of the systems they opposed. Provos who lead Happenings dressed in absurd costumes, painted their faces and spoke in highfalutin political jarble. They succeeded, usually, in their goal of provoking the police, who repeatedly beat and arrested the demonstrators, bringing them immense public sympathy and a listening audience for their ambitious White Plans.

Provo’s White Plans spanned from a proposal that all abandoned properties in Amsterdam have their front doors painted white so that they may be known as “public property” for squatters and the homeless (the White House Plan) to  a proposal that police turn in their uniforms and guns to become white-clad social workers at the command of the public (the White Chicken Plain).

With the White Bicycle Plan, Provo demanded the removal of all automobiles from Amsterdam, to be replaced exclusively by bikes painted white and left everywhere for anyone to use. True to Provo form, the text of the plan is riddled with metaphor and hyperbole:

Provokatie #5

PROVO’s Bicycle Plan

Amsterdammers!

The asphalt terror of the motorized bourgeoisie has last long enough. Human sacrifices are made daily to this latest idol of the idiot: car power. Choking carbon monoxide is its incense, its image contaminates thousands of canals and streets.

PROVO’s bicycle plan will liberate us from the car monster. POVO introduces the WHITE BICYCLE, a piece of public property.

The first white bicycle will be presented to the Press and public on Wednesday July 28 at 3 P.M. near the statue of Lieverdje, the addicted consumer [which Provo’s often lit on fire at Happenings], on the Spui.

The white bicycle is never locked. The white bicycle is the first free communal transport. The white bicycle is a provocation against capitalist private property. THE WHITE BICYCLE IS ANARCHISTIC.

The white bicycle can be used by anyone who needs it and then must be left for someone else. There will be more and more white bicycles until everyone can use white transport and the car peril is past. The white bicycle is a symbol of simplicity and cleanliness in contrast to the vanity and foulness of the authoritarian car. In other words:

A BIKE IS SOMETHING, BUT ALMOST NOTHING!

Though the plan ultimately failed (police confiscated all of the introduced bikes, ironically citing a law that stated bikes must be locked to prevent theft), its spirit, analysis and imagery would lay the groundwork for future campaigns against car culture that are prominent today in many cities.

The notion of creating “bikes only” cities is alive and well in Critical Mass, an unpermitted, leaderless bike ride that occurs monthly in many of the world’s major cities. Critical Mass is approaching its 20th anniversary and a more recent trend of yearly, weekend-long Critical Mass events such as Intergalactic Critical Mass in Rome or Velorution in Paris draw upwards of 10,000 cyclists into the streets. PROVO’s artistic deconstruction of private and public property dynamics combined with a provocative public presence contained an early form of the “Reclaim the Streets” logic that heavily underlies Critical Mass.

The White Bike, for its part, has reemerged in a more somber context. Beginning in the 90s and continuing today, cyclists who want to draw attention to the “asphalt terror” that car culture afflicts on cyclists, while memorializing its victims, place “ghost bikes,” bikes painted entirely white, at locations where cyclists were killed in accidents with automobiles.

The tradition of direct action against car culture and the attempts to strategically (white bike) and actually (critical mass) create models for sustainable and egalitarian modes of transportation while maintaining an unforgiving criticism and rebuke (ghost bikes) of the current “car peril” that lives on and sustains our fossil fuel-based capitalist economy is a relatively new one. It has its roots in anarchism and finds common ground with the so-called New Anti-Capitalist Movement of the mid-90s to present. It contains all the critical analysis, fun and beauty that has sustained anarchist efforts above their scientific socialist counterparts, allowing their themes and strategies to be re-born through our movement’s history, bringing us with irreversible haste to the day where we may actualize the world we’ve all daydreamed about while riding our bikes.

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