Velo Vyksa: Cycle Sharing as Public Art

Public art festival Art Ovrag, organized by the United Steel Company to 'improve' quality of urban life, was held for the third year in the small town of Vyksa near Nizhny Novgorod. Well-known street artists and muralists from across Russia and the former Soviet Union were invited with sculptors and architects from Europe to organize workshops and create installations in the city's central park.

 

We decided to take part in the festival to challenge the idea of 'imposing' art on towns-people, and to present our alternative approach to the creation of public art 'objects'. And also, in some sense, to 'investigate' the activities of the festival.

Few public art festivals around the world can boast of projects that resist purely decorating the environment. In Russia, there is little use of public spaces, and existing spaces are often in complete neglect—so decorating is perhaps not that necessary. Paintings and sculptures embellish our surroundings, but against all that is happening they more and more often seem awkward—bright patches, distracting public attention.

 

Although Vyksa is small, it has its own website to collect complaints and suggestions from residents. On a map of the official site of the city administration there are over 200 registered and outstanding claims. The most popular are about problems with the roads or about the improvement of public places. We saw no requests for more public art.

 


This is not surprising, because if you are not satisfied with basics it is difficult to focus on art. It would be too strange if you could not safely walk through the park, but found that there is a sculpture of the eminent American artist.

Traditional objects of art in public spaces - such as the painting of facades or city sculpture - usually play the role of showing status: symbols of the district or city, which embellish our lives and allow us to escape from the ordinary. It is in the same way that Olympic Games and professional sports, events rather than developing the physical health of Russian, attempt to cover up the appearance and generate pride in the country.

If some of the money spent on such status objects and activities were used to purchase sports equipment for regular people, it could contribute to the development of amateur sports. By analogy, the development of art needs to not be elitist; it should be really public, accessible and understandable to the majority.

Vyksa seemed young, fresh and energetic. On the streets we saw a lot of young people and children—an indication that there is not a high outflow of young people to other regional, urban centers and that there is much to do in the city. Vyksa is comfortable for walking, sun-bathing and swimming in the local pond or lake Lebedinka.

For some strange reason, the most popular modes of transport in Vyksa is the taxi.  There are few privately owned cars, wide sidewalks, empty roads and a huge park with trees— all ideal for bicycling. But cycling was the most convenient way to explore all of the objects of the festival, scattered in different parts of the city. And it was perhaps the only way to see all the work in 2-3 days. But we could not find bike rentals; so we decided to organize a DIY, free bike rental system, to be used by any resident of the city. And this accessible and functional public art reflected the interests and needs of ordinary citizens.

 

Using the money set aside to create a public art objects, we bought 8 bikes with baskets, painted them, and added bike locks. We made two bike parking stations with a description and map of the city, which were placed with the project partners - in a cafe and at a hotel.This became the second in Russia (after Moscow) project about bicycle sharing and public system of bike rentals in a city.

To use the free bicycle, people (or public art "viewers") had to go to the cafe or hotel, show proof of registration (online) and take a key with the number of the bike. Afterwards they had to return the bike to one of the base stations and give the key back.

 

We also created a website with a description of the project and a database to view the availability of bikes and a map of the city showing interesting places and public art objects. Here, anyone could see the names and numbers of bicycles; and those who could not or did not want to return the bike. The whole system is based on trust and understanding that bicycles and bike sharing systems, like the city itself, belong to its people.

 

Back to the question of art and how it can improve the quality of most of these public spaces, we can conclude that although visual design is important, it is not enough. Low-budget 'tools' and interventions for communication within local contexts can have a greater impact on improving the social conditions in the city and 'quality of life'.