Sunday, March 21, 2010

Performance artist Marina Abramovic (on the left) at MOMA on March 28th

The .001 Solution

"In every ancient culture there are rituals to mortify the body as a way of understanding that the energy of the soul is indestructible.
MarinaAbramović, performance artist

Each year sometime around the middle to late March, cyclists gather en masse at the base of Fargo Street. The street, which rises up into the airy heights of Echo Park, an older, and somewhat Bohemian neighborhood not far from downtown Los Angeles, is only 1/10th of a mile long, but it inclines at an average grade measured at 33%. By comparison, no street in San Francisco is steeper (except for a few yards) than Fargo Street.

By 9 a.m., a good crowd has gathered and one by one, cyclists try to reach the top of Fargo Street without stopping. Cyclists have been doing this since, perhaps, the mid-1960s, although it didn't become an official event until the Los Angeles Wheelmen added it to their club calendar, sometime in the mid-1970s.

To ride up Fargo Street, or to even attempt the ascent is, as Marina Abramovic might put it, a ritualistic mortification of the body.

Until the creation of mountain bikes, with their extremely low gears, most cyclists failed to reach the top of Fargo. Now, over 50% of those who give it a shot are apt to make the summit, with the reward of a wonderful view out over Los Angeles, from downtown to the Hollywood Sign, plus a celebratory patch from the Wheelmen.

My brother Dan introduced me to this ride about 1978. Some years ago, for reasons that elude me, I rode up the hill 26 times in one day. It was a record that stood because nobody cared about it, although occasionally, in a ride with the Wheelmen, someone would point out that I was the weirdo who'd ridden up Fargo over and over again.

A few years ago, though, cyclists broke my record and kept breaking it. For now, the record stands at 101 times in one day. I'm not sure that record will ever be broken; I'm fairly certain that if it is, it won't be by me.

Why would I or anyone else want to ride up Fargo Street? I could say, "Because it's there," as George Mallory did about Mt. Everest. Instead, I'll repeat that which I wrote about the Solvang Century: For me, there is a sense of connection when I join that many cycling aficionados, which is as much pageant as it is an athletic undertaking. I know I am an individual, yet I'm part of a greater whole. And I know that I will have to earn my way to the finish line.

What a wonderful switch, going from one hundred miles one day, to 1/10th of a mile the next. And though the difference in distance was vast – Fargo is .001 percent of the Solvang Century – the result was the same: a way to powerfully connect with the world around me.

In this way, I claim a kinship with Marina Abramovic, for on the day of the Fargo Street Hill Climb, I too become a performance artist, demonstrating to the crowd, and myself that I am still alive, that I move with flesh and bone, that blood flows through my veins, that sweat pores out of my pores.

Admittedly, riding up Fargo Street does not necessarily equal some of Abromovic's "performances," which have included cutting herself with knives, walking repeatedly into a wall, taking medication given to catatonic patients, and breathing in and out of someone else's mouth until enough carbon dioxide built up in her body to send her into unconsciousness. In her current 77-day show at the Museum of Modern Art, in Manhattan, she sits each day, all day, silently facing people who have waited in line to sit across a table from her.

Fargo Street on the cover of Bicycling Magazine, 1979

Riding up Fargo Street, and going into oxygen debt in the process, in front of a crowd of cyclists and curious neighbors, is a way to powerfully connect with the world around us. Before the ride, cyclists must look into themselves, to confront and conquer their fear. Afterward, if successful, cyclists can savor the moment, or, failing to reach the top, can commiserate with the plethora of other riders on the hill who will fare no better.

And during the ride, cyclists must empty their minds of everything except the challenge of Fargo Street itself, focusing solely on the chosen task. Or as Marina Abramovic put it: "The more I think about energy, the simpler my art becomes, because it is just about pure presence."

If cyclists act alone when the ride up Fargo Street, they also act in concert with others who "mortify the body as a way of understanding that the energy of the soul is indestructible." In that way, the connection between other cyclists, the world beyond, and even Marina Abramovic, is forged.

Camera notes: Marina Abramovic photo made with my iPhone; other photos made with a Nikon DSLR.

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