This is a story about some playa bikes from Black Rock City, a country redefining its identity and a group of passionate Burners helping facilitate a positive change.
Just over 25 years ago, people in the country of Lithuania were forced to fear their fellow countrymen. There were actual quotas of citizens who would be exiled out to the cold and barren plains of Siberia to intimidate the people and to submit to the control of the government. The idea of self-expression was non-existent unless it was held in underground circumstances. At any time, one could be taken away from their family for something minor and snitching was rewarded for doing so. It was indeed a dark time.
While Lithuania has been changing for the better since then, effects from the time still permeate the culture and society. It has largely been up to the younger generations to create change and encourage aspects of expression and independence.
Some of the agents of this change are the M-Lab Raccoons, who are also active members of the Lithuanian Burner community. They started organizing “Art bike” workshops. After transforming some bikes, a parade commenced called “Who did that to my bike?” It was just a way to bring smiles to people’s faces and encourage interaction. For a people treated unfairly for generations, these small positive actions were helping to create a more free and open society.
The Raccoons have also facilitated a myriad of educational maker workshops for youth and schools across the country. While working for the Department of Public Works (DPW) with the Community Bike Program, they saw a unique opportunity in the hundreds of abandoned playa bikes after the event. The light bulb went off when they wondered if there was a way to take these lonely bikes and repurpose them locally.
With the help of DPW and Burners Without Borders (BWB), the Raccoons were able to arrange and gather 300 bikes on playa in 2016 [Editor’s note: Don’t leave your bike at Burning Man! What are you, five?]. They dusted them off (as much as one could), packed them in a 40-ft. container and shipped them off overseas. They renamed their project the “Art Bike Invasion” in the sense that they were invading the daily lives of people through creating an act of gifting and performance. They planned a series of workshops and parades with youth over the course of a couple months.
Over the winter, engineers, educators, makers, and artists were all invited to participate in the invasion. European and American maker spaces such as the Technarium, Artisan’s Asylum, Make Riga Hackerspace and Fab Lab Barcelona joined in the fun to participate as well. Art Bike Invasion received a 2017 Burning Man Global Art Grant for $6,900, Burners Without Borders gave a Civic Ignition grant, and the Lithuanian Council of Culture also gave a grant.
The events began in May, and 12 schools signed up to bring students from Vilnius, the capital, and from Dreverna, a rural coastal village, where the workshops would happen. When the youth arrived to choose their bikes to take home, their eyes lit up and smiles abounded. For some of the youth, it was the first bicycle they ever owned.
A local school hosted the first workshop with all the tools needed. Throughout the week, participants tinkered, welded, repaired and otherwise just pimped out the bikes. They got illuminated with EL wire and LEDs, some with speakers and some with microcontrollers to produce light effects while riding. In the end, the youth wouldn’t just receive the gift of a bike, but also the gift of learning how to fix and repair that bike.
After the workshop, it was time to parade en masse. Over a hundred bikes got saddled up and headed out to the town of Priekule. While there, the bikers happened to crash the local sauna festival. Luckily, they were invited into the saunas, and so for a little while the parade lingered while participants chatted about their bikes and the workshops to the festival-goers. The parade continued through the coastal town of Svencele in illuminated glory as evening set in.
Throughout the summer, the M-Lab Raccoons and friends hosted several more workshops and parades. They appeared at the Mini Maker Faire, various villages, and other cultural events. Local Lithuanians were happy to see all the art bikes cruising around, bringing a bit of joy into their hearts.
Everyone had such a wonderful time participating that Art Bike Invasion is set to happen again next year. The Raccoons hope to purchase or obtain a 20-ft. container to ship an additional 150 bikes from playa. If you want to get involved, check out the Art Bike Invasion website.
While no citizen of Black Rock City should ever abandon their bike and leave a trace, the question arises: If used and dusty playa bikes can have an impact on youth and societies halfway across the world, what other aspects of the Burning Man spirit and culture can affect a positive change in people’s lives?
Photos by Romualdas Požerskis