The first ARTCRANK show was intended as a casual experiment. Charles Youel, a bike lover working as a creative director in Minneapolis in 2007, thought he’d enlist friends and friends of friends to create different renderings of the bicycle or bike culture—all in poster form—and host a pop-up art show.
So he did. And roughly 400 people showed up, much to Youel’s shock.
From there the “Poster Party for Bike People” gathered momentum, morphing into a full-fledged business with Youel doing almost all the legwork. By the end of 2014, after 12+ events in cities across the U.S. and Europe, Youel knew it was time to slow his roll. The then 45-year-old realized he hadn’t pedaled himself more than a few blocks in months.
“I had turned the thing that was an antidote to an unsatisfactory job...into an unsatisfactory job,” Youel told an audience at a recent talk he gave for Creative Mornings. “As much as I was enjoying bringing the show to new places, doing that was taking me away from the thing I loved, that made me start it in the first place.”
Youel’s remedy? Shift his business model from “had to be there” events to a virtual shop, where anyone can buy a sui generis work of art. But as he discovered, there’s more to slowing down and changing directions than just hitting the brakes.
“It’s kind of like when you’re driving on the highway at 80 miles an hour, and you pull off on to a residential street: It feels like everything is way too slow,” Youel said during his talk. “But at a certain point, bigger stops being better … you stop being able to make the difference you set out to make in the first place.”
Now what Youel started in Minneapolis in 2007 as a “Poster Party For Bike People,” is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Online, ARTCRANK is an ever-changing collection of 30 posters with only 30 copies of each for sale. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
MORE: Shop ARTCRANK
In this way, ARTCRANK is able to embody the ephemeral quality of its geospatial shows, while making it easy for anyone to hang a unique piece of bike art of their wall.
Read on for more on what makes for good bike art, the best advertisement for cycling, and why biking is maybe the closest humans will come to flight.
What’s your experience with biking?
Biking was something I started doing shortly after I learned to walk. I was that kid who, as soon as he mastered being upright on a bicycle and probably before he figured out how brakes worked, was out in front of his house building jumps.
I was a BMX rat when I as a kid, then I got away from biking in my teens, but it was something that I really came back to when I started working in advertising and design as a way to get around and as a way to get out and enjoy the city I was in.
Tell us a bit more about how ARTCRANK was born out of your work as a creative director?
I started the show in late 2006 at a time when I was working as a copywriter and creative director for an advertising agency in Minneapolis. It was a time when the majority of the work that I was doing was in the digital space—building websites or email campaigns. As much as I really loved working with talented creative people, basically getting paid to make stuff up, none of the work that I was doing was on a subject I was really passionate about.
I found that a lot of the creative people I worked with had a similar affection for cycling. - Charles YouelCycling had always been this standby in my life as a way to have fun, a way to stay fit, and I found that a lot of the creative people I worked with had a similar affection for cycling. So the idea for the show sprang out the desire to have this creative enterprise that was completely unrelated to anything I was doing for the “real job,” but also let me incorporate this thing that had always been a really positive and exciting and fulfilling part of my life—which was cycling.
I see parallels between your “had-to-be-there" bike show, bikes themselves, and an analog space. Do you make those parallels… and are you kind of a Luddite?
The funny thing is, I’m actually not. I don’t think I’d characterize myself as an early adopter, but technology plays a pretty significant role in my life. ARTCRANK would not be where it is today without social media and without being able to connect with people through those paths.
"That connection to doing a familiar action which yields different results is also something that taps into that creative impulse that people who ride bikes seem to appreciate about it."― Charles Youel
When we talk to people who create our posters about their relationship to bicycles, a lot of the time their answers come down to an appreciation of the bicycle as a design object: Something that’s a very simple machine, where everything is very pleasingly put together and all of the parts play an important element in the key at work. But the other factor that comes out is that riding a bike is in-and of-itself a form of creative expression. When I think about my daily commute from home to my office, I will ride the same roads at roughly the same times every day, and yet my experience during that time will be completely different based on other factors around me. What the weather is like. Who else is out there. Something that I happen to notice one day that I hadn’t before. Even just in the physical manipulations of the bike. I think that connection to doing a familiar action which yields different results is also something that taps into that creative impulse that people who ride bikes seem to appreciate about it.
In my career, some of the best most creative things I’ve done resulted from going against convention and looking not at where all the prevailing trends were going but at a different direction altogether. The idea of doing an event where people had to physically show up and be present to buy things that were available in limited qualities as opposed to just clicking “buy” on a website—that was part of the experience that I really wanted to tap into.
It goes back to that interaction between person and machine that makes bikes work. There’s a very personal emotion experience that is different from the experience that comes from doing things strictly through technology.
But 8.5 years later, you’ve opened an online store. Why the shift in thinking?
People really seem to respond to this idea of “limited-edition work available for a limited time.” We were thinking how could we replicate this experience in an online store where there was this baseline expectation that you could get whatever you want whenever you want. Putting all of our focus on staging events was preventing us from exploring other avenues—one of those was the website another one of those was a retrospective book or series of books. None of that was happening unless we significantly reduced the number of live events and commit to building the business that was reliant on online commerce, and to see if we could replicate as much of positive experience of the live shows as possible.
How has that transition been?
The thing that making the shift to e-commerce focus allowed us to do was work with artists who didn’t live in the cities where we staged live shows, because we always had kind of of “locals-only” focus on the artwork. In putting the store online all of the sudden we've not only expanded our audience and the people we can sell posters to, we’ve also expanded the world of the creative people we can work with. And that’s been one of the biggest benefits.
"We’ve also expanded the world of the creative people we can work with. And that’s been one of the biggest benefits."- Charles Youel
Was there a poster that personally spoke to you? A scene you wanted to be transported into?
Asking me to pick a favorite poster is a little like asking me to pick a favorite child. In terms of the more recent work that we've done, one that sticks out in my mind is by a guy named Brendan Totten. This is the one where the guy has rigged his bike up as a plane, and he’s looking down at the ramp that soars off to nowhere. The reason I’m drawn so strongly to that is it reminds me of building ramps out in front of my house when I was five or six years old, and not entirely comfortable in my ability to stop but just kind of wanting to get out there and fly. Because I think riding a bicycle is the closest we can come to experiencing flight without actually leaving the ground. Or, you know, leaving the ground for very limited periods of time. That sense of reaching for the freedom captured in the moment of that poster is something that is always going to be close to my heart.
Can you tell me a bit more about the retrospective book or books you have planned?
One of the things that we accomplished under the radar over the last year was getting high res digital files of all of the posters we had in the shows dating back to 2007. We have this wonderful collection of artwork, much of which has never been seen outside of the events where it originally appeared. But we’ve never had it in a format where we could actually build a book out of it. Now we’re selecting 100 to 200 posters we want to feature in the first book.
Is there a particular commuter accessory that you consider essential?
Lights, absolutely. Even if you’re not riding at night or planning to ride at night, headlights on the bike is one of those things that—in places where people aren’t expecting to see you—makes you more noticeable. I started riding with lights on in the daytime now. If you’re looking to invest in one thing that’s going to make your commuting experience a little bit better, I’d say a good set of lights is way up there.
How would you improve bicycle commuting?
The best non-infrastructure wonk answer I can give is: The best advertising for cycling is people on bikes. Anything that a city, a neighborhood or a region can do to make it more welcoming for people to take to the streets on bicycles. Every time someone who’s in a car, who’d rather not be, sees someone on a bike making the same trip they are and having a lot more fun doing it, you have the potential to convert someone else to commuting by bike.
Unless you’re the kind of biker that’s blowing through stop signs...
Right! And we can also be our own worst advertisement by that same measure. As you know, cycling has it’s own kind of peculiar cliques and subcultures that very rarely interact with each other. One of the things we’ve managed to accomplish with the live shows in particular is to put all of these different cliques and subcultures together in the same room and help they realize that they have this one very important thing in common. What kind of bike somebody rides or how fast they ride it or what they’re wearing is irrelevant. It’s all about the fact the we show appreciation for this simple really cool machine that gets us places.