Brian Tunney conducted this interview with me for the impecable DIG BMX Magazine. Here’s an excerpt: “The impetus behind frontwheeldrive.com remains to collect and spread the word about cultural artifacts and the people that make them. I try not to limit the subject matter anymore because I view the mind as an ecology. For any ecology to grow and flourish, it needs diversity. New stuff comes not from the well-defined fields, but from the interaction between them. Allowing theorists, artists, BMXers, musicians, skateboarders, etc. to rub shoulders, frontwheeldrive.com attempts to cross-pollinate areas of interest so that new ideas can grow.”
DIG BMX Magazine
The Online World of Roy Christopher
[by Brian Tunney]
Roy Christopher champions a concept he calls ‘Design Science.’ The phrase roughly means the undertaking of the design of one’s own life, and he applies this concept to every facet of his life, including his many undertakings in both print zine making and websites. The basic principle behind Design Science is change. Its stipulation is simple; if you’re not happy with something, change it. And Roy’s made that a universal application within his life, which includes his presence on the Internet. To his credit, he maintains more than a few websites (including frontwheeldrive.com, HEADTUBE, royc.org, 21C, and WHAT ARMY), and also, on occasion, prints a zine called “Headtube,” which he calls “The thinking man’s BMX magazine.” Though you won’t find the latest tricks, industry gossip or new BMX parts on any of Roy’s sites, you will find a BMX presence. The difference here is that BMX and riding a BMX bike is not portrayed within the microcosm of the BMX world. Roy reaches out to the remainder of the world he comes into contact with, and the result, as he phrases it, “Allows theorists, artists, BMXers, musicians, skateboarders, etc. to rub shoulders… cross-pollinating areas of interest so that new ideas can grow.” Amid pursuing a graduate’s degree, teaching undergrad classes, riding and writing, Roy took the time to answer some questions about his many online endeavors. For more information on all the Design Science of Roy Christopher, visit one of his many websites. And don’t forget that change can be a good thing….
Brian Tunney: How long have you been involved in making zines and or websites for, both BMX and non-related?
Roy Christopher: I started making zines in the summer of 1986. Just after Freestylin’ Magazine did their first big zine report, I went to my friend Matt Bailie’s house and said, “We could do this.” So, in ninth grade, we started writing, shooting photos, and compiling our first issues. The zine was called “The Unexplained” because Matt had always wanted to use that as a name for something (The question mark logo that went along with that zine has since evolved into the WHAT ARMY project). Ten years later, my friend Mark Wieman started messing around with HTML, and I saw the web as another level in zine-making. Though I was still doing print zines, I learned HTML, bought some domain names, and starting building websites.
BT: When did your writing focus begin to drift outside of BMX?
RC: It kinda drifted at first in the early 1990s. The AFA had shut down, the NBL stopped their regional series in the Southeast (I grew up in the South), the magazines and teams disappeared, and it looked like BMX was dead. I was still riding and doing shows, but the death of the contests really put a damper on the energy that BMX had in my creative output. During those dark days of BMX, my writing turned almost completely to music. I finished my undergraduate degree (in Social Science) and moved from Alabama to Seattle. It was there that my zine-making lead to my writing music reviews and features for magazines, but it was there also that I found people to ride with again. So, BMX became a major focus in my zines again by 1995.
BT: What is the impetus behind frontwheeldrive.com, and additionally, your zine “Headtube”?
RC: “frontwheeldrive” was the name of the zine I was doing when I started making websites, so the first domain name I bought was ‘frontwheeldrive.com’. It took a while for it to find focus, but its current incarnation is a reflection of another personal shift in interests.
Around 1998, I stumbled upon a book by James Gleick called Chaos. It’s a good overview of the disparate areas of research that eventually lead to the field of chaos theory. It cracked my head wide open. While reading this book, I moved from Seattle to San Francisco to join SLAP Skateboard Magazine as their music editor, but soon left to go back to school. I’d suddenly found that I wanted to do so much more than write about music.
frontwheeldrive.com started to reflect this shift in earnest in early 1999, and it’s been evolving ever since. We (myself and a few friends that help me out, mainly Tom Georgoulias and Brandon Pierce, but many of our interview subjects have gone on to become contributors) write reviews of just about anything that we find interesting and do interviews with people that we think are doing interesting things. Admittedly, it started with a focus on the fringes of science, but we’ve since (over the past six years) opened it up to include BMX, skateboarding, music, art, literature, and film along with the science. Like I said, just about anything we find interesting.
So, the impetus behind frontwheeldrive.com remains to collect and spread the word about cultural artifacts and the people that make them. I try not to limit the subject matter anymore because I view the mind as an ecology. For any ecology to grow and flourish, it needs diversity. New stuff comes not from the well-defined fields, but from the interaction between them. Allowing theorists, artists, BMXers, musicians, skateboarders, etc. to rub shoulders, frontwheeldrive.com attempts to cross-pollinate areas of interest so that new ideas can grow.
The zine “Headtube” was my attempt to fill what I see as a void in BMX media. Back when I started doing zines, Freestylin’ Magazine really felt like it covered the culture of BMX — not just the riders, the products, the contests, and a few music reviews, but the culture surrounding the people who ride twenty-inch bikes. Andy Jenkins, Mark Lewman, and Spike Jones truly created something that doesn’t exist anymore. “Headtube” was an attempt to bring some semblance of that back. I’m only speaking of it in the past tense because I haven’t gotten around to doing a second issue. I want to do it regularly, but graduate school and teaching have been keeping my other projects limited somewhat.
As much as possible, I try not to limit myself though. A few years ago, Ron Wilkerson told me, “If you don’t have it, you didn’t want it bad enough.” I took that to heart, and I try to pursue any and everything I want to accomplish — and I encourage everyone else to do the same. There’s no reason you can’t have everything you want.
BT: You write for more than a few websites aside from your own projects, and you’re also in the process of writing your first book. Can you tell us more about how you began contributing written pieces to websites, what sites you currently contribute to, and more about the book?
RC: The contributions to other websites are a result of a combination of the things I’ve done with frontwheeldrive.com, and my music journalism days. I still write about music on a regular basis for SLAP, and I wrote some pieces for Disinformation when that was something one could do (they’ve since switched up their format), and I think most of the other websites to which I contributed have changed hands or disappeared. I’m open though.
The book is called Actual Size: Culture on the Edge of the Underground, the Media, and the Mind. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that, in the broadest sense, it’s a quasi-theoretical exploration of how culture is created. I’m studying a lot of my favorite underground cultural phenomena with several of my favorite theories. It’s currently making its way around the book-publishing machine somewhere, so think happy thoughts.
I’ve also been helping my man Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) edit an essay collection called Sound Unbound: Music, Multimedia, and Contemporary Sound Art — An Anthology of Writings on Contemporary Culture, which will be out this fall on The MIT Press; throwing around project ideas with my friend Doug Stanhope; and finishing up my master’s thesis, among other things.
BT: Is BMX more of an escape now from everything else you do?
RC: I tend to recoil from the idea of escapism. I immediately think of the character in the novel Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins: In a discussion about “I’d Rather Be” bumper stickers, he said that if there “was something he’d rather be doing, he’d damn well be doing it!”
So, I don’t think of riding as an escape. BMX has given me so much over the years that I like to just act like I’m still a part of it. I was never sponsored beyond the bike shop level (though I do get unofficial flow from Ronnie Bonner at UGP, Dave Young at BLK/HRT, and Wiggins at Black Box), I only placed in an AFA contest once (2nd place, 14-15 Novice Flatland, 1985), the only time I’ve been in a BMX magazine (before now) was to get dissed by McGoo (Ride BMX, October/November, 1995), a Slayer feature I wrote (Ride BMX, June, 96), a few things I wrote for Faction BMX (one piece on Seattle ripper Steve Machuga and one, coincidentally, on zine making — with a contribution from Lew), and a few music articles for the short-lived Tread, but I still get the same feeling from riding my bike as I did twenty-five years ago (I raced oh-so-briefly in 1979). As long as it feels that way, and my body holds out, I’ll be riding little kids’ bikes — as an escape or otherwise.
BT: You describe media as the intersection between culture and technology. How does this theory relate to the idea of making a BMX website, zine or video?
RC: Well, in the broadest sense, one of my main research interests is the influence of technology on culture. The study of media — and even that in my mind is quite broad — somewhat narrows the research to where the results of this collision play out. I’m focused on the domains of various youth cultures, so BMX media is where bikes, digital cameras, video cameras, writing, riding, music, and the like converge and capture the culture in time. When you watch a video or see a magazine from a certain era (think late-80s Plywood Hoods’ Dorkin’ videos, mid-90s Props, or an issue of Go or Freestylin’), you’re seeing a snapshot of BMX culture at that time. With that in mind, no one else is going to capture what you think is interesting, intriguing, or important, so that’s why I advocate making independent media — about BMX or whatever else you’re into.
BT: Finally, if you had to recommend some websites, both BMX and non-BMX, can you make some suggestions and why you’ve chosen them?
RC: Non-BMX-wise, I usually visit the sites of my friends to see what they’re doing. Folks like Steven Shaviro, Doug Rushkoff, DJ Spooky, Erik Davis, dälek, Milemarker, Doug Stanhope, and Howard Bloom. For BMX stuff, I usually go to Nev’s Backlash BMX site for news, and Jared’s site, Brian’s site, or company sites (like Terrible One or Underground Products) for the inside scoop. I keep a rotating list of links on my site. I tend to frequent sites that combine personality and insight with interesting subject matter.
[DIG BMX Magazine #46, May 2005]
[photo by Claire Putney.]