by Caitlin Donohue

Photo by Felix Busso

I met Mati Kalwill in the basement of a Buenos Aires museum. He and his friends had turned it into an arts and crafts den for bicyclists, and outside on the steps they were giving a workshop on how to change a bike tire. It was all very colorful. Everyone involved was wearing red ski hats a la The Life Aquatic, and giddy over biking.

This San Franciscan was coming off her first week of riding a bike in the hectic streets of BsAs, and I realized the exhibit –- orchestrated by Kalwill's La Vida En Bici gang –- was but one of many fresh events with the aim of creating a real, two-wheeled culture in a city where bike lanes are often used to house dumpsters and many car drivers haven't quite accepted the fact that bikes need traffic lanes, too.

Bike fashion shows, group rides to secret concerts, the transformation of playgrounds into artgasms capable of stimulating imagination about the future of bikes in the city –- La Vida En Bici's projects felt approachable, colorful, important bits of cultural activism. What can I say, if I can't draw cats on bicycles it ain't my revolution, and Kalwill (it feels strange to call him that, let's go by Mati)'s blend of approachability and aesthetic when it came to proselytizing bicycles really did it for me.

So it's with pleasure that I've followed Mati's cruise towards bike icon-dom over the last year. He's toured David Byrnes around BsAs, met with politicians, helped to coalesce a real South American bike movement by networking across the continent.

One day he emailed me to talk me into meeting him in Rio de Janeiro for what he said was going to be one of his biggest projects to date: a bike exhibit at the global youth climate change conference Rio+20. Travel obligations took me elsewhere that week, but once the wheels had stopped turning and Mati was safely back in Argentina, we managed to connect via email about what had gone down in Brazil.

You said this exhibit at Rio+20 was your biggest project this year. Explain.

Bringing bicycles to the conversation at Rio+20, UN’s biggest summit ever, was definitely the highlight of our work since we started the whole thing. We are serious and committed to making bicycles the main form of transportation in cities everywhere, and bringing bike culture to a crowd of 40,000 people from all over the planet -- apart from how exhausting it was -- has been a huge milestone.

I was happy to read that La Vida En Bici actually did some agitating at the conference itself to get bike racks installed at its venues – and you gave bike-drawing lessons in a nearby favela. Rad. So tell us, what is bikestorming?

Bikestorming is a collaboration platform we launched at Rio that has a goal of making bicycles the most popular form of transportation in the world. We are sharing the lessons learned locally in Buenos Aires with communities from around the planet.

Since this is La Vida en Bici’s first international project, launching it at Rio+20 was the perfect fit: we gave a conference at the UK Pavilion, produced an installation at the civil society pavilion visited by thousands. We organized a big bike ride through the city with local organizations to launch our campaign [to have 51 percent of all personal urban trips be made by bike by the year 2030].

What changes have you seen in Buenos Aires and biking over the last few years?

Although still small when compared to other forms of transportation, [biking is] present in night clubs, in advertising, in designer shops, in art, in politics, in the private sector and in education. It’s still in its early stages, but you can find it in all of these areas of life and culture in the city. And that’s great news, because it’s a necessary step towards making it a safe, efficient, affordable, and attractive mode of transportation for everyone.

Have politicians' thoughts on biking changed in Argentina?

Absolutely. [Bikes] are on every politician’s radar now. In the last year we’ve seen bicycle policy and infrastructure initiatives emerge in very diverse cities such as Mendoza, Rosario, Posadas, and Córdoba –- as well as growing attention paid to bicycles in Buenos Aires’ transportation policy and infrastructure.

What is the coolest bike you've ever seen?

Definitely the bikes from the Future Shock Bike Crew. Sweetest stereo-bikes ever.

Your style of activism is really connected to design and aesthetic. Why do you think it's important that things look pretty?

I read a tweet recently from a TED conference saying that “in order to be a successful advocate you need to act as an entertainer.” I think that totally applies to our work. In order to get your message across, today you are competing for people’s attention on an (almost) level playground with huge brands that hire a lot of talent. TV is not the main form of media anymore -- it’s social networks. For the first time in history, our generation has the same chance to connect with people emotionally, with catchy phrases and attractive visuals, as any major brand. This is huge. And we need to make the best of it. So if we are ever going to succeed in changing the game, whether it’s in transportation, climate change, or intergenerational justice, we need to make change irresistible.


International WUBA collaborator Caitlin Donohue can normally be found in San Francisco, where she works as the culture editor for the SF BAY GUARDIAN. You can read more about her winter in BA discovering the local bike culture here.