Motorcycles and Popular Culture

The front of the conference center, lit up with neon

The IJMS Conference Comes to London

By Jonathan Boorstein

Ever want to hear Chris Hodder talk about the myth of riders’ rights?

Or how about whether dispatch riders and cultural identity are analogous or homologous?

Or would how Bob Dylan and his Triumph set an iconic standard for rock ‘n roll heroes and their motorcycles, which continues to this day, intrigue you?

The third International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (IJMS) conference will answer those questions about motorcycles as objects of design and desire – and more – here in London, 4 to 7 July 2013. The conference will be held at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, University of London, located right next to Tate Britain in Westminster.

Two young men discussing a motorcycle chopper parked in their bedroom.

According to Suzanne Ferriss, co-editor of the IJMS web site ( and co-author of Motorcycle (2007), the IJMS started at a regional conference of the Popular Culture Association (PCA) more than a decade ago. Several members who had been submitting papers to the PCA discussing motorcycles and popular culture decided to launch an academic organization dedicated to such studies.

“Popular Culture” is a slippery phrase, making the study of it difficult to explain in academic terms. Popular Culture Studies might be defined as looking at how an object or concept is portrayed or betrayed through mass media (old and new) for mainstream or niche-market consumption. The object/concept for IJMS is motorcycles/motorcycling/motorcyclists.

The bulk of the web site is filled with articles from the ‘Journal’ itself, which is purely an Internet presence. The idea, Ferriss explained, is to speed up the review process. The (usually blind) peer review process for print academic publication can be two years or more.

Each member of the editorial board includes a defense of motorcycle studies on the site as well as a list of motorcycles he or she rides at the end of each bio. Ferriss, for example, currently has a Yamaha FZ1, while her co-author and co-editor Steven Alford divides his attention between a Triumph and a BMW (a common marque in this group).

Artist impression of a Mac motorcycles Ellis Pitt's Peashooter  single cylinder custom

Typical articles include Easy Riding: The Liberalization of Captain America Through Motorcycle Journey, Speed Masters Throttle Up: Space, Time and the Sacred Journeys of Recreational Motorcyclists, and Dykes on Bikes and the Regulation of Vulgarity. Some articles are submitted; others are solicited or developed from papers presented at IJMS conferences.

The site also includes bibliographies and resource materials for academics teaching or planning to teach interdisciplinary motorcycle studies. A droll piece, Reading the Ride, or Getting a Motorcycle Course Past the Administration by Katherine Sutherland, about her experience getting such a course off the ground, is well worth the while of even non-academics.

The site gets more than 3,000 hits a month, while the two previous conferences (both held in Colorado Springs, US) had more than 40 delegates. Ferriss expects a much larger turn out in London because of the greater amount of interest and attention this year’s conference has garnered.

Artist impression of a Mac motorcycles Ellis Pitt's Ruby single cylinder custom

Papers at the conference will cover art and design, gender and identity, history and sustainability, among such others as: Scooters, Motorcycles and the Feminist Discourse in India, The Role of the Individual Stylist as Agent Provocateur in Contemporary Motorcycle Subcultures, and The Paradoxes of Class and Gender Among Bicyclists and Motorcyclists.

An exhibition, “Motorcycle Cultures: fashioning bikes, building identities”, will accompany the conference. Co-curated by Space Station Sixty-Five and conference co-ordinator Caryn Simonson, it will be held in Chelsea College’s Triangle Space. The installation will include Phil Polglaze’s originaldocumentary photographs of the Rockers’s Reunion; Tom Helyar-Cardwell’s battle jacket drawings and paintings; and David Simmonds photographs of the TT. Other artists in the show include Chris Watson, Nick Clements, and Cathy Pilkington.

The conference ends on Sunday with an optional brunch, visit, and “further networking opportunity” at the Ace Cafe.

Of course, since 90% of the IJMS ride, on-site motorcycle parking is available for the opening of the exhibition. The conference website includes information about motorcycle rentals (bike hire) for those can neither ride nor bring their bikes to London.

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