Hacking bikes with Caz Ryves

What do you do when you want something, but it’s not available anywhere? Silly question: you make it.

Artist, entertainer, and science educator, Caz Ryves is the brains behind Pedal Emporium. She takes repurposed bikes on tour, teaching kids and festival-goers about power, electricity, and the importance of sustainability. She’s also an artist and a maker, and someone who’s managed to turn a passion for building things into a living.

We spoke to Caz to find out how making fits in with work, why it’s important to fix broken things, and why grown-ups love duck racing.

HackSpace You’ve got a pedal-powered bubble machine, a disco setup, bingo machine, a paint-spinning machine built out of an old bass drum, phone chargers built into old bread bins, and a load more creations. How did you get started on this pedal-powered mission of sustainability?

Caz Ryves I think this ethos has been built on to me from an early age, growing up in a home where there was lots of tinkering and making – whether it was my mum hand-sewing costumes for me and my sister, or time spent out in the shed with my dad making plans and rummaging through piles of junk (or 'potential' as we liked to call it). 

We would never really plan what we were building, and instead just go with what materials were at hand, and try to think creatively about how to put them together. This is something that has been passed on to me, and has been used as a method for most of the pedal-powered builds. Although we now live quite far from each other, there are still trips back to Cornwall to collaborate and throw about ideas. I think that's another reason I love doing this – making things was always a big part of my childhood, and I get to continue to share that with my family. 

As far as the bikes go, I guess it was back when I was at university, probably about nine or ten years ago. I’d been up to Scotland and seen this thing called the Rinky-Dink, which is like a tractor/bicycle thing, welded together out of about eight bikes, and it powered a sound system.

It used to travel around different events, get everyone involved and having fun, and it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. I wanted to try something similar. Or, just find the technology of how it’s made. That set me off on a mission.

I've always had an interest in sustainability and alternatives to fossil fuels, and also in creative approaches to education and generating curiosity/awareness around environmental issues. Seeing the Rinky-Dink was the original inspiration that set me on this path – a kind of light bulb moment where the technology fascinated me. I loved the direct display of energy transfer – you put your energy into pedalling and get something in return instantly. This has been particularly effective in capturing the imagination of children – they love the direct nature of the activity, and that they can actually feel how much energy they need to put in to power a certain appliance. It helps to promote energy awareness and thinking beyond the plug socket – putting into context the value of energy as a resource. 

I was halfway through an art degree at the time, so I was in quite a flexible department. It was time-based art, so you could pretty much do what you wanted. It gave me the time and the freedom to experiment and build things then.

HS What was the first creation that you made?

CR It was a CD player. I took it out to a booking, and I remember realising that I needed to regulate the power, because I think the first person who pedalled, the music played for about five seconds and then it peaked. It didn’t even go bang, it was more of a pop. And then it just stopped – I’d fried the CD player.

As I started building and experimenting with pedal power, there were lots of hurdles to overcome: best ways of generating the power, how to regulate it, and how to keep it grass-roots, and sourced from easily obtainable materials. The first ones were built using the motors from car engine fans, easily picked up from scrapyards. I wanted to build something that could be easily replicated by anyone who wanted to. The designs changed and evolved over the years, the first main builds being a pedal-powered blender and a CD player. A lot of the appliances have been quite easy to source, as they unfortunately tend to just get discarded rather than fixed – although recently it's been great to see a revival of the repair culture through community events and organisations like The Restart Project, and repair cafés. Like most of the items used in my work, there is something magical about giving life and new purpose to items that have broken or become unsuitable for their original use. 

That involved a bit of teamwork. At that point I didn’t have a workshop, so I used to go back down to Cornwall to see my dad and visit the family home. We’d be trying to solve problems in the shed together, and we stuck with the mechanical option with that one. And then I kept finding the spindle would break; because everything was made from recycled materials, we didn’t have the machines for it specifically.

It’s been a real education in power consumption. You take certain things for granted – that’ll be fine, I can power that with a bike – and then realising pretty quickly that you’d need about 18 bikes for a standard kettle, so it’s just not going to work. That’s just a matter of wattage. You can usually get off my bikes, if you’re pedalling relatively comfortably, about 100 to 150 watts, so you’d need a lot to do a kettle.

HS Do you have people working with you on Pedal Emporium?

CR It’s mainly just me. When I hit the festivals, or bigger bookings I’ve got on, I’ve got some great friends and family as well. So my parents will often come up for bookings – they’re really into it, they both love tinkering and making things as well. And then at festivals, usually friends will come along, because they get a free ticket and free meals in exchange for a few hours a day. But it’s more of a solo thing day-to-day.
It’s my main job, and it’s seasonal as well. It’s busy from April through to the end of October, and then I have a break, or work on building things that aren’t bikes for the other three months, to give myself a bit of a break from it.

HS A lot of makers go into it initially for the freedom, then realise that they can make a living out of it.

CR Yeah, I think that’s how this started as well. I had a lot of passion for it and had a full time job in a studio, which was brilliant because it’s still in the art field. I’d go out on the weekends, find little community events, roll up, try something, sometimes it wouldn’t work, go back, fix it, and try again. Over ten years of building up the equipment, it doesn’t have the faults that it used to when I was starting out.
I think slowly, the more I went out and people saw it, the more I started getting invited to other events, and it naturally came into a business. I was lucky to be able to drop down to part-time work with really flexible working hours, which was lovely.

HS All these pedal-powered activities then: I guess you can’t buy these off the shelf?

CR No, they’re all built by hand and then we rent them out. I built a couple of commissions for people as well, but they’re not quick to duplicate. Each one’s like a piece of art, rather than something that’s mass-produced.

I’ve got a garage at the end of the garden, that’s turned into the workshop over time, and then I’ve got a couple of storage units, so I have to take things back and forth between the two if I’ve built something or, if they need maintenance, I have to bring them back to the shed to do that.

HS Where do you source the bikes from?

CR The bikes have usually either been given away for free, or rescued from the dump, or found in skips. You don’t need things like brakes, and I set them all down to a specific gear as well. You don’t need a lot of those bits; they don’t need to be pristine and 100% working to be useful. I’m just trying to stop them going to landfill a lot of the time, repurposing them in a way that’s maybe not their original use.

HS It’s shocking how many bikes you see down at our local tip.

CR I’ve had to curb it to be honest. Every time I went down there I’d come back with a nightmare amount of bikes, especially before I had the garage, I used to have a lounge that was filled with bicycles. I think that was when I realised I had to stop.

HS What’s the latest creation you’ve done?

CR The duck racing. I first built it in a wooden box and lined it with a real thick plastic, so it was almost like creating a pond. I had it for a booking that I needed to make it quite quickly for. I chucked this thing together, got through, and it was great. The kids loved it, and I thought I needed to make something a bit more mobile. I’ve got a friend who works at a community centre, so I went to see him and they’ve got a… a bit like Scrapheap Challenge in a way, there’s loads of random bits and bobs.

There was this massive drainage pipe with the end caps on it, and it was perfect. I cut it in half and sent my partner out on the booking with these ducks I’d ordered, without checking the duck size, and they were massive! They barely fit into the tubes.

HS You’ve got a load of activities based on cycling here – is it aimed at kids or adults?

CR It’s a bit of both really. I do anything from birthday parties, community events, through to corporate things. If companies are doing a green day or a sustainability fair, then they’ll tend to go for something a bit more competitive sometimes, such as the light bulb challenge, where you’ve got to light up all the bulbs and you get a peak wattage scoring of how much you’ve generated at that point, so you can mark it up on a Top Gear-style leader board, and that gets really competitive. I think our behaviour around energy and electricity is often overlooked on a day-to-day basis and, through some fun but competitive pedal-powered challenges, it helps to reconnect you to these issues. 

HS Do you see a difference in the way that kids and grown-ups interact with the games?

CR It’s all ends of the spectrum really. Some kids are a little bit cautious and some jump on straightaway. The paint spinner is quite good for drawing in the crowds, because it’s so visual and you don’t directly have to participate in it to enjoy it, so that’s great for the shy kids, if they can see someone else having a go. I think they get caught up in the look of it, because it's really mesmerising to watch. I don’t know if you’ve seen that on there, it's made out of a bass drum with a spinning disc inside. The kids pour paint onto it, and it comes out a bit of a hypno-disc. It’s nice and swirly.

And that’s good, because they get to take something home with them, so they’ve got something to remember the process by as well.

It’s also great for SEN schools as well, so I do quite a lot of work with special needs pupils. That’s really nice, things like the pedal-powered bubble machine, or paint spinning, because it’s very visual and tactile as well. Anything sensory they enjoy, and also the motion of cycling is quite therapeutic, so that is a good combination.

HS What’s next for you?

CR I’ll bounce ideas around with my dad. He’s trying to build something called Watt Cake at the moment, which I have no idea if it's going to happen. He wants something where you’ve got to pedal a certain amount to get a cake. It pumps water up, and it releases a cake from the top that slides down to you, like some sort of marble run. I think he’s going slightly mad.
We’ve got another one called Go Bananas, which we did for a jungle-themed event. That’s another water-pumping one. It just looks like really dodgy plumbing. It’s all these big tubes. On the base, it's got these plastic barrels from a brewery so they’re quite a good size. You pedal-power the pump and you’ve got to race your ping-pong ball up to the top of the tube. It’s another competitive one.

It’s almost too broad a term, but I think people are interested in things that people have made; if it’s been stamped out of a factory, and it's identical to 20,000 other units, it loses a bit of interest.

I think that’s the great thing about the maker movement, that it is individual. Even if you’re following a template, every single thing will have the uniqueness to it. You can’t physically make something identical if you’re doing it by hand. And I think it maybe makes it a bit more accessible to people wanting to make their own equipment. A lot of people come to see us and realise that they have the same kind of tools in their garage, so they can make something similar to what we have.

I love it when you get parents and kids getting excited about experimenting and building together.

HS Would you say it's part of your mission to show that people can make cool things themselves; that technology doesn’t have to be a mysterious black box?

CR Definitely, and thinking about materials differently as well. Instead of just throwing something away if it's broken, looking at it more objectively, examining the shape, and thinking what you can use it for if you cut a bit off, or adapt it somehow, it could have a completely new use. I think there are a lot of things that we have in our everyday life that we could repurpose into something quite fun.

That repurposing thing is what I like. And seeing the generations… I don’t know what it is, I love it when you see a kid who is with a parent and you know they’re going to go back home and build something. That takes me back to my childhood, being in the shed so much, and anything felt possible. At that age you just know you can go and give anything a shot, and see what happens.

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