A Simple Machine, Thousands of Images, and Lots of Rolling: Urban Trail Portraits

Don Sinclair

Associate Professor, Digital Media, Faculty of Fine Arts
York University, Toronto, Canada


As those who know me can attest, cycling is a major part of my life. I estimate that in my lifetime so far, I have cycled almost 300,000 km. I commute year round by bicycle in Toronto. I ride with large groups of racing-oriented riders. I have done a substantial tour each summer for the past 25 years except the summers when my two children were born. My oldest child has been on 15 trips either in a trailer or on the back of a tandem, camping gear and all. I have cycled in 19 countries. I also love to ride single-track trails on a mountain bike. It is mountain biking, though, that I think gives me the most intense pleasure. No cars, typically few people, a ‘natural’ environment, coupled with being physically challenging on upper and lower parts of the body, and requiring a great deal of mental energy, makes for an extremely satisfying experience.

In Urban Trail Portraits, I am exploring my experiences of trails as an off-road cyclist. Although I do recall individual moments of a ride, it is a kind of likeness that encapsulates both the environment I am riding in and my experience of a section of trail that I am interested in representing. Color, light, twisty movements, bouncing around, slow, fast, open sky, heavy tree cover, fall, winter, desert, forest. The perspectives I choose seek to explore the essence of a trail. My portraits collapse space into one dimension and place time in the other, producing a kind of abstract graph or map of my engagement with a trail.

This is the second major bicycle-related piece I have done. Both involve working with large amounts of data. In 2002-2003, for a 15-month period, I wore a camera taking time-lapse images and a GPS. In addition I collected local weather information. Using the images and data I created a web piece and a video. The overall project was called: oh, those everyday spaces, and I collected about 25,000 images and 80,000 GPS points. [1] I have collected well over 1 million images for Urban Trail Portraits.

As an artist/maker, my primary medium is code. All of my projects involve and require the creation of custom software to be realized.


This work sits at the intersection of practices that collapse or abstract visual/temporal cultural objects or sets of objects, and practices that present and represent travel(s) and/through space(s). Seen together, this intersection can be seen as a kind of code/space exploration. [2] The practice of collapsing or aggregating large sets of images, often full-length films, has existed since large-scale image processing became possible in the 1990s with the advent of relatively affordable computers and suitable software. Jason Salavon in The Grand Unification Theory (1997) took one frame per second of four full-length films and transformed them into single images based on the luminosity of each frame. [3] MovieBarcode, both a project and pseudonym, has compressed all frames of each of an extensive list of more than 900 popular and classic films into single images resembling colorful barcodes. [4] Lev Manovich’s team, through its Software Studies Initiative, is developing techniques for aggregating large sets of images into single image representations that reveal relationships or trends in the image set. [5] Space as a practiced place is an idea that has been explored by a number of cycling based artists. [6] Streets and urban forests are transformed into spaces by cyclists. “[S]pace . . . is not a fixable, definable, knowable, predetermined entity . . . but is always in the process of becoming.” [7] Gwen MacGregor and Sandra Rechico’s works for Backtrack create a portrait of Berlin through video works that convey points of view on bicycle journeys in the city. [8] Cheryl Rondeau’s video 43˚38’23”N 79˚25’55”W – 44˚00’33”N 79˚33’50”W combines images taken, from a handlebar perspective, during commutes over a number of weeks. [9] Images are collaged through tiling and are both single images crossfaded and time lapse.

For many artists and cyclists (and artist/cyclists), code is already “essential to the form, function, and meaning of space. Software acts as the catalyst to shift space from an uncoded state to code/space, and works to maintain that transformation through an ongoing set of contingent and relational processes.” [10] The artists mentioned here are contributing to a kind of reflective code/space through their software-mediated practices. These works, as well as my own, form part of a larger conversation around new understandings of spaces from the perspective of software-mediated and code-based practice.

Urban Mountain Bike Trails

Trails that are situated close to and in urban areas have long fascinated me. My own personal engagement with the Don Valley Trail system in Toronto, having ridden some of these trails hundreds of times, has encouraged me to look inward at these trails and outward to other urban trails. [11] These spaces are both literally and metaphorically in-between, straddling our binary construction of the urban and the natural.  These trails are inherently complex because they are in-between spaces that are ‘natural’ areas nestled in or on the edge of ‘urban’ areas. I will note here that these constructs ‘natural’ and ‘urban’ for me are entirely contrived and extremely problematic. They further contribute to the false dichotomy that puts humanity in opposition to the so-called ‘natural’ world. Used often and regularly by a variety of users, these trails are much loved by their users, who have a high level of ownership and personal investment in them. This series presents my perspectives on these gems.

Social media have had significant impact on the levels of potential engagement with trails as they facilitate finding trails, organizing rides, reporting trail conditions, planning trail maintenance days and competitive comparisons between riders. Sites like singletracks.com contain mountain bike trail information (focused on United States) and are very useful for researching trails in advance. [12] The Don Valley trail system that I frequent is a much more ad hoc system of trails in comparison to the trails I experienced in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque area. The Dale Ball trail system in Santa Fe, for instance, has a detailed map produced by the state that includes numbered signposts at each intersection. [13] In Toronto, trails are mostly maintained informally. Discussion about trail conditions, rides, and maintenance occurs through a forum on ridingfeelsgood.com called simply “The Don.” [14] As an example, a forum topic was created called “Please stop cutting live roots and removing rocks.” Comments included, “Again, to the person(s) cutting roots of live trees and removing rocks from rock gardens to suit your self inflicted shortcoming, please stop while you’re ahead. This is everyone’s playground, but at the end of the day, it is a mountain bike trail.” [15]

Facebook, of course, is a popular, more accountable context for discussion, as identity is not masked as it often is in the numerous forums around the Internet. When I was travelling to Santa Fe, I found the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society’s Facebook page useful for getting trail advice. [16] With the increasing popularity of GPS devices, sites like Strava.com facilitate a wide range of data gathering and performance comparisons. [17]


As an artist who uses code as a language and method of artistic expression, I write custom software for all of my works according to the process developed for each piece. My process for this project is as follows. First I ride the trail with a video camera attached to my handlebars. A GoPro works well for this purpose as it records HD video, is lightweight, has no moving parts, and can withstand significant vibration. Throughout the course of a 90-minute ride, about 100,000 images are collected. Images are then processed in custom software written in Max. [18] Single images are collapsed into one-pixel-wide slices, placed in lines side-by-side and arranged according to my intentions for that piece. This often results in images with more than 100 million pixels. Images are printed at 300 dpi, producing very high resolution representations of my experience on a trail.

Fig. 1. Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, map of ride uploaded to strava.com. (Used with permission.)

Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, map of ride uploaded to strava.com. (Used with permission.)

Fig. 2. Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, map of ride uploaded to strava.com. (Used with permission.)

Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, map of ride uploaded to strava.com. (Used with permission.)

 Fig. 3. Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, collapsed video frames. (Used with permission.)

Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, collapsed video frames. (Used with permission.)

04-Sinclair-DaleBall-2012 copy

Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, squished video frames into single pixel lines.

Fig. 5. Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, squished video frames into single pixel lines side-by-side. (Used with permission.)

Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, squished video frames into single pixel lines side-by-side. (Used with permission.)


Dale Ball, 2012, Don Sinclair, chromogenic print, 75 inches by 18.5 inches, ©Don Sinclair. (Used with permission.)

In the final work you can see the trail itself skirting around the center of each section. Blue areas occur where the trail is quite open. As the trail goes into more forested areas, it gets much more brown-green depending on the season or landscape. Dark areas are often the uphill and light the downhill sides of an off-camber section. The overall image is not only a depiction of the visual qualities of a trail but also is a visualization of the embodied experience of the kinetic, both a composition and a detailed, albeit abstract, account of my experience with the trail. The trail can be seen as a score that is realized using a bicycle that I am playing. Riding a trail many times in a variety of conditions allows one to master the instrument-score relationship. The experience of these environments is unique to each realization.

The Trails

There are a number of trails in the Don Valley system that I ride on a regular basis and in various conditions throughout the year. All are four to ten kilometers from my home. To date, I have created pieces that include summer, fall, winter and night environments. [19] I discovered that two events were occurring in New Mexico in the fall of 2012: the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and the 2012 International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) World Summit in Santa Fe hosted by the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society. After doing a bit a research, I found that there were a couple of mountain bike-oriented art shows associated with the Summit. This was clearly an exciting opportunity for me as I to serve two audiences that are interrelated for me. To this end, I have created pieces based on trails in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. According to the goals of this project, all trails investigated are in or bordering on urban centers. Dale Ball was exhibited at Bike Art Santa Fe in October 2012 [20] and now resides on permanent display in the Santa Fe bike shop Mellow Velo. [21]

This project has been, and continues to be, very important for me as it foregrounds and problematizes boundaries between natural/urban, and technology/body within the context of sport, art, and performance. Of course, its focus around the bicycle, arguably the most efficient transportation machine that the human race has invented, and the mountain bicycle, specifically, which is ideally suited for humane interaction between technology and wilderness, continues to be an incredible fascination for me.


1. oh, those everyday spaces, Don Sinclair, http://dataspace.finearts.yorku.ca (accessed April 19, 2013).
2. Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
3. The Grand Unification Theory, Jason Salavon, 1997, http://www.salavon.com/work/GrandUnificationTheory/ (accessed August 14, 2013).
4. Moviebarcode, http://moviebarcode.tumblr.com (accessed August 14, 2013).
5. “Projects,” on the Software Studies Initiative website, 2013, http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/research_14.html (accessed August 14).
6. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
7. Kitchin and Dodge, Code/Space, 68.
8. Lisa Myers, “Gwen MacGregor and Sandra Rechico: Backtrack,” C: International Contemporary Art 112 (2011), p. 50.
9. 43˚38’23”N 79˚25’55”W — 44˚00’33”N 79˚33’50”W, on Cheryl Rondeau’s official website, http://www.cherylrondeau.com/2010/11/433823n-792555w-440033n-793350w.html (accessed August 14, 2013).
10. Kitchin and Dodge, Code/Space, 71.
11. “Don River (Ontario),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_River_(Toronto.) (accessed April 19, 2013).
12. SingleTracks, http://www.singletracks.com (accessed April 19, 2013).
13. “Dale Ball Trails,” City of Santa Fe, NM, official website, http://www.santafenm.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/1974 (accessed April 19, 2013).
14. “The Don,” forum on the Riding Feels Good website, http://www.ridingfeelsgood.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=22 (accessed April 19, 2013).
15. “Please stop cutting live roots and removing rocks,” forum post on the Riding Feels Good website, http://www.ridingfeelsgood.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=36481 (accessed April 19, 2013).
16. Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, Facebook page for the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Santa-Fe-Fat-Tire-Society/213866551959927 (accessed April 19, 2013).
17. Strava, http://strava.com (accessed April 19, 2013).
18. “Max,” product page on Cycling ’74 website, http://cycling74.com/products/max/ (accessed April 19, 2013).
19. Urban Trail Portraits, Don Sinclair, http://www.yorku.ca/dws/utp/ (accessed April 19, 2013).
20. “Bike Art Santa Fe (bikeARTsantafe,)” Facebook page for Bike Art Santa Fe, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bike-Art-Santa-Fe-bikeARTsantafe/110186372441648 (accessed April 19, 2013).
21. Mello Velo Bicycles, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2013, http://www.mellowvelo.com (accessed April 19).


Don Sinclair’s interests and creative research encompass physical computing, wearable computing, interactive sound art, laptop performance, web art, database art, interactive dance, video projection, cycling art, sustainability, green architecture and choral singing.