Luminous connections: Risk, value and responsibility in a late nineteenth-century high wire bicycle stunt

Kirstin Smith

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This article analyses risk, value and responsibility in a high wire cycling stunt which took place in Brooklyn in 1897. The stunt involved the performer’s bicycle completing an electrical circuit to illuminate his body and wheels with coloured lights, using electricity siphoned from a nearby Brooklyn trolley route. I explore the connections and distinctions between stunts and circus, and the status of risk and responsibility in each. I then analyse what is known about the contract between the performer and the railroad company, and the types of exchange it involved. I compare these modes of exchange and investment to Randy Martin’s concept of a ‘derivative’, which encompasses a mode of sociality as well as a type of financial investment. Martin argued for conjoint critiques of performance and value abstractions, holding that the ‘intricate acrobatics of high finance have all manner of parallel expression in dances on the ground’. Pursuing this parallel between bodily movement and value abstraction, I read this bicycle act, and stunts more broadly, as embodied derivatives.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-200
Number of pages18
JournalNineteenth Century Theatre and Film
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2017


  • stunt
  • high-wire
  • bicycle
  • derivative
  • electricity
  • circus

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