Of Bikes and Memes

Nathan Govier creates a unique hybrid of marketing, performance art, and alternative transportation advocacy

Nathan Govier
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Nathan Govier has made a spectacle of himself.

In the past year and a half, Govier has become a highly recognizable presence in Peterborough—but not as himself. Decked out in a gold bike helmet and a series of brightly coloured jumpsuits emblazoned with the logo for downtown deli Sam’s Place, Govier has created a rather unique branded character: Sandwichman.

Sandwichman biked the city, made regular appearances at major events like Peterborough Pulse and Musicfest, danced with people and posed for photographs, and churned out quirky memes on Facebook and Instagram that chronicled his adventures: he’s playing pool (“Sandwichman isn’t going to hustle ya!”), he’s rock climbing (“Is Sandwichman losing his grip?”), he’s meeting Maryam Monsef (“Sandwichman hobnobbing”).

Despite its new-media slant, “it’s advertising the old-fashioned way,” says Govier, who created Sandwichman as the first experiment for his marketing company, Fixed Gear Promotions. “It’s called out-of-home advertising. It’s advertising you see when you’re out of your home. It’s the same principle as bus advertising. People are seeing their image and their company logo in a bunch of different ways.”

Nathan Govier

Sandwichman

“Nathan and I have been friends for a really long time,” says Sam Sayer, owner of Sam’s Place. “He approached me about the idea, and I thought I’d give him a shot. I trusted the fact that Nathan’s a bit kooky and we’d see where things go from there.”

The Sandwichman experiment has come to a close, but Fixed Gear Promotions is hoping to attract new clients and create new characters. And in the meantime, Govier is continuing to expand the project. Most recently, he entered the art world, with an exhibit at Artspace’s Gallery B in March. The Fixed Gears exhibit featured a mix Sandwichman memes, looped Sandwichman videos, a sculpture by KiddK made from reclaimed bike parts, and a talk by Govier.

It’s an unlikely mix of marketing and performance art, of person and character. “Everything I’m doing is sort of fiction blended with reality,” says Govier. “I think those lines are so blurred anyway that you gotta play with them.”

Govier has been dancing along these lines since the 1990s, when he was part of the local experimental arts scene centred around the Union Theatre. With the assistance of his comedy troupe, featuring Brian Mitolo, Phil Oakley, and Matt Gilbert, Govier launched a “joke campaign” in the 1997 municipal election. “I came to debates in hockey costumes or with trees on my head, all to promote my comedy show.”

He further realized the power of a strong visual when working as a bike courier in Ottawa, where his flamboyant biking outfit—a gold helmet and a bright orange jumpsuit—gained notoriety among his bureaucratic clients. These basic elements, an engaging real-wold performance and a visual brand, carry forward into Fixed Gears.



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But when I met with Govier to talk memes and marketing, more than anything, he wanted to talk about cycling.

The bike, and also the bike helmet, are omnipresent in Fixed Gear’s work. While Sandwichman was promoting Sam’s, he was also preaching the gospel of alternative transportation and bike safety. “And that to me was really cool,” says Sayer. “He would put in so many hours biking around during prime traffic-time wearing the outfit, and go to events in Peterborough, and do demonstrations about bike safety while having the logo on.”

Govier speaks passionately about biking: its health and environmental benefits, its cost savings versus owning a car, and its ability to bring a community together.

“Once I got a bike,” he says, “it changed my life. I could get anywhere, sometimes faster than in a car. The whole city was open to me. It improved my quality of life.”

He started biking to work regularly, “and then I started thinking about how people view me as a cyclist. There’s a real sense that it’s something children do, and not a legitimate form of transportation. People don’t use their bikes to get to work; they use them to go on bike rides, for recreation. I still have people on really cold days saying ‘You rode your bike here?’ But in the city, when people are driving their cars two or three kilometres to the mall, I feel we should be asking, ‘You drove here?’”

Govier believes biking will only become more important in the coming years, as the 407 arrives and Peterborough becomes more of a commuter city. He envisions turning Peterborough into an alternative transportation model for other cities, where as much as 50% of in-city transportation takes place on a bike. It’s a massively ambitious goal, but he has a plan, and Fixed Gear Promotions is an essential part of it.

“You have to inspire people,” he says. “I’ve biked 1,800 kilometres as Sandwichman. If I can get a second client, and do 2,000 kilometres, that’s 2,800 kilometres! And eventually that story will get out of Peterborough. And that attention will drive attention here. The more you do it, the more people will notice it, and hopefully the more they’ll question why they’re driving.”

 

Cover photo by Rebecca Buchta. Sandwichman photo by Dan English.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.