My descent into the underground world of Makerspaces and Burning Man Art Bikes.
This is the true sordid story of my involvement with the Ithaca Generator, a small-town makerspace, and Beyond, an innovative artists collective that the Generator gave birth to last year. It happened like this. In the spring of 2012 I was innocently walking down the Ithaca Commons when my friend Claire Fox approached me and asked me if I would help her and her husband Mark Zifchock start a makerspace. “What’s a makerspace?” I asked. Next thing I remember, I am in a room surrounded by a dozen weirdos. The room is cold and bare. There are ink stains on the floor and remnants of industrial equipment and spider webs line the neglected concrete walls. “This used to be where they printed the Ithaca Journal!” Claire tells us cheerily. Then the weirdos and I perspire and conspire to rent this room from a forward-thinking landlord named John Guttridge, also a weirdo, who has just purchased this building from the slowly sinking journalistic enterprise. We fill the little room with tools and technical conversation.
One of our first group projects is to convert a Barbie car, barely large enough for an adult to sit in, into The Dragon, an electric race car which we race at the 2014 World Maker Faire in Queens. Our crack team of makers develops an innovative tilting steering mechanism for our car which allows it to take corners at high speed. But our innovation also makes the car difficult to handle. At one point during the race our driver slams into a curb and the severe blow damages the steering mechanism. During a pit stop Claire heroically borrows a neighboring makerspace’s flux-core arc welder and repairs the car! But we are critically behind in the race, barely limping along compared to the Michigan team which is repeatedly zooming past us at high speed around and around the little race track at the big faire. Claire’s son Casper steps up to the challenge. At the next pit stop he and his friends attach a kerosene-soaked rag to the Dragon’s tongue and light it on fire, and then they release the flaming Dragon back onto the track. The crowd goes wild with delight! My daughter Thea carries the Moxie board through the crowd and we quickly accumulate enough Moxie Points to take second place! Hurray for the Generator!
Over the course of the next several years, love and energy flow into our little room, and transform it into a temple of making. One of my friends fashions a robot head halloween costume out of trash. He begins with a discarded steel duct. Then he makes two eyes out of ping pong ball halves, and it becomes the head of Bender, the beloved robot from the Futurama TV series. In a corner of our little makerspace I stack a microwave on top of some boxes, and then I place my friend’s robot head on top of the microwave to make a complete robot body. I use a label maker to add an inspirational inscription to the polished stainless steel of the microwave. “How may I serve you?” I write.
Personalities come and go, but the Generator persists. In the fall of 2015 a young man named Elliot Wells takes the helm as the Generator’s president. President Obama invites Elliot to come to the White House, and along with hundreds of other makerspace organizers, they all celebrate the maker movement together. The movement has moved into the mainstream. The Generator is becoming noticed as a force for positive change in our little town. That spring Elliot and I drink a little bit too much kava tea at the local kava bar and we share a joint vision of a large wheeled vehicle festooned with gyrating dancers and happy musicians rolling down the mainstreets of Ithaca. We obtain a grant from Ithaca’s Community Art Partnership to build such a vehicle, and so I weld together a big steel frame capable of supporting a crew of dancers and musicians. I purchase several Walmart fat bikes and use their wheels to support the frame. I call my vehicle the Mega-Wagon. I recruit dancers and musicians from my DJ friend Doug Shire’s weekly ecstatic Dance Church. That summer my Mega-Wagon makes an appearance in the Ithaca Festival Parade in front of an adoring crowd. My heart opens. I begin to notice a trend in my life, a predilection toward construction of decorative electric vehicles.
Doug takes note of my welding ability and in the winter of 2018 he and his friend Karl Gesslein approach me with a strange drawing on a paper napkin. Their drawing is a rectangle with four circles, one in each corner of the rectangle. On top of the rectangle is what appears to be a human figure suspended from a pole, an image similar to the end result of the children’s game “hangman”. Doug and Karl explain to me that this drawing represents an electric vehicle that they would like my help building. They further explain that the man figure in their drawing represents a 30-foot-tall bamboo puppet that they would like to construct and bring to the Nevada desert next summer. They say that they had built a similar such puppet last year, and had carried it around the desert using a backpack, but the high winds prevalent in that area had made it very difficult to transport the large puppet comfortably. So they had conceived of a four-wheeled electric vehicle with a wide platform to carry the puppet instead, and they were asking for my help to build it. I winced. The whole idea seemed beyond crazy. My initial urge was to decline, and to respond with the word “Why?” But something deep inside me made me respond instead with the word “Okay!” I didn’t know it at the time, but that response marked a turning point in my life.
That winter and spring Doug and I met regularly at the Generator to work on the “Man Alive” puppet. Doug had been an acquaintance of mine for many years. When I first met him a decade ago, he was a sad-eyed engineer undergoing a painful divorce. But the Doug who approached me in 2018 was a different person. He seemed to have become more alive in some way, and he had a contagious mischievous glimmer in his eyes. He said that the puppet we were constructing was for an art festival in the desert called Burning Man. At every opportunity he encouraged me to consider attending the next Burning Man event with him. He regaled me with Burning Man stories. He told me of the line to get in, cars lined up for miles on a thin ribbon of highway in the blistering heat of the desert, painfully crawling forward toward the entrance, but the people stuck in those cars were not beaten down, instead they were in a cheerful mood, and they emerged from their vehicles in outrageous costumes, and embraced one another with authenticity and humor and grace. He told me of the Rhythm Wave dance camp he belonged to, where he had developed his love for ecstatic dance. He told me stories of risqué fun constructions, such as the large plexiglas room where he joined a group of naked campmates to be sprayed with foamy soap to wash from their bodies the caked-on alkaline dust that permeates that hostile environment. And he told me of the towering Burning Man effigy, namesake of the event, that is burnt to the ground at the end of the week amid primal howls of delight from the crowd of 80,000 inebriated attendees. It sounded like fun.
And it turns out that there is a lot of overlap between the world of the Makers and the world of the Burners. Both groups are full of creative people bursting at the seams eager to do questionable things. I feel a bit cautious. But Doug impresses upon me that Burning Man is not just a big party in the desert, but that it is a magical week-long ceremony and workshop with the goal of personal transformation. Perhaps this explains that mystical glimmer in his eyes? I understood. I myself had in the fall of 2016 been thrust involuntarily onto a spiritual journey. Burning Man seemed an obvious next step in my journey. And so with Doug’s guidance I make plans to attend Burning Man. We complete our Man Alive puppet platform, what you might call a dual tandem electric fat bike, with a mast upon which we dangled a 30-foot tall illuminated bamboo puppet, and we had everything shipped by freight to Nevada.
The Man Alive puppet was a big hit and Burning Man was an incredible experience, which I have described elsewhere. Suffice it to say, when we returned to Ithaca, Doug, Karl and I immediately made plans to construct our next art bike for Burning Man 2019. We decide that the vehicle should take the form of a unicorn. We want to make the unicorn as large as possible. We know that we are limited by the 13-foot height of overhead wires on the Ithaca Festival Parade route, and we are limited by the width of a standard automobile trailer, so we plan to make the unicorn about 12 feet tall and three feet wide. Doug purchases a four-wheeled pedal-powered cart from eBay, and during the winter and spring of 2019 we construct a steel frame in the shape of a large horse that fits on top of that cart. We add an old motorcycle seat so that two people can ride on top of the whole contraption. We add articulated legs and a giant counterweighted bobble head so that riders can give the unicorn realistic movements. Doug adds a powerful sound system, strings of thousands of LEDs, and a small generator to power it all. Karl helps us equip the cart with an electric motor, we cover the whole thing with sparkly fabric, and Sparky the Giant Rideable Unicorn is born. He is an immediate success, and since his creation he has appeared in over a dozen parades and festivals all over the country.
The highlight of course was Sparky’s appearance at Burning Man 2019. I will never forget his role in the wedding of two Rhythm Wave campmates on our third day in the desert. The bride and the groom had wanted to ride Sparky at sunrise to the temple. We rise before dawn to prepare. I discover that Sparky’s bicycle chain drive has been broken the previous day, rent asunder by the strenuous vicissitudes of his entertainment responsibilities. Would Sparky miss his big moment? As the rosy fingers of dawn creeps down the mountainous horizon into the valley of our big party, I whip out my chain tool, procure the spare chain I had brought for this very occasion, and repair the chain. The groom arrives, sees my success, solemnly kisses my hands and then mounts his steed. Doug and I take our seats below in Sparky’s cart. Our campmates assemble and began chanting as Sparky lurches forward. Singing joyously around us, the gay party follows Sparky onto the playa and over to the windswept lasercut temple. And as the new day’s sunlight licks our faces my two burner friends read their vows and kiss and are forever united in marriage. It was a great moment.
And at that event I realized something about Sparky. He inspires people. More than any other art car at Burning Man. Much more! And there are some very elaborate and expensive art cars at Burning Man, thousands of them, some of them costing millions of dollars. And people pass right by those loud monstrosities without looking twice. But when people see Sparky in the distance, cheerfully and powerfully gliding along the playa, they come running after us. And wherever we stop a line of beautiful people forms, each eagerly waiting to ascend and ride Sparky. And one of those people turns out to be Paris Hilton! And she posts a video of Sparky on her Instagram account that over two million people see. And I realize, Doug and I are really good at this art car game! And a whole new world of career possibilities opens up beofre me. And I decide then and there that when I return to Ithaca I will quit my job as a bicycle mechanic and devote myself fulltime to artmaking.
Then something else happened that once again gives my life an exhilarating spin. It was a movie. Doug and I saw the movie Meow Wolf Origin Story. It strikes us like a hammer to our heads and perhaps affects our judgement. The movie portrays the colorful history of the Meow Wolf artist collective, a group of creative weirdos much like our own friends at the Generator. These weirdos live in Sante Fe New Mexico, a small town that has more art galleries per capita than any other town in America. And yet these weirdo artists are outsiders, and the artwork they create out of trash is looked upon with disdain, and the stuffy stuck-up galleries of their community turn up their noses at these artists’ creations. Undeterred, our artistic heros convert a defunct bowling alley into an interactive art space. They stock it with lights and textures and surprises and unabashed fun. And when it opens it quickly becomes the largest tourist attraction in the state of New Mexico. And our heroes triumph both artistically and financially. As the credits roll in the dim light of the nearly empty cavernous movie theater smelling of bubble gum and popcorn and spilled soda in the sad small mall of Ithaca, Doug and I are on the edge of our seats. “This is what America needs!” we cry. “This is what Ithaca needs!” We leap from our sticky seats and immediately begin preparations to create a Meow Wolf styled artistic destination in Ithaca. We name our artists collective, and the destination we plan to construct, “Beyond”.
In early 2020 Doug and I easily assemble a group of 30 or 40 artists, anarchists, and entrepreneurs to help us. We begin meeting regularly. Burner friends from Rochester and beyond join us. We pool our resources and begin to scope out possible venues. “Here is a warehouse on Cherry Street scheduled to be demolished in the fall in order to house a supposedly artistic community! Will they let us put our pop-up art space on the site before they tear it down? No?” And again: “Here is an empty 10,000 square foot interior right on the Ithaca Commons! Can we convince the evil rapacious landlord to let us use that space, and in so doing allow him to redeem himself in the eyes of his beleaguered community? No?” And once more: “Here is a 17,000 square foot abandoned grocery store in Dryden for only $300,000! If we can make $20,000 a month we can pay that back within a couple of years. Maybe?”
And then in the spring of 2020 covid hits. And the Generator is shut down by the authorities. And our artistic friends scurry to the safety and comfort of their own homes. Which brings us to where we are today. Slowly, slowly, the cloud of infectious disease emanating from the nostrils of our own friends and families parts, and the humanistic sunlight shines through our communities again, and we emerge and assemble via Zoom, and the dream of Beyond is begining anew. We meet every Thursday at 7pm at the Generator, in person and by Zoom, and you are invited to join us! And Doug and I have continued to create large-scale artwork, and to put our work on display at clandestine burner gatherings in the deep dark woods outside Ithaca. We’ve created a giant lotus flower with a disco ball center that enlightens all who dare approach. We’ve created an “Augmented Reality Sandbox” that uses a Wii sensor to project a colorful topographic map on the surface of it’s fine white sand. We’ve created an Infinity Bar that encourages patrons to gaze into the depths of infinity as they sample our libations. We’ve built a temple of steel on a sacred hill in Enfield. We plan to stockpile these artworks at our secret Beyond studio in Dryden, and then release them into an unsuspecting world when the time is right. Won’t you join us? You misfits, you weirdos, you techno rats scrounging in the sewers of our great metropolises, and in the bored rooms of our tallest once-proud towers, you who burn with an interior fire, you who are yearning to be free, you know who you are. Won’t you join us in the journey Beyond?