Thinking back on the special magic of Make: and Maker Faire

As you may have heard by now, news began to break Friday night that Maker Media, home to Make: magazine, Maker Faire, and Maker Shed, was folding up their big top and calling it quits (though founder Dale Dougherty has vowed to attempt a resurrection in some form). As the sad news began to thread its way through social media, the sense of shock, grief, and confusion was palpable. As when a beloved artist, entertainer, or other famous figure dies, people began posting pictures of themselves with the deceased, sharing peak experiences at Maker Faire, and sharing stories of the impact that Make:, Maker Faire, and the maker movement has had on their lives. Many of these have been quite inspiring and moving.

As someone who worked with or at Make: since its inception in 2005, my inboxes began filling up with people asking me if I was OK, if they could do anything to help (bring over cake and whiskey?), and they too began pouring out their feelings to me. Several people shared stories on social media and asked me to share some of mine. This made me immediately think of an essay I wrote for my 2014 memoir, Borg Like Me. Called "Make vs. The Blob," in it, I attempted to capture some of the magic and inspired sense of wonder I experienced while working at Maker Media and attending nearly all of the Bay Area, New York, and the two Austin Maker Faires. As part of that piece, I shared three particularly enchanting tableaux from the 2007 Austin Maker Faire. In answer to those who asked me to share some of my memories, I offer these stories. The extraordinary thing is that I could easily tell hundreds of equally unique and inspiring tales of the amazingly clever, talented, and outside-the-box artists, engineers, and craftspeople that I had the pleasure of working with over the past 14 years. I'm sure I speak for most everyone who has ever been involved in Make: and Maker Faire when I say that it was one of the most creative, gratifying, and rewarding jobs I have ever had. It was work. Hard work. Sometimes, impossibly hard work. But it rarely felt like "real" work. It always felt like a shot of good being injected into the world.

The obvious question now is: What happens to the maker movement with the loss of its "house organ" and its annual community gatherings? When a maker friend of mine, John Graziano, and I were talking about this in messaging last night, he pointed out that makers are hackers, problem-solvers. He said that he had every confidence that the maker community would continue to live long and prosper. I sure hope he is right because there has probably never been a more critical time for innovation, magic and whimsy, and some good ol' Mad Max survival skills.

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Your Brain: If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It

I was in the Maker Shed store at the second Maker Faire Austin, in a corner, preparing for a workshop. I was working at a bench. Although this was in a busy retail pop-up shop, with lots of merchandise, the area I was in was clearly a less-tracked work area, with high workbenches and tools and projects strewn everywhere. A young teen girl came sidling up along the benches. She had a uniqueness about her, a gravitas, that was instantly recognizable and impressive. She scanned the benches with that superficial retail gaze that people affect when they’re perusing tables of merchandise. But there was no merchandise. She’d wandered away from the store, but still had that air of shopping. She started picking things up, messing with them, which piqued my attention.

She finally made her way over to my bench and started poking through my personal belongings. I tensed. I had a cardboard box of tools and workshop supplies. She peered over the edge into it, saw something, and exclaimed “Ah-hah!” She pulled out a little white metal candy tin from the box. The tin was a product that we’d just started selling in Shed. On the lid was printed: “If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It,” a sort of open source motto/maker manifesto expressing the demand for tech products that you can easily open, understand, and fix yourself. With a slightly nervous hesitation (as if she expected it to bite her), she quickly opened the tin and peered inside.

“Can I help you with something?,” I finally asked, in that slightly put-upon tone that retailers assume when they’re annoyed by your in-store behavior. “Oh...,” she said, as if shaken out of some deep thought, “your box said ‘If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,’ so I was just seeing if I could open it.”

It took me a second to wrap my head around what she had just said. I started laughing. I couldn’t really argue with her logic. “Well then, I guess you own it!” I pushed her hand holding the tin toward her (it was new and empty). “Cool!,” she enthused, stuffing it into her messenger bag. She pulled out the map of the fairgrounds, brandishing it in my face, and said: “OK, If you were a 14-year-old girl, where would you go next?” Again, slightly thrown by her rather unique skew on the world, I said: “Combat robots in the Arena? that’s where I’d go.” “Oh my god, like Battlebots?,” she shrieked, “I LOVE those!” She thoughtlessly punched the map down into her bag and blasted off into the crowd, a smear of complex motion and youthful enthusiasm.

I wish I'd gotten that girl’s name so that I could remember her. Something tells me she’s going to end up doing something really noteworthy with her life.

Megaphones for Fairies, Monsters in Dust, and Retro-Futuristic Baby Blocks

Another day at Austin Maker Faire. Again, I was tired, after being in the Maker Shed and demo area all day. This time, I was doing demonstrations of some projects from the magazine, including Mousey the Junkbot. I was on my break, the first moment I’d had since the fair opened to actually have a look around. I stumbled into the show barn, the dusty dirt-floored, open-sided building where Texas farmers show of their prize livestock during conventional fairs.

I was so lost in my head, still finding my bearings, that I couldn’t even focus on what was going on around me. The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of two large, wheeled sculptures. One of them looked like a giant megaphone, the other, the horn of an old gramophone, but huge. They were gorgeously constructed. As I drew closer, I saw that the megaphone-shaped piece had tiny little crank handles along the surface of its 14’ metal cone-shaped horn. I began cranking one of them and could hear a faint tinkling as I turned it. A person walking by the bell end stopped and bent their head down. Another person had drawn up to the other side and begun twisted another of the tiny cranks. The fair-goer with his head in the bell was beaming from ear to ear. Now that several more people had manned the cranks, I moved to the end and bent my head into the bell. The little cranks along the edges were attached to 24 mechanical music boxes. The horn of the sculpture combined and magnified their sound and fed it out of the bell. Sticking your head into that bell was like sticking your head into the land of Fairy. I cannot describe to you the little chill of enchantment I felt in that moment. Then I moved onto the second giant gramophone horn. It was 8’ long and bent in such a way that four thick metal strings had been strung along its top. Plucking them created a deep vibrant sound that was almost the opposite of the other piece. Reading the display card, I discovered that these two interactive sculptures were called Cranky and Plucky, and were the creation of Austin-based artist Dominique Vyborny.

Dizzy with delight over what I’d just experienced, I wandered deeper into the show barn. Having all of those people milling around in a large roofed space with a dirt floor raises a lot of dust. I saw a blue Toyota parked inside the barn covered in dust, something that seemed completely likely in such a situation. But drawing closer, I saw a man hunched over the dirty side windows. As he pulled away, I saw that he’d been creating these gorgeous portraits of classic movie monsters, by brushing the dirt off the windows. He was making art in dust! Talking to him, I learned that his name was Scott Wade. Living on a dirt road, he’d originally begun drawing on his dusty car with his finger for fun, but after his strange little art hobby grew, he began using brushes and putting oil on the windows to create a better base for the dirt. The results he calls Dirty Car Art. The car I was looking at was covered on all four sides by the likes of the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.

Dirty Car Art. Something about it struck me as awesomely, sublimely ridiculous. And I felt proud that we had provided a venue for this bizarre form of self-expression, and a home for Cranky and Plucky, too.

Next, I wandered to the first row of booths in the crafter’s area. Here I met a charming husband and wife team, Andrew Waser and Michele Lanan. They’d started a mom and pop business called Xylocopa Design. Combining old world woodworking and new laser cutting technology with their love of science and all things nerdy, they’d developed a line of wooden toys and jewelry. The product that caught my eye and tickled me to no end was their steampunky Mad Scientist Alphabet Blocks. Laser-etched onto the surfaces of maple blocks were intricate scenes depicting things like “C” is for the caffeine molecule, “F” is for freeze ray, “R” is for robot, and “Z” is for zombie. I had to have a set! I still have them — they’re stacked on a shelf in my library, proudly flying the colors of my own mad scientist freak flag. BTW, the name Xylocopa is taken from the scientific name for the carpenter bee, one of nature’s original woodworkers.

Butterfly Bikes on the Horizon

It was the Friday evening before the start of the event. After a long and very hard day of fair prep, all of the makers and crewmembers were in the chow line anxious for some much-lauded Texas barbecue. We had already drafted big plastic cups of locally-brewed beer, and being as tired and hungry as I was, it didn’t take long to acquire a bright and pleasant little buzz. I was in line talking to Dave and Cheryl Hrynkiw from Solarbotics. They were telling me the origin story of their little Canadian robot parts company, one of the first such ecommerce sites on the web. (They were maker pros before anybody even knew what that meant.) As we talked, I marveled at the fact that this was only one such story. Around me stood dozens more. This was still early on in the burgeoning maker movement, but I was starting to get many inspiring glimpses of its potentially significant impact on small business and technological innovation.

The fall Texas twilight was lovely, with a softness to it that quickly soothed away the day’s labors. As Dave, Cheryl, and I, and a number of other makers talked in line, I started scanning the fairgrounds, thinking over the day’s work, and what was about to descend upon us all over the next two days. The area of the grounds that the concessions and dining tents were in was some of the lowest in elevation. On the other side of the grounds, between the big enclosed arena (think: rodeos and monster trucks) and the open-sided show barn, there ran a ridge. As the bottom edge of the western sky grew dramatically orange, with that last glorious gasp of light before darkness falls, I just happened to be scanning that area of the grounds. From the show barn emerged two giant butterflies and a white swan. They were kinetic sculpture bicycles being peddled along the pathway between the two buildings. The butterflies had multicolored cloth wings that flapped gracefully as the drivers pedaled. They also had lights along their edges that twinkled magically in the rapidly fading twilight. The vehicles moved across the middle ground of the ridge with a beautiful blue-to-orange sky and an emerging half-moon beyond them. The bikes were all being peddled by women wearing clothing that wouldn’t have been out of place in a fairy tale. I hadn’t encountered these bikes since I’d been on the grounds, so I was seeing them for the first time, as if they had just glided in from some other realm.

The effect, especially in the context of my exhaustion, the warm beer buzz, the seductive smells of the barbecue, and catching up with old friends — it all made for a transcendentally lovely little moment. For a moment, real magic hung there in the twilight.

I was struck by these vehicles and the obvious question: “Who would spend the time, money, and effort to build such a thing? And why?” They existed for no other reason than to charm people, to inspire them with a little vision of wonder and whimsy. And then I thought of how lovely the contrast between the conversations we were having in line, about maker small businesses, about the technological innovations that might come out of the maker movement, while on the other side of the grounds, the other side of the maker impulse was parading itself: Play, doing it because you can, doing it for the art, and doing it just because it was damn good fun.

And out of the yin and yang dynamo generated between those two poles, the engine of a movement is being powered.

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Images of the Butterfly Bike and Dirty Car Art by Scott Beale. Image of Clanky and Plucky by Marc De Vinck. All taken at the 2007 Austin Maker Faire.