A critical aspect of our work is the way we collaborate with artists, tinkerers, and makers of all stripes. We are passionate about cultivating relationships with other tinkerers that are mutually beneficial, and it is certainly a way to infuse our work with new ideas, approaches, and tools. But it is also an opportunity for us to demystify the process of making and creating, and try to chip away at the myth of “artistic talent.” Whenever possible, we try to create opportunities for the artists that we host to share their work and process in some way with the public, whether it is by running workshops, or simply doing their work in a public space. We hope that by creating chances for the museum public to ask questions, observe the process, and make a personal connection with an artist they will find the whole idea of creating and making more approachable and achievable. In the best cases, we strive to actually engage the visitors in the same making and tinkering process that an artist uses to create their own pieces. That way, we communicate that making art starts as a simple process of putting together, or taking apart, observing and making small changes; over time and with lots of experience those initial experiments turn more intentional, personally meaningful attempts at expressing a measure of aesthetic sensibility, whimsy, and delight, and we call that “art.”
Scott Weaver and Rolling Through the Bay
We met Scott Weaver at the Sonoma County Fair, where he used to exhibit his toothpick sculpture, Rolling Through the Bay. It is a lovingly detailed and highly personal representation of San Francisco made entirely of toothpicks and Elmer's glue. It is not only huge (it stands more than 9 feet tall and 8 feet wide!) but it is also a kinetic ball run, with over ten separate paths that allow ping pong balls to travel through the sculpture and go on several “tours” of the city. Scott built the sculpture for himself, in his living room, slowly over the course of 40 years, and is not interested in selling it or simply displaying it in a museum; what he really loves to do is to share his passion for making as a form of self-expression, a creative endeavor, an antidote to boredom and passive entertainment, and storytelling. We managed to convince him to display the sculpture for a month in the Tinkering Studio, and he only agreed to it because we said he could come in any time he wanted to give visitors narrated tours and talk to them about it. He has liked it so much that the sculpture now has a permanent and prominent space in the new building, and Scott still comes in every other Sunday to blow people’s minds and be a testimonial to the fact that you don’t need anyone's permission to start making what you are passionate about!
Leah Buechley and Jie Qi
Leah was an artist in residence as part of an NEA grant; at the time she was just starting her own group at the MIT Media Lab called the High-Low Tech group. She had the idea that technology does not have to be cold and impersonal, that it can be used in combination with traditional craft materials to open up new and highly personal avenues of expression, and to be more inclusive and transcend traditional gender norms related to engineering, programming, sewing, and fashion. She was just starting to play with those ideas while developing the LilyPad Arduino platform, but wanted to experiment with larger scale installations. She spent two weeks with us working on a large scale wallpaper painting with sensors embedded in it; as you walk close to it and brush your hands on the leaves, the flowers come to life with organically pulsating lights. She was hugely influential in us beginning to experiment with sewable circuitry, conductive thread, soft switches, and embedded technology, and we owe the development of our Sewn Circuits activity in large part to her.
A few years later we had the pleasure to host one of Leah’s students, Jie Qi, who had been concentrating on developing ways to flatten circuitry so it would work on a simple piece of paper. Her brilliant solution was using a perfectly unassuming material: copper sticky tape, normally sold in hardware stores as “slug tape” to keep snails out of planters! Once she had that substrate to work with, she started developing amazing paper pop-up creations with computation embedded in them, and spent her residency with us working on incorporating surface-mount LEDs into flat circuits, developing techniques for soldering, making switches, holding batteries onto paper, etc. Our time with Jie was essential to develop our Paper Circuits activity, and for her it was an opportunity to try out workshop ideas and eventually develop a new product: circuit stickers!
Cardboard Institute of Technology and Ann Weber
One of the most radical and immersive collaborations we have embarked upon was turning over the entire Tinkering Studio space (when we were still at the Palace of Fine Arts) to a local group of cardboard installation artists who call themselves the Cardboard Institute of Technology (CIT). We presented them with a clean slate: a space entirely cleared of exhibits, tables, or wall decorations. We covered the floor with plywood slabs topped with a layer of—what else?—cardboard so that they and visitors could cut directly on the floor and have full creative freedom, and let them have at it for a month. They created an environment inspired by dungeons, subterranean lairs, and lovecraftian hellscapes as the underground layer to their imaginary city of Cardburg. The potentially dark subject was offset by the humor, whimsy, and delightfully deranged attitude of the members of the group. While the landscape was taking shape, CIT invited visitors to work with them to create elements of the whole: little shanty town shacks, stalactites and stalagmites, tiny people and trees, and even the scales and sharp teeth for a three-headed life-sized Cerberus! They also held workshops on creating cardboard costumes, and an evening event for adults.
While CIT was in residence, as part of a whole month dedicated to cardboard as a material, we invited cardboard artist Ann Weber to be in residence for a couple of days. Ann works with simple strips of cardboard from recycled sources, which she staples together into three-dimensional organic shapes that can be very large in scale. We cleared a corner of the developing Subterrain environment for her to work with the public: this is a perfect examples of visitors of all ages being able to engage in exactly the same process, using the same materials and tools, as an internationally established “professional artist,” and create artwork of their own. It was amazing to see how a simple idea—stapling strips of cardboard together—becomes an artistic expression of one's aesthetics and sensibilities through repetition and scale.