Science and Art Mingle at New York’s Maker Faire

"Waterfall Swing" by Dash 7 Design (all images by the author)

Viewing a horde of 3D printers solemnly forming the same sterile shapes may have put me in a regressed mental state, but the sight of gleeful children swinging towards sheets of water that vanished right before contact struck me as beautiful. The aptly named “Waterfall Swing” by Dash 7 Design was the most oddly touching thing I saw at the 2011 Maker Faire New York in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The steel swing cast down panes of water in the riders’ paths, with passages opening suddenly, controlled by encoders in the axels, allowing the riders to magically avoid the water obstacle. In my mind, it was like they were defying growing old, defying death, continuing to happily swing dryly away from the wall of water.

The fire-breathing Gon-KiRin by Ryan Doyle and Teddy Low

Then again, as a writer, I don’t often spend all day in the sun, and it may have made me especially susceptible to nostalgia for youthful abandon and the act of creation. Good thing, because that’s what Maker Faire is all about.

The two-day festival took place last weekend on the grounds surrounding the New York Hall of Science. It was a swarm of creators showing off their inventions and crafts and sharing ideas on everything from lockpicking to self-organized education to “crowdsourcing for unmanned aerial vehicle innovation.” There was definitely as much spectacle as mind-blowing innovation, yet nestled inside the Hall of Science, away from the delirious effects of the sun, were several makers who were both technically and artistically engaging.

Flint Weisser with his Radioactive and Electromagnetic Devices
Flint Weisser demonstrating a spark counter

Flint Weisser had a table of appealing radioactive and electromagnetic devices, including an electrophorus (which produces a charge through electric induction), an electroscope (made to detect a charge) and a cloud chamber where radioactive particles are viewed in a glass chamber. I loved how the 19th century-inspired sculptures lured you in to learning about science with their steampunk beauty.

"Illucia" by Chris Novello

At the next table was another artistic device, this one more frantic than Weisser’s refined machines. Chris Novello was demonstrating his generative art project Illucia, which uses codebending to patch different programs together. With his contraption the video game Tetris could be used to play music, Super Mario Bros could be used to play Pong. I’m not sure I entirely understood how it worked, although it was fun to experiment and watch each game grow more insane, but if you are ambitious and have as much energy as Novello, there are instructions on how to build one on his website.

"Nazco Disco" by Karen Clinton and Matt Greco

Upstairs in the Hall of Science was a dark room populated with luminous works, which I found to be the most interesting congregation of makers. This “Nazco Disco” had the geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines whirling from five illuminated globes, perfect for inspiring nightmares on the mysteries of ancient times.

"RhythmSynthesis" by Ryan Raffa

In a sort of DIY version of a Reactable, Ryan Raffa’s “RhythmSynthesis” translated the visual layout of shapes on a projector into music through a scanning camera, connecting concrete forms with sounds. With its simple approach and interactive nature, it was definitely the most popular piece in the room.

Balam Soto's installation

Another artist successfully incorporating interaction was Balam Soto, whose “Art Controller” could be used to rotate a cube projected on the wall that had inputs of videos on all sides, including one taken of the participant. Soto said he built the “Art Controller” to be a sort of universal remote for his many new media installations, for which he writes his own software to experiment with user interface.

GE's "Carousolar," a solar powered carousel

When I stepped outside — and away from darkness illuminated only by video art and light sculptures — the sun was even more striking. As an enthusiastic expo of DIY technology, Maker Faire is great. As a demonstration of how science and art can commingle into something astonishing, I think it is still has a way to go but there were definitely a few inspired illuminations. I’ve always loved art that can successfully use scientific thought to connect visually the world’s phenomena. The possibilities are definitely there, as evidenced by the passionate artists I talked to, and I hope Maker Faire continues to make them a part of its showcase, eventually bringing them out into the sun.

The Maker Faire took place on September 17 and 18 at the New York Hall of Science (47-01 111th Street, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens).

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