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onlookers Art Work — Putting On a Show

Onlookers at La Superette.

I think you should put on a show. It’s great that you’re a gastro-innovating, neuro-hacking, nano-fabricating bio-tinkerer. It’s wonderful that you’ve posted pics to your website, made an Instructable, been featured on the MAKE blog, and Twittered every stripped-out screw and hot-glue mishap. But I think you should put on a show, an in-person, be there or be square, get ’em while they’re hot, olde-timey, humans-sharing-a-point-on-the-space-time-continuum show.

It doesn’t matter if you live in a big city, a tiny hamlet, or a strip-mall dead zone. There are other humans around, and it’s time to meet them face to face. Tough love, I know, but it’s got to be done.

Great! So now that you’re putting on a show, all you need are some projects/artworks/ideas you want to share, an enthusiastic crew, maybe a little cash, and a venue. How about a kite photography exhibition in the public library or a handmade instrument concert at a local park?

We put on the first ArtBots robot art show for $200, but we probably could have done it for $20 if we had really worked at it. And dorkbot-nyc, a regular show-and-tell of creative electricity projects, has been running for eight years now on an annual budget of zero dollars, but with a tremendous amount of support from the community and Location One, our host.

Find venues by riding your bike around the neighborhood looking for empty spaces, sending emails out to local mailing lists, and pestering friends of friends of friends who work at likely spots. Coffee shops and bookstores are common venues, but try local colleges, abandoned storefronts, the courthouse steps, out-of-season campgrounds, etc. A lot of fun can be had showing your work in unexpected places.

Both ArtBots and dorkbot started tiny and have grown large, mostly by accident. Starting tiny is good — if you’re going to grow, you get to grow organically, and if you don’t want to grow, then you don’t have to worry about it!

I’ve taken the liberty of asking an assortment of veteran DIY, low-budget (or no budget) show makers for show-making advice.

First off, me! Here’s my number-one most important, from-the-heart advice: strive for diversity, both in people and in ideas. Be open to, and even pursue, people and ideas that don’t quite fit your original conception of the event. The ArtBots call for works states: “If you think it’s a robot and you think it’s art, send it in!” And dorkbot-nyc is an open forum — we have a vague motto, “People doing strange things with electricity,” but beyond that it’s anything goes. That means that we’ve had some really terrible presentations, but we’ve also had incredible, unexpected wonders. Of course there are often good reasons to make careful selections, but stretch out a little, reach out to someone unexpected. Err on the side of diversity.

Artist Tali Hinkis organizes La Superette, an annual holiday art show that focuses on functional, affordable art in multiples. Her advice: learn to delegate.

“Allow people to contribute; give them responsibility so they feel like real collaborators and want to invest time in helping and promoting,” Hinkis says.

“People are the best resources; they have friends, family, and skills. They have jobs with high-end color printers, a boyfriend with an empty office space, a journalist sister, or some mad archiving skills!” She also recommends an “in progress” attitude: “Sometimes the hardest thing is just to put something ‘out there’ in the world. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, or a revolutionary curatorial project. We learn from doing.”

Wendy Jehanara Tremayne has organized all sorts of DIY events, from collaborative plays to political protests. She’s the force behind the giant Swap-O-Rama-Rama events at recent Maker Faires. She recommends projects with a clear structure, a focus on a particular problem or idea, and space for the participants to contribute meaningfully.

“If you feel strongly that a project is relevant,” Tremayne says, “you must suppose that some number of others will too, and act on this assumption. Projects that invite others to express themselves invite authentic contributions that are heartfelt and that ultimately resonate through the project when it is produced. Nothing but genuine self-expression can have this same impact. Money, as an obstacle, is an illusion.”

Marie Evelyn is executive director of the art organization Analogous Projects, and produces ScrapCycle, a series of homemade-instrument/noise shows with a novel admission fee — audience members are asked to bring a piece of scrap or found material for barter at the show. Analogous Projects focuses on interaction art and emergent behaviors, interests reflected in her advice.

“Enter into the endeavor with acceptance,” counsels Evelyn. “Accept that you can’t directly control any aspect of a social gathering. You can set up the initial conditions and you can guide things, but a social gathering is a living organism: to try to control it (even in the most caring and well-intentioned way) is to snuff out the life and joy and humanity of coming together. … And accept the fact that you have absolutely no idea what will happen! People will surprise you in beautiful ways.”

And some wise parting words from Saul Albert, U.K. low-budget rapscallion who co-produces The People Speak events and helped start dorkbot-london: “There is no such thing as a low-budget event! If you’ve got no cash, you just use different currencies to get the job done. Sweat, flattery, passion, and flirtation are all good ones, and can improve the atmosphere more than the most expensive canapés. The real key to your cheapo event’s success is making sure it hits an unfulfilled need for different groups of people.”

What could be simpler? Embrace the chaos, be prepared to improvise, con your friends into helping, find your niche, and keep an open mind. You made it, now show it.

Douglas Repetto

Douglas Irving Repetto is an artist and teacher involved in a number of art/community groups including Dorkbot, ArtBots, Organizm, and Music-dsp.


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