If you attended the 1st annual World Maker Faire last September in New York City, you probably saw a gold and silver, armor-clad, tool-dispensing superhero figure running around. His name is Doctor Adventure and he’s one of a growing number of costumed identities calling the NY metro region home. I’d seen the Doc at various functions around town in the year proceeding the Faire — on Coney Island’s boardwalk, at warehouse parties, during street festivals and performances, even at a pop-up rooftop marching band happening! But I hadn’t learned of his story, or his “identity,” until much more recently.
I visited the Doc’s secret lair last month. Housed in a 3,000 square foot disused automotive garage in the depths of New Jersey, this hideout contains all the necessary tools for fashioning “wearable gadgetry, custom prosthetic, orthotic devices, and party armor,” the tagline for his company the New Flesh Workshop (NFW). The workshop contains a spray booth, a projectile-testing firing range, a homemade pipe stand, a 48″ x 60″ commercial pizza oven for vulcanizing certain materials, and a cheap bench grinder modified into a more-expensive orthopedic router – like a lathe in reverse the tool spins, while the workpiece is moved against the axis in order to make custom curves for his prostheses. Oh and lastly – and I kid you not – the workshop contains a superhero closet! A monstrous cabinet containing capes, helmets, chest-plates, and gadgets of both novel and modified origin.
As the Vitruvian Man modified logo (above) would suggest, the NFW is Man, Enhanced: a multi-tool for a right arm amplifies every human’s physical potential. If the opposable thumb was one of humankind’s greater evolutionary enhancements, contributing to the development of modern tools, just imagine what we could do with those tools embedded on and in us!
Indeed, every instance where I’ve encountered Doctor Adventure in the concrete jungles of NYC, he’s sporting a different outfit, modified prostheses and sporting gadgets for unique applications – as if testing each accoutrement for different audiences and contexts. One of my favorite enhancements of his are his earlets, approximately 12mm plugs, one a speaker and the other a compass, “so I can have a soundtrack and know where I’m going” he says – we’ve all emerged from the subways here not knowing which way is north while listening to a beat, but the Doc’s solution to that scenario is quite uncommon.
It’s not all fun and games. There’s some serious science in the works, and some serious help too! The NFW is staffed by a small legion of dedicated makers of various disciplines, including an electromyographer, a disenfranchised Columbia University graduate bio-technician, programmers who speak code “better than English,” and even an apprentice working in the field of bioinformatics. They’re slowly finding each other in the wild, and combining forces. And there’s a sense of collective disillusionment with industries that train artisans to simply become technicians, practitioners of a trade who then fail to “inject some humanity” into their prostheses, their art.
And they have some clients too, including Army amputee veterans who want modified or customized leg prostheses or arm gauntlets containing tools needed on a day-to-day basis. To think of it in another light, if you lost your leg in war and really miss that tattoo you once had, why not emblazon your carbon fiber prosthetic with a new image, or modify your drop foot prosthetic to contain tools to substitute any perceived handicap.
To some of us it might be obvious to endlessly modify our outfits, vehicles, and physical attributes, but to see it around town in a very real context is both fascinating and inspiring!
An example of an arm guard, with overlapping scales similar to many classes of reptiles or insects (I should have mentioned there is a collection of large insects in the NFW, for study and inspiration). Could you imagine a world where when we say the word “fashion” we do not think of fine fabrics and high-end designers but rather hot-rodded outfits, ballistic Kevlar fabrics and electronics embedded into everything from your eyeglasses to your helmet?
I can imagine!
The only snag to this story is that each device and prosthetic is custom-made. There are no kits available, and very few extensible components to start with, so time itself is a most-valuable resource. The Doctor himself got started after taking university classes and working in various labs, eventually putting his studies on hold so he could focus his time on his craft and submit some patents. So while each component is unique and there’s no factory line for production, the Doc considers his approach one of the “last surviving high-tech hand skills.” That in itself is something to draw inspiration from, which he also reckons is a founding “tradition” of American maker culture. For inspiration himself he looks to people like Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, but instead of riding our devices, he wants them wearable and embedded, with our bodies becoming our art and vice versa.