On the Sunday morning of World Maker Faire New York this year, before the gates opened to the public, I headed to the Power Racing Series track to check in and see how things were shaping up for the day. In the pits, I saw the usual racers wrenching away and cars being prepped, then my gaze stopped at a rather dapperly dressed man and woman, in suits and sunglasses, positioned in front of their modded metal briefcases. They glanced up and offered me a fresh cup of coffee and a crepe, both made on the spot. That’s when I met the illustrious Mark Krawczuk and his project collaborator Ashley Albert.
The brainchild of Krawczuk, what I was witnessing was a roving, secret maker exhibit titled Tactical Brunch. In the afternoon, the exhibit changed to Krawczuk swapping out briefcases and making snow cones, shaving a giant block of ice with a handheld metal scooper and adding any array of syrups housed in a second briefcase. Krawczuk earned three editor’s choice blue ribbons that weekend.
What gives? The more I learned about Krawczuk, the more I realized he could give the Dos Equis guy a run for his money in the interesting department. Krawczuk calls himself a creative instigator, and he’s mighty good at it. Two years ago, his Maker Faire exhibit was the Lost Horizon Noodle Truck, an unassuming box truck outfitted with a noodle house inside, made with the sole purpose of providing the makers at the Faire respite and a hot meal during a busy day. I knew I had to find out more.
1. “Tactical” is an interesting word choice. Why tactical?
The word “tactical” is regularly used as a military term, and I wanted to reclaim it to its meaning of “an action to suit a bigger purpose.” It’s an action-packed term, and I like the idea of letting more of the population use it, as well as encouraging people to take direct action. I’d really like more tactical ironing boards, more tactical kittens, and more tactical haberdashers.
Krawczuk serves up a sour cherry snow cone out of a briefcase at Maker Faire New York 2013.
2. What does it mean to be a creative instigator as opposed to an artist?
I do a lot of things:
Sometimes I come up with ideas and make things.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and other people help me make them.
Sometimes other people come up with ideas and I help make them.
Sometimes I help people come up with their ideas.
And sometimes I just help people figure things out so they can come up with ideas.
This would mean that I’m an artist, performer, curator, craftsperson, culturalist, flaneur, producer, strategist, and consultant — which is a mouthful. But in each of those things I look at a specific patch of chaos and then work to find the order and the connections. All of which usually involves creative people, ideas, and action. To me, a creative instigator turns a creative idea into some form of action, and they have a lot of tools in their kit to do so. And man, I love to do it.
3. Your Secret Noodle Truck was a huge hit at Maker Faire. What motivates you to create projects where you feed folks?
First off, food is something that I’m very familiar with and comfortable around. I’ve cooked for myself for a long time, and I come from a family where a lot of getting together involves food. I love being around food — plotting, buying, selecting tools to work with it. I also have a sort of perfect pitch when it comes to cooking — I can tell what something is going to taste like before I cook it. Food isn’t my job, but it’s definitely a passion.
The other thing is that everybody eats — every person needs to consume food. And every culture everywhere has come up with cultural practices around that — which are RIPE for hacking. That instant community, the draw for camaraderie and telling stories, the tasting of things, the passing of value — all things I like to tinker with.
I also like how primal an action eating things is. When you eat, you satisfy a very basic version of yourself, a self that is maybe less logical, more experiential. I feel when you present ideas with food, you can sneak past the good guards of logic to the more “magical” side of experience, and the logic can wade slowly into the idea once it’s already in their head.
4. A number of your projects seem to focus on creating a space for good conversation. Why?
A good conversation is thrilling: good stories, different perspectives, and wondrous facts bubbling all around can lead to some wondrous connections and new frontiers. Also, conversation grows strong networks of people, who simply by knowing each other makes a weirder, more beautiful world.
5. With your mobile/portable projects, how do you choose where you’ll strike next?
It sort of depends. With The Lost Horizon Night Market, we try to go for dead ends that are out of the way in industrial neighborhoods. We don’t want to bother anyone. But we also try to be not too many off-putting blocks away from easy public transportation. The adventure makes it fun, and it also makes a good filter: only the adventurous make it to us.
For things like Tactical Brunch at Maker Faire, we again try to find out-of-the-way corridors (we don’t want to get in the way of the crowd), but mostly we’re looking for the people who can’t get away from their booths. Maybe it’s because they are busy or because they are the only one there to man the booth. But after several hours of explaining their project with no break, those folks start to droop. So, it’s great to see how we can take them from wilting flower back to powerhouse!
Krawczuk’s modded cases from Tactical Brunch 2012, when he served up sandwiches and coffee on the sly.
6. Tell us about yourself. What’s your background and how did you get interested in creative instigating?
I’ve always had a big imagination and like to see how things work. It has just gone from there! I’m really an introvert, although it surprises some people when I say that. But I’ve come to learn that people-skills, like most other things, can be something you can practice and learn. (Apologies to those who had to tolerate my learning.)
7. You cofounded the Lost Horizon Night Market. How did that get started and how many iterations there have been thus far?
The Lost Horizon Night Market grew out of me doing my truck: the Lost Horizon Noodle Truck. I got the idea for the Noodle Truck while at Burning Man. I saw someone with a pickup truck that they had built a pagoda on the back, and had turned the rails of the bed into tables and hung seats off the sides. I thought they were serving sushi, but it turned out they weren’t. But just because it wasn’t their idea doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. (I find myself coming back to this phrase regularly in my life.)
I thought it would be fun to do that in NYC and vowed to bring the idea to life. When I was talking to Chris Hackett about the idea, he asked me two questions: what would I do when it broke down, and where would I park it. I decided to answer in a very New York way: I’ll rent. And that lead me to box trucks. Also, another friend brought up that Ramen is very popular, and eating raw fish from the back of a truck may be a problem for some people. So, the noodle truck was born.
I went around and ate at as many noodle shops as I could and tried to figure out their style, and what I liked and didn’t like about their soup. I also tried to drink in the decor as much as possible, through a lens borrowed from the Blue Dragon scene in Blade Runner, and Mr. Kim’s flying restaurant boat in the Fifth Element. I came up with my own recipe in the end — what I call Brooklyn noodle soup, borrowing a little bit from all of the places I ate at.
The design of the space also has nods to my influences, but I think the most important design aspect is a nod to Thanksgiving dinner at my parent’s house. I really like how I’ve known all of the people at that table all my life, but each Thanksgiving, there’s a new story I haven’t heard before, or I find out something new about them. And there were little pods of conversation that people would dip in and out of. I wanted to create a space where I could encourage that conversation, where people of like minds could mix and mingle over food.
Krawczuk serving up covert coffee to happy makers at Maker Faire New York 2012.
So when I was designing the space, I did a few things. I made narrow tables that faced in to the center. People would come in and sit next to their friends, but would be facing strangers. I also made sure to put too many chairs in. That way, people would have to be in each others’ comfort zone, just a little. You have to work to not overhear someone else’s converation.
I did the noodle truck once every other month for a year before we got together to do a market of other trucks. I thought getting other people to do trucks was a great way to work around the space crunch that is New York City. A great way for someone to take a risk on an idea that they had without a huge investment in real estate, allowing people to have their first “gallery” sort of experience for interactive art.
The first one was a blast, so we decided to do one quarterly after that. (I’ve since stepped down from running it in NYC.) Other people heard about it, and wanted to run their own. We “opened sourced” the plans, giving away all of our organizational materials, and helped coach them through it. They now exist all over: San Francisco, Detrot, Philladelphia, Boston, Boulder, and Portland are all ones we’ve heard about. And there have been some that have some sprung up: I read about one in San Luis Obispo where people just ran with it.
The super secret Lost Horizon Night Market features unmarked trucks with various treats inside.
8. What was your L Train Notwork project about? How was it received?
The L Train Notwork looked at cellphones/mobile devices and thought about them differently: what if, instead of connecting them to a massive network, they connected to a public network that only the local population can get to? In this case, the subway and its riders. What if we created an intranet for the subway, that worked sort of like the internet?
So we made a portable server with an open wi-fi connection. When people connected, they had access to the content on the server, and to each other. On the server, we had content such as poetry, short stories, and visuals from artists who lived along the line, as well as headlines from RSS feeds we thought people were interested in. (You could email yourself the link to the full article.) Everyday we refreshed all of the content. There was also a chat room, so users could connect with each other. Also, since it was a wi-fi network, you could play wi-fi-enabled games over the network as well.
What I liked about it the most was that you saw the technology forge real relationships. People would be delighted with the service, look up, and see who else was there using it as well. Conversations would start! Which, if you ride the subway in New York, you realize talking to strangers in the subway is revolutionary. Sometimes it seems that technology blunts people interacting in the real world. It was great to see technology reverse that, and let people who were like-minded connect in real time. Maybe it was because it was a novelty, and people like new frontiers to explore.
9. You recently hosted a Meeting of the Minds to get new folks involved. How did that go?
It’s funny. People always ask to be included in the projects that I do. And I really want to bring them along. But getting the right mix of personalities is very important for these sorts of things. And sometimes when people get into groups, they act differently. Also, when you work with the same groups of folks over and over again, people have the role they typically play. When you try to mix new people, those lines aren’t immediately clear and people can get confused and conflicted. By starting everyone with a blank slate, it was great to see how people found their role, met the group, and rose to the occasion. Okay, I did curate the personalities, but it was great to watch them gel.
We also set the stage well: we dressed up, we met in an inspiring location, everyone had a chance for self expression to a welcoming group, and then we did something outrageous but low overhead/risk. While that was still going strong, we transitioned to another novel location, and people were put out of a comfort zone. All of this led to great conversations and people getting to really meet each other. They say how you do anything is how you do everything. And when you’re in novel situations, you see a lot about a person.
Photos from Krawczuk’s Meeting of the Minds event.
10. In this age of promotion and cross promotion, what’s the appeal of secret events?
Simply: Sharing a secret feels great. If you share too widely, it isn’t a secret anymore. But, if everyone picks and chooses how the information flows, you get a camaraderie based on the fact that everyone knows someone, and that someone chose for them to be there. Someone thought you needed the secret. In an age where you can get every bit of information about anything anywhere, a secret is a rarity.
It’s also great to see how people react. With the Night Market, people will hear it’s coming up, but won’t know when or where. So a buzz begins. People reach out to friends and acquaintances. Other subjects come up, new ideas are spread. And when people show up, they all have something in common: they found it. (We also exaggerate that feeling by giving directions that don’t exactly get you all the way to the event. The last block or so requires a bit of a hunt.) Having that sense of getting the secret and having found their way there creates a great camaraderie. What is also nice is it filters people out, so only those who are willing to be curious and work a bit for their good time are the people who show up. And those people are ALWAYS the sort of people I want to hang out with.
11. What’s creative instigating is next on the horizon for you?
January 19, I’m planning a Competitive Winter Picnic. I am still thinking about what that means. You can find more information here.
I’m working on my “pay the bills” job, working with a great agency and brand on a semi-secret digital product.
And there are a ton of projects I’m considering/helping on: I’d like to take a group of trucks on a national Lost Horizon Night Market tour. I’d like to help Brooklyn Arts Group get some attention internationally. Anyone want to sponsor a few art collectives from Brooklyn to come for a visit? I’m keeping tabs on Launa Eddy and Robin Grearson as they work to mobilize the community that got displaced when 3rd Ward closed its doors. And weekly, I’m making jars for my meal share program called The Mason Project.
Meals from Krawczuk’s Mason Project.
12. Anything I didn’t address that you’d like to?
I just released documentation for a project I did in May called Waiting For The Man. I’m really excited to share this project with people, and see what it inspires.
The basics of the idea was that I would hire a photographer to hire a man. The photographer told The Man:
“I want you to walk down the street, and I’ll take paparazzi style photos of you. We’ll walk down Broadway from 120th street to 60th street. Please wear all black and a straw hat. Oh, by the way, I’ll also be giving you an instant camera. I want you to take 10 photos all along your route, of whatever is interesting to you.”
That was the set up. The game itself was then to invite 20 teams to set up along The Man’s route. They have one block to be so interesting that the man decides, all on his own, to take their picture. They were told they couldn’t address the man directly.
The teams were only told when The Man would start and finish, and that he would be dressed all in black and be wearing a straw hat, and he’d be escorted by a photographer. No other identification or details was given. We also wanted to make sure all of the teams had a photo. So, we had a Lady in Red follow The Man’s steps about 15 minutes behind him to get photos of all of our teams.