One of the artists who’s consistently brought some of the most impressive, inspired work to Maker Faire over the years is Christian Ristow. Based in Taos, New Mexico, Ristow has been showing at Maker Faire since 2008 (missing a few years after having a baby). He lives in New Mexico with his wife, artist Christina Sporrong (who has also presented at Maker Faire), and their young son, Kodiak. Ristow has been involved in robotic performance art and large-scale kinetic sculpture since the 1990s, having worked with Survival Research Labs, Seemen, and various other collaborators. He has also staged large robotic performances at Coachella.
One of Maker Faire’s most popular kinetic sculpture pieces ever was Christian Ristow’s Hand of Man, which appeared at Maker Faire for the 2009 and 2013 Bay Area events. Its 2009 premier was the first time that Christian had shown a large-scale piece at Maker Faire (he’d brought two smaller killer robots to the 2008 Faire). The interactive sculpture weighed 7 tons, stretched 26 feet long, and consisted of a gigantic robotic hand and forearm connected to a slaved “glove” controller. Participants could sit in the chair, place their hand inside the controller, and their forearm, hand, and finger movements were mimicked by the hydraulically-activated robotic hand. The Hand is capable of picking up and crushing objects as big as a car. The looks on people’s faces were priceless as they went “Hulk Smash!” on large objects. One can almost see this piece as symbolic of the Maker Movement itself, using available materials, ingenuity, and leveraged power (on-demand learning, online and offline community, crowdfunding, etc.) to bring a disproportionate amount of force to bear. Christian’s memories of the Hand of Man are a little more down to earth: “When I ran the Hand again in 2013, it was the first time my son Kodiak had been to the Faire or seen the Hand in action. He sat in my lap and even sort of “ran” it a little. It was magical to see the Faire through his eyes.”
Face Forward was a large-scale piece that Christian brought to the 2012 Maker Faire Bay Area. The 12 foot tall robotically-actuated face had premiered at Burning Man the previous year. Outfitted with 12 individual servomotor actuators in the face, wireless communications allowed up to 12 participants to control facial gestures (eyebrows, lips, eyelids) from control stations located in a semi-circle 30 feet in front of the sculpture. This clever, interactive piece turned fairgoers into cooperative robot puppeteers as they worked in concert to coordinate facial gestures. Ristow said of the piece: “It offered the possibility of collective striving to achieve something which, when seen, was immediately recognizable to the entire group, and therefore immediately satisfying. The face was a reflection of the dynamic within the group operating it.”
In 2011, Ristow brought Fledgling to the Faire. A stainless steel kinetic sculpture loosely based on an eagle’s skeleton, participants got to climb up stairs along the spine, sit in a chair within its ribcage, and furiously peddle to slowly flap the wings of the great metallic beast. This towering, flapping structure made for a dramatic visual upon the landscape of the fairground.
For this year’s 10th anniversary festivities, Ristow will be bringing his latest monstrosity, the 30 foot tall EarthMover. This bizarre and impressive cross between an excavator and an insectoid robot was inspired by Christian and his four year old son watching a building being demolished by excavators, and a few days later, watching ants busying about their anthill. “I realized that these ants and the excavators were doing a very similar thing, just on a different scale,” Christian tells Make:. “So I came up with EarthMover.” Something tells me this one will not be let off its leash. But it will certainly make a dramatic impression, towering high above the fairgrounds as ant-like makers and attendees scurry through their Faire experience. Ristow developed EarthMover for the Coachella music and arts festival, which graciously funded the piece. As Ristow began to work on it, he realized that it was going to end up being ungodly heavy. He removed thousands of pounds of steel in an effort to lighten its load. “And even still, the finished piece ended up at about 40,000 pounds!,” he exclaims. The thing was so darn heavy, in assembling it at Coachella, that Ristow went from using three 10,000 lb. capacity forklifts to a 60-ton crane, to a 100-ton crane. He told the LA Times (in a piece about the festival): “I will never build something that heavy again. Unless I do.” Just another reason why we love this guy.
When asked about his involvement in Maker Faire over the years, and what it’s meant to him, Christian had this to say:
I have always appreciated the Faire’s support. A big part of why I enjoy what I do, and what I want to inspire in others, is this idea that making is a valid thing to do with your life. I’ve managed to fashion a life for myself (with the help of various organizations, not the least of which is Maker Faire) wherein I get to do stuff that most people would consider crazy, or at least untenable. But I’m doing it, I’m making it work. I want other people to see that it’s possible, and that it actually has tremendous value. Maker Faire has been a big part of that, by bringing my work to a big its audience.
You can learn more about Christian’s work on his website. And look for more posts about the art of Maker Faire and more celebration of the Faire’s 10th anniversary as we lead up to the event.