Magic happens when a group of people come together to create collaboratively under a single vision. Sometimes that vision is kind of fuzzy at first but then gets fine-tuned with ideas, contributions, and skills leant by each of the members. I’ve always been fascinated by collaborative art, especially large-scale installations. In our busy lives, it’s often a daunting task to get five people to pick a date to have dinner together, much less a large group to work on a creation that takes months of hard effort.
Meet Austin, Texas’ Vision Gland, a group of makers and artists who came together organically to create big, funky, interactive installations. Inspired by Meow Wolf, “an arts production company that creates immersive, multimedia experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of storytelling” and their incredible building-wide installation called House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Vision Gland started with a wild idea and a Facebook post. They unveiled their first installation, The Vessel behind the Austin Tinkering School during East Austin Studio Tour to the delight of the community. The Vision Gland crew has a new 30×50-foot, 12-room project in the works called The Passage, and it’s going to be installed and unveiled at 8th annual Maker Faire Austin, taking place May 13 and 14, at the Palmer Events Center.
As a nod to how each individual in Vision Gland, with their unique personalities and strengths, adds to the whole, we’re going to try something different here: a group interview. We asked nine members of Vision Gland nine questions. We spoke with Craig Burke, Matthew Bickley, Jerome Morrison, Kami Wilt, Melissa Borrell, Chris Lyons, Tim Ziegler, Alan Watts, and Neal Johnson. And while I originally thought we’d end up with a bunch of overlap in responses, the diverse responses we got back show the beautiful fabric of the crew. Granted, this is no quick read. These are some seriously fun folks with sage insight and advice. Grab a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy the conversation.
1. How did the Vision Gland collective come together?
Craig: I’m guessing we’re all going to have slightly different responses based on how we remember our own personal experience of coming together. I believe it all stemmed from Kami Wilt. She had visited House of Eternal Return and had talked to several other people who also visited the exhibit. East Austin Studio Tour was coming up in three to four months, and she reached out to several people who might be interested in building an immersive, interactive installation behind Austin Tinkering School. There were about six or seven of us at the first meeting. The reach-out for other interested members continued, and there ended up being about 15 folks who worked on it.
Matthew: Kami is our salad bowl. It was Kami’s unfettered vision that no one else had that brought us together. She was our Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, the only one smart enough, brave enough, and with an eye on the big picture that allowed this to happen. Without her, we would’ve all been loose salad ingredients, floating in the slacker quagmire of Austin existence. Her vision (and more specifically, her Facebook post my wife saw) drew us all together. After that, the dream of our own Meow Wolf was the salad fork that got us us moving.
Jerome: As others have said, after seeing Meow Wolf for the first time this summer, Kami wanted to try and recreate our own version of this type of collaborative installation for the East Austin Studio Tour. At first, I was feeling a bit reluctant, but then I joined the team when I saw how much infrastructure was being built and how much space was available for me to create something that’s part of a bigger idea. But the biggest influence was seeing this giant piece of an airplane fuselage as the entrance to The Vessel. As all these pieces were coming together, I realized, this was definitely happening, so I better jump on this train before it passes. I’ve known and worked with several of the team members before we all joined forces. So being presented with the opportunity to work with all of them was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Kami: All summer long, people on Facebook were posting about their visits to Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, and I was dying to go. I finally made it out in August, and of course, it was totally mind-blowing. On the drive back, I was thinking about how Alan Watts (he had held a meeting at his house to discuss what it would take to create a Meow Wolf-type experience back in February).
Then I thought about the amazing maker community here in Austin, and I posited that out of all the makers I know, surely a handful would be up for working together on a Meow Wolf-inspired installation. he deadline to apply for East Austin Studio Tour was the next day. I was already planning on applying for Austin Tinkering School to be a stop on the tour. I sent out a mass text to Alan and a bunch of interesting makers. I decided to take a crazy chance and tack on to my application “We will have a Meow Wolf-inspired art installation built in the backyard.” Although we hadn’t even had one meeting yet :)
Austin has such a creative and supportive maker community. When I started Maker Faire Austin six years ago, so many makers and cool people came out of the woodwork to support and put work into grow our Faire. I made an assumption that the same thing would happen with this group. And it definitely did. Along with people I already knew, like Alan, other cool people I had never even met before were attracted to the project and ended up investing tons of time and energy (as well as their own money, since we had no funds at all and we all just pitched in) in this project. And I’m really thrilled that everyone seems to have found it a very gratifying experience.
Melissa: When I saw the post about a group creating a Meow Wolf-inspired project, I was really excited. It’s such a fun idea and one that lots of people can contribute to, as each room can be completely different. I’m a part of another installation group and Kami posted a call for materials there, so that’s how I found out about it. My studio is just down the street from ATS, so I contacted Kami and told her that I had a ton of materials left over from other projects that they could use.
Chris: The actual origins of Vision Gland stretch back much farther than what has been mentioned so far. The very first iteration of Vision Gland came together when Craig Burke and I were working at this ophthalmologist office in North Austin last summer. Kami came into our office with an unusual eye injury that she sustained visiting Meow Wolf, and the ophthalmologist was truly stumped by it. It turned out that her tear ducts (casually referred to as the vision glands in our office parlance) were producing vividly colored tears due to a mineral deficiency. Craig and I were pretty fascinated by this strange phenomenon and got to talking to Kami about it and subsequently learned about Meow Wolf.
Kami was also struck by our reference to her malfunctioning vision glands. As these things tend to do, upon learning of her owning the Austin Tinkering School and about Meow Wolf and her multicolored tears (since rectified), a bond formed from all of this shared excitement. We immediately began meeting and brainstorming and plotting. It took a while for her vision glands to heal, and in the meantime, Craig and I would always tell the boss we were going to hang out with the vision gland lady. Eventually the name just stuck, and everyone in our office began calling us the Vision Gland collective. Soon after, we began planning The Vessel, and the rest is history.
Tim: We were a loose collection of people. Some of us had worked with each other, built stuff together, taught maker and art classes. Austin is a social town, and on some level, we were all friends of friends. I think that Kami at the Austin Tinkering School was a hub of sorts for this social network. And when the idea was floated to make some kind of installation, a surprising number of people showed up ready to make stuff.
Alan: I was pleasantly surprised that something like Meow Wolf was happening in Santa Fe, but I wondered why something like this wasn’t in Austin. Austin needed something like this. I returned home for last year’s Maker Faire and started telling everyone about it. After the Faire, I had a very informal meetup at my house with like-minded folks to discuss ideas around an Austin version, but due to my lack of people-organizing skills and soon thereafter departure from Austin for the summer, the idea sat idle. Later in the summer, Kami sent a text about revitalizing the idea for EAST. A Facebook group was created around a very vague theme (a wrecked spaceship), we all invited a hodgepodge list of friends who might be interested, and then the ideas started to flow.
Neal: I was a latecomer, having moved to Austin in September after group meetings had already begun. The group was still coalescing, as were the ideas. When I arrived, I called the only person I really knew in town: Alan Watts. He invited me to come by one of the meetings. I did, and I was immediately hooked. The vibe was welcoming, the idea was hair-brained (just the way I like it), the space was perfect, and the talent distributed among the group was astounding.
2. Tell us about your experience seeing a Meow Wolf installation for the first time.
Craig: I actually haven’t been to Santa Fe yet to visit Meow Wolf, however I’ve heard a LOT of people talk about it. I have also met some of the founders of Meow Wolf and listened to them talk about their installations. For me, the inspiration isn’t coming from what Meow Wolf created, but the feelings and excitement that comes from people who have visited, and then trying to recreate those feelings.
Matthew: Last summer, my oldest daughter was interning at Los Alamos, working on a top-secret virtual reality program for the government that I cant go into detail about, but let’s just say YOU know who did not actually win the YOU KNOW WHAT. Anyway, on one of her breaks, she visited Meow Wolf and told me it was a moral imperative that I had to visit it right away. Twelve hours later, I found myself spending the day at Meow Wolf. At the time, it was the third coolest experiences in my life, with the birth of my two children ranked number 1 and 2 (and if you need to know, the second birth ranked number 1). Also, I’ve recently experienced something else, so now Meow Wolf is number 4. On the drive back to Texas, I started designing my own Meow Wolf for my garage. My wife found Kami’s post, and I was forced to join the hell that is Facebook, and the rest is history.
Jerome: I got to see House of Eternal Return this past summer on the way back from my first time at Burning Man, arguably the ULTIMATE collaboration between artists, makers, programmers, performers, and experience designers on Earth. But, like a brightly burning fire, it’s ephemeral and temporary. After a week, it’s all either dismantled or burned to ashes. So stopping in Santa Fe to see what a permanent installation built with the same collaborative and creative zeal shared among a well-organized army of makers and doers completely blew me away.
It was the kind of place I’ve been dreaming of for years, as I’ve moved deeper into being a new media artist. The levels of engagement Meow Wolf created, the wide array of interactivity, and sculptures and sounds and lights and media was one thing, but then the way they threaded everything together with characters, and writing, and all these elements of storytelling into a cohesive world, the way they pulled it off — it was the most singularly immersive experience I’ve ever had. It sent my mind racing to figure out how it all came together. Then, when I saw the looooong list of names on the wall outside the exhibit, I understood that it’s necessary to share my talents and abilities with a larger team to build the things I dream about. I’ve come to learn it’s a shared dream.
Kami: Something so amazing about what Meow Wolf has created is that it’s a whole new kind of art experience that appeals to (almost) everyone, all ages, whether you’re interested in art or not. It’s playful, exploratory, exciting, engaging, and surprising. It’s the complete antithesis of the way we’re used to art being displayed: hanging on walls, contained in a frame, something you can look at from a safe distance. I don’t know how they achieved this, but a HUGE life-changing takeaway I got from House of Eternal Return was a feeling of not being locked out of the art world. There’s something so playful and accessible about it. Even though it’s completely vast and multi-layered and complex, it didn’t make me feel like I shouldn’t try to make art and I should really leave it to the people who are good at it. It made me feel like, “Hey everybody, let’s go make some art!” Art is like playing for adults, and we should all have a chance to play if we want to. Vince Kadlubek, the CEO of Meow Wolf, has a TED talk on radically inclusive art (below) that I didn’t even know about until recently. It’s amazing that somehow that feeling comes through the piece.
Melissa: I was excited to see Meow Wolf and found out about it before they opened. I create immersive installations, so it was completely in line with what I was already doing, but in a different way. I went to Meow Wolf last summer when I was in New Mexico for work and had so much fun exploring it. Even though I was there for three hours, there were still elements that I didn’t see. The concept of discovery was so fun, and I love incorporating that into my work.
Chris: I haven’t been able to visit Meow Wolf yet. I wrote them a letter saying it would actually be more convenient for me if they would just build an installation in Austin so that I wouldn’t have travel. I made some very convincing arguments, so we’ll see what happens.
Tim: A number of people in my universe stumbled upon Meow Wolf last summer. I never thought about too much of an Austin/Santa Fe connection, but over a few months, probably about 10 people I knew were posting on Facebook about going there. I couldn’t really tell what it was about, but I went to Taos in August, so I made a trip to check it out. I was so amazed by the scale of what they did and the fact that I went with a group ranging in age from 10 to 60, and we all stayed there for about four hours completely intrigued by the art and the story. Then came the fall in Austin, and the idea was floated to make something inspired by it. We had a meeting, and a bunch of people showed up who wanted to build stuff.
Alan: I spent April of last year housesitting in Santa Fe. My friend who lives there told me about Meow Wolf, saying it was like spending the day in one of my weird LED creations if it was the size of a bowling alley. So of course I had to go. The moment I walked through the entrance and stood before a two-story house built inside a bowling alley, I was in awe. I ended up spending almost four hours wandering and exploring, mesmerized by the incredible detail. You can sense the immense passion for creating a new experience at Meow Wolf.
Neal: I’ve only seen Meow Wolf through the eyes of those who’ve visited. What intrigued me about them was the consistent reaction of awe, wonder, and excitement radiating from anyone who’s been there. They all struggle to express just how incredible the experience is. Who wouldn’t want to be part of an effort to create a thing like that?
3. Describe the process of designing and fabricating The Vessel.
Craig: There were a lot of meetings in which we discussed the size, content, design, and narrative before we actually started building anything. I’m not sure what the total time spent on discussing and designing the installation versus constructing the installation, but I think people would be surprised how much time was spent dreaming up the build.
This may be the least technical way to design anything, but our design was essentially a constantly morphing drawing on a whiteboard in Austin Tinkering School. At some point, we bought a bunch of 2x4s and started framing walls. We then would change some of the design, do some building, change more of the design, build more, and repeat. The fabrication and design of The Vessel was very organic. I think everyone was thinking “adult playhouse.” This lead to a structure which included, but not limited to, lights, secret passages, trippy TVs, domes, black lights, a ball pit, interactive audio, and a mechanical monkey that would remotely start clapping cymbals together.
Matthew: Pretty straight forward actually. Chris Lyons would say shit that cracked me up, and Alan would say it was doable, and then we started building it. It was a group of really creative people coming up with lots of ideas and then making them into a reality. There was also beer, which helped.
Jerome: Iteration, iteration, iteration. We keep asking what more can be done given the supplies, knowledge, and deadlines. We would talk it out, design some ideas, then get to work on it. What I like about this group is that we go from idea to action with no hesitation. When we come up with an idea, we set forth a plan of action for who’s going to take on what part of that idea, go our separate ways for a few days, come back to the table and put it together, step back, reassess, ask what more we can do, rinse, and repeat until our deadline.
Kami: Since we had basically no idea what we were doing and had never built something like this before, our process was very organic. At first, we just tossed around ideas. There was definitely some anxiety that this would never get off the ground, and we weren’t sure where to even start. Luckily we forged ahead and started building the structure. We had no indoor space to build but luckily had the backyard at Austin Tinkering School. We had to build an entire structure from scratch. Once we had the structure, even just the skeleton of it, and started to frame out the rooms, themes for rooms started to develop during meetings, and different people stepped up to take ownership of the different rooms. There was a main room, the Human Pacification room, that we all contributed to. Our group had a really great chemistry for popping ideas. We would communally come up with interesting/funny ideas and then someone would step up and run with it.
Chris: The beauty of The Vessel was that it wasn’t premeditated at all. The idea of building a giant interactive installation akin to Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return was so overwhelming that we would’ve never done it if we planned anything out before we started. We literally just started. Anyone could build anything they wanted, and did. We worried about tying it all together and making it cohesive afterwards. I think this method of working is both Vision Gland’s best and worst feature.
Tim: I think mostly each artist or team had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, and then as the project moved forward, the connections between things and the infrastructure got filled in. We did have brainstorming meetings and mapping out of what would go where. There were also some heroic efforts to build the overall structure and install a series of tarp roofs to shed rain. We were, after all, building this outside in a backyard and it was rainy season, and, well, there was some water. And a soggy rug that had to be removed.
Alan: I didn’t get back to Texas until early September, but construction had already begun. There was a section of airplane fuselage, a crooked tunnel, and a large room framed out with 2x4s. Being a very systematic person, I was a little hesitant that there really wasn’t an overall plan, just what seemed like random building, but it wasn’t long before I fell into the flow of how our group worked together. The process was very organic. We’d spend the day building and then have a group meeting to discuss progress and ideas in the evening. As the overall design became clear and the frame construction was completed, people claimed “ownership” of different spaces. This assigned a very informal responsibility of each space. Beyond that, we never had any strict schedule or deadlines. Kami allowed for free reign of the space and access to tools, so sometimes it would be a hive of activity and sometimes it would just be a couple of us working intently in our “room.” Sometimes I’d be working on something and then would volunteer to hold a ladder and then get sucked into making labels for cans of alien food. Everyone just went with the flow.
Neal: Others have done a great job expressing the process. I’ll just share that I work in museum exhibition and technology design/build projects, and they’re very formal in terms of a design process. Roles are highly formalized. Vision Gland was the complete opposite. There were times when I was challenged to drop my usual mode of creative work and let this amorphous organism known as Vision Gland do its thing. I’ve learned a lot from this experience as a result: There are multiple viable modes of successful creative expression, even when working in large groups.
4. How was it received during East Austin Studio Tour?
Craig: The reactions from EAST were amazing. Multiple generations of people were enjoying themselves, from toddlers to adults. The most rewarding part of the build was seeing the excitement, awe, and wonder coming from faces.
Matthew: This was the best part of it, the big pay off you get when beating the final boss in a video game. So worth the work, time, and money to see adults acting like kids and kids dragging their parents around to show them what they discovered. During EAST, I heard a parent tell a kid they had to go, that they had already spent two hours here, and that there was more to see on the tour. The kid was all like, “Why? Why do we have to see anything else? I want to stay here.” All reactions were positive. People were blown away at all the detail we went into. I would hang out in the Human Pacification room for hours. My second favorite part was firing it up in the morning when no one had got there yet.
Jerome: The best reaction we received was from the Meow Wolf team who came to visit Austin to location-scout for their next permanent installation [pictured below with core Vision Gland team]. They said they’ve been doing this type of work as Meow Wolf for eight years. During that time, they’ve never been able to truly see the type of experience they create for others, with fresh virgin eyes, until they came to see The Vessel. Everything inside was waiting to be discovered by them, all the mysteries left unsolved. It was extremely validating. They inspired us, and we hope, in turn, we inspired them. This is the type of feedback loop that we hope to grow and foster in Austin. It’s only going to grow stronger and louder.
Kami: There was an amazing reaction to The Vessel during EAST, which takes place all day for two full weekends. We had a huge amount of people coming through, many people coming back a second time, many people staying for several hours. It seems like a huge compliment that parents were saying that they had to drag their kids out even after staying for hours.
Chris: The Vessel was received much more positively than I expected. We got a lot of fiercely positive feedback from little kids, which I was not expecting at all. It really made it all worth it to see them tearing around and having a blast.
Tim: We were so heads-down making the whole thing on a fast timeline that it didn’t seem to me like it would work at all. But it came together and people really were into it. When I saw people coming back the second day, who had been there the day before, I knew we had captured something. The interactive parts — secret passageways and control rooms and a slide you could only get to by climbing through a picture frame — these kinds of interactions brought out a really joyful experience from the visitors that was super gratifying. Kids were into it, but I loved how much the grownup visitors seemed to enjoy the play of it all.
Alan: I think it had the same effect on people of all ages that Meow Wolf has — that art doesn’t have to be passive and just looked at. It can be playful and fun. It was so rewarding to just stand in the corner and watch people walk into the Human Pacification room. They’d either have a bewildered look on their faces or already be smiling. At busy times, they’d catch glimpses of people climbing through a painting or coming out of a hidden door. I once heard a kid exclaim, “Someone just went through that wall!” I was talking with a visitor for a few minutes as he was leaving, and as we spoke, his eyes wandered up to the ceiling and he realized the roof was a tarp slung over a wire. He was totally surprised that we were just outside. I pushed on the flimsy wall to reaffirm his suspicion.
Neal: EAST is an art tour. For the most part, visitors walk through rooms looking at and discussing art in the traditional sense of the word. The Vessel was a bit of a spanner in those works, I think. We opened our doors on the first morning of EAST without a clue whether anyone was going to understand, let alone appreciate and enjoy, what we’d built. There was no user-testing done beforehand! I’ll never forget the first few groups to enter the space. Two young adults walked in, arms folded, looking around, trying to figure out what was going on. We’re all standing around silently screaming “Touch something! Look under that thing over there!” Explore!” Then the first kids came in and started poking around. They figured it out first and wound up leading the way for adults to feel comfortable acting as “users,” not just visitors or spectators. By the second weekend, we started seeing repeat visitors. Kids dragging their other parent or additional friends back to run around for hours. We had a lot of adult repeat visitors too.
5. What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when working collaboratively?
Craig: In projects like this, sometimes you have to be the person who does more of the talking and chooses direction, but most of the time, you need to be the person who is listening and following direction. A lot of the success of Vision Gland has been through making members responsible for different aspects of the installation. This allows someone to have creative control over the specifics of their contribution and allows the rest of the group to help see that come to fruition and provide input.
Matthew: Become an enthusiasm vampire, just like a vampire feeds off blood. Okay, maybe not a good example, but with so many people and so many ideas that are not yours, be open to what other people want to do and, more importantly, are enthusiastic about. It becomes the high-octane fuel that will get your war wagon art project across the desert of mundane projects. Enthusiasm is the nitrous oxide of supercharged V8 art projects.
Jerome: Momentum is most important to me. If we have our weekly meeting and see no progress made from one week to another, then it can be discouraging. But if between meetings we see infrastructure built, walls painted, mechanisms prototyped, lights installed, etc., then the team starts believing in each part of the project more and more. Someone needs to always step up to break ground on an idea. We have to ensure we move from talking about designs and ideas to actualization. We all love working together and don’t want to disappoint one another. So when we take on a part of a project, we each make sure we do our part so we can move forward together.
Kami: I think the fact that this is a collaborative piece runs interference with the project being an ego trip for anyone. I think it’s also important to not take things too seriously, or to be creating from a place of “I hope I get something great out of this.” If we had known that the Meow Wolf core team would end up visiting The Vessel, we might have clenched up and not been as playful or had as easy access to fun ideas or willingness to try different fun things. I think for all of us, we were giddy with just doing something that didn’t really make sense to make space for in our busy lives, but that was just completely fun and crazy and interesting. I also think it’s really important to have a feeling of freedom and non-judgement when your group is brainstorming.
Melissa: Flexibility and being open to hearing other ideas. Listening to others and considering the overall project is important not just your own vision for what it “should” look like but being open to how it evolves.
Chris: I think it’s important to stay positive even when you’re thinking negatively. I struggle with that, especially. Groups of people are really fragile, and it doesn’t take much to sink the whole dynamic.
Tim: Gosh, I don’t know. It’s always hard, and meeting project deadlines are a race against time. Making anything epic is driven more by the belief that somehow you can make it happen than a given plan. And people always get frayed. One thing I love about this group is people are really encouraging and supportive of each other, while at the same time being willing to be very opinionated about what they think is working and isn’t working.
Alan: I think it’s listening and letting people voice their ideas or concerns completely.
Neal: I’ve always struggled with letting go and letting the group organize itself. Vision Gland helped me understand the value of giving a group of creative people space to find the frequency on which to communicate and the rhythm by which to work together.
6. What’s the biggest challenge of working collaboratively? How do you overcome it?
Craig: For me, the biggest challenge is not creating too much definition for aspects of a project. I typically want to know exactly what is going to exist in a space before building; however, working collaboratively in an organic fashion has forced me, in a good way, to let go of definitions while building. My space for The Vessel started off as being a black-light jungle, then a lab, then a black-light jungle lab, then finalized itself as a black-light jungle lab in which you can tap on some oranges to play audio samples (if tapped in just the right way with the right timing, you can recreate Beyonce’s song “Formation”).
Matthew: Terry’s negativity and unwillingness to help. LOL, sorry Terry, I haven’t seen you in a while and couldn’t resist. Terry is awesome and a blast to work with. Every group needs a Terry. He was our Captain America. Seriously, the hardest part for me was schedules and having a full-time life outside of Vision Gland.
Jerome: Schedules. This is a large team that’s growing from one week to the next. Since we all have jobs that take most of our daylight hours during the week, we can’t always all meet at the same time. We need to keep everyone on the same page, so we don’t step on each others toes and cause setbacks. It’s best when everyone is at the table solving problems together, so the best ideas are always shared. I’m often left wondering what would another member think about this current problem and how would they address this? But thanks to technology, emails, and social media, all these means of decentralized organizing makes keeping everyone on the same page a not-too-daunting task.
Kami: I would say the biggest challenge was keep going through the uncomfortable beginning stages, where we’re just not sure if the project has legs or not. There were multiple moments on both The Vessel and The Passage when I wondered whether or not I should give up or drop out. I just had to decide to take the leap of faith and hope for the best. These were both such giant daunting projects that it’s not at all a minor commitment. Later on, when the project has momentum, that question dissipates, and it’s like a boulder rolling downhill. The project starts to come together, we’re having so much fun working together and seeing all the ideas come to fruition, and we’re so happy that we stuck with it.
Melissa: Making sure that everything gets done on time and that someone is taking care of everything. We all get caught up in what we’re working on but have to make sure that the structure is stable, or that someone has rented the truck, etc., basically all of the less fun stuff. But the group has regular meetings and between all of us, we seem to remember all of the things that need to get done, and someone always steps up to take on that task. Basically, having members who follow through on what they say they’ll do makes this all run amazingly smoothly. We don’t have to manage each other very much. Everyone works hard and delivers.
Chris: The biggest challenge is contributing constructive criticism without being negative. Vision Gland is very good at throwing out crazy ideas that can never be realistically realized at this stage, and I’m one of the worst offenders in that respect. Sometimes we get carried away and can use a grounded voice to bring us back to Earth. I think we struggle with having a pragmatic vision at times. The Passage might help with that since the challenges involved are brand new.
Tim: I think you have to build a culture that works. You don’t want to have lots of rules or committees or oversight, but you also don’t want a free-for-all where the result doesn’t really hold up. Part of it is chemistry. Honest and straightforward communication is important.
Alan: See my response to the previous question :) Not everyone is a good communicator, so there can be unknown issues and grievances without even knowing it. I think all you can do to overcome it is to provide the proper space and time for discussions and not discount anything people say.
Neal: At the end of the day, communication is the key. You have to set the right level of communication and find the right mechanisms through which to organize, plan, work, etc. Even in this electronic age, rich with web-based tools, open source software, etc., it’s still most important to talk face-to-face with the people you’re working with.
7. Tell us about The Passage.
Craig: The Passage is the most recent exhibit by Vision Gland. When we were talking about a project for Maker Faire Austin, we all knew that we didn’t want to remake The Vessel or even a Vessel 2.0; however, we did agree that we wanted to make an immersive, interactive installation. With The Vessel, the design challenges all revolved around the space being outdoors, how to deal with rain, heat, humidity, sun, etc. With The Passage, the design challenges revolve around portability: making something offsite, disassembling it, and then rebuilding it within a day at the Palmer Events Center.
With The Passage, the design and content was developed organically, much like The Vessel. There were several meetings in which we discussed the project. We relied on a whiteboard for layout, and different parts of the space evolved. The Passage is a collection of spaces which provide an experience of euphoria, bewilderment, and curiosity. Another member of the group can probably give a better description.
Matthew: It will shake the pillars of reality.
Jerome: The Passage, much like The Vessel, is a multi-room immersive experience of lights, sounds, images, interactivity, and secrets. This version has its own design challenges different from The Vessel; however, we have to break it all down, move it to inside the Palmer Events Center, and set it all back up in a day before Maker Faire begins, then break it all down at the end of the weekend, and store it on a friends property. So the rooms need to be modular, easily constructed and deconstructed and packaged up. I believed in our ability to do this, because after Burning Man this year, where I was part of a team that drove all the camp supplies for about 80 people, plus several large installations, in a caravan of moving and pickup trucks, across the southwest over about a week, I knew we’d be able to drive our installation four miles into Austin with one truck.
Kami: With The Vessel, our challenge was to come up with something that didn’t seem too imitative of Meow Wolf. With The Passage, our challenge was to come up with something that wasn’t too similar to The Vessel! I was really psyched that in discussions we came up with a really different, interesting idea for The Passage: It’s a passage between life and death, but you don’t know which way you’re going (are you being born or dying?). We played with concepts like purgatory with our waiting room, where you might get stuck waiting forever; and the underwater room, also known as the amnio room; and the birth/death room, where you have to face your fears to move on to the next level.
Chris: The Passage came about after one of our members, Jerome, had a near-death experience (NDE) last January, where he was certified dead for over four minutes. A medical researcher studying the NDE phenomena interviewed him soon after, and a lot of the early ideas for The Passage are based on what Jerome described to the researcher. Unfortunately for us, Jerome’s memories of what he told the researcher are completely gone. Apparently, that is very common. It’s described as being similar to how dreams fade soon after waking. So, all we have to go on are the researcher’s notes, but it’s still pretty interesting. Of course, we have had to abandon many aspects of the original Passage plan based off Jerome’s death for financial and time constraint reasons, but we might bring them back for a future Passage version 2. One idea that we had to abandon due to fire codes at the Palmer Event Center was the “Walk into Hell,” featuring a long hallway filled with flames. We’re pretty sure it would have been safe but the fire marshals don’t want jets of flame anywhere inside of a building, even if they’re aimed over most people’s heads.
Tim: Just like Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards in high heels, The Passage is like The Vessel but it has to be mobile and able to be set up in a day. We’re building it at the Austin Tinkering School as a series of movable rooms with walls based on theater flats. It’s a passage through the rooms and will include a strange waiting room, a hall of lights, a room of interactive 3D shapes, an aperture leading into a dome, and other elements. We’ll move it the day before the Maker Faire in a box truck and another truck with a trailer.
8. What’s your favorite part of being a member of Vision Gland?
Craig: For me, my favorite part is getting to spend time with some amazing people. I love the design, fabrication, and dreaming of future projects, but the people are by far the best part.
Matthew: Beer. No, people first, and then beer. I didn’t have some of the mad skills others had, and everyone was generous with their time and helped each other, with the exception of Terry. OMG, sorry Terry, I just can’t resist. Watching “Dancing with the Stars” with Jerome, Neal’s homemade pecan pie, Craig’s tall tales of his previous life as a Krav Maga instructor for MI5, Alan gypsy fiddle playing, Terry’s impromptu rap battles with the chickens out back, so many fond memories.
Jerome: I love all the ideas and abilities everyone brings to the table. My favorite thing about this is all the problems and puzzles I get to help everyone solve. It’s so gratifying to go from idea to actual thing, weekly. When someone has an idea, I enjoy breaking it down and figuring out how to put it all the pieces together. Then break away, make those pieces, meet again, and put those pieces together. Plus I’m great at making connections between physical objects and mechanisms to computer technology and programs to create novel interactive experiences with lights, sounds, and moving images. So anywhere I can flex my new media artist chops, any element I can add into others installations or build into my own, I take full advantage of.
Kami: My favorite part is the contented hum of activity on a Sunday build day, seeing all the things that have just been talked about starting to take shape, just working and building. My goal for making space for this project in my life (and the unofficial motto, in my mind ) is: “make stuff, have fun.” Collaborating with others who also just really enjoy being in the zone and making is really wonderful. Life is super busy, and it’s hard to make room for stuff that’s just for fun. Because there is a deadline with these projects, I feel kind of forced to make time for making. Once I’m here working, I feel so energized and refreshed. There’s an intrinsic pay off, because I think we all just really love making.
Melissa: I love working collaboratively. I’m able to do things that I don’t have the skills or knowledge to do on my own, and because of the collective knowledge, I can just put an idea out there and others are willing and able to help me make it happen. I’ve never made an interactive sound piece before, and it’s really exciting to be able to be creative and develop a piece that will trigger sounds without being limited by my own experience.
Chris: I like the Vision Gland tattoos that we all got last year after The Vessel. I had never had a tattoo before, so it was kind of a fun novelty for me. The tattoo is actually a picture of Kami’s eye (bigger than life size!), so that’s pretty cool.
Tim: The regular world doesn’t necessarily support making crazy elaborate projects for no reason. But these beautiful people do. And they have truly expert skills in electronics, multimedia, fabrication, art, and design! It’s all my favorite.
Alan: Everyone has different skills, but we all support each other. If there’s an opportunity or need to help someone, there’s no hesitation. There’s no turf here.
Neal: I sense that Vision Gland is an organism that is the sum total of not only its core members but also their social networks that connect us with the entire Austin maker community. As such, I see the creative potential of this collective as unlimited. Austin is an amazing place.
9. What, to you, uniquely defines the maker community in Austin?
Craig: It’s hard for me to uniquely define the maker community in Austin. I don’t think there is any one type of maker. There’s a huge music scene and a great theater scene, both of which I would define as makers. Additionally, there’s a growing visual arts scene and a Flipside/Burner scene. I think the most exciting thing happening is that we’re starting to see growth of the interactive and tech art scene. Besides Vision Gland, folks at dadageek, Austin Interactive Installation Meetup, and Hand Made Music are all fostering the idea of building things that blink, makes noise, are projected, and are interactive.
Matthew: In ye times of old, the title of potwalloper extended the electoral rights to more households, so more people could be included in the parliamentary process. Unlike other art collectives (i.e., the Authority Institute), Austin accepts all. It is the creative donut hole in the center of Texas. As I tell my children on road trips, “Be ye wary: The further you get from Austin, the louder the banjo gets!”
Jerome: There’s only about on or two degrees of separation between all the makers in this community. If we don’t already know each other, we have mutual friends who are likely also makers. There’s so many opportunities for collaborations between people, whether through the local Burning Man community, Maker Faire, artist coops, hackerspaces, private parties, or larger events like EAST or SXSW, that after a few years of engaging in a few of these opportunities, one is going to discover a path through all of these communities.
Kami: Austin has an incredibly supportive and creative Maker community. This has been my experience since I moved here 20 years ago. When I think of an idea or want to launch a business or event, people come out of the woodwork to support it. This has been my experience with Austin Tinkering School, Maker Faire Austin, and now Vision Gland.
Melissa: The very supportive environment. I feel like it really is a community and people are doing different and interesting things but not in a competitive way. People are willing to help each other.
Chris: Just a desire to see your visions made reality. That’s what it’s all about to me.
Tim: In years past, Austin’s creative culture was driven by music, as that was the predominating force ever since our pre-history (Willie Nelson and the Armadillo) through punk rock (Butthole Surfers), the dawning of SXSW, and the sort of creative energy of the town. I think this is now changing as the city’s boom has brought interesting art and influences of all kinds, but the music scene set the tone, and its hallmark was that there was never any money in it, so the scene was always very collaborative and very supportive and very cool. That is to say, there was never any angle in screwing anybody, and any sort of payday was just a dream, so let’s make some stuff. I think that’s the secret to Austin’s creative DNA. The lack of infrastructure in any genre — no real record labels, no film studios — led to an ingrained DIY ethic and collaborative vibe that still makes Austin special to those of us who live here.
Alan: I don’t have a comparison to other maker communities, but I feel the Austin vibe permeates all scenes here and the maker community is no different. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie and bootstrapping in this town that creates a laissez-faire approach to creative endeavors. In the same sense that musicians seem perfectly content with just playing music in a club to a dozen of their friends, we just want to make cool stuff and show it to our friends.
Neal: I’m still getting to know the length and breadth of Austin’s maker community, but I can certainly compare it with Washington, D.C., where I lived for 30 years before moving here. And I can say with confidence that the community here is bigger, more welcoming, and more collaborative. Everyone’s so friendly and willing to share ideas, knowledge, and skills.
Come meet the Vision Gland crew and experience The Passage at Maker Faire Austin on May 13 and 14!