Maker Faire New York: Illuminator Interview

Craft & Design
Maker Faire New York: Illuminator Interview

There are over 500 makers of all stripes preparing a wide variety of projects for Maker Faire New York, taking place next weekend, September 29 and 30, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. From engineers to crafters, roboticists to recyclers, what all these makers have in common is a deep passion for what they create. Artivist Mark Read is no exception, and he and the Illuminators will be bringing out their modified light graffiti van, The Illuminator. We chatted with him to find out more.

1. What inspired creation of the Illuminator? How did it come to be and who was involved in its creation?
Well, I coordinated some projections on the side of the Verizon Building on November 17th, 2011, in support of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration and march across the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway. That was the birth of the “OWS Bat Signal,” and it was a pretty successful action. Made the news, the video went viral, I wound up on the Rachel Maddow Show, all that jazz.

So, in the wake of that success, there was a hunger to do more, and people began to approach me with ideas for a mobile projection unit, which I was definitely keen to do. Ben Cohen, the cofounder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream was one of them, and he obviously had the resources to do it. He also had ideas for other vehicles, kind of a series of odd and interesting performative trucks and vans. I reached out to Hackett at the Madagascar Institute, who I’ve known for some time socially, and he was available to put together and lead a build team for what we were then calling “The Mobilizers.”

We reached out to Josh Young at Serrett Metalworks in Gowanus, which has a large enough space to do that kind of build out, and we got to work on The Illuminator. Hackett and his team also made designs for vehicle #2, The Changemaker, which was going to go around stamping money with subversive messaging. Ben ended up pulling the plug on The Changemaker, but the Mada crew, let by Hackett, Benjamin Mortimer, and Mike O’Toole, were able to construct The Illuminator pretty quickly. Now, as many people familiar with The Illuminator know, Ben is also pulling the plug on The Illuminator, which is why we — The Illuminator Collective, the crew that has been operating it — has started a Kickstarter campaign, so that we can continue to do this particular brand of what some people call “artistic activism.”

2. When did the Illuminator make its first public appearance and what was the reaction?
We had our debut on March 3rd, as part of Low Lives: Occupy!, which was an evening of virtual political performance art. We went to a bunch of locations, culminating in an intervention at a Chase Bank branch location, where we were greeted by a hundred or so folks from a political performance group known as the Plus Brigades. The reaction was amazing, both in that last instance, where the activists just went crazy, but also in other spaces like near Cooper Union, where we opened up the library and wound up having some amazing conversations with students.

3. Describe the equipment you have at work inside and outside the van.
Inside the van we’ve mounted a Sanyo PLV-XF1000, which is a 12,000-lumen projector (the same model that we used on November 17th on the Verizon Building), on a custom designed and built periscoping metal platform that is bolted to the van floor. We also have a small soundsystem, an Amplivox S312 Sound Cruiser, which is one of those twin horn things you see on top of the cars that go around making announcements, like a crazy ranter guy sound system.

To power that gear, as well as the cheapo Gateway laptop that we use as our media source, we had to reconfigure the electrical system of the van and add a battery. The standard output alternator doesn’t generate enough power, so we swapped that out for a high-output alternator that pushes 500 amps. We go directly from that alternator to the car battery, obviously, and also directly to a huge deep-cycle marine battery that lives in the main body of the van. And when I say huge, I mean it — it holds 200 amp hours and weighs probably 60 or 70 pounds. We wired a 1500-watt inverter to that battery to convert the DC battery power to standard AC power. We plugged in a quad box (four outlet wall socket) to the inverter, and we run power from those outlets to run all the gear except for the Amplivox, which runs off DC power and so is wired directly to the battery.

We drilled holes and put threaded posts through to the roof of the van to hold the brackets for the speakers, and the folks at Madagascar installed a nice waterproof lap steel hatch that attaches with simple master locks. They also made a steel ladder to attach to the back of the van to make it easier to get up and down.

And of course we have the library, which was designed and built by Gaylen Hamilton. It’s ingenious and a bit hard to describe, but it’s attached to the side doors, and one side of the shelves has hinges itself, so it swings out to a total width of about 6 feet. It’s amazing — all brass and wood and stained to look pretty.

4. The Illuminator also houses an infoshop and mini library. How are these housed and what type of material do they contain?
Well, see the above for a sense of how its installed. We actually got most of the literature from The People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street. There’s fiction in there — I’ve seen To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, Catch-22, as well as comic books, but mostly its political journals and books about the economic crisis, the environmental crisis, the crisis of capitalism, essentially.

5. Are there any rules and laws around light graffiti? Have you encountered any issues while projecting?
The rules aren’t super clear. From what my lawyer friends tell me, there is no statute against light graffiti as such. There are statutes that prohibit advertising without permission, but it seems that as long as you’re not selling a product or promoting a service or event, you’re not breaking the law by projecting on walls. Of course, if you project into someone’s window, that’s invasion of privacy. And there is a vehicular code that limits the power of any light on a non-emergency to 32 candlepower. But I honestly don’t even know how to measure candlepower, and I doubt that the police would be able to tell you what candlepower is either.

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t encountered problems. In fact, problems are par for the course. The police will just make up a charge if they want to, and worry about it getting dismissed later. And they’ve threatened to impound the vehicle, of course. Our protocol is to do what they ask. If they want us to stop, we stop, no arguments and no negotiations. Impounding the vehicle is something we can’t risk.

6. Tell us about yourself. What is your background?
Well, I’ve been an activist for a long time, and have always gravitated towards creative protest, early on with Bread and Puppet theater, and later with Reclaim the Streets. Also an independent filmmaker, my most successful film was about the Iraq War, called Dance of Death, which was in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. I teach Media Studies part-time at the Gallatin School of NYU, which I really enjoy. I’m from Maine. I got my undergrad degree in Religious Studies, which may seem kind of random but it’s really not.

7. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I don’t know how or when I first heard about Maker Faire, but its been a while. Lots of friends have participated. Sabrina Merlo reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to participate this year.

8. How will you be displaying the Illuminator at the Faire?
We’ll be parked outside, and doing a little bit of illuminating at the end of each night. The rest of the time we’ll just keep the library open, which will include a lot of photos, a log book of the last 6 months, and some other background material. We’ll probably also play some videos so people can see the thing in action. Mainly we’ll be there to have conversations.

9. You’re also giving a talk at the Faire. What’s the subject of your talk and what are they types of things you hope to address?
The talk is going to be a panel discussion with myself and my fellow Illuminators. We’re going to go over some of the history of this work, and try to tease out best practices and tactics for urban luminous interventions. We’ll also be touching more generally on the role of arts and culture in social movements.

10. What do you love most about New York City?
An impossible question, but I love the chance encounter and conversation with someone you don’t know and might not have that much in common with. The city is so dense, we can’t help bumping up against each other, and that can sometimes feel like an intrusion, but if you go with it, it can be a wonderful opportunity.

For folks wanting to come join us, all the information you need, including a database of makers who will be there and how to get tickets in advance, is on the Maker Faire site.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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