Open MAKE: Celebrating Trash at the Exploratorium

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Open MAKE: Celebrating Trash at the Exploratorium

Open MAKE on Saturday was great fun as always, and bittersweet — bitter because it’s the last one this year, and sweet because, as Tinkering Studio director Karen Wilkinson pointed out, the Pier 15 location where the Exploratorium is moving to next year will have five times the space for tinkering and making — and it will be happening there all the time, not just on occasion.

Presiding over the event in front was Lidia the Seal, a massive, 8′ tall sculpture by Angela Pozzi that’s made almost entirely of trash (the day’s theme) that washed onto beaches. And drawing crowds in the back was Caine’s Arcade, a great mini amusement arcade made out of scrap cardboard by 9-year-old Caine Monroy who is the subject of a beautiful new short film by Nirvan Mullick. Swap-O-Rama-Rama tables were piled high with buried clothing treasures, and sewing machines were on hand for on-the-spot remaking (20 minute limit). At 3:30pm, a “Trashion Show” spotlighted local clothing designers’ remade couture. Here are some other highlights of the day:

Caine Monroy sells tickets to his arcade

Shuai Chen of SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts) helped people make hand puppets out of fabric discards and other trash. Since 1976, SCRAP has been diverting discards from local businesses to schoolteachers for use as art supplies, and they currently give away or sell at deep discount (typically 1/3 of retail) 115 tons of supplies per year. Located in the Bayview district of San Francisco, SCRAP is open to the the public at monthly giveaways. The most in-demand goods they handle are office supplies such as reams of blank paper, markers, and foamcore posterboard. They also have lots of picture frames, and blank greeting cards for 20c. One thing they’ve had less success finding takers for lately are back issues of National Geographic and Smithsonian, which are the only two magazines they stock.

Shuai Chen demos a trash puppet

Another exhibitor that helps teachers was RAFT, which featured their classroom-friendly kit for making a Benham’s Disk top from an old CD, a plastic bottle cap, and a marble. RAFT volunteers assemble the kits and make them available at cost or subsidized to science teachers, many of whom have no budgets for classroom materials and pay for them out of their own pockets.

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Also on the ultra-cheap teaching hacks tip, Joel Rosenberg was there with a paper-and-brad schematic version of the Cracker Box Amp project from MAKE Volume 09. It was along the same lines as the page-size circuits he showed me at the last Open MAKE, but an impressive step up in what it could do. We discussed how it could be made both more instructive and cheaper still by substituting a length of thin nichrome wire and a regular wire sweep for the potentiometer. So cool. To demonstrate the amp, he plugged in his iPod and played the Clash’s London Calling, and it was a triumph of punk.

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Sudhu Tewari showed a bunch of musical instruments and noisemakers made from trash. Many used contact microphones, which reveal a hidden world of sound when attached to many ordinary objects. The contact mics are just mini piezoelectric speakers used in reverse, to convert sound vibrations into electric signal instead of turning signal into sound. You can cut the speakers out of musical greeting cards, but larger ones from Jameco have a wider frequency response. To avoid ground hum, Sudhu uses coaxial cable and splits the ground wire mesh into two wires that he solders symmetrically on each side of the piezo element. He demo’d contact-mic instruments made from a colander and springs, mason twine and a board, and a grooved piece of wood that he found on the street; a friend told him it was a featherboard for use with a table saw. Sudhu played the featherboard’s thin tines can be played with a bow, and also used its contact mic to amplify the sci-fi sound of a struck, dangling Slinky.

Piezo speaker / contact mic wiring

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Colander and springs

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Mason twine and board

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Bowed featherboard

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Slinky sound

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Turntable and lid drum kit

Team Viper showed their amazing flight simulator, which is built into the cockpit section of a real salvage Piper 128 airplane. They sourced the plane section at Faeth Aircraft Parts in Sacramento, which they described as an amazing and enormous place, where you can browse through rows and rows of decommissioned airplanes and buy whatever pieces you want. Don’t look for it online; you have to phone and make an appointment.

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Viper flight simulator

Nicole Catrett and others from the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio helped people make “Haute Mobiles” — small wire mobiles that dangle over your head, anchored at the bottom by a wire headband. Expect this great idea to spread. Gever Tulley set up an Arduino-controlled system that took fascinating stroboscopic photos of rotating bits of trash hanging from a string. Andrea Nemerson showed how to do great-looking “graphics transplants” on old t-shirts, by cutting them up and collaging them with Seam-A-Seam2, a double-stick fusable web that you iron on.

Haute Mobile on display
Working on Haute Mobiles
Strobed binder clip
"Graphics transplant" t-shirt

At the “Meet the Makers” program in the theater, it became clear that trash artists have great senses of humor. I’ve never seen group presentations by marble sculptors or painters in oils, but I can’t imagine nearly as many laughs as the audience enjoyed with this lineup. MAKE founder and publisher Dale Dougherty moderated the panel and observed that makers are resourceful and often just plain cheap, and like squirrels, they collect things for later. He welcomed Caine Monroy and Nirvan Mullick, who told the audience that they would be screening Nirvan’s film Caine’s Arcade later, at 3pm.

Nemo Gould explained that he was an artist-in-residence at the Recology, aka the San Francisco dump, which he called “the happiest place on Earth.” (Recology’s 4-month artist residencies are much sought-after by trash artists). Gould showed photos and videos of his beautiful all-trash sculptures and also his well-organized workshop, explaining that there’s no use collecting lots of stuff if you can’t find it when you need it. Cathy McEver explained that she calls her blog “Stuff You Can’t Have” because people are always asking her where she got the things that she makes, and then whether they can buy them– and the answer is No. (But they can make their own.) One series that Cathy showed photos of was “Wonder,” in which she made pieces from Wonder bread and the bags it comes in. Wonder bread lasts a long time indoors, and the four slices that she has embroidered (two of which are in other people’s art collections) still look good.

Sudhu Tewari also did the artist residency at Recology and loved it. He’s currently working on a PhD in Cultural Musicology and has noticed that when people are presented with traditional musical instruments that they can’t play, they’re intimidated; these instruments convey a lot of cultural context and have a lot of rules. But when you give them a new instrument, they just go ahead and play and jam together. So Sudhu is working with others on a “Sound Garden,” a kind of sonic playground with one-of-a-kind instruments that people can experiment with together.

Jeremy Mayer assembles amazing sculptures entirely out of typewriter parts, which are plentiful. He explained that he uses no solder, glue, or welding to join the parts; its all just the parts themselves. It takes him about 1000 hours to construct a life-size human figure, and he tries to model his constructions after real human anatomy, including the bones, musculature and ligaments. Finally, Paul Spooner showed videos of his charming and hilarious automata, which are like mechanical sight gags.

Paul Spooner sketch
Another Paul Spooner sketch
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Calling all remakers, upcyclers, found object artists, and refuse miracle makers! Win a MakerBot Replicator and a trip to World Maker Faire in NYC! Submit your idea to Project Remake, presented by Schick.

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Paul Spinrad is a broad-spectrum enthusiast, writer, maker, and dad who lives in San Francisco. He hatches schemes at

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