Rudimentary Automata Building - Cams and Axles

When I think of simple machines I think of things like these rudimentary automata with which we were examining the use of axles and cams.  I realize that actual simple machines are much less complex and consist of things like inclined planes, levers, pulleys, wedges, etc. We at  MAKETANK have an inclination toward kinetic art and so the exploration of axles and cams in these little boxes was right up our alley. This project offered the kids some tool use beyond the glue guns, and there was some vigorous use of hole punches as you can see below.

For the first day we used 6" x 6" cardboard bows cut in half so that we could get two frames from each box. Once they had their frame they marked a center line around the entire thing so that all additions would be properly lined up.  Then marks were made equal distance up two opposing sides and holes punched to hold the axle.  Rod and I pre-cut a bunch of 1 1/2-inch round wooden discs with a 1/4" hole in the center and an additional hole offset to take a small handle.  These would serve as a crank once mounted onto the end of a piece of 1/4" dowel.  In order to keep the box square the kids glued small cardboard triangles into each of the four corners.  It was important not to permanently attach any of the cams as they were added to the axle as once they were fixed adjustments were limited as the axle could not be removed from the frame.

As you can see above, some were finding the cardboard triangles to be too difficult to deal with and employed wooden triangles for more rigidity. This was a great project.  It lent itself to loads of personalization and creativity.  It was another instance where kids had to learn to persevere through initial frustrations and set-backs to get to a place where they could find success and make the project their own.  There are always some kids naturally better equipped for this than others.  The joy comes in finding the right project for an individual child - one where they are so engaged with the concepts and possibilities that they are willing to stick with it through the annoyances and get to the innovation stage.  This was that project for a couple of our kids, ones who usually gave up after one or two set backs but this time marshaled their personal resources and powered through.

In this project you can explore myriad combinations of cam shapes and sizes and placements to achieve desired outcomes. A round cam against a round cam off-set will make your upper component turn in a circle.  An oblong cam on the axle non off-set can make the upper component go up and down.  Staggering a series of these can make a caterpillar type motion.  You can experiment with various shapes of cams (round, oblong, egg-shaped, nautilus, etc.) and their placement to achieve your desired outcome.

We found that if the vertical dowels were just poking up through a hole int he cardboard things were too wiggly.  To solve this we set pieces of straw through those holes to provide some stability to the transaction.

Once people had their cams set as they wanted them and all of the spacing complete it was time to place some stoppers on axles on the inside and outside of the walls to keep things from slipping and sliding out of place so much.  For kids who were really getting into this project the general wonkiness of the cardboard was getting frustrating (for me as well).  

For kids who wanted to continue to pursue their design and use the cardboard version as a proof of concept we made some wooden frames the following week.  These frame coupled with the wooden axles, cranks, and cams were much more pleasing to deal with.  No matter what materials you use this is a confounding process as times but I look forwarding to finding the time to work on some iterations of my own again in the near future.  Some really exciting end products are possible here and there is so much to learn and explore about how machines work and what is possible with small modifications.  I know it isn't possible for everyone to make their own wooden components and the cardboard is a great option for initial explorations.  But if you want to work on this for more than a day or two I really suggest finding a way to use wood, it is much more satisfying and if you have a good fit on components they do not need to be permanently fixed in place so they can be reused again and again with future students.

Rocket Cars

Encouraged by the great success we had with NASA's paper rocket plans we decided to give their rocket car project a go.  

We are revving up to start on the STEAM Club project for the Oxford Kinetics Festival, which will be one large Rube Goldberg set-up.  It seemed like a rocket car might be a good component that might be able to be added to this future work.

There was some rough going with the rocket cars. The propulsion came from the air leaving a balloon which had to be attached to the vehicle.  We used drinking straws as a means of inflating the balloon. Most of the consternation centered around axles and wheels.  Kids had a lot of trouble finding the right combination to get the cars to really move along the way they hoped.  Decisions had to be made as to whether you wanted fixed axles and rotating wheels, or fixed wheels and spinning axles.  Overall the fixed wheels seemed to work best.  Most success came from using a part of a drinking straw attached to the underside of the craft.  Then a small dowel could be set inside the straw and used as the axle; wheels could then be fixed to the axle.

We laid down a very long strip of duct tape down the hall to track distances so kids can compete against each other and against their own previous iterations.  I think this could be a successful project with some pre-implementation trials of materials.  We try to just source optional materials from the local hardware store or our weird collection of odds and ends.  If you purchased actual wheels to use that fit securely on an axle that would make things easier but do away with some of the inventiveness.  If kids can power through the frustration phase they can really find some innovative solutions. Connecting the balloons to the straws and finding suitable wheel options were problem areas.  

Paper Rockets!!

If there is one universal truth we have learned doing STEAM projects it is that all kids love rockets. Several years ago I made four rocket launchers for the Kinetics Festival.  These launchers are made of pvc pipe and connected to a bicycle pump.  They were made to shoot 20 ounce soda bottle rockets which you can fill with various amounts of water before launching. I modified these slightly to accommodate rolled paper rockets for STEAM Club.

NASA has some great educational resources and I based our rocket project from their plans, which you can link to here.  The launcher was made of 1/2" pvc so that is what we used to roll the heavy bond paper of the rocket body around to assure a good fit.  Their idea to use a CD as a guide to make the nose cone was great.  You just traced the outline of a CD, cut it out, then fold in half, then in half again.  Tape the edges of the cone then separate to make something looking like an ice cream cone.  We found through experimentation that you want to attach this nose cone to the rocket body with hot glue, tape was not enough to keep it from blowing off on the launch pad.

There was a lot of great experimentation to be had in designing and applying fins, they could make a big difference in flight patterns.  

There was certainly lots of room for personalized design both functional and decorative.

This is a perfect project for iterative design.  Every kid would build a rocket, run outside and try to launch it, then come back inside to modify, go back out and re-launch, and repeat, repeat, repeat. This sort of real life design and test process is invaluable in teaching kids about how innovative design takes place in the real world.

We worked on rockets for a couple meetings.  One of our challenges was to try to create a recoverable nose cone.  We were hoping we could make a nose cone that would separate after the launch and drift back down to earth with the help of a parachute. This proved much more challenging than we imagined but led to a lot of great experimentation.  We used plastic newspaper bags with string as parachutes.  

In the last five minutes of the last day of rockets one team finally got a parachute to successfully deploy. Nose cone separation proved elusive, though many very creative designs were tested. The kids would have happily spent the entire year working on rockets but we wanted to move on to some other projects.  But it is great to know that it is a universally loved project that leads kids to embrace iterative design by its nature.  I plan to use it in the future as an initial project with new groups so we can get to know each other and set a standard for work practices while immersed in an engaging and fun project.

You wouldn't believe how many pictures I had to take to finally get a shot of an airborne rocket.

You wouldn't believe how many pictures I had to take to finally get a shot of an airborne rocket.

After we had finished rockets I found this great altimeter.  You can have students use this device  by standing a set distance from the launcher and following the trajectory of the rocket to find the altitude it reaches at its apex.  Then you can compete for height and more accurately track the success of modifications.  

Wing building techniques

For STEAM Club this week we decided to examine some building ideas associated with wings. Though in the spirit of this club we were not sticklers about kids making wings or anything else that could actually fly, we just wanted to examine some of the materials and concepts that were in play in the experimentation of early wing design.

Granted, there was likely no hot glue in the Wright Brother's workshop, but the use of flexible wooden reed and and paper and fabric skin was more on point. The hot glue just made things go quicker.

A fine example of us presenting one idea and the kids running in a direction we didn't conceive of, we discussed winds thinking planes and maybe birds, we got dragons. We were, of course, delighted with the grace of the dragon wings created.

We also had a great variety of attempts at balloons.  They were awesome, but of course they did not fly.  But we loved them and how well the kids embraced experimenting with the materials.

Squishy Circuits and Glowing Pickles

At the end of last week Rod had promised everyone he would make a pickle glow the following week.  Everyone was excited to see if this wonderment would actually take place.  Well, he didn't disappoint.  Amazingly, Rod managed not to shock himself, one pickle was so exciting that we all rallied him to try three. We were running back and forth to turn off the lights and take pictures in a flurry of pickle burning delight. It was so fun to see the pickles glowing like crazy, as well as smoking and stinking up the room for the rest of the day. He did give a very scientific explanation of the phenomenon, complete with illustrations, but I am not going to do a fine job of repeating it here, maybe he will chime in at a later date.

Following up on the paper circuits we decided to delve into squishy circuits.  I found recipes on line from University of St. Thomas for conductive and insulating dough that I could make so we could build three dimensional conductive work, using little AA battery packs and LEDs.

For some reasons, no matter how many times I tried, I could not make insulating dough, but the conductive dough was working well. I ended up just assembling a melange of insulating materials from around the house - legos, cork, balsa wood, etc - to take in to use for insulating.  I can't fathom why everyone else on line seemed to have no trouble with the formulation of both doughs and I endlessly struggled, but the kids seemed to have fun regardless.

Jarrod makes a flashlight.

Jarrod makes a flashlight.

2015 / 2016 TMS STEAM Club

This year's Talawanda Middle School STEAM Club got off to a roaring start, we had over 35 kids show up for the introductory meeting. Sadly, I forgot my camera, at some point I will try to get photos from Rod's phone to post here but I'll give a quick rundown of what we did.  Our thought was to give a brief introduction to some of the different areas we might explore with the club through the year.  We divided into four stations kids could rotate through every 30 minutes.  

One station was designed by Alex mains, our math undergraduate student who helped with the club all last year. Alex is student teaching this semester so we will not have him around for the next few months but he was excited to get the kids playing with math.  He had a plan for drawing geometric shapes by generating iterative number sequences that he thought I could run with the kids.  After reading through the instructions a couple times I decided maybe I wasn't the best person for the job  I enlisted Todd Edwards, professor of math education at Miami, to come help out and he was amazing as always.  Todd has an incredible gift for engaging with children and the kids loved this process, many started writing programs on their school issued Chrome books to generate the sequences and images as well.

The next station was led by Colin Petrello, a math education graduate student, who is helping us with the club this year.  Colin had kids building structures using garbanzo beans and toothpicks and then testing to see which structures could support the most weight.  There were some amazing designs ranging from whimsical to methodical which could hold shocking amounts of lacrosse balls.  

Rod ran a station where kids made drawings to overlay a pattern of LEDs we made light up using conductive tape and a watch battery mounted on plexiglass.  This was a fun introduction to combining creative making and circuitry which we will explore more in the next couple of meetings of the club.

Finally, Alex Trassare, another math graduate student helping out this year, had kids throwing various objects - but most notably raw eggs, at a sheet to explore impact and velocity.

Wow, I fell behind Part Two - Space Quest

The Big Brothers and Big Sisters pairs worked so hard on creating their individual parts for the entire solar system imagined by the group.  Then kelsey and i made a "Sun" from recycled bicycle rims.  The day of the festival some of the kids were able to join in and demonstrate the dynamic interaction of the system for the community, though some of the kids couldn't make it so we grabbed some children from the festival and had them serve as stand-ins so the planets and asteroids, and moons could all be put into action.


One of the difficulties we have faced over the years is the difficulty of getting all of the kids to be at the festival for a final performance.  Last year we had about 2/3 of the group show up for the puppet show which was amazing.  This year we had less than half.  We have taken a couple steps to try to address this.  One is we always do a filmed dress rehearsal during our last meeting as a group prior to the festival so that all kids get the full performance experience and we can document that. Another angle we are considering for the coming year is a project that can be shared more completely with or without the student present.  We are thinking about making short stop motion animation films this year so that the films can be shown at the festival whether or not the child is able to attend.  Also we could have each child write an artist/scientist statement that could be shared alongside their project.  

It was another great year working with Butler County Big Brothers and Big Sisters and we can't wait to get back with them in February!

Wow, I really fell behind on the blog- Part One - STEAM Club

Well, as the festival rolled around in the spring everything sped up to a shocking degree and writing the blog fell by the wayside.  So I am going to try to sum up how last school year ended in a post or two.  The STEAM Club kids had a great day at the Oxford Kinetics Festival showing off their robotic creations and competing on the obstacle courses they made.  After the festival we all decided we wanted a break from robotics and we threw out the question of what everyone was interested in investigating.  Following the festival and its flight-related theme, several of the kids said they wanted to experiment with things that fly.  We spent one day just making tons of different paper airplane designs and throwing them around the gym for a couple hours which was a surprisingly good time.  The discussions held that day in the gym led us to start pondering kites.  After looking at a variety of kite designs we could work on we decided to try our hands making box kites and tetrahedral kites.

We had an amazing time making these kites.  For each meeting we spent the first hour making a kite and then the second hour out int he field behind the school flying the kites and making modifications.  It was such a great way to wrap up the first year of STEAM Club.  The kids were able to spend a lot of time visiting and helping each other with their designs, we were able to have several discussions about the geometry, math, and physics involved in making the kites, making them better, and figuring out how high our kites were at a given time.

Rod and I went on to make kites with all kinds of folks in a variety of settings over the summer from educators and scientists at the Uteach conference in Austin to family groups at Alumni College at Miami.  Kites are fun for everyone, the supplies are cheap, and there is a boatload of science and math you can discuss and investigate while flying kite.

We really adored working with this group of kids for our first foray into STEAM Club and look forward to seeing who joins next year and what projects we embark on together!

STEAM Club Challenges

For the third meeting of the STEAM club we brought in some prepared challenges.  Most of the kids are getting very comfortable building with the Mindstorm components and several have really taken off with the programming.  You can program the brain directly in a limited fashion, you can control it with the remote control which requires no real skills but lets you power the different motors forward and backward, or you can use the programming software which is downloadable from the Lego Mindstorm site.  It is a drag and drop style programming for the most part but there is room for more advanced programming if you are interested in that.  The software is made by National Instruments and is a lead in to their Lab View software which is used often by engineers at the university level as well as professionally in many fields.

We brought in three open topped cubes which each had a shelf attached, small wooden blocks with a string loop, and teeter-tottering ramps.

The quest was for each robot to be able to pick up the block, navigate around the cube, and place the block on the shelf.  Afterward they could try to go up the ramp, stop balanced in middle, then go down the other side in a controlled fashion.

We thought to ban remote control use for this challenge so that those shying away from the programming would have to work with it in a more intimate manner. The kids made the case that using the remote was a great way to test proof of concept on the build and then they could proceed with the programming.  We conceded that made sense and agreed to those terms.  

The flexible quality of the loop on the block turned out to be a difficulty an they really had to work on being able to make subtle movements to not over shoot the target.  Eventually one team found great success with this, only to find that the height of the shelf seemed about 1cm too high for their lifting device to work with, but after much back and forthing and getting stuck and unstuck they finally managed to park the block on the shelf.  A spontaneous cheer went up from the viewers and team alike (or maybe just from me, I was on pins and needles!).  We realized there wouldn't be time to complete the programming aspect this week though they got a good start and we agreed they could leave these robots assembled for next week to continue working.

Our ramps proved too steep for most of the robots to be able to climb in their current configurations and the end result was as usual them making their robots fight.

Space Quest - Papier Mâché

This week was our third meeting with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters pairs working on constructing and describing their own solar system and we were all happy to finally be at the papier mâché stage of the project!  If you used this technique in the past you are likely thinking to yourself, "Oh, the mess!".  I know I was.  But I also knew I wanted the kids to be able to make 3-D versions of their planets which could be mounted on dowels which they can carry at our final demonstration of the dynamic interaction of the bodies in our system.  I could think of no better way to accomplish that than with papier mâché.  

Whenever we MAKETANKers have questions or concerns about a process or concept we try to seek out an expert for advice, it is the best way we have found to learn and share knowledge.  So I went to speak to assistant professor Melanie Mortimer at Miami University's theatre department to get some advice about making the "planets on a stick".  And thank goodness I did.  Melanie was so helpful and her most winning piece of advice was to ditch the mess making a paste to dip paper into and instead purchase large rolls of gummed paper tape.  This tape is traditionally used by shippers to seal boxes.  It is brown paper and has one side gummed like an envelope that needs to be licked.  All you have to do is dip it in some water or push it down onto a moistened sponge and, é viola, you are in business, paper and glue all in one tidy package.  Mess is always a consideration when we are working in other people's facilities so this was the perfect solution to the concern.  

One of our physics students, Ben, jumps in to lend a hand with the making of the planets.

One of our physics students, Ben, jumps in to lend a hand with the making of the planets.

Our goal for this day was to get on our first two layers of paper.  Since we have limited work time we did not let the first layer dry before applying the second.  I test drove this prior and it worked well.  During my trial runs I realized it was helpful to have a way to visually differentiate layer one from layer two so you were sure of getting full coverage.  When you are using paste you can alternate brown paper with newsprint but since we are on an all brown paper regimen I just made squiggly lines with different colors of sharpie on different supplies of the paper tape.  Even when torn into small pieces you could still always get a bit of color, enough to let you know where your layers were.  Everyone seemed to really enjoy this process, though they were sad to learn the eventual fate of the balls they were building around. Many wanted to know when they got the ball back and if they got to keep it.  It was a little like explaining to a small child that hamburger is ground up cow.  We ended up passing out most of the extra balls we had on hand for the kids to play with once they finished.

Once the first two layers are dry later this week I will drill holes in the top and bottom of each one with a forstner bit in a drill press and place 1/2" pvc pipe inside.  I'll then cap those pieces of pipe tightly, while securing a small square of tarp material to ensure a solid connection with the orb.  I will try to remember to post some photos of this process so it makes more sense.  This will allow a dowel to go into the center of the orb.  Next week the kids can apply their final layer of papier mâché and then on to decoration!

Middle School STEAM Club taking shape.

At our second meeting of the Talawanda Middle School STEAM Club we had eleven students in attendance for our two hour meeting.  Some of the kids from the first week were back as well as several new students.  One of our goals with STEAM programming is to attract more girls and underrepresented minorities to STEM areas of study so we were thrilled to have seven girls at our meeting this week!  This session was spent getting to know the programming capabilities of the EV3 systems and making some basic mechanisms.  

We have several copies of Yoshihito Isogawa's, The Lego Mindstorm EV3 Idea Book which we have been using with the students.  We love this book for a number of reasons, firstly that there are no words or step by step instructions, just pictures of components you can make. The greatest thing about the book is that he shows examples of a number of different basic mechanisms you can build with the kit, various worm drives and gear configurations, as well as varietal ways to make things move without wheels.  These examples allow you to jump off from the prescribed configurations Lego describes on their site and really get creative.  As we assign particular challenges the students need to navigate in the coming weeks we believe these component ideas will really help them problem solve in uniquely effective ways. I can't wait to see what they come up with.

SPACE QUEST - Second Meeting

We had another great day with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters kids on March 2nd.  I was greeted at the start by Ryan (who was pictured in the first meeting post) telling me that he and his sister had built a solar system project at home during the previous week but that it broke.  I sympathized that many fabulous things I make break as well which is sad but I was excited to hear the details of their investigation.  Apparently they searched their house for round objects of varying sizes and assembled them into a configuration of planets and their moons.  Needless to say I was thrilled!  


Kelsey and I hung up a huge piece of kraft paper (4' x 18') that represented our new system.  Kelsey placed a makeshift sun in the middle and we handed out supplies to the kids.  Everyone made their own solar body, named it, and placed it where they chose in the new system.  We had asteroids and meteors, planets and moons, and in one case an entire galaxy.  Everyone is excited to start working on our 3 - D versions next week!

Middle School STEAM Club - The Rubot Goldberg Project

After much plotting and planning the after school STEAM club at the Talawanda Middle School had it's first meeting February 27th.  We had eleven kids show up to explore the intricacies of the Lego Mindstorm EV3 systems we purchased with the help of the Miami-Talawanda Partnership.  The club is open to anyone at the middle school grades 6 - 8.  We have Alex, a math education major, and Elizabeth, an art education major helping out with the club this semester.  The plan is to get to know the mindstorm systems, start creating some creative physical challenges for the kids to try to accomplish with  the systems, and then think about ways we could complete more complex challenges by adding in additional toy genres. The students can determine the best additions for their project and then use available open source codes to use their 3-D printer to make the necessary connectors to bring tinker toys, K'Nex, lincoln logs, etc. into the equation.  They will also be able to use the shop facilities to fashion their own unique tools for the robots to use to manipulate the challenges and connect them using the tinker toy connector wheel.

For our first meeting we decided to divide into three teams since we have three mindstorm sets, and for each group to build the robot whose instructions come with the set.  This seemed the easiest way to familiarize everyone with the components.  The best part was how each group diverged down a unique path after completing the original build.  One group immediately set to work to test the robots capabilities.  They wanted to see if it could push a large garbage can across the floor (it could), could it open a locker door that was slightly ajar (a bit tricky as built), could it drive up a steep teeter totter-like ramp, balance on top, and then descend down the other side (yes!). Another group began exploring the different ways you could program the "brain" of the robot using the remote control, the direct controls on the brain, and the on-line interface.  And the third group started constructing physical modifications to their robot, making new appendages and reconfiguring the sensors and movements.

We are really excited to explore the programming more next week and see how creative this group gets when we really start off roading from the prescribed uses of the materials!

SPACE QUEST - First Meeting

We always intend to blog about our STEAM into Action programs but we get bogged down in planning and managing and lose track of the time.  So for 2015 we are going to try to get something down to track these projects as they develop.

February 23rd was the first meeting of our Space Quest project with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Butler County pairs that meet after school at Kramer Elementary in Oxford, OH. The kids are 2 - 5th grade and the bigs are all university students.  Our goal for this project is to impart some basic knowledge about solar systems.  I have the assistance of two Miami University physics students, Kelsey and Ben, to teach the kids about the various solar bodies we might happen upon in a solar system - stars, planets, moons, asteroids, etc. - and how the mass of these objects effects their gravitational pull and how that effects orbits.  

Our project is to design our own solar system.  Each child will decide what solar body they want to be in this new system, investigate what that will look like through some experimentation with play-dohs, create a 2-D version and place it in the system, then build a 3-D representation using papier mache.  Once each child has created their unique papier mache "planet on a stick" they will demonstrate the dynamic interaction of all the solar bodies in their new system at the Oxford Kinetics Festival on April 19th.

Ryan and his four planets with their respective moons.

Ryan and his four planets with their respective moons.

Since this is an informal, after school program involving kids of various grade levels, there is a stronger emphasis on the creative making and less stress on the academics.  We are planning a more academically rigorous version of the Space Quest project to be implemented in a fifth grade classroom for the 2015 - 2016 school year.

The first meeting went really well.  We did a shadow puppet theater project with this group last year and many of the same kids were back and remembered me and were excited to see what we were going to be doing.  Kelsey and Ben gave a 10 minute primer on solar systems.  We brought in a large variety of round objects of varying sizes to talk about what would orbit what.  We passed out marbles, ping pong balls, hacky sacks, balls and balloons and I had one giant 36"+ diameter balloon which represented our sun.  Then we passed out tons of play doh and asked kids to make anything they wanted that they might find in a solar system.  Things were a little slow to get going until I mentioned that they were encouraged to mix the play doh colors to make interesting surface compositions and then everyone got excited.  Even the college students were thrilled to be told they could mix their colors!  The results were great with some kids making multiple planets of different compositions, some using the marbles as cores for their  planets, some using them as moons.  I think we are off to a good start.

Kaylen's planetary system.

Our Mission (By Rod Northcutt)

So, if MAKETANK chooses to buck convenience and eschew habit, and if we additionally champion issue-based work over the habitual making of things, then what is the issue around the work we make? Well, there are three (the magic number) and our mission was drafted to address them. One: there are many people in this region who, for many social reasons, just don’t interact with each other. Two: there are skills our brothers and sisters have that we believe, if shared, will make for a stronger community and richer lives. And Three: there are many, many of our fellow citizens who feel like they are not creative or, more often, don’t give themselves the permission to be creative (often for ridiculous reasons, such as thinking that they can’t draw…really? Like drawing is needed to make engaging work? Yikes!!). Regarding that last issue, MAKETANK strives to be a “permission engine.” So, when we make these issues active, they became our concepts: Connect the people who don’t normally connect, create opportunities for people to share the skills they have learned with each other, for FREE, and make sure that everyone can learn to be confident in their creativity. No bronze sculpture, painting, or print could ever do this as effectively as participatory, on-the-gound, engagement. And because the issues are so huge, and because participatory engagement is such a colossal concept, it needs a tremendous event—hence our vast year-round programming and our sweet, brobdingnagian Oxford Kinetics Festival!

But while the OKF may seem like the pinnacle, it is really just the showcase for all of the other initiatives. MAKETANK has programs going on all year and these projects are showcased at the OKF in the midst of all of the fun mahem that the OKF generates. Because we are invested in community (and we see community as an ever-expanding entity, not just Southwest Ohio), we work to create projects that intersect creatively with it.

Coming soon: a brief summary of what we did last year and a preview of what we have cooked up for the 2014/2015 season!

Social Futuring (By Rod Northcutt)

It seems strange that a group of makers does not put the making of things first, but that is how we work. Of course, it always ends up that we make things (perhaps it is our destiny? The fact that we have the word "make" in our collective name?) but at least it is not how we start our discussions (we get together and really think through issue and concept first). I like to think it is because we are always looking to the future and that we are skeptical of past solutions to issue-based problems. The solutions to past problems are, after all, only applicable to past environments, not the current or future ones. As artists, we have all worked to communicate somewhat complex ideas and systems with art by making things as vessels of communication. Because of that thingness, it is hit and miss on who gets it and who pans it, that is, some people who interact with the work get what we intend to communicate, some don’t. The worst situation arises when someone misses the intention because they are confused by the thing that is intended to communicate. Sometimes it looks too much like the art of the past (art that was often made to confound and confuse anyone not well read on aesthetics, philosophy, or art theory) and they immediately think, "this was not made for me to understand.". Sometimes it looks too much like a utilitarian thing, so it is not considered as communicative but as a useful thing. There are perils in the reliance of to communicate, but we want to communicate with things...we are in a tough spot! So regarding that, we think that the thingness of a communication is not the thing to avoid, but DEFAULT thingness IS the thing to avoid. If the future is unscripted so should be our creative response to it.    

While many artists work to create for themselves a style or manner (we can recognize the expressively lumpy figures of Auguste Rodin or the turgid plumpness of the figures of Fernando Botero in an instant), we work hard to avoid it. We feel that working consistently suggests that we are on a well-worn path, or a heuristic (a habitual method of solving a problem), and habit is history, and "(art) history does not progress." Marcel Duchamp said that, and although i realize that i am making a historical reference while discussing the avoidance of habit, well...we think he was pretty sharp and future thinking. As soon as we see that we are using habit and consistent methods to design solutions, we start over and work up from the issue (again the steps of issue/content/form). I always thought that an artist can, and should, respond to the zeitgeist, the German phrase for the spirit (geist) of an age or time (zeit), but even that is essentially looking to the past and not the future. That is implied by the “geist” part…if spirits or ghosts are specters from the past, a “spirit of an age” can only be understood retroactively. What about the future? What does art futuring look like? Is it possible? How can we extrapolate our social histories and quotidian activities to see where we are going rather than to recapitulate, over and over, where we have been?

Coming soon: The MAKETANK mission and programs we are unveiling for the Fall

Form Follows Everything (From Rod Northcutt)

In a best practice, contemporary art/communication can be many things, but what it cannot be is a set of items that simply complement or communicate the strangeness of the zeitgeist. To make work with such a claim ignores two challenges: one that it should be a set of items, and two that the zeitgeist is the thing to communicate (I will explain what I mean here when discussing futuring).

Standardizing art as “a set of items” (paintings, sculptures, prints, etc.) makes the form of a work of art primary and subordinates the issue or concept that drives it. For work to evolve naturally, we find that it is best to do two things: First, we do not require that the outcome is a thing, and second, we decide on the actual, physical form of a work last and initiate a project with by defining the issues that are on our minds, and then designing a concept for communication.

For example, as I sit in the studio preparing to make a work of art, why should I ask myself, “what can I communicate with cast bronze?”  If I were to do that, I would have prescribed a major aspect of the form (the material bronze) before exploring the myriad ways of communicating an idea or set of questions that may or may not require a “thing” as a vehicle. If I start out with bronze, the content of whatever I make will be constrained, not only by the media, but the “thingness” of it as well. Instead, I try to first ask, “what is the issue in which I have interest? (like self-imposed ethno-social divisions, or the socio-environmental politics of fracking, for example). When I figure that one out I ask, “what is the concept I want to use to communicate this issue?” In other words, how do I want to communicate about an issue: do I create an elaborate ironic parody like the Yes Men or a series of generative meetings on a boat like WochenKlausur? Finally, after much thinking, sketching, and model-building, I get to ask “what form do I want this to take?” That last question should be the LAST question prior to embarking on a project. It is possible that the answer might indeed be that I need to create a form of cast bronze, but I should not choose this by default. Instead, I might choose to make a video, paint a mural, design a mobile ap, create a dialog with a community group, or write an essay.

I acknowledge that this method makes it tough for artists to maintain consistency (often associated with repeated forms, like Donald Judd’s boxes or repeated processes, like Paley’s forged/welded sculptures) or ever develop technical virtuosity (a jack of all trades is seldom a master of anything), unless the viewing public starts to see consistency in issue and/or concept and is willing to focus on that rather than only consistency of form (cast bronze, in my previous example). Personally, when people describe my work and its impact, I don’t want them to say, “He is consistent.”…just sayin’.

Coming soon: How MAKETANK tries to embrace the future without having to fold space!

Thingness (From Rod Northcutt)

The process of making creative communication (call it art…maybe?) that impacts communities (rather than individuals) and futures social understandings cannot follow a straight, prescribed line between A and B. Often, the outcome is something that is difficult to recognized as art at all and, as strange as it may seem, it seems possible that the product of art making does not necessarily need to be art, at least not in the popularized use of the term.

Because we often use art systems (art schools, galleries, museums, and studios) in the formation and exhibition of MAKETANK projects and initiatives, but because they sometimes don’t look much like art as most people know it, we must constantly wrestle with the elusive and tiring definition of art. Questions we often ask ourselves are: is an item or system created by an artist/group of artists necessarily art? If we make a product and say that it is art, how closely should it resemble popular notions of art? Should we be concerned that our research might be panned by the art field because it does not “fit the suit” clearly enough? And how important is that term anyhow when it comes to social progress?

MAKETANK is a collective of makers, all with art academic training and significant time spent in the professional field (making, critiquing, and exhibiting). That word “artist” is as broad as the term “art” happens to be (and everyone in the field hates when someone waxes philosophic on what art really is…ugh!), and it represents an identity that, for me, is difficult to embrace because of the looseness of the term. At its broadest, the label “artist” can describe a person who is skilled in an activity, so this could include anyone doing anything from making products for sale through galleries to making decorative interiors to making innovative cakes to creating inventive software to making conceptual installations (and much more). It is such a broad spectrum! I am noticing that being an artist in this era is not difficult, but making contemporary, progressive, futuring vehicles for communication (call them art if you want) is a real challenge and, frankly, many self-titled artists are simply not interested in doing that kind of work with that kind of mandate, which of course is just fine. There are, however, many practitioners out there who have gone through some sort of formalized art training and who create issue-based engagement that may or may not have a thing at its core. Their work falls under many labels, such as dialogical art (Kester), art and social practice (the name of Portland State University’s MFA program), socially engaged art (Helguera), social sculpture (Beuys), socially interactive art (Willats), relational aesthetics (Bourriaud). So many labels perhaps replace the “isms” of the 20th century art timeline. So, we are still not sure what to call what we do, but we are happy to be doing it and excited to join the ranks of other art types who want to fight the good fight. 

Coming soon: How MAKETANK projects evolve by making the physical form of a work the last thing we think of.