Sausage Making: Maker Faires in the Nation’s Capital

Maker Faire Sculpture

Overhead view of the campus during the Maker Faire. Photo courtesy Maker Faire

The second annual National Maker Faire is happening June 18 and 19 in Washington, D.C., on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia. It’s organized to occur during the White House’s Week of Making.

“Last year’s event included makers from 40 states,” noted the Natonal Maker Faire organizers by e-mail.  For 2016 they are hoping to build on that volume of representation, and bring together makers from all 50 states. The event is broad enough to host all kinds of people who tinker and create: not just techies and hackers, but also the likes of gardeners, cooks, and crafters. But, when asked for fine art examples from last year’s faire, 3 out of 5 of them used 3D-printers, including Todd Blatt, the Smithsonian Laser Cowboys, and people creating prosthetics. The omnipresence of 3D-printers at Maker Faires is an established stereotype, no doubt because the word Maker got hijacked to brand a (now) foundering 3D-printer (which has no relationship with the faires or their organizers). And, while the groundswell behind making has attracted the interest of elected officials, it’s attracted with it the stigma of being another 3D printing thing.

Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are branded events under the umbrella of Maker Media, which publishes Make: (magazine), and sells kits and parts through Maker Shed.  Started in 2006 in San Mateo, the Bay Area Maker Faire was the brainchild of Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss. “A lot of the inspiration I drew from creating Maker Faire was from as a child attending the old county fairs,” Huss recalled. She grew up in the Cleveland area, and reflected on the importance those fairs had: how people showed off and demonstrated their creations, and the family-friendly atmosphere. It’s the antithesis of the trade shows so common in the developer world, and the county fair model would draw a more diverse crowd than the typical male engineer. They had in mind that a few thousand people might show up. By the end of the weekend, 22,000 people had attended. A decade later, Maker Faires attracted over 1.2 million people, to 151 events, on six continents. They’ve featured edible communities, ways to manage gray water, clothing swaps, and needlework, in addition to a plethora of robotics and programmed based gadgets and knick-knacks.

Maker Faire Sculpture

Overhead view of the campus during the Maker Faire. Photo courtesy Maker Faire

2014 seemed to be the bumper crop of Maker Faires in the greater D.C. area. Nearby beltway towns of Reston, Greenbelt, and Silver Spring hosted Mini-Maker Faires. So did D.C. Actually, D.C. had two Maker Faires within 10 days of one another. The D.C. Mini Maker Faire—which grew up to be the Flagship National Maker Faire the next year—and the second, more intimate, and better publicized Maker Faire at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Between 2012 and 2014, The White House announced a few key manufacturing initiatives, capitalizing on the growing awareness of additive manufacturing (3D printing). Combined with initiatives in education,    The White House Maker Faire functioned somewhat like a capstone before midterm elections.

“We had no clue what to expect,” recalled Huss, who noted that Maker Faire had been in contact with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for several years prior to the White House’s announced Maker Faire. Throughout the planning process, Maker Faire was in touch with OSTP daily, and helping them find makers from every state. But there was a lot of information OSTP couldn’t share with them in return. “When we walked in [the day of the event], they did a great job of pulling together about 200 people from all different walks of life, and different ages,” Huss reflected. “From little girls who had a robotics company, to some classic makers, to the pancake bot.” But, there were some limitations. Security for one: only a few hundred people could attend. Timing was certainly another.

Tom Jaszczak Sculpture

Tom Jaszczak, Breakfast Set. Courtesy artist.

“I knew about 5-7 days before the event that I had been chosen [to attend],” recalled Tom Jaszczak, who is currently a Resident at the Penland School of Craft. He had been invited by Etsy, where he sells his work, to accompany them to the event. In the broad picture, Jaszczak, like many others in attendance, had less than a week to book a flight and hotel for the event. More narrowly, he didn’t know how many people would attend, or what the overall nature of the event would be like. As he stood shoulder-to-shoulder in security lines with Bill Nye and representatives from NASA, his impression of White House Maker Faire as dressed up science fair began to take root. “All the booths there were about 3D printing, and really very science-based things,” he recalled. Not that he was disappointed with being invited, or necessarily by the quality of things presented there. However, as a ceramic artist who acknowledges that “making” can be anything handmade, it seemed to him that the scope of displays was limited, and that the scope of 3D-printing was even more limited. “3D-printing seems so 10 or 15 years ago,” he lamented. “You can 3D-print in clay, but they were only printing in plastic and pancake batter. And I’m a luddite!

NCAA sculpture

NCAA at the Making in the Arts event at the Capitol. Image courtesy Maria Moltenni.

The impetus of making and manufacturing isn’t only from the executive branch, it also comes from the legislative branch. Illinois Congressman Bill Foster has twice  introduced bills (1289 and 1622) for a national fab lab network. In 2014, four congressman (Mark Takano (D-CA), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Tim Ryan (D-OH), and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC)) formed the Maker Caucus, with an aim to educate Congress about the Maker Movement. The caucus has since expanded to include 36 members from 18 states, and has held a variety of focused events, ranging from defining making, to how it is applied in biology, to issues of diversity. In February they organized Making in the Arts. “We wanted to highlight Maker artists using new tools and technologies to create unique and beautiful artwork,” noted Teresa Sappington, an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow who works in the office of Rep. Takano, and who organized the event. “Makers and artists often overlap and intersect; experimenting with technology, art, design, and using their creativity to create art, engage with communities, and improve education.” She highlighted the work of New Craft Artists in Action (NCAA), who crochet colorful basketball nets for empty hoops in poor neighborhoods. And NCAA are quick to remind people that the first basketball hoop was made from a peach basket: a traditional fiber craft.

Like Jaszczak—although glad to be included in the program—NCAA members also met the whole thing with some skepticism. “Sometimes it seems as though it just dawned on everyone that “making” is important or is somehow “coming back:” as though it ever went away,” noted Maria Molteni, one of the co-founders of NCAA, by e-mail. “As though most of the things we consume aren’t made daily by the hands of people very far away.” The emphasis of making as craft is obviously evident in their colorful woven nets. So are the aspects of collaboration and playfulness (both literal and figurative) in an attempt to make a community better: undoubtedly ethos baked into the aspirations of Maker Faire and the communities they attract to their events.  Also like Jaszczak, Molteni had another perspective in common. “There is this very clear (almost exclusive) emphasis on 3D-printing,” she noted, recognizing that the automation of 3D-printing  inherently divorces the idea of “making” away from the hand-made. The Making in Art Eventbrite banner image reinforces her assessment.

Z-brush Sculpture

Akilah using Z-brush to complete the digital rendering of her dinosaur head. The image courtesy Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+

The critique about 3D-printing is not necessarily one against 3D-printing. Obviously 3D-printing had a natural home in any kind of Maker Faire, and artists of all stripes have adopted it for a variety of applications. But it seems, when it comes to the fine arts, their representation at maker events tends to go to the one extreme of 3D-printing, or to go to the other extreme of traditional craft-based applications. Though, there are examples between—like an eight-foot tall papercraft dinosaur, one of the pieces created by a young woman named Akilah Padgett, a student at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s ARTLAB+: an educational makerspace for teens. The piece caught the eye of organizers for the White House Maker Faire in 2014, and they showcased a truncated version of the final. “It seems to me that every organization or education space defines [“Making’] in their own context,” remarked Amy Homma, the director of digital learning at ARTLAB+. Despite lacking soldering irons or saws, they don’t consider their lab any less “makery.” They have sewing machines, and Arduino boards, as well as a wet space for printmaking, and a green screen for videography. “[Making] encompasses a really diverse set of skills that our kids need. We’re all making!”

As with the White House Maker Faire, various agencies throughout the federal government are called upon to participate during the Week of Making. The Hirshhorn plans to partner with the National Museum of Natural History’s educational space, Q?rius, this year, in addition to showcasing recent ARTLAB+ activities: play-testing student-made video games. Such activities will occur during the same week as the National Maker Faire. Although—and this is where some confusion exists—neither the White House nor OSTP organizes the National Maker Faire: that activity is spearheaded by Nation of Makers with assistance of Maker Faire. Even there, it is somewhat confusing, since Nation of Makers shares a moniker with the hashtag, #nationofmakers, that the White House began using prior to the White House Maker Faire in 2014. Despite the muddled and somewhat opaque relationship between these two entities, the White House is supportive of the National Maker Faire, calling attention to it in their March 9 press release announcing the Week of Making. And it only seems fair—no longer does the president have to worry about people messing up his house.

Instead they can focus their efforts toward evanglizing the activities of making to dozens of mayors, libraries, and colleges across the country.

Regardless of the pitfalls—of too much emphasis on 3D-printing, or the confusion of names, or who is calling the shots—the momentum is there, and spreading internationally. This year marks the first European Maker Week, with 88 activities coordinated across the European Union.  “That specifically came from the White House’s Week of Making,” remarked Sherry Huss. The big question is if the interest will continue from the executive branch in February 2017.

By John Anderson

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