A small taste of the Maker movement

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 26, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

When I was growing up, I used to dream about magic shops -- stores filled with wonderful and precious objects. Since then, I've occasionally found close analogies in a craft or antique store and happily wandered about, not spending but simply enjoying the strangeness and diversity. But I don't think I ever found an experience as close to my childhood dreams as meandering through the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire this afternoon. At times, I could almost believe that I was moving through a steampunk magic store.

The Maker movement exists at the crossroads of several cultural streams. It starts, perhaps, with the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement, with its emphasis on crafts and people learning to things for themselves. Add a dash of the open source movement, environmentalism, alternative power sources, anti-consumerism, recycling, art, and Burning Man, and the result is a loose collection of enthusiasts that is far richer than the sum of its parts. Often, O'Reilly Media's' Make magazine and its offshoot Maker Faires are seen as the core of the movement, but, as with bar camps, the idea spreads far beyond any official organization to many local groups that seem to share little with each other except an enthusiasm for individual creativity.

The Vancouver faire was held on The Great Northern Way Campus. This is a suitable venue, because the industrial and artistic spaces it occupied gave the impression of walking through a series of giant workshops. Perhaps a quarter of the space was given over to a lecture theater, where various speakers explained different aspects of the movement's philosophy and lifestyle. The faire spilled over into the courtyard, where a line of vending trailers stood ready to feed visitors, the majority of whom were under forty, and included a higher percentage of women and children than I had expected from some of the movement's roots.

If you wanted, you could find no shortage of traditional crafts. One vendor was selling threads, and beside it, the Modern Quilt Guild and a knot-tying group exhibited. Other booths sold small change purses, organic skin creams, and various products that you might expect at a craft display.

However, these exhibitors seemed almost lost among more exotic offerings. In trying to convey the variety, I find myself reduced to making lists. Glasswork demos, programmable light displays built from bicycle parts, solar-powered libraries, lantern makers, a remote control xylophone, a self-propelled, eight-legged carriage called the Mondo Spider, giant tricycles, a light display of blow torches keeping time to a singer, 3-D scanners, artificial trees made from repurposed rebar -- I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Almost everything I saw was imaginative, and, if some of it was only marginally useful, the enthusiasm and eagerness to share of its builders more than made up for the fact.

An especially strong sub-culture was the robot makers, who tended to be men in late middle age. They offered exhibits of a robotic chocolate maker, robots to make other robots, solar-powered robot kits, an arena full of cars and an electronic dinosaur (that proved very popular with the young boys in attendance), all varying from shining to as makeshift as the controls of Doctor Who's Tardis. In all, robotics must have occupied at least a third of the exhibitors' space.

Other exhibits were more purposeful. Some were businesses, such as Tanenbaum Fabrications, which advertised itself as a props-making company and whose wares had a decided steampunk aesthetic, or Monkey100, a T-shirt maker whose T-shirts are made of 70% bamboo and 30% cotton, and whose designs are intended to promote social change. Other companies sold furniture, or designs for recharging stations for electric cars. Some were artists, such as Altered Book Workshops, which sells pieces made from books and recycle material and bracelets with typewrite key charms, or a couple of exhibitors giving demos in working with glass. Still others were causes, including a tool-lending library, a maker of so-called seed bombs for faster replanting, and the local Hacker Space.

Nor were children overlooked. Besides the inevitable face painting, the younger set could learn to ride a unicycle, make a finger-puppet, invent their own games on a playground full of cones that randomly emitted light and sounds, and, almost without exception, have a hands-on experience at any booth they visited.

All this, remember was at an event billed as "mini". I can only imagine what a larger Maker Faire would be like, but, if I ever get to one, I am going to be sure that I allow more than part of an afternoon to explore it. Possibly, I should consider a couple of days.

By the time I left, I was not convinced that the Maker movement was -- or could be -- the major force for social change that some of the participants hoped it might become. Yet, in a sense, such questions only matters in theory. Although skeptical, I left pleasantly overwhelmed by the richness of the experience. Nor can I find serious fault with an event that obviously gives as much pleasure to the exhibitors as the visitors.

In the end, the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire is the sort of experience that reconciles me to humanity. Any species that can put on such a series of small extravaganzas clearly has far more going for it than I sometimes believe after reading the headlines.

Comments

  • Vancouver mini Maker faire

    Great review by Bruce - the event was more of a success than I - as a participating maker - had ever imagined.
    Innovation and DIY abilities are alive in Vancouver and bodes well for the future of this event year after year.
  • One other thing...

    ...I believe it was a chocolate *printer*, not a chocolate maker. You could purchase whatever text you wanted printed in chocolate (or peanut butter).
  • I agree

    I also attended on Saturday and had a fantastic time, having traveled to this event from Oregon. I'm looking forward to this event growing into a right smart Maker Fair!
  • nice review

    This is a very nice review of the event. I attended the Vancouver makerfaire on Saturday and was really amazed. As you mentioned there were many different project and a diverse group of people. It is great to see more and more people discover the joy of building things that they imagine with their own hands. I hope to see more and bigger makerfaires in future.
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