Beakerhead reaches out to people on the streets

Artists scientists and engineers create fresh engaging ideas

Growing up on a farm a little over 100 kilometres northwest of Fairview in Alberta’s Peace Country granted Shannon Hoover the founder of Calgary Mini Maker Faire a few helpful insights about the culture he’s trying to bring together in the city this coming weekend.

Firstly as much as Calgary sometimes wants to be it’s not best represented by cowboys. Secondly DIY hobbyists utilize the same closed-system ethos that allows small homesteads to function — just as Hoover used to feed pigs with food scraps “makers” often recycle old devices reducing both inputs and waste. And lastly that maker culture might serve as a far better icon than the Stampede of what Calgary’s all about as we’ve got far more engineers than cattle ranchers (the highest number of engineers per capita in North America actually) plus plenty of capital to make seemingly obscure projects a reality.

“I think maker culture solves a lot of problems in the world” says Hoover pointing optimistically to the benefits of the rising interest in technical crafts. “If everybody had that kind of mandate people would be fixing devices waste would go down dramatically use would go up we’d live more sustainable lives we’d be much more passionate and engaged with the things that we have and things that we do.”

Mini Maker Faire which will feature dozens of “makers” (including a nine-year-old) is just the beginning when it comes to the even bigger affair that is Beakerhead. The festival-ish event which can only be compared to Sled Island in terms of scope will be taking over the city with more than 40 events that exemplify a mishmash of arts engineering and technology. It isn’t just for science buffs either although the massive 1700-pound solar-powered Mondo Spider will more than likely appeal to those folk. It’s about transcending lab coats and work benches and reaching people on the streets.

Jay Ingram the recently retired beloved Daily Planet host is serving as the co-founder of Beakerhead (although he readily admits that his partner and fellow co-founder Mary Anne Moser came up with the idea and is directing a majority of the festivities). He applies a similar approach to Beakerhead as he did during his tenure with Daily Planet ; that is he steers away from attempting to educate people and instead tries to engage attendees with some flat-out intriguing stuff. Hearts over minds so to speak.

“If people come to the various things at Beakerhead it’s not because they’re science related — it’s because they’re cool and interesting” Ingram says. “You’re sort of doing that thing but furtively. It’s a stealth education. I honestly think that trying to educate people is a mistake. You want to allow people to have fun and they’ll figure out stuff to learn for themselves.”

The assortment of events to amuse — and potentially educate — will be as mentioned enormous. Take ArcAttack for example. They’re a musical group from Austin Texas. And while the group features the usual instruments the main attraction is a contraption called the “singing Tesla coil.” About a half-million volts charge through each of the two coils and are harnessed by the band — either via guitar or computer sequencing — to emit particular pitches. It’s essentially a giant lightning show that plays “Iron Man” and “The Emperor’s Theme.” The technology’s been used by the likes of illusionist David Blaine and singer-songwriter Björk since being introduced by ArcAttack.

“We just like to do what we like to do and if that inspires people then all the better” says ArcAttack founder and “lighting guitar” player Joe DiPrima mirroring Ingram’s stance. Education is a big part of the shtick — ArcAttack’s doing a school program on Friday September 13 — which fits well with the band’s mandate (“kids are way easier to impress than theatre snobs” DiPrima quips).

Unfortunately it hasn’t been easy to impress Canada customs; rather it’s been a near “nonsensical” journey to prove that a singing Tesla coil is worthy of entry. DiPrima reports that out of all the countries ArcAttack has been to Canada’s borders have been the toughest to breach: “It’s not even funny how picky they are” he says. But it’s not only ArcAttack that’s faced scrutiny — the Victoria Park BRZ has also thrown its time and energy into the ring in order to bring a 40-foot rocketship installation also entering Canada for the first time to the area.

“It did take up a little bit more of my work program than what I anticipated” says David Low the executive director of the BRZ in a remarkably understated way. He’s spent an estimated two weeks organizing the Raygun Gothic Rocketship’s arrival at 1325 First Street S.W.; because one can actually enter the ship via a ladder a building permit is required (the city’s treating it like a habitable structure). But Low assures that the effort will be more than worth it. Once there the attraction will feature a series of spectacles including Calgary’s first 3D projector show in addition to serving as the festival’s info hub.

So Beakerhead’s got participants with a hell of a lot of determination a wild assortment of absurd ideas and a grand opportunity to help redefine the image of what Calgary’s all about. Which brings it all back to Hoover’s original point about the possibilities that maker culture brings to the table. It’s more than just showing off cool shit. Beakerhead’s about bringing the artists scientists and engineers of the city together to attempt to figure out — and share — what the next steps are for a species in need of some fresh ideas.

“Calgary’s a city that’s hungry for that kind of culture” Hoover says. “We’re ready to disrupt things. And we’re able. Unlike any other place we’re able to do it.”