The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race has been a staple of the Baltimore art and maker community and the American Visionary Art Museum (avam.org) since 1999 —It is also a national event created, of course, in the 60s, in California.
Jeanne Marshall has been an attendee for several years and was sure it would be a perfect fit for Nova Labs. This year, capitalizing on the forward momentum of the Cardboard Regatta Team, Jeanne said one more time “there is this thing in Baltimore…” This time it took (and how)!
We started meeting last fall, a little overwhelmed by the creative possibilities and funny but somehow cryptic rules. It was my first team experience at Nova Labs and I found the idea exhilarating. In the past, I have coached First Lego League and Odyssey of the Mind secretly envying the children in the team, craving the opportunity of unconstrained creativity. Here I was surrounded by big kids with access to power tools, engineers and artists, all in the same room, discussing buoyancy and center of gravity with as much ease as sock puppets and horned hats.
The next problem to solve was to make this contraption plus its riders, a.k.a kinetinauts, float. I should mention here the race follows a 15-mile circuit through the harbor area of Baltimore. The track includes one section of sand, another of deep mud, and a dip in the harbor: ”Watch unseaworthy sculptures sink. This is the most popular spectator site,” reads the visitor’s guide.
Four plastic drums were added to the sides of the sculpture; and, after a test in Lake Thoreau, an equal volume of foam finally made the apparatus buoyant, although not exactly balanced, as Paul’s much talked about poses would later prove.
Meanwhile, back at the Art Department, we were scratching our heads. We did not quite see how to give the contraption a theme or even where to attach anything in a way that the kinetinauts could still pedal in a meaningful direction. Fortunately, we already had our “comforting item of psychological luxury heretofore referred to as the Homemade Sock Creature (HSC)” mandated by rule number 1+ (click here for more rules silly and otherwise). Our HSC bears a resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe, who was a longtime unhappy resident of Baltimore.
Eventually, it was decided that the sculpture would feature four umbrella-like PVC structures with hanging objects made by and representing Nova Labs’ makers. By this time, Saturday, May 4 was quickly approaching and we only had a naked sexicycle encircled by pale floating devices.
So, a little more than a week before race day, we all jumped into action and many things happened in quick succession: Shane and Keane painted a Baltimore raven eye on the front wheel, I spray painted the sculpture in a somehow random fashion, Joe and Sammy made a bell, Margie made a team shirt for Edgar, our HSC, Theo decorated two umbrellas with paper pinwheels, Curt secured points of attachment, Sam decided the sculpture needed wings and started laser cutting insulation, Jeanne brought a white plastic horse that was headed to the landfill and reserved Hilton rooms —for us, not the horse. Now it was only a few days before the race and Paul made cookies to bribe the judges, Curt said “the horse must stay” and Sam had no idea how to attach the gigantic wings he was manufacturing.
During the first few miles, the kinetinauts were getting used to maneuvering the sculpture. For a while, Shane was thinking “Why am I pedaling so hard? Does Curt still have the brakes on?” When he finally asked this last question aloud, it quickly became a running joke.
There were many surprises along the way: the judges wear robes and wigs like British judges (I think the bearded guy in the nun outfit was also a judge but I cannot confirm); the real police look like police, but the fake cops will talk your head off until you bribe them; if you get lost, you must follow the chickens, especially the ones with sombreros; the photographers have teleportation powers, you pass them but somehow they are always ahead of you; nobody knows how to measure the “8% total area of body/clothes wetness” maximum allowed by the rules but no one, absolutely no one, breaks rule 10M, the mandatory fun regulation that states: “All Pilots, Pit Crew members, Barnacles, Officials, Spectators, Police, Marine Posse, Timers, and Passersby must put great effort into HAVING FUN! for it is such craziness as this that keeps us all sane.”
Correct on both counts. Paul had to prevent the head of the bird from floating too high above water level because that could break off his bike from the rest of the sculpture. Meanwhile, a similar problem was going on in the back, where Joe and Curt had to float at the same level as Sam and Shane. Joe said “ When we entered the water I was confident that we would float but was concerned that we would have a repeat of the last test when Paul was tossed into the water when we triangled at the ball hitch. That happened again but this time Paul recovered and Curt scrambled to get the new strap and rod system in place in time for a complete and triumphant recovery.” It was a tricky moment but our valiant kinetinauts saved the bird… horse, pegasus, whatever… and got the first sticker for our Official Poetic Kinetic License Plate, now on permanent display at Nova Labs.
After lunch, exchange of pleasantries, tools and technical assistance with other kinetinauts and another encounter with a ‘cop’ (we had to give him delicious Nova Labs cookies), we headed to the Patterson Park Obstacle Course: Sand, Mud, & Pagoda Pit Crew Challenge, three more stickers still to be collected.
The sand was not too difficult because it was on the short side. With a running start and a little push from the kinetinauts and pit crew, the sculpture made it through the sand. Here is video taken by Margie. She had to stop recording and run to help, one of the pitfalls of multitasking.
Video: Traversing the sand
Video: Uphill mud
The mud was the last actual challenge since we got the fifth sticker simply by stopping at the Pagoda and asking. As for unplanned challenges, fortunately, nothing we could not handle. The scariest problem was a loud but minor blow up. Our center swivel wheel just gave up with a loud explosion. We were concerned the others will follow but that was not the case.
Heading back to AVAM, hopefully to dinner. My stomach was growling. At the finish line, we were received with a custom paper banner. We have made it! Veni Vidi Vici.
I think the most striking endorsement of the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race is that everybody in the team did not pause nor hesitated to start planning for next year. Overall we were all very proud of this first performance but also saw much room for improvement. Improvement, not as in more work, but as in more opportunities to exercise creativity, stretch the imagination, grow the team and have more fun because after all “it is such craziness as this that keeps us all sane.”
Nova Labs is offering Summer Camps for Teen Makers and Youth Robotics!