Alberta boasts an unusually large population of engineers and some of the most intriguing applications of their expertise has come from the Banff Centre, where Mary Anne Moser and Jay Ingram (host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet) teach a program called Science Communications. The two are now organizing an arts and engineering festival called Beakerhead to bring national and international innovators to Calgary to showcase their inventions, compete with each other and sensationally push the boundaries of cutting-edge technology.
The concept for Beakerhead was first introduced at this year’s Stampede in a staged, city-wide performance that involved three giant mechanical characters (built by EAT Art Collective) that appeared in separate locations citywide over six days. It included a 40’ mechanical snake, called “Titanoboa,” programmed and run by algorithms and controlled by a joystick, an 8’ wide, 2000 lb. spider that Mayor Naheed Nenshi took for a ride, and a 20’ tall solar powered tricycle with a couch on top, named “Daisy,” built by a professor at Stanford University. Speaking over the phone, Moser also mentions, “We’ve been trying to get this group of artists from San Francisco that makes these motorized cupcakes you can ride in,” and there is a huge emphasis on public participation.
Slated to occur annually in September, the festival will steadily emerge out of a series of workshops and small public events throughout the year until its first official full lineup in 2013. “We had a mobile furniture workshop,” Moser explains. “You could get your living room furniture and put it on wheels.” Thriving on this sort of inventive freedom, they even have ambitions to tour rural Alberta and British Columbia in search of inventions, noting that, “on ranches a lot of people have come up with ingenious solutions for things.” While much of the magic will have strong roots in local communities, they have looked extensively into other large events from around the world that combine art and engineering, and have taken influence from things like Burning Man in the Nevada desert, the World Science Festival in New York and Luminato in Toronto. While she admits it might take a few years to reach that level of recognition, the first year will undoubtedly have international status in the form of a one-day competition for engineering students from all across Canada, the United States and 27 European countries. They will be given a very difficult challenge and eight hours to find a “crazy solution.” This is just an example of how entertaining the whole thing will be, even for those who have never really been able to relate to art or engineering.
A passion for discovery is the true motivation behind the whole Beakerhead idea, and Moser points out, “There is a lot of literature that shows how important play is for creating the environment for innovation,” also saying that “we fully expect that by creating the social environment where those communities can interact there will be an explosion of new ideas” and the nature of it as a great tourist attraction for the city will certainly influence what can come up at any given portion of the programming. With more than 30 partners already committed to Beakerhead, some of the major contributors include the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, SAIT, Telus Spark, Glenbow Museum and EPCOR Centre, with the intention of easing some of the creative and technical segregation our school systems tend to sort into, in favour of something more hybrid and inclusive.
Keep an eye out this autumn for additional developments in the Beakerhead festival and what’s happening next to get your creative gears turning. “We want children, families, community organizations – anybody and everybody who wants to build something – to get mobilized, so come 2013 you’ll see the craziest things rolling down your street.”
By Cait Lepla
Photo: Courtesy Beakerhead Flickr page