Red Shoulder Hawk

Red Shoulder Hawk

Monday, May 05, 2008

Art Cars and the Rising "Participation Age"

Wandering the Maker Faire, I marveled at the radical self expression and DIY mash-up as these relate to anti-consumerism. Or rather, pro-participationsim. When, or where, did this movement start?

When did we leave behind doing for ourselves? The rise of industrialism brought with it mass-produced consumer goods. These things were, of necessity from their manufacturing process, identical. And marketers taught us this was a good thing. You could keep up with the Joneses. Television trained us to sit quietly and “consume” entertainment.

Along the way to that glowing suburban future, though, some felt disquiet in their deepest selves. Did they really want to fit into the mold? One of the most potent statements of self-recovery, available to anyone, would be to de-commodify their transportation—in short, make an art car.

Art cars have been part of the mobile art scene since at least the roaring 20s, but they really came into their own in the 80s. Part folk art, part something else, ranging from glued-on chotchkies to car bodies welded to each other, art cars and those who drive them are the instigators of this new culture of participatory public performance. The era of sitting quietly in a dark room and being “entertained,” of being a consumer of theater, art, music, or writing, is being replaced. The art car movement is especially inclusive; anyone with the courage to personalize their automobile is “in.” By making their car unique, they transform from mere consumers into participants.

Burning Man made participation one of the cornerstone principles of the event. People attending Burning Man know they aren’t going as spectators. They are co-creating the event. As people experience the power of participation at Burning Man, they become as dandelion seeds, scattering this trend out into larger and larger circles.

The shift is carrying forward into more and more venues, such as Yuri’s Night or Maker Faire. Maker Faire is as much a celebration of collaboration of the unlikely, from wool felting and LEDs to 3D printers and gray water, as it is a party being created in the moment. There are no passersby. Everyone will find their playful place, whether it’s riding a wooden bicycle, building a rocket, playing artist mini-golf, or daydreaming about what they could make for next year’s fair.

Computer-controlled, small-scale manufacturing is the “tool,” the manifested reality, born in response to our desire to do more than merely consume. We are designed to be creative. Those daring souls who converted cars into art are the progenitors of this era. Encouraging everyone to explore, to be a part-time performer, to say “no!” to adapting their souls to an inelastic conformity, ArtCar artists are the forebears of this re-birth of a participation culture.

I thank them (us!) for it.

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