The 7-foot-long Mylar blimp floated overhead, deftly dipping and soaring.
As it neared the projector screen at the Tacoma School of the Arts theater, the dozen people gathered below cringed. With a tulip petal as ballast, could it make the turn in time?
It did, and floated back over the crowd as the camera mounted on the blimp transmitted their delighted faces to the screen.
Seattleites Ryan Weh and Brad Larsen, who built the blimp and were controlling it from the ground, took it for a spin at one of the first Tacoma Dorkbot meetings, which are for “people doing strange things with electricity,” as the international organization’s slogan goes.
The same night that Weh and Larsen presented their blimp, Doug Bell, a former Microsoft Excel programmer, demonstrated animated art he made in the spreadsheet program.
By painstakingly plugging formulas into scores of cells in dozens of spreadsheets, he’s made charts and graphs that range from “mundane” calculations – that resulted in lines bouncing across the screen like a rubber ball – to elaborate math-based art.
When he shared his spreadsheet for designing a Jacob’s Ladder – the V-shaped, electric bolt-spewing machines seen in “Frankenstein” movies – participants discussed some they’d made at home.
“Don’t do it too long in a closed room,” Tacoman Steve Greenfield pitched in, because the zapped oxygen molecules turn into ozone. Too much is a health hazard.
“Oh, I build a party-safe one” with a fan to blow the ozone outside, Bell replied.
THE DORKBOT STORY
While many in attendance that night knew their sinusoid from their siemens, Dorkbot isn’t a group exclusive to those who excelled in honors electrical engineering.
Throughout the meeting, which is part show-and-tell, part science jam session, they also discussed fun projects with supermagnets, ideas for an LED light-infused painting and a potentiometer made from audiotape that makes noise when touched.
Nope, we don’t know what that means either. And that’s OK.
“We want this organization to be inclusive,” said Laura MacCary, who, along with her husband, Joe Benner, brought Dorkbot south from Seattle. There are active Dorkbot groups in dozens of cities the world over, from Lisbon to Mexico City to Detroit. There’s no membership – people show up when they want – and meetings generally involve a few presenters and an “open dork,” a time for audience members to talk about their own electrical art projects.
MacCary, who dreamed up that potentiometer, isn’t a scientist but was hooked from the first meeting she attended.
“It’s officially for artists working with electronics, but also art people curious about technology and technology people curious about art,” she said.
Or just anyone curious. Benner, who is planning the “dark paintings” with embedded LED lights, resisted calling himself an artist for a long time.
“I attached a lot of stigma to the title,” he said.
Now, he’s embraced it. In his Tacoma home studio, he tinkers with a kinetic fish sculpture he made and dreams up art projects he’d like to try.
TACOMA’S A GOOD FIT
The duo moved to Tacoma from Seattle, and brought Dorkbot with them, because they wanted a house with studio space for each of them. They started looking around the area and found that Tacoma was the best fit for them.
“It’s a great city for art,” MacCary said, in part because art is embraced here right down to new, unproven artists.
Similarly, they thought Dorkbot would be a good fit for Tacoma because it engenders the same experimental spirit.
“It creates an environment where it’s OK to talk about what you’re trying to explore,” she said.
Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8658
Want to dork out?
Tacoma Dorkbot meets the third Tuesday of the month at the Tacoma School of the Arts auditorium (club SOTA) at 1117 Broadway. Meetings start at 7 p.m. and go until about 10. For more information, visit www.dorkbot.org