Unbreakable Makers

By Anthony Bui and Roland Arnoldt | October 11, 2018

Cover Image

CHiKA teaches how to map mono-color LED light strips using MadMapper and hardware. Photo courtesy of ITP Camp via Flickr.

At Summer ITP Camp, Attendees Explore the Intersection of Art and Technology

“It worked yesterday…why is it not working today?” exclaims a voice — half laughing, half desperate — somewhere in the labyrinth of rooms. Hidden behind black curtains, cardboard, and a sea of wires, two campers are sitting in front of screens of various sizes. “Come in, come in — this will be a spaceship tomorrow!” they laugh as they continue connecting wires.

This is ITP Camp, 12 hours before the end-of-camp “Show All Things” Show, and the atmosphere is pretty wild. The scene that unfolds in front of an unprepared visitor is chaotic, playful, energetic, desperate, creative, inspiring, and heartwarming at the same time. Here are about 100 creators, all very different. Some are young, some are old, some are tech-nerds, some have never touched a VR-headset, some make video-art, others yoga; all of them together seem more like a wild version of Hogwarts than attendees of an annual NYU art-technology camp.

ITP Camp invites adults of varying backgrounds — artists, musicians, and creatives of all types — from across the globe to make, share, explore, and collaborate. It shrinks the ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program) master’s program into a month-long crash course, maintaining at its heart the belief that making is fundamental to thinking. It’s the kind of atmosphere where campers create musical instruments from junk, practice machine learning by hand, and build using decentralized web technology.

For many, it’s a beautiful reminder that people are able to play and have serious purpose at the same time. Many campers emphasize that it is exactly this playing with tech, the exploratory breaking of things, that makes ITP Camp unique. This requires a lot of openness.

“You will find yourself wearing the ill-fitting clothes of someone else’s world,” Red Burns, the late founder of the ITP masters program, once said of the spirit of research in new technologies. She continued, “dine on what is the strange food of someone else’s thought. If you can resist the temptation to run back to the shelter of your comfort zone, if you permit yourself the intellectual curiosity to explore your differences as you would explore a new city…you might be pleasantly surprised.”

Learning by Making

This element of curiosity is evident in the ITP Camp classes, which are led by the participants themselves. In true un-conference style, every participant (or “camper”) is encouraged to share knowledge on whatever they are passionate about during sessions. The topics range from one end of science to the other end of art. Some classes are more activist, such as “Self Sovereign Identity & Web 3.0 First Principles: Create your own Meta-Identity!” or “Hacking Sensors for Climate Change.” Others indulge in traditional arts and crafts, like “Marbleizing on Fabric.” Still others go down the cutting-edge tech route, as was the case with “ML5.js: A Friendly Introduction to Machine Learning.“

After two weeks of being immersed in this smorgasbord of classes, most of the campers begin to show a little fatigue. “I don’t know if I can take anything in anymore,” is a common phrase heard as camp approaches its midterm. Then, all of a sudden, the classes change into workshops, and everywhere on the floor the campers start making “things.” Remember the times you used to play with Legos and create flying cars that could go to Mars and dive into the deep seas? This is the imaginative vibe that emerges as the camp transitions from classes to workshops.

One camper proudly shows around her DIY VR headset made of plastic bottles, rubber-bands, and laser-cut cardboard. Google made something similar a few years ago, but her version looks more appealing and can be made completely from items commonly found in the trash. The goal of her project is to give children from disadvantaged regions of the world access to emerging technologies with a toolset that is entirely upcycled. The other campers pass around the goggles and peek into the plastic-bottle VR miracle. Everybody agrees; it is indeed immersive.

Four weeks after it began, campers near the end of the experience. Anxiety is high. It’s the night before the show and the clock is ticking — six hours until the first curious visitors arrive and everything needs to work. Wait, six hours? Wasn’t it 12 hours just a few moments ago? Time is bending and flexing in the weirdest ways; a phenomenon that hits a few campers now like a surprise splash of cold water. A slight sensation of panic-induced endorphins mixed with a lot of caffeine pushes the building crews through the night. “Will we find the bug in the code?” “Will this duct-taped, hot-glued installation hold…at least for the exhibition?” And, of course, “Why didn’t we start this earlier?”

It’s Showtime, Folks!

Wires are soldered, Raspberry Pis and Arduinos hacked, thousands of lines of code have been written, and the sounds of hammers and drills fill the air, providing a strange musical score for some abstract projections in darkened classrooms. This is no longer a summer camp. This is one creative machine, humming along to the staccato-rhythm of tireless human workers and spitting out all the tech-spice that makes ITP so unique.

“Each day is magic for me,” Red Burns once said. “I hope it will be for you.”

The spirit of ITP-founder Red Burns is present on those nights, eagerly looking over the shoulders of exhausted campers and encouraging them to carry on, to not overthink, and to use the whole palette of technologies and recently-acquired skills to make new and strange things that might only be understood a few years from now, if ever. Perfection comes later. Here, the main mantra of the creators is a never-ending “work in progress.” Too big? Too complicated? Too weird? These are no-nos at camp. It is this unbreakable maker-attitude that draws friends and visitors to the end-of-Camp show.

Finally, the“Show All Things” Show begins. Explained from the get-go as raw and unpolished, show is far from a formal presentation or a fancy exhibition. It is a brief moment to try to capture the essence of what everyone has been up to for the month. During the 2018 event, there were 65 projects on display across five rooms and overflowing into the hallways of Tisch. Some are dreams in progress, like schematics for a plant-driven pattern generator. Many projects are full prototypes, like a sword-turned-musical instrument created in the spirit of the “New Interfaces for Musical Expression” avenue of experimentation. Impressively, a few projects are even ready for the real world, soon to be their own Kickstarter campaigns. Among those is a step-by-step guide to building upcycled, DIY toys — including the VR goggles. And finally, like the brevity of ITP Camp itself, some projects live to be experienced for just one evening, such as the interactive spaceship experience that helps transport users away from their surroundings to experience a moment of bliss.

At the end of the evening, Camp Director Kate Hartman (often more aptly self-described as an “un-un-un-director” in a nod to the community-driven nature of ITP Camp) addresses the campers. She congratulates them on surviving the month-long journey and applauds the participatory community that makes it all happen. Finally, with campers on tired legs, projects are unplugged, lights turned off, and rental equipment returned. One can hear the whispers of “what next?” and the growing anticipation of doing it all over again next year. There are 12 months to dream, sketch, rest, reflect, and absorb, until the doors open again and welcome campers to four weeks of summer magic-making at the next year’s ITP Camp.

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