Groovy gizmos, DIY delights: Exploratorium’s ‘Art of Tinkering’ doles out hands-on kicks
By Lou Fancher
You can make groovy stuff, and even remarkable art, with toilet paper rolls. Or, craft a glowing neon heart with a fistful of wires and a tiny battery. Or produce blinking bow ties with which to wow your party friends using foil and a few other easy-on-the-wallet materials.
Regardless of occupation, age, or handiness, any mere Bay Area mortal can now construct with repurposed cardboard marble machines, sculpturesque towers and tiny, dancing amphibian-themed boxes. And then there are those people who yearn to solder clusters of tiny wires and gizmos together, or use coding to create Instagram-able images, or capture motion on a webcam and animate their daily routines like stirring soup or making coffee or—you guessed it—fashion cool stuff out of cardboard toilet paper rolls.
But where do such tendencies find outlet? Where is the tinker tribe to be hosted? Jubilantly, such questions have an immediate, local answer: “The Art of Tinkering” exhibit and studio at the Exploratorium (which runs through September 5.) The obviously hands-on installation is, according to the website, dedicated to “experiments with science, art, technology, and delightful ideas.”
A tinkerer in old times was a person who traveled from one location to the next while mending metal utensils, pots, and pans to make a living. In many families, the tinker took the shape of the grandparent who fiddles with old stereo systems or cassette players in the basement. Arguably, Silicon Valley and social media titans have boosted tinker status in contemporary times above such wraiths of wandering handy folks or elderly people with fix-it hankerings with their exaltation of young adults who rise from noodling around in garages to sitting on high-tech thrones.
Silicon scourges aside, the Exploratorium knows that summer is the perfect time for making DIY art, sculpting light and shadow, building and breaking circuits, or composing music with leftover materials from your last garage sale. Included in the “The Art of Tinkering” exhibit is inspiration in the form of creations by “master tinkerers” Natasha Dzurny, Junior Fritz Jacquet, Diane Landry, Golan Levin, Reuben Margolin, Tosa Novmichi, Jie Qi, Scott Weaver, and Daniel Wurtzel.
Brooklyn-based Wurtzel’s “Air Fountain” is a stunner. As in many of his kinetic sculptures and installations, air, lighting, and lightweight materials set sail to fabric. The work casts the textiles into fabulous choreography whose every movement is a moment never to be repeated. It’s been described as “hypnotic” by many reviews, and the term does fit—but it fails to capture the work’s majesty. “Air Fountain” feels more like the spell cast when a hiker stumbles upon a waterfall made luminous by slanting sunlight, or a grove of trees whose branches and leaves blow gloriously in the wind.
Technochic founder Dzurny is a tinker-dominator whose background incudes work as a designer, tech-crafter, maker, and content creator. Technology, engineering, and electronics prevail in both the business content and craft kits she creates for companies, education outlets, and fellow DIY makers. On her websites, templates, blogs, and YouTube tutorials deliver these projects to the masses. She of the blinking bow ties recognizes few boundaries (other than issuing clear warnings about battery safety and whatnot), and her work in the exhibit is sure to set minds afire. (But not literally. Remember those cautionary battery notices—and on the Technochic website, a long page about personal privacy protections regarding the online purchase of project kits.)
Parisian paper artist Jacquet will have you stockpiling even as the worst of Covid recedes—but not toilet paper, exactly. Rather, you’ll be on the hunt for that paper core at each roll’s center. Manipulated into expressive masks that bring organic brilliance to the precepts of classic origami, Jacquet’s sculptures are thinly lacquered in ghostly shades of red copper, mustard yellow, blue, brown, and green. Should one attempt the creation of these beauties without Jacquet’s remarkable artistry, it’s possible you will end up with something resembling your worst nightmare. But this will only cause greater appreciation for such miraculous art.
Amid all the fun and cosplay and failed or successful attempts to master wires and widgets and understand the wonderful possibilities that result from tinkering, there is learning and laughter in “The Art of Tinkering.” What could be better? A tinkerer might say, “More cardboard!”
Although the exhibit is perfect for families, adults who prefer tinkering minus children will welcome at the Exploratorium’s After Dark: Build on July 21. The evening open to adults (age 18+) only, and food and drinks will be available to purchase in the museum’s Seaglass Restaurant. Activities include using everyday materials to make art and engage in architectural experiments grounded in real life engineering feats accomplished in the Bay Area.