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Burners at Maker Faire

Maker Faire Bay Area offers a look at big Burning Man projects, many with steampunk appeal

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

One benefit of attending Maker Faire Bay Area is that you get to see large-scale Burning Man projects without the need to trek to Black Rock Desert. Some of those works, such as the Nautilus Submarine Art Car and Neverwas Haul, have become steampunk icons. Each year, I look forward to a new set of spectacular creations that would never fit inside a steampunk convention, or would never be allowed inside due to their pyrotechnics.

El Pulpo Mecanico

In 2014, it was El Pulpo Mecanico, a 25-foot-tall fire-spewing octopus made from scrap metal. In 2015, I marveled at Celestial Mechanica, a 20-foot-tall model of the solar system, and Rhino Redemption, a 1974 Chevy pickup truck transformed into a fire-breathing rhinoceros. Last year, it was “Pulse,” a giant model of the human heart that emitted fire in rhythm to heartbeats, and “Le Attrata,” a metal-and-fire sculpture depicting giant moths.

This year did not disappoint, as Maker Faire offered many attendees their first looks at Rabid Transit, from the creator of El Pulpo Mecanico, and Clock Ship Tere, a “steampunk pirate ship” made by a team of amateur fabricators led by Andy Tibbetts. The event also marked the return of old favorites such as Landau, a fire-breathing steampunk dragon, and Mechateuthis, a giant mechanical squid by Barry Crawford of Elko, Nevada.


These works have obvious steampunk appeal. What may be surprising is that many of the creators had little or no familiarity with steampunk when they conceived the projects.

That was the case with Crawford, who had never heard of the genre before fabricating Mechateuthis—probably the most steampunk-looking artwork at this year’s event. “My dad said, ‘This is steampunk,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘What’s steampunk?’ He said, ‘It’s what you’re doing.’”

Mechateuthis is a kinetic sculpture with eight cranks that control the movements of the squid’s tentacles and other parts. Crawford fabricated most of the pieces using a plasma cutter and tools that he created for the project. It was funded by a grant from Burning Man Arts plus crowdfunding. He debuted it at Burning Man in 2015.

Clock Ship Tere

Clock Ship Tere's Kickstarter page describes it as a steampunk project. But when I spoke with Andy Tibbetts at Maker Faire, he seemed to discourage the label. He said he first conceived the ship in 2004, when steampunk was little more than an obscure subgenre of science fiction. And he recalled one person who told him it didn’t qualify as “steampunk” because it didn’t run on steam.

Duane Flatmo, creator of El Pulpo Mecanico and Rabid Transit, said he became aware of steampunk only after he created the octopus and people started applying the label. As with El Pulpo Mecanico, Rabid Transit is made largely from scrap metal. A lot of it is aluminum, so the color scheme isn’t quite as “steampunk” as in the earlier project. But as a work of art, it’s even more impressive. The front resembles an anglerfish, and it’s adorned with sculptures of rabid animals that move and emit fire. He was assisted by long-time associate Jerry Kunkel, who worked on the gas lines and electrical system.

Steampunk Off the Map

Maker Faire itself seems to be edging away from steampunk, at least as a formal category. The outdoor area previously known as the Steampunk Grotto was still there, and still had steampunk vendors. But it was labeled on the map as “Obtainium Works,” not “Steampunk.” Obtainium Works is the arts organization in Vallejo, California that’s home to the Neverwas Haul and many other notable projects. It’s long been the anchor of the steampunk area, so the change was largely cosmetic. But the area was smaller and had fewer vendors than before. (I’ll have more to say on this in Part Two of our Maker Faire coverage.)

Scott Parenteau was given space in the section to show the “world’s smallest robotic house.” Designed for two people, it has an exterior that appeared to be steampunk-inspired. But he told me that he had little familiarity with the genre. Steampunk or not, it’s an interesting project. At night, it can be rotated to a horizontal position so the occupants can sleep. Parenteau is best known as the creator of the Walking Pod, a mobile construct resembling a geodesic dome with 12 legs.

The Obtainium Works section was also the home base for the Kinder Panzer, a Mad Max-style art car/tank that made its first appearance at Burning Man in 2017, and the London Speedster, first seen on the playa in 2016.

You can see all these and more in the photo gallery below. The event was held May 18-20 in San Mateo, California.

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