Floating innovative ideas in a sea of creativity

Fri, Oct 9, 2009, 01:00

WIRED:Ephemerisle is a festival on water that is flooded with creativity and experimentation, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

I’M STANDING in the middle of a river in California’s Sacramento delta. The water in this wandering tributary is flowing out to join hundreds of other streams. About 100 miles to my west, it finally empties out into San Francisco bay, the body of water that washes against the peninsula that holds Silicon Valley.

I’m guessing a sizeable chunk of the people next to me on the water are from San Francisco or the Valley. Much of the gently swaying floating platform on which we are balancing was hauled from there. The solar-powered pirate FM radio station on a tiki tower to my left originated there. The two-storey bedroom and pirate ship to my right was engineered in an artspace there. And the wobbly plastic milk-crate ferry, piloted by a nine-year-old in a hoodie called Alex, was jerry-rigged from parts hitched from there. And I’m fairly sure this whole crazy idea could not have come from anywhere else.

This is Ephemerisle, the latest defiant undermining of the stereotype that California’s tech grotto has no artistic or real-world skills to call its own. The idea, when hatched, was as wobbly as the ferry: hold a festival on water, built and then dismantled by its attendees in the course of a weekend. But then, this is the same intersection of communities that grew Burning Man, a festival that now hosts more than 40,000 attendees in the middle of a barren desert.

Some of the figures involved in that event are here today.

Michael “Danger Ranger” Mikel, one of the three co-founders of Burning Man and creator of its internal safety force, the Black Rock Rangers, stays alert to stop this becoming, as he says, “Burning Man with drowning”.

“Chicken” John Rinaldi, one of San Francisco’s more recognisable underground artists (he stood for city mayor in 2007, and still has his face decorating a giant “Chicken John for Dog Catcher” mural on one of the city’s main thoroughfares), sits chewing a cigar and barking orders at everyone, at least until they bark back.

But many of the people here have come to get away from the scale and established challenges of the desert festival.

They look more like the stereotype of the Valley geek than the moustachioed Rinaldi or tanned Mikel; shy and black T-shirted, they talk intently about flotation and basic physics, blueprints and materials, in quieter, less confident voices.

There is a distinct lack of pre-existing nautical knowledge. Some of them had not even been on a boat before this week. Certainly, we could all have done with some knowledge of knots. But the attendees are furiously problem-solving, and slowly problems are being solved.

For instance, there is the question of whether their homes for the weekend will sink. Built from cheap wood (the 4ft x 8ft basic platforms cost less than €70) and used barrels, the platforms below us were sketched out and constructed from scratch in in about a week. The apocalypse-themed “Apocaisle” that resulted has two-storey elements, a carefully isolated fire pit hung over the water, a solar panel, FM radio transmitter, couches, comfortable tents and a bar.

But most importantly, it doesn’t sink. The crowd who built it arose, as so much in the Valley does, from internet mailing lists and online discussions. It succeeded, though, by way of San Francisco’s convenient shared spaces for plotting and building large-scale, almost industrial artworks, and long-established traditions of digging up and sharing practical knowledge quickly and efficiently.

Old hands at large art structures such as Rinaldi pitched in to help these new artists – he already had experience constructing floatable ships in previous art flotillas, had hosted a “Camp Tipsy” earlier this year to flesh out problems, and shared designs for cheap flotation systems with anyone who asked.

In this city, while it’s always easy to paint a picture of tensions between “dotcom yuppies” and the defiantly gritty, oil-streaked artistic community, the truth is that both geek and art cultures are grounded in the same technological knowledge-sharing – and have heavily intertwined roots.

One of Mikel’s first jobs was at the granddaddy of microprocessor start-ups, Fairchild Semiconductor, and he used to advise Apple on robotics. Rinaldi’s background is as an engineer.

The quieter geeks and the loudhailer-wielding experts are separated more by time and experience than by any gulf in background or philosophy.

They’re certainly bonded by a determination to build art and lives in environments that have not been colonised in quite this way before.

Right now, in the middle of the weekend, in the middle of this river, the people around me are shaking with sleep deprivation, non-stop physically demanding work, and the constant hard-thinking required to defend their hastily improvised habitats.

But by the time they flow back down this river to San Francisco, they’ll be full of hard-gained knowledge, shared tips, and a mad desire to ship out to the river (or even the seas) again next year.

Compared to this, building the next great tech leap forward will be like walk in the park.