Ecsite 2016 Dissect, Hack and Reimagine Toys Workshop


As Sebastian and I were dreaming up the pop-up makerspace at Ecsite 2016, we talked about running a series of activities that built on each other over time but also provided low-threshold opportunities for participants to join in the workshop along the way. As we brainstormed possible ideas, we were inspired by the twisted toy experiments with Michael Brown back at the PFA and the animatoys workshop at MUST in Milan. We thought about focusing three 1.5 hour long hands-on tinkering sessions in the makerspace on dissecting and reanimating electro-mechanical toys.

Not only would this give us the chance to try out a new extended series of activities, but it would allows us to reuse and re-purpose all of the parts from the dissected toys. In the past, our staff have scrounged some of the moving parts to create custom circuit boards, but this would be the first time where we involved workshop participants in the process of recycling all of the detritus of the toy dissection.


Before the conference, we collected about twenty singing and dancing toys and packed them in our luggage (and surprisingly got no questions from TSA). Jochen and I wrote a call for toys in the ecsite spokes magazine and were pleasantly surprised that about 10-15 conference participants brought along something to dissect. Some people even posted photos on twitter of the toys making their way to Graz. Many of these donated toys had metal parts and lacked circuit boards which made the dissection more interesting for us as well. IMG_4162

These workshops were in the program as a normal conference session that people could decide to attend based on their own interest. We let in about forty participants and paired people up before prompting them to carefully observe and then dissect the toys.


Once again, we utilized the project zero 'agency by design' thinking routine called "parts, purposes and complexities". In this framework, each group starts with a black marker and lists all the parts of the toy that they can see, hear, and feel under the skin. We encouraged them to draw a diagram of how they imagined the parts to work together inside the toy. After about ten or fifteen minutes, we passed out the dissecting tools and switched out the markers. As they cut into the toys, they kept track of what they found with a colored marker which resulted in some beautiful artworks that we hung on the wall after the session to decorate our makerspace with evidence of past projects. IMG_4195

It was great to see people sharing ideas, collaborating and learning from each other. We think that these types of hands-on activities in a conference setting can provide unique opportunities for participants to meet each other and have conversations as their hands are engaged in the dissection. We spent a few minutes at the end of the session sharing discoveries form inside the toys and encouraging people to return to the makerspace over the next couple of days to remake and hack the toy parts.


After the first session ended, did our usual work of sorting skins, stuffing, and guts into three big cardboard boxes. IMG_4287

Additionally on the second day, to make the next two sessions of "hacking" the toys easier, we did a deeper sorting of the "guts" or the plastic and metal parts. We divided the pile of plastic and electronics into a few categories to make building art machines easier. We thought that the most useful parts would include functioning moving mechanisms, disconnected motors, large plastic pieces that we could attach vibrating motors with glue sticks, and interesting connector pieces like arms, springs, and hinges.


Samar also volunteered to prep some of the electronic pieces by soldering on longer wire leads to make it easier to attach batteries to the motors and mechanisms. LG8A3708

I introduced to the activity by showing an undissected toy and explaining events of the session the day before. As we started the workshop, I noticed that there were about half returners from the first day's session and half new participants. We introduced the idea of the workshop as creating art machines from the moving parts of the toys. We built four or five examples with different types of movements.


Our initial idea for the workshop was that participants would add markers to already moving toy parts and the investigations would be mainly focused around the movements and patterns of the art machines. DSC00808

We also provided the basic materials like motors, glue sticks, and batteries so those unfamiliar with scribbling machines could experiment with vibrating creations before moving to more complicated mechanisms.


As a way to make scribbling machine 'bodies' we added in recyclable materials and it was interesting to see how the unusual toy parts worked together with common plastic and cardboard containers. IMG_4381

Soon after everyone started working, we noticed groups digging through the boxes with the decorative elements of the toys and kludging them together to make funny and whimsical creations. Once this group made the dancing and drawing toy, others saw the idea and started getting more creative and daring with their own contraptions. Although the initial plan called for saving the fabric and fur from the toys for the third day, we didn't stop people from adding these materials to their toy hacks.


The experimental nature of the activity extended to one group modifying the markers to create a "vampire bear" that made bloody marks from the ink cartridges of the red crayola markers. DSC00831

The end results of the tinkering felt somewhere in between scribbling machines and LEGO art bots with some unpredictability based on the found objects but with the ability to create really complex and intentional designs.


The wide variety of unique parts from the toys encouraged some really interesting problem posing and problem solving around different ways to create kinetic art makers. All around the room, we saw new ideas, surprising uses of materials, and lots of iteration on designs. One machine that flipped a hinge from a re-purposed mouth piece provided a really nice example of an unexpected creation. IMG_4440

At the end of the session, participants naturally gravitated to a large section of paper that we put on the floor, Jon turned on some dance music and it was a real celebratory atmosphere in the makerspace.


It was a great culminating experience to have all the designs working together to contribute to a large collaborative artwork and this showcase gave people the chance to admire to wide variety of outcomes. We ended the second day on a high note, energized by the experience, but unsure how we could top it for the last day of the workshop. IMG_4655

For the final session of the series, we planned to add in some new materials like LEDs, battery packs and conductive thread to extend the possibilities and create sewn circuits out of the discarded clothes and fur from the toys.


For this workshop we got an unexpected facilitation assist from Walter Lunzer, a fashion designer who created a beautiful geometric dress for Kathrin to wear at the gala ball. Earlier in the day he wandered in and started messing around with the conductive thread to make a small circuit and he returned to help out participants later in the afternoon. It was a great reminder of the high ceilings possible around wearable technology. IMG_4620

Some participants experimented with the unique texture of the recycled "skins" creating some really beautiful patterns to pin on to their clothes or nametags.


Sarah Alexander of Cabaret Mechanical Theater, got inspired by a different electronic part and embedded a "moo" sound maker in her fashionably designed facsinator. IMG_4650

Others took their idea a step further in the franken-toy direction and added LEDs to reanimated stuffed animals.


And we were really impressed to see some of the projects that people worked on over the course of all three days of the workshop. One group used the motion of the legs to create a switch that alternated blinking LEDs before sewing a new costume on the mechanical elements. This was one of the first times that we had ran a workshop where people worked on the same project over consecutive days and I imagine that the extended time frame with breaks in between helped people to bring some amazing ideas to life. IMG_4703

Although with the sewn circuit activity, we didn't have a big final experience, Sebastian set up a photo booth where people could document their creations and get inspired by what others had made. There were fifteen to twenty people who came to all three sessions and their creations reflected a great deal of personal expression, humor, and deep thinking.


All in all, I think this experimental workshop series really helped to create a special experience for us and participants. Although this pop-up makerspace was built and disassembled over just three days, the toy dissection and reanimation workshop supported people working together in a shared problem space, offered ways for dedicated makers to go really deep into the exploration, but still offered low threshold starting points for newcomers to the environment. I can't wait to experiment more with this workshop format here at the tinkering studio and in professional development workshops. And of course we're already thinking about ways to make the makerspace at Ecsite 2017 even better!

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