Was Art Ever So Moving?
By Teresa Wiltz
BALTIMORE –– There are a few things to get straight here: Cheating is not only acceptable, it's encouraged. The bribing of officials is rewarded. And while this is a race, the absolute last thing you want to do is come in first. Even having your human-powered work of art go bottoms up in a lily-pad-laden pond is preferable to the horrors of winning first place.
The American Visionary Art Museum's Second Annual East Coast National Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race (whew) is one of those losers-are-really-winners affairs. Race is a misnomer here: No one's really rushing. Wacky, wheeled and often wobbly sculptures wind ever so slowly through the streets of Baltimore for about a dozen miles, fueled by nothing more than imagination and the power of the pedal. Showing up an hour or so after the start doesn't keep you out of the running. You've just got to hustle a little to catch up. No biggie. After all, finishing smack dab in the middle earns you the most coveted prize of them all: the Mediocre Award.
Win that baby, and you've got immediate entree into the granddaddy of kinetic sculpture races, the three-day, 38-mile, all-terrain world championship in Ferndale, Calif.
But first things first. On Saturday morning, the kinetinauts, or sculpture pilots, gather to have their feet blessed by a disco-dancing monk, play the national anthem on plastic kazoos, recite the kinetic oath ("I solemnly swear not to be a sourpuss") and listen to a taped message from the Great Kinetinaut in the Sky: "Build strange sculptures on wheels. Race them. Don't do anything bad--unless it feels reeeeeeal good."
And then the 10 or so entries lumber off, as the announcer warns the crowd: "Ladies and gentleman, get off the track. Some of them don't have good brakes."
Good advice: Even before it clears the starting block, the Bearded Nurse (the head of a giant-size, blond and dreadlocked nurse, inside of which are nestled six or so equally blond, burly and bearded nurses pedaling away on recumbent bikes) veers dangerously to the right, and then the left before it plows straight into a pack of onlookers.
And then there's Stingray, a blue-and-yellow contraption powered by Harford High School senior LeQuann Dorsey, which loses its wheel as soon as the race begins, leaving Dorsey, who's clad in a green toga, gray sweats and a life preserver, with no choice: For the rest of the race, he pulls his art along behind him.
But then again, unless you're the perennially late Dumpster Divers from Philly, who come armed with bribe bags stuffed with goodies grabbed from the garbage, you need perseverance to make it through the Patterson Park obstacle course. If the sand trap and the "Mud Dump Gulch" don't do you in, then "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness Water Crossing" will.
So discovers D.C.'s Eric Carlson, who is competing with his one-man "Tangible Arts Bo-cycle"--a lavishly decorated cross between a bike and a surfboard. Ever so delicately, Carlson slides his cycle down the ramp--and promptly capsizes.
"You can get a laugh out of this," says a drenched Carlson as he maneuvers his machine onto dry land. "It's highbrow and it's performance and it's farce. I view this as art."
Yeah, okay. But given that he's just been docked points for getting wet, how would he assess his chances.
"My chances are terrible and excellent and maybe mediocre. I haven't worked for the last two months on this to fall in the water and have this be the end of the day. This is my baptism. In order to conquer the Kinetic Race, you have to do it more than once."
As it turns out, Carlson isn't mediocre enough to win the race. This year, the winner is the Bartmobile, a faux-brick tower contraption from Towson, with "worst honorable mention" going to the Stingray. Philly's Dumpster Divers, naturally, wins for best bribes.
This all started back in 1969, thanks to one Hobart Brown, a P.T. Barnum type decked out for the race in a top hat. He was in his Ferndale garage, "fixing a tricycle for my son, and I got carried away. Pretty soon it was six feet tall."
He started creating more and more of these contraptions and--oh heck, if you build it and race it, they will come. Somehow the kinetic sculpture thing just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And now there are 11 such races around the world--including one in Poland.
Brown, 66, has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (last year), which makes complete sense since everybody knows that the Kinetic Sculpture Race is going to save the world. Because, he says, if it can cure the cancer of one kinetinaut and lower the suicide rate in Perth, Australia (after races were started there), then saving the world isn't too tall an order.
Brown breaks it down: "This is a way for artists, engineers and frustrated geniuses to get noticed. We pay attention, and attention is going to save the world. We're giving people purpose."
Then he pops back into his Cha-Cha Bird disguised as a golf cart and heads off toward the finish line to cheer on the losers.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company