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A & E ART | think/haus

Hamilton's hackerspace brings popular mechanics into the 21st century. And it's so cool.

By Tor Lukasik-Foss

Hamilton sculptor Steve Mazza — whose Hopnopomp piece is shown here — is a frequent visitor to think/haus

I bump into sculptor Steve Mazza shopping at the Dundurn Fortinos and I ask him why I haven't seen him lately at his studio. He tells me it's because he's been spending his free time, way too much of his time, at think/haus, the city's hackerspace.

"They have an open house every Tuesday," he says, "you should drop by."

I've known that Hamilton has been home to a hackerspace for some years, and I know enough about hackerspaces from listening to Spark on CBC radio to know that they are not the burrows of cyber-terrorism the name may imply. That being said, I still have an inbred suspicion. But I remind myself that think/haus members recently contributed two talks to Function Keys, a conference on new technology organized by Centre 3 media this past November. And the mere fact that they have an open house every Tuesday makes me think my assumptions about them could be way off base.

As their website, thinkhaus.org, states, think/haus is a space for people with a desire to make things, fix things or figure out how things work. Like many of the hackerspaces worldwide — Wikipedia notes there are over 1,200 globally — it is governed loosely by principles of sharing tools and knowledge, and working as collaboratively as possible. It embodies the same restless DIY spirit contained in the Popular Mechanics magazines you remember as a child, or in more current incarnations such as Make magazine or instructables.com.

When I arrive at 8pm the following week, I walk up to the second floor of a small former convenience store beside the Staircase Theatre, near Dundurn and King St. Immediately, I am put at ease. The vibe here is not a nerd cave at all; it is totally granddad's workshop with just a few 21st century updates thrown in for good measure. There is a wall of plywood lockers and several work areas, with everything from a drill press, grinders, every kind of hand tool, plus a laser cutter, a 3D printer, even a lounge.

In one corner room are two guys with the hose of a shop-vac jammed into the vent of a video projector.

"Okay turn it on...see it works...see, it's just some kind of problem with the fan. There'll be a way to fix it."

It's a little stiff at first, but the minute Steve Mazza makes introductions, every member stops what he/she is doing and heads to the couches for an impromptu open forum. Clearly they like to talk, and indeed everyone in the group has something to say (I was writing notes so fast I couldn't adequately keep straight who said what). They seemed in equal measures forthcoming, curious, proud and intent on making sure they explain themselves correctly. A few of them start talking about the The Open Organization of Lockpickers (TOOOL), which has just begun monthly meetings in the space.

"You have to be careful about how you portray lockpickers in the media. Lockpickers are bound by a basic premise that you do not pick a lock that you do not own. There's a phenomenal amount of trust amongst them. They pick locks because it is a kind of sport, something to learn and get better at. They do it, because they want to get better at identifying the vulnerabilities in the design. They pick locks because ultimately, they want to make better locks."

Indeed, most of what this group focuses on has less to do with technology and more the philosophy and/or politics that inform spaces like these. For example, citizens should never give away their rights to improve or modify the products they purchase; knowledge is a commodity that works best when it's shared freely. There is also a real desire that hackerspaces like think/haus be embraced by the community at large. Mazza points out that hackerspaces are in the same position as artist-run spaces in the 70s — ubiquitous, influential but also unrecognized and largely unfunded. Participating in conferences, or setting up demonstrations as part or art crawls, or maintaining weekly open houses, are steps toward a larger goal of being legitimized as a vital part of the city.

Another member chimes in, "My mom has a weed whacker that doesn't work because of a broken part. If you try to source a new part you find out that it will cost you roughly the same price as a new weed whacker, and we don't agree with that system. We know that all it takes are the design specs and a 3D printer and you can fab a replacement part for only a couple of bucks."

After our talk, the group decides it would be best if Trevyn Watson demonstrates his quadrocopter. So we go downstairs en masse to see if the improv theatre show is done so we can use the empty room. The quadrocopter is an ugly thing, a circuit board set within a Tupperware tub atop a crosssection of aluminum towel bar. At the end of each bar is a set of propellers. When the motors engage they sounds like a swarm of deranged bees. But the thing flies. Moreover, every nuance of its liftoff and handling is noted by the group and discussed. You can sense how each of Trevyn's flight demonstrations connects to a future moment of tinkering and improvement.

"I started coming here because I had ideas for building things that were too difficult to do at home," says Richard Degelder, one of the founding members. "I thought having a community was just a side benefit. Now, I'd say that relationship has flipped — the reason I go to think/haus is to be part of this community, and making things comes out of that."