Saturday, January 30, 2016

Creative Learning Space: Bloominglabs

Bloominglabs is an adult maker/hackerspace here in Bloomington, located in a warehouse. While it has a paid membership structure, once a week on Wednesday evenings they open it up to anyone. I visited on two Wednesdays (once from 9pm-10:45pm, and the following week from 7:40-10:40pm).

The diversity of projects is incredible. The projects involve electronics, computers, 3D printing, laser cutting, woodworking, metalworking, and even sewing and painting. They even have welding and are setting things up to be able to support auto repair. It seems most projects come from individual interests or needs—for instance, one man painted with acrylic paints on laser-cut acrylic just because he wanted to test how it would turn out, while another had a busted carburetor on his motorcycle and needed to fix it. The most impressive project I saw was an electricity-generating bicycle that lights up a giant Menorah, which as far as I can tell was made only because its maker wanted to do it. It seems it’s pretty common for non-members to bring items in for repair on Wednesday nights too; I brought in a voice-changing mask I bought for a costume, but the voice-changing part wasn’t working and needed to be fixed (it just needed to be re-soldered). Another man brought a sewing machine that he couldn’t get to work, which one of the few female members of Bloominglabs helped him out with. Sometimes members work on improvements to the space. For instance, I saw someone using the wood tools to make a shelf on which he mounted a TV above the door in the big room, to keep a watch on the laser cutter, which has a camera on it.

The bicycle-powered Menorah! I couldn't get a better angle because it was tucked between a shelf and the wall.
The community ranges in age from teenagers to upper middle age, and they all seemed very welcoming and friendly. Most of them are men, though I know one female member well and saw or heard of a few more during my visits. Some people seemed content to just hang out and watch videos together. Others helped each other out with projects, like an expert welder helping weld a broken piece of the motorcycle carburetor, or the woman helping with the sewing machine. Others worked on projects alone, such as a couple people modeling objects for the laser cutter or 3D printer on their computers. Visitors are always welcome on Wednesday nights, and there’s always someone willing to show them around. When I walked in the first week and explained my problem, people seemed to know who would be most helpful to me, and he immediately wrapped up what he was doing and turned to my project. There seems to be opportunity both for watching an expert help you with your project, as I did, and learning from them how to do it yourself. They also seemed very willing to help each other and work on the same project together depending on their strengths. For instance, one young man was taking apart his broken PlayStation 3. He occasionally called over a friend to help him with the difficult bits. Once he was done disassembling it, he gave it to an expert in electronics to solder the broken parts. They seemed to divide labor based on skillset rather than on authority. There were no clear leadership structures or hierarchies that I could see.

Besides values of general friendliness, there also seems to be a DIY spirit, a quirkiness, and an openness to ideas and guests, no matter who they are or how crazy the ideas. There’s also an etiquette to cleaning up your tools (there were signs all over saying, “Don’t maroon tools on uncharted workspaces!”). Each tool has its proper place, or at least an area where others like it are kept (like a wall on which you hang screwdrivers and other hand tools).

These posters showcase some of Bloominglabs' values: a repair-it-yourself spirit and an expectation to clean up after yourself.
The space is large, loud, and eclectic. There’s a front room with large tables pushed together in the middle, where people gather with their computers and smaller-scale projects. The large table supports social interaction, to help build a more cohesive community and a spirit of helping each other. There are wires everywhere here, as well as shelves, old arcade game consoles, screens, and a 3D printer. A smaller room to the side of this one houses the laser cutter with its ventilation system. In the large, main space, there are huge power tools for working with wood, metal, vehicles, etc., as well as more ordinary hand tools. I spotted one sewing machine (besides the one the man brought in), but no fabric or thread, except for a lone spool of conductive thread that no one was using. There are also quirky objects spread around the space, like a USB hub made out of an old lamp, or giant circuit boards that decorate the walls like framed art. While members claim that the space is more organized than it used to be, thanks to the untiring efforts of a man who spends almost every day in the space, it is still crowded and cluttered with stuff. The function the clutter serves within the culture of this space is to provide constant access and inspiration, even if not for the exact thing you’re looking for, at least to the look and spirit of the kind of thing you could be making. There are some kinds of projects that are less likely to occur to you in the space's current material configuration, such as more crafty low-tech projects, but there are even exceptions to that, with the painted laser-cut acrylic, a small table loom built from scratch, and a project I heard about involving light-up fairy wings. So the creative process is well supported, and even if the materials may not seem to call out for certain types of projects, the people in the space are receptive to any idea and will help your dreams become reality.
Part of Bloominglabs' large main space


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