In May 2015, along with web developer and artist Tom Chambers, I organized an Art Hackathon at Ravensbourne. Here is a summary from the event, my impressions and the proverbial top 10 of lessons learned. A more in-depth how-to-run-a-hackathon guide will follow soon.
Fifty artists-hackers & hacker-artists got together over a weekend in Ravensbourne’s state-of-the-art facilities in North Greenwich, to create an art exhibition from scratch, demonstrate the expressive potential of new technology and the power of radical collaboration in art. Kick off was on Saturday morning with a meet & greet and inspirational flash talks by the following guest: Joel Gethin Lewis (creative technologist), Brigitta Zics (artist & researcher), Di Mainstone (artist & movician), Marco de Mutiis (media artist/digital curator) and Nick Rothwell (creative technologist).
Immediately after the power talks participants pitched ideas and they then formed groups and collaborated on their idea of choice. About 12 groups were formed and the hacking began. We provided food and drinks, fast internet, 3D printers, a laser cutter, hardware for rapid prototyping and help by skilled volunteers. We convened again on Sunday morning and participants continued working until the afternoon when their projects were shown to guests and each other during a flash exhibition. The resulting digital works of art ranged from installation pieces, net art, new media performances, visualizations and small physical objects.
The hackathon’s theme was: “trickery”
Museum of Lies won the people’s choice award. The Jury Prize, awarded by Processing’s & NYU’s own Daniel Shiffman was won by Get the Banana! Read more on all the art works here.
Everything went unexpectedly smoothly and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the artworks on display. Most of them could easily be hosted in a gallery in London. People came up with original ideas, they collaborated with each other effectively and they delivered on time. Most importantly people seemed to have a lot of fun! At the end of the event they were immediately asking when the next Art Hackathon is going to be held, how they can be of help etc. As organizers it was great to feel that we managed to find the right parameters that allowed for the spirit of togetherness, solidarity and collaboration to emerge in a group of 60 strangers. One of the great legacies of this event are the relationships were forged, columns and tweets that were written months after the hack and the excitement about another art hack incarnation.
On a more sober note, it was incredibly exhausting to organize, with lots of obstacles to overcome and it ended up being a full time job for two months which not everyone has the luxury of sacrificing. We learned a lot about running such an event and we are currently exploring ways of making that process not rely on hackathon “high priests” but be more of a community organized event. Stay tuned!
Top 10 lessons learned
Not a competition: you don’t need prize money or awards in order to have a successful, popular event. In fact, prizes might have a negative effect on the collaborative, friendly spirit that you’re trying to foster.
Keep it short and sweet: I’ve been to hackathons that wasted so much of people’s energy and enthusiasm in unnecessarily long introductions, talks, bonding exercises etc. We wanted people to spend most of their time hacking. Interruptions were kept to the minimum and all speakers, presentations and pitches were kept to the times agreed. Setup the right conditions for people to hack and get out of their way!
Serve good food: Instead of pizzas and sandwiches we went for an independent caterer from Madagascar that served delicious, freshly cooked food. People looked forward to the meals and they kept thanking us for that choice.
Exhibition space: People created impressive works. If there’s one thing we wish we had is arranged for these not be on display in a gallery after the event. It was a shame to have to tear everything down after the event.
Location, location, location: We managed to secure the impressive facilities at Ravensbourne which allowed us to have access great infrastructure and the latest prototyping tools (3D printers, laser cutters etc) along all the basic hardware gadgets (arduinos etc).
Size matters: You need 50 people or more to create a bit of a buzz at the event. We had about 60 and it felt just right for the size of the venue.
Get help on the day: Managing 60 people is hard. Having help with prototyping, catering, coding on the day is very important.
Learning to code: A hackathon is not a place to learn to code from scratch. There’s too little time for that. It’s a place for putting in use what you more or less already know. An idea we are exploring is to run workshops the day before to help people hit the ground running on the day of the actual event.
“Deep publicity”: An event like this is great publicity for the organization that is setting it up. The unique experience that it provides to participants results in hundreds of tweets, many blog posts, word-of-mouth publicity and mainstream media coverage that an ad campaign can’t match easily.
People are full of ideas: We were stressed that people won’t come up with enough ideas. In fact we had about 23 ideas pitched which were naturally pruned or joined together to form 12 which survived until the end.