The Collaboration Room: Where Geeks Create Art

Geek Culture

At a brightly colored house on the west side of downtown Bloomington, Indiana, people are gutting stuffed bears, animating clay, and turning floor vents into fishing holes. What’s more, those responsible want to bring these activities to your town, too.

The Collaboration Room is an artist-run space that gives people of all ages a chance to participate in collaborative art-making experiences. TCR, which maintains a gallery and store in their mixed-use living space, strives to foster an appreciation for visual arts through the projects and workshops they facilitate.

Scenes from The Collaboration Room (source: Kevin Makice)

“The Collaboration Room is shaped by the people who participate,” explains Matthew Searle, the founder and director of TCR. “If we meet a book artist, we’ll ask to collaborate on a publication, or build a book-making series around her talents. Same is true for a kid, a horticulturalist, a mechanic. We can build creative programming with anyone or anything if given the opportunity.”

Armed with degrees in studio art, Searle leads an team that has experience working with youth and adults. Searle is currently the Art Director of the local Boys and Girls Club, and he used to design programs for a children’s museum. Other key members contribute expertise ranging from graphic design to education to computer science.

For kids, this collaborative experience has great potential. They can interact with new people, get their hands on a variety of media, and be exposed to different ways of expressing themselves within a group. “We want to give kids an unusual opportunity to not only have their voices heard, but to see their visions enacted,” promises Searle.

The team’s comfort working with kids is clear. My sons enjoy the bi-weekly Animation Club, run by Matisse Giddings. Together, they created several animated movies, some of which are published on TCR’s YouTube channel. At a recent Ignite event, my eldest shared his designs for a custom utility belt that he hopes to make reality as an ongoing project for the TCR community.

Making New Connections

The Collaboration Room mission is about more than creating art; it is dedicated to creating new connections. This past month, another local group—Bloomington Hackerspace Initiative—joined forces with TCR by renting a private workshop at the studio headquarters for its members to meet and share equipment.

In addition to their own Wednesday night meetings, the techies are helping TCR run a series of workshops on using electronics, from soldering to Arduino. The joint venture is already helping both groups: An expected intimate group of 4 or 5 participants blossomed into 17 people showing up at their first workshop last week.

“Several who had intended to build their own kits ended up helping others more than working on their own stuff,” reports Nathan Heald of Hackerspace. “Between all of us, we were able to scrounge up just enough soldering irons for everyone. I don’t think things could have possibly gone any better for our first run.”

Among the attendees was a mother helping her 7-year-old son solder some circuits. “I was delighted,” Heald remembers. “I think teaching young kids skills like soldering, ham radio, and programming at an early age is a great equalizer in terms of what their future holds.”

An international movement to bring technologists and their projects to the same physical spaces, Hackerspace has similar goals as those driving The Collaboration Room. “Artists are more and more using technology in their work,” observes Heald.

A good philosophy adopted by The Collaboration RoomA good philosophy adopted by The Collaboration Room

A good philosophy adopted by The Collaboration Room (source: Kevin Makice)

Something for Everyone

One of TCR’s key strategies is found in the Collaborator-in-Residence program, aimed at bringing artists in to work with local members in the studio. Earlier this year, one such artist—Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Chamberlain—visited for ten days and created winter-themed installations that served as an interactive backdrop for a late spring party.

Using cardboard and paper, Chamberlain turned a floor vent into an ice fishing activity where guests were challenged to catch magnetic fish resting on the ducting below. There were also stations for painting with ice cubes, an animated photobooth, and a smorgasbord of ice-named foods (e.g., cool ranch Doritos). Chamberlain’s work is currently on exhibit in Pittsburgh through July 25.

Some of the other TCR projects and workshops include:

  • The Red Circle Animation Project, a living electronic art piece, where visitors are asked to draw the signature TCR logo and contribute a few frames to an animation.
  • Inspired by a hand-painted “25¢” sign acquired at an Indiana garage sale for a quarter, the Wunderkammer is a rack filled with discarded items that are repackaged for sale. On the back of every label is a re-imagined description of what the object is and where it was found.
  • Part of their Sewing Series, the Frankenstein Plush Animals and Creatures workshop encouraged participants to put doggy ears on stuffed dinosaurs. Plush animals were deconstructed and brought back to life as new, interesting creations tricked out with LED lights and conductive thread.

While the idea originated before he got to Bloomington, Searle says his current home was ripe for the project. “TCR can take form more easily, initially, in a smaller community,” he argues. “The unique resources that are available here—along with the unique gaps in resources—makes it an interesting challenge.” His plan is to experiment and learn in Indiana how to make this model reproducible elsewhere in the country.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!