Willoughby and Baltic Brings Robots and Visual Arts to Somerville
Somervile, MA - On Elm Street in Davis Square, next to an ordinary Subway sandwich shop, you'll find a glowing red doorway that marks the portal into the Willoughby and Baltic hackerspace. Founded and managed by local visual and electronic artist Meredith Garniss, the hackerspace, along with the model shop two doors down and the large Union Square fabrication studio, provide local hackers and artists with a place to cultivate ideas, learn new methods and machines, and most importantly, to connect with Boston's visual arts and hacker communities.
Standing in the model shop, Garniss proudly points around the room and tells me how much work Willoughby and Baltic members and volunteers have put into converting the once garage into a legitimate workspace. "I've had this property for five years now and wanted to do something with it. The floor was donated. I built the walls. People coming in wouldn't know it used to be a garage." I walk around the workbenches as Garniss talks about the machines. "People have bought equipment for themselves and just don't have room for it in their apartments, so they bring it in for us. I'd like to get another band saw, but maybe a pottery wheel would be a better use of space. Especially with the kiln here. Hopefully it won't be too loud in here." Garniss seems to be talking to herself as much as to me, figuring out how much more work there is to be done. "We'd love to purchase a 3D printer and a laser cutter, but when we looked into the price for leasing it, we decided we could wait a while." Just then, another member pops his head in and tells Garniss one of the new members builds 3D printers. Make no mistake: these are people who get the job done, most often on their own.
From across the shop I hear Peter Olson, Chairman of Willoughby and Baltic's Operations Committee, telling another member that he recently accepted a job as GNU Systems Administrator at Free Software Foundation. He tells me Willoughby and Baltic plans to provide members with uniquely identifiable iButtons so they can access the shop 24 hours a day and Willoughby and Baltic can track who uses the space and when. Members can even take equipment home with them to finish projects.
We walk next door to the hackerspace, upstairs and past the warning sign. ("This area contains hazardous materials, fumes and toxins. Proper safety gear and handling procedures are required.") Olson shows me the main room with its large table surface. "We painted the walls dark and have only direct lighting so people can focus on their own work and everything else sort of fades into the darkness." Adjacent to this area is a smaller, quiet room with two computers. Garniss explains, "It can get loud in here when everyone's circuit bending so we wanted people to have a space to concentrate." Down the hall, past the kitchen cabinets decorated with blue luminous wire, Garniss shows me what will soon be the photo lab, painted in neutral colors, and the balcony they hope to renovate before spring. "We wish there was a competing hacker group in Boston so we could invite them here," she says, adding with a guilty smile, "and pelt them with water balloons from the deck."
The Willoughby and Baltic Hacker Space. View additional photos.
The cooperative, DIY, community-focused attitude Garniss expresses is attractive to potential Willoughby and Baltic members, and essential to the organization's success. Garniss explains, "People want the community back that they had in school. We're all here for each other." Members might be working on their own projects while in the hackerspace, but they share ideas and conversation with one another. Garniss adds that since members have access to all three spaces, everyone has the opportunity to explore all areas and broaden their work. Expert members train others on how to use machines in the model shop and fabrication studio, and people who bring in their own equipment demonstrate it to others.
Garniss hopes Willoughby and Baltic will have the capacity to offer public classes starting in January. She says the organization is still developing its identity and testing its limits, but "there are many of us who are very interested in teaching. It would be great to get feedback from the community about what they need, classes and stuff." Already, one volunteer, Dick Koolish, has taught a class on pinhole photography, and Garniss wants to develop an expanded curriculum.
Meredith Garniss and Peter Olson in the Hacker Space. View additional photos.
Garniss indicates the goal is to have Willoughby and Baltic's three spaces under one roof within five years. For now, though, everyone is contributing what they can to get the current spaces up and running. "People have been extremely supportive," Garniss says while we look at photos of the Union Square fabrication studio with its neatly ordered tools and rows of industrial machines. "It's grown organically. It's the kind of thing we hoped would grow spontaneously, and it has. It's all grown so fast." She looks at Olson and adds with a laugh, "The one thing we need is sleep. A little bit."
To see some of the Willoughby and Baltic members' work, check out the Halloween show at theCharles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. It features animated ghosts, but Garniss promises, "It's family friendly, it's not too scary." The opening party is October 29 and it runs until November 2.
Visit the Willoughby and Baltic web site for information about becoming a member. Act fast, though. They signed up forty members before they officially opened, and they are capping membership at 70.