A Danger Derby in E.A.S.T 2012

Every year during the East Austin Studio Tour (E.A.S.T) local artists open their work spaces to the public and organize exhibitions, performances, pop-up shows, and informal parties. For a couple of days the Austin art world, official and underground, become very vibrant and busy. A quick look at the map of E.A.S.T. 2012 could surprise you. The east side of town, what it used to be the location for minority neighborhoods (mostly African American and Mexican) and industrial warehouses, has been transforming into a sort of art-district. There are so many places to visit (almost 200), so many shows and events, that it is difficult to decide where to go. During the three years I have lived here, I have relied in friend’s recommendations and a little bit of luck for organizing my E.A.S.T itinerary. Yesterday I did a sort of afternoon marathon visiting several studios (11) and one big event/performance. It was fantastic. I enjoyed discovering so much diversity in forms, techniques, and concepts. Although I liked the work of several artists, especially some sculpture and graffiti works, in this post I am just going to talk about the art piece that I enjoyed the most, the Blue Genie’s Danger Derby.

Actually, it would be more accurately to refer to this piece as an attraction rather than a work of art in the traditional sense. The Danger Derby was a public spectacle, a kind of entertainment attraction that was staged and performed in the parking lot of Blue Genie Industries. We arrived to the location by chance. In our way back home we spotted a traffic jam in tiny street and thought that perhaps something interesting was going on. We decided to walk to the place following the impossible line of cars who where in a bottle neck situation. They couldn’t move in any direction because the street lines were plenty of cars. Fortunately for us we just walked freely in between the cars and arrived very fast to the huge warehouse complex where the derby was talking place.

blue genie

At first glance the central structure of the spectacle appeared to me as a massive chute. However, as we approached we discovered that it was race track, a 100’/ 20′ high racetrack for pinewood cars. I was totally shock by the sort of dangerous obstacles that the track included. Each of them, reminded me of the golden age of American animated cartoons from the 40s and 50s. The first danger was articulated by a bearded man who had a flame thrower in hand.

fire obstacles

The second danger was a fixed line of fire that could function as a massive grill. After that, another guy, perhaps a member of the audience who volunteered, was operating a rotating circular saw. Finally, the most dangerous obstacle of all, was a balancing anvil that was thrown as a pendulum by another volunteer.

the track

The fact that all the dangerous obstacles were operated by members of the audience reveals some of the most interesting aspect of the Derby spectacle, its participatory nature. This piece of art, performance, attraction, or spectacle, functioned as a participatory situation. And perhaps the most important aspect of the collective nature of the event was that all the racing pinewood cars were created by the public. Each participant had a week to create its own customizable car after having registered at Blue Genie Industries and purchased a very basic pinewood kit. The diversity of models and pinewood cars that were racing last night totally blew my mind.

diversity of cars

The customized designs had references to American popular culture imagery, mythical characters, local characters, and national heroes. Others just had a subtle personal touch attached to it representing a unique identity. Even if every participant had to create his/her car from a basic pinewood kit they were able to become very creative in their designs and created many variations in size, style, colors, and textures. Bellow is the pinewood car in its most basic form:

car one danger derby

Inside of the warehouse, all cars were organized in a big table. They were tagged and registered in the Danger Derby log.

danger derby entry log

The same table had a space for the winners of each race. Those were the cars that arrived first to the end of the track without getting caught or burned by the obstacles. Bellow is an image of the winner of the first race, a simple but strong death-defying car made by a painter who attached some of his brushes to the vehicle.

winner heat one

Over the night, the races continued every 20 minutes. I just stayed for 5 races and enjoyed very much the intensity of the spectacle. Even if the races were so fast and lasted maybe just for 7 seconds, the whole context of the situation was very engaging. A narrator with a megaphone was in charge of keeping the expectations up and the audience was constantly cheering up for their favorite cars, especially the ones who had the most surprising designs. Sometimes the audience was even claiming for rescuing the cars who got caught by the flames. Sometimes it was too late to save them as in the case of a Big Tex car.

burning car

One of my favorite parts of this Danger Derby is that it took place during the same weekend that the Formula 1 Grand Prix was happening in Austin. I think this was not a coincidence. Instead of listening to the sound of massive motors that mute the human voice, the assistants to the derby listened to a chaotic chorus who cheered up for hand made pinewood cars. This spectacle was perhaps not as high and sophisticated as the racing of Formula 1 cars but it was certainly very comic and amusing. It reminded me of the entertainments of 19th century that were typical of itinerary fairs. It had the grotesque and vulgar elements of the carnival but it was mixed up with details of the industrial revolution (the mechanisms of the obstacles had references to the Goldberg machines). What I didn’t know is that the pinewood derby has a long tradition in the USA that goes back to the 1940s. There is a Wikipedia article that provides an overview of this kind of competition. There are also several dedicated websites that offer advice (e.g. http://www.abc-pinewood-derby.com) and products for building very sophisticated cars. The Blue Genie’s Danger Derby re-contextualizes a practice that was common to boy scouts and expands it to a wider audience, updating it with elements of carnivalesque attractions. It invites boys, girls, women, and men to design their own pinewood cars and race them in a track that is dangerous and humorous, absurd and mechanical.


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