Take A Peak Inside ‘Crash Space’ — The Above Ground, Underground Hackerspace Community in LA
The sound of heavy metal whirring amid conversations about the coolest things I can imagine will be a signal that something is happening. This group will not be like the ones that preceded it. These people will not be like their parents, hippies who tried to meditate love to bring humanity to a higher plane or baby boomers content with going to the same meaningless job every day just because that was what one was meant to do. And this group, or type of group, will not be like the others of its own generation, bingeing on the stimuli provided at the store or on TV by unstoppable behemoths, because this group prefers to fabricate its own stimuli. Still, there are artists and intellectuals that insist on making media artifacts and reading a stream of consciousness poetry to their peers in poorly lit warehouses in East Los Angeles as some blind attempt to drive human progress. But producing media will not be enough for these makers and hackers. I know they must produce everything – and I mean everything – for themselves. Like a fanboi heading to Warhol’s Factory for the first time, I decided to meet these people who I knew could do a lot more than I could. I decided to visit Crash Space.
April 21, 2013
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I bring my fiancé, Danielle, and our best friend, Scott, along for emotional support. Danielle tells me not to be intimidated, but how could I not be? I haven’t even finished building my printer from a kit and these were people who personally designed them. I’d spent about a month or so putting mine together. My friend Chris helped with the first couple of build sessions, but after he fell in love with a girl he met online, he spent less and less time helping out. And, when I had finally gotten everything but the wiring put together, I didn’t have the patience to wait for him. So I looked up some videos on stripping wires and hooked up all of the electronics, too. Then, when I plugged my Bukobot in and tried to calibrate it, the build platform ran ceaselessly into the Y-axis endstop, driving towards some destination that could never be reached. So, now, as I pull the monstrosity out of my car, I think about how I had done a really sloppy job and that I’m afraid to let these Makers with backgrounds in science and engineering look upon my shame.
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Outside of the place, pouring down Venice Blvd. in LA, a steady stream of cyclists enjoy CicLAvia. We open the door to the unsuspecting building, labelled with a small and quiet sign that says “Crash Space”, and enter to find two people. “Ok”, I’m thinking, “this isn’t that intimidating”. I even know one, Rich from Deezmaker, where my Bukobot originally came from. And the other person, Naim, with his avuncular glasses, round cheeks and puffy hair, resembles a kindly uncle who fixes watches for a living. As the Makerbot Monthly session continues, the other members and guests who show up prove to be just as friendly.
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Chris, a contented, Waldo-looking sort of dad, fussed with his Printrbot Jr., telling us about how he found the space. He needed an oscilloscope to visualize sound waves and, as a long-time tinkerer, he thought he’d build one instead of buy one. So he checked to see if there were any hackerspaces in the area and found Crash Space. Seeing the group’s laser cutter, he forgot about the oscilloscope and started working on a wide array of laser cutting projects. After attending a 3D printing class at the space, he went out and got his own to build and has been hooked ever since. But Chris says that, while he came for the laser cutter, he stays for the geeky sense of humor he shares with his fellow members. He works alongside lawyers all day, doing something relating to music software and maybe copyright law, so the geeky atmosphere of Crash Space offers a breath of fresh air.
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“People want to be here. They’re not forced to be here.” Steve, an older, white-haired Maker/hacker explains that it’s not uncommon for people to find the environment of a hackspace as a welcome change to their day job. He lays out the difference between a voluntarily formed collective, as found in something like a hackerspace, and an involuntary one, as seen in most workplaces. At most jobs, individuals have similar backgrounds, as selected by their employers, and so, creativity can be limited. In a hackerspace, however, individuals from different fields are brought together to work on personally motivated projects, so that, when one person does not have a solution to a problem, someone with a totally unique background, and perspective, can offer a solution not previously thought of. Naim adds, “And I’m not afraid to point out that an idea is stupid and say, ‘I’ve tried that before and fucked up so you should try something else.’” And, rather than working alone in your own workshop, the differences found in a collective will bring about more novel ideas, springing from more diverse sources, “making your project more awesome than it was going to be” if you had been doing it in solitude, according to Steve. Steve, it turns out, founded his own surveillance equipment company back in the 70s.
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As members, people who randomly stopped into the space, Danielle, Scott, and I hoist a large plywood trapezoidal structure off of the back of a pickup truck and place it onto the ground like pallbearers carrying the previous era of centralized, mass production, it occurs to me that this is not everyone’s idea of fun. Some people don’t want to make all of their own goods. The thought disappears as Naim describes what the wood is for. The device to be built is an interactive LED display that will be carried on the back of that truck and brought to various locations for strangers to wave their hands and see the effect that their actions have on light. The intended goal is not to win the Red Bull Creation Challenge – which, this year, involves building with light – but it certainly would be nice.
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In the search for a spare 2 mm nut for my Bukobot, Naim gives me a guided tour through the connected rooms. The laser cutter is on the shop floor and, along the walls, various tools are hung. A MakerBot Replicator, lent to the space, sits on a workbench. The rear of the shop is wide open, exposed to the back alley like a local mechanic’s auto repair garage. The next room is a cozy den. I can’t remember if it was actually carpeted in shag, but that is definitely what my mind would like to project. A Prusa Mendel and a Bukobot are in the process of being built. Naim explains that he’s found himself a career as a freelance prototyper. He searches the compact room for a container he printed to house gunpowder, something he made for a pyrotechnician wanting to make his movie sets safer by complying with gunpowder containment regulations usually shrugged off by other technicians during most film shoots. In response to a question about whether he’s made any money as a result of the community and resources at Crash Space, Naim quickly replies that he’s sunk too much money into the space to even consider profits. The space is a non-profit, after all.
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A couple weeks later, I contact the site’s founder, Sean Bonner, via email and, through a series of probably overly vague questions, I ask him about the overall guiding philosophies of the space and how it situates itself within the greater community (the local Culver City, Los Angeles, and the human race). Sean shies away from prescriptive answers in favour of frank descriptions of happenstance, like:
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If we had to boil it down to a “guiding philosophy” it would probably be “do awesome stuff.” The motivation was that there wasn’t a hackerspace in Los Angeles and we wanted there to be one – simple as that. So faced with that situation there’s only two choices, complain that there isn’t a hackerspace in Los Angeles or start one. We chose the latter.
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Like the Universe itself, Crash Space seems, to me, to have burst out of a non-intentional, organic urge or will. It’s like Sean’s main intent was to have a place in LA for hackers to get together and work on doing awesome things together and that the best way to have awesome things get done was to allow for the natural awesomeness of the individuals to flourish on its own. Crash Space’s job is to be the garden for such a flourishing to take place.
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Sean’s response when I inquire as to the role the space plays in the local or greater Los Angeles community, whether or not it serves as an after school program or anything of that nature, is this:
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Crash Space isn’t a “youth center.” A lot of people assume that anything that has classes must be geared towards children but that isn’t the case. In fact children are not permitted at Crash Space without their parents there as well. Many classes or events we offer are great for parents and their kids, nothing is aimed at children. Classes are for adults and some adults have very mature children that they like to bring along too, which is great. If that makes sense. The other half of the question is that a number of independent groups use Crash Space as their meeting point on a regular basis. Specifically related to 3D printing – Makerbot Monthly is a perfectl example. This is a monthly event originally driven by Makerbot enthusiasts, many of whom are not Crash Space members and never show up at the space otherwise. We’ve done a number of installation projects that have engaged the neighborhood and recently had corresponding events when the CicLAvia route rode past our doorstep. So I’d say that we’re very involved in “the community” but haven’t attempted to provide “services for the community” – know what I mean?
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We’re not trying to make the world a better place by doing X, Y and Z, we’re doing X, Y and Z because we love them and they are awesome, and that results in the world being a better place.
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So, really, it makes sense why the place isn’t as intimidating as I had originally envisioned. Though I still picture hackerspaces as the modern equivalent of Warhol’s Factory or the Black Mountain College and I still picture building cool gadgets as the equivalent of the early punk scenes and the beat movement, Crash Space is a lot less pretentious than those things probably were. I, and the other stoppers-by, are welcomed and engaged with openly. At the time, I felt terribly guilty and pathetic having Rich do almost all of the work in fixing my printer, but he seemed to enjoy helping me to some extent. He didn’t radiate the same judgment I felt in similar “communities” constructed by peers at art school. In fact, Crash Space is a place of empowerment and inspiration. Steve, Chris, and Rich had explained that Diego of Deezmaker came to Crash Space with no knowledge of 3D printers and, after hanging out there for a little while, he went on to design his own 3D printer and even start his own hackerspace and 3D printer retail store.
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I don’t know if it’s like that at other hackerspaces (I’ve yet to visit Deezmaker during regular meet-ups) and Sean pointed out that:
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No two hackerspaces are alike, because again, the community is what makes a hackerspace and the community is a result of the members. So individuals create the personality of the hackerspace as much as anything else, so each [space] is a representation of the interests of the members, and as unique and individual as they are.
What I do know is that, at least at Crash Space, I felt like I was allowed to call myself a Maker or a hacker or whatever, even with my limited experience, because, even if I personally didn’t have the expertise to call myself one, the community surrounding me did.