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Betascape highlights vibrancy, creativity of Baltimore's tech community

Ben Walsh, VideoGame Hall - Arianne Teeple
Ben Walsh, VideoGame Hall - Arianne Teeple

Combining "1s" and "0s," building circuit boards or creating the program for a video game may not be the first thing that comes to mind during a discussion about the arts. Nevermind that techies have created many of the devices -- computers, digital cameras, projectors, etc. that have become staples for many contemporary artists.

The seeming disparity between the two realms will be swept aside this weekend when Betascape, a technology showcase, opens as the latest exhibition at Artscape this year. Located outside the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Hall it will feature interactive demonstrations by some of the most innovative members of Baltimore tech community.

BmoreSmart and Innovate

It was just three months ago that the idea for Betascape came up during a meeting of BmoreSmart, a group created by Heather Sarkissian to bring together Baltimore's social entrepreneurs.

"BmoreSmart came about after the last Social DevCamp. I was sort of new to the city and I saw all these really cool people doing really cool things and I thought it would be very cool if we could have a group where we could get together and talk about the cool things we do," she recalls.

Motivated by what she saw other local social entrepreneurs like Dave Troy and Mike Subelsky doing, Sarkissian knew that there were others out there and that together they could work to make the city better. BmoreSmart is her answer, acting as a peer group for social entrepreneurs.

"We have people joining our Google Group and the message they send is 'I'm moving to Baltimore and I wnat to get involved.' BmoreSmart is starting to be a focal point for people in the city who want to be more involved." This city has a lot to offer. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it wasn't for the people that are really talented and really energetic. It really motivates me to do stuff and make it happen."

BmoreSmart meets every first Tuesday of the month and features one or two organizations that are invited to come in and talk to group members about what the organization does. It helps the group and anyone else interested make connections and become involved in projects that are meaningful to them.

"Betascape came out of a meeting where Randi Vega [executive director for Cultural Affairs in the Baltimore Office of Promotions and the Arts] was there. She told us what she was doing. She commented on how much energy we had and that's how Betascape came up," says Sarkissian.

According to Kathleen Hornig, executive director festivals at BOPA, the organization hadn't previously considered adding a technology component to the festival. "We're pretty maxed out in terms of space and resources. We weren't looking for anything new, but the Betascape folks came to us with their idea."

BOPA's only requirement for Betascape was that it be free and family-friendly.

Making technology cool and accessible

Betascape will launch Thursday, July 15, with a kick-off party and speaker series at the Windup Space, followed by demonstrations at its locations in front of Brown Hall and in Doris Caf´┐Ż and include demonstrations by as many 25 people and organizations participating.

"Robot Fest is responsible for bringing a bunch of people. The Walter's Art Museum might bring their video game. There's Baltimore Node and the HackerSpace. Another guy is doing power tool drag racing. It's pretty crazy," Sarkissian says..

Bonnie Crawford and Rose Burt will exhibit their recent collaboration using conductive thread. The two work at the Digital Media Center at Johns Hopkins University. The Center is a non-academic lab funded primarily by the university's Student Life department to expose students to art and digital media.

Crawford, the Center's graphics specialist and Rose, its audio specialist, have been experimenting with sewing circuits using conductive thread. The thread is similar to and feels just like regular thread, however it contains silver that enables it to function like a wire would and conducts electricity. The women have created a sculpture that when connected to a battery will emit different tones. They will also offer a workshop for a few hours each day of the festival

"[With the thread] anything electronic that you might solder, you can use sewing instead. Rose and I have been working on circuits that when connected to a battery make sound. They have photo resisters and when a shadow hits them the sound will change," Crawford says.

Support from BOPA and the Digital Media Center enabled the duo to purchase supplies for the sculpture and workshops.

Mark Huson, co-founder of Baltimore Node, a organization that provides space for Baltimore-area techies to hack, craft, manufacture and repurpose tools and other , is working with Steve Hulbert to live stream Betascape and Artscape using a USB camera attached to a fishing pool.

"The original plan was suspend a WiFi camera from a balloon and live stream Artscape, the fishing pole camera is our backup plan," he explains.

Ben Walsh, a member of BmoreSmart, co-founder of Innovate Baltimore and a video game entrepreneur, has organized demonstrations by several local video game developers.

A different kind of creativity

According to Walsh whether they're developing a new video game, building a circuit board or creating an entirely new device or technology, techies are just as creative as artists.

"Making a video game is very creative. The only thing that separates us from film is that instead of camera crews, we have programmers, artists, [musical] composers and others who make fun things like the apps and games..The more technical fields requires a lot of imagination. All the time they're coming up with new inventions that someone had to have the idea, first. And again, that's very creative," he says.

In addition to highlighting techie creativity, Rose Burt hopes that Betscape will help shine a light on the technology community.

"I think of Baltimore as a place where all kinds of unusual and interesting creative things happen all the tiem. This project is an unusual creative project -- the idea of a soft synthesizer. This project is all hand done stuff, we're building the circuits by hand,. And then, we have the circuits integrated into this big soft furry thing that invites you to put your hands on it. We're planning to have some of the circuits exposed so you can see them. It gives the idea that electricity is a natural thing and that electronics are not magic," she says.

Alpha version

The success of the run of Betascape will determine not only whether the event is included in Artscape next year, but also if its organizers branch out to create a standalone event.

"An event like this could be a real economic development tool for the city. The success of Betascape hinges on us being able to find a really unique pitch that will bring people from across the country here to Baltimore. We need to have a really clear massage about what this event will be every year, Sarkissian explains.

"We have some decisions to make and whatever we decide will be the best thing for turning this into a national event driving economic development and making the country aware that this is a really great place to look for technology companies and to start technology companies," she continues.

Think of an East Coast technology version of South by Southwest (SXSW), a set of film, interactive and music festivals held each spring in Austin, Texas.

"We all want this to become a national event that showcases Baltimore," Sarkissian adds.

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