Starting on Thursday, and for five days only, Denverites interested in art, weird machines or civic engagement can catch a blend of all three of those things in a new installation by Warm Cookies of the Revolution, the quirky “Civic Health Club” whose mission is to connect people with their city in innovative ways.
The project is called “This Machine Has A Soul,” and it’s the latest and largest version in a series of Rube Goldberg-inspired machines that creators hope will spark a conversation about Denver’s budgeting process.
On Wednesday afternoon, artists from Warm Cookies and Buntport Theater were busily putting finishing touches on the project, which has taken over the backyard of a residence in Elyria-Swansea.
You’re probably saying right now, “What the heck does a Doctor-Seuss-meets-Looney-Tunes art project have to do with the city’s budget, and why should I care?”
Evan Weissman, founder of Warm Cookies, said the zany machine is channeling how people feel about interactions with city projects: “You ask for my input, it goes through some stuff and then you say, ‘Thank you,’ and then I don’t have hands on it.”
Weissman and his team think Denverites should have much more interaction with city initiatives. It’s just the kind of problem for a civic health club to tackle.
The installation amounts to an attempt to “influence the city” to adopt “participatory budgeting” practices, Weissman said, that would allow neighborhoods more power to decide how money is spent. Denver City Council showed some interest in this last year, but Weissman said he hasn’t seen any such policy pick up steam.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s budget office told Denverite, “The city is committed to transparency and inclusiveness,” and that the mayor has set aside $1 million for a “new community-driven budgeting initiative,” a pilot program that should be rolled out by the end of the year. This will be in addition to the normal budget process that allows for input by City Council and public comment.
But for an example of how the Warm Cookies crew sees this process normally going, take a smaller version that the group put together last year:
Students were asked to identify a problem they might address with city funds. They picked housing for people experience homelessness and were given a token to insert their comment into the machine, a representation of their participation. Then the students watched the coin trigger a process that sent a pinball through a series of obstacles. The machine finally popped out a sheet of paper that read: “Thank you for your comments and concerns.” The kid holding the paper just shrugged.
The underwhelming outcome of that little demonstration, Weissman said, touches on “this idea of decision making power versus input.”
In his mind, too many Denverites are locked out of the decision-making process by vagaries like this.
The Elyria-Swansea backyard is full of painted surfaces and toy car tracks that lead viewers through the space. Visitors begin with a fake advertisement in a fake bus stop for Denver Dan, who is Weissman dressed up as a potentially sleazy broker who will “sell you anything.”
Instructions to the right read: “If you’re looking for the bus, it’s not coming. Stare at the schedule all you like, it’s not going to happen. What you’ll find here though, is an installation that explores creative responses to obstacles that residents face while navigating their home, their neighborhood and their government.”
Then, toy car tracks snake through the yard, leading visitors around an old Chevy and into a garage residence that’s something out of Meow Wolf’s space in Santa Fe (or future Denver).
Weissman said the team has been building the installation for about six weeks, but it’s been in the works for about two years. In late 2016, they were granted $325,000 to get the project off the ground.
Located in a neighborhood roiling with anxiety over gentrification and displacement in the face of new development, Weissman said it’s exactly the right place to talk about how citizens get to interact with their government.
Lots of neighbors and local artists have put time and sweat equity into the project, and “that’s what’s cool about this” he said, “there are tons of people taking ownership.”
Inside the garage space is a stack of TVs that Weissman said will display dozens of portraits and stories from the neighborhood and around Denver. That, he said, is the machine’s real soul. It’s the humanity inside of a warped world further complicated by processes and obstacles.
It’s also an exercise in asking if art can make a difference. By tackling what could be a dull subject with creativity, the artists and organizers hope they’ll be able to connect these issues with peoples hearts, minds and imaginations.
You can find more information about the exhibition this week at thismachinehasasoul.com. Participation is free, and they’ll be open 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday, and from 2 to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. It’s located at 4335 Thompson Court. The entrance is in the back alley and there’s parking available on an empty lot one block west on 44th Avenue or one block east around Dunham Park.
UPDATE: Comments from the mayor’s budget office were added on Thursday morning.