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A Day at the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Races

While the rest of the country spent May Day watching the Kentucky Derby, I found myself in Baltimore, Maryland reveling in absolute absurdity.

Kinetic Sculpture Race - Robot Family Elephant

The 12th Annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race took racers (known as “Kinetinauts”) and their folk art inspired, human-powered sculptures through the streets of Baltimore. From 20 foot mechanical poodles, to ginger bread houses and an Alice in Wonderland caterpillar, the vehicles were like nothing you’ve seen before. They traversed an impressive variety of challenging terrains. From steep hills to water, sand traps to mud pits, the course and its obstacles were no joke. The majority of vehicles didn’t make it across the finish line. Fortunately, the race is not about winning. In fact, the top prize is known as the Grand Mediocre Champion and is awarded to the team that finishes in the middle of the pack.

One participant, Larry, with Los Baltimuertos, seen below, characterized the race as a celebration of “art, mechanics, street theater, and being real silly. An excuse to act foolish - at least on one day.”

Kinetic Sculpture Race - Day of the Dead

It all began at the American Visionary Art Museum where a “telepathic monk” named Joe Wall blesses “de feet” of the Kinetinauts before they depart on their fateful journey. The sculptures are then faced with the daunting challenge of ascending Federal Hill, some more successfully than others, before snaking south to the Inner Harbor and downtown Baltimore. They then test their seaworthiness when the sculptures enter the Canton Waterfront at the Korean War Memorial. If buoyancy is on their side, the works of art don’t sink and the fortunate pilots continue on.

Kinetic Sculpture Race - Blue Jay

Because the course stretches across a good portion of the city, spectators are usually forced to choose a spot and hunker down. I decided that Patterson Park with its dual threat of sand trap and mud pit was the place to be.

 

The Kinetinauts arrived in earnest and took their positions about 100 yards from the massive trap of sand. One-by-one, they tried their luck crossing the arid wasteland. They would pedal furiously, with hopes of gaining enough momentum to plunge through the sand pit with ample inertia to carry them to the other side. Some managed to cross on their own. Others required assistance from their “pit crews.” No sculptures were lost and everyone made it on to the mud.

A substantial crowd amassed around the oozing pit of black mud. People cheered the oncoming crafts as each attempted to drive themselves over two enormous speed bumps that jutted out of the mucky pool. Some vehicles gained enough speed, intestinal fortitude, and pedal power to ram their way through. Others were stopped dead in their tracks. Forced to hoist their vehicles above the terrain that was too tough to tackle. By the time each craft had made a go of it, most sculptures managed to eek through.

Kinetic Sculpture Race - Platypus

The race concluded with the exhausted Kinetinauts maneuvering their sculptures beneath a huge banner at AVAM where a welcoming crowd greeted them enthusiastically.

A celebration ensued and a plethora of awards were given out. Some of the more notable awards included:

  • “Art” for most artistic sculpture, which is displayed in AVAM for the year.
  • “The Golden Dinosaur” for the most impressive breakdown or the first breakdown.
  • “The Golden Flipper” for the sculpture with the most impressive water entry.

More Balimore Kinetic Sculpture Race coverage here

More about the American Visionary Art Museum in the Atlas here