This founder of a San Francisco-based art collective just wants to “do stuff”

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FoldHaus is a San Francisco-based art collective that constructs large-scale interactive sculptures at the intersection of art, engineering, and technology. Inspired by nature, they draw on the distinctive folding patterns of origami for their pieces.

Co-founders Jesse Silver, head of product at Headspace, and Joerg Student, as well as members of the collective, are all volunteers with day jobs. Many of them worked in the design company IDEO.

Fascinated by Burning Man’s unique large-scale installations, IDEO’s creative engineers began brainstorming their own ideas. Since then, FoldHaus’ transformative sculptures, which include the blooming Blumen Lumen, the mushroom-shaped Shrumen Lumen and the five-story Radiolumia Sphere, have all graced Burning Man Playa. Now Silver is sharing the backstory.

Q Can you tell us about your first experience with Burning Man?

Silver: My first experience with Burning Man was years and years before we started making art out of it — 2006 or 2007. I had friends who had been there, and what they told me didn’t really strike me as that appealing. I don’t like crowds. I don’t really go to festivals. I’m not a big party animal. But then I got there and realized that I could do anything by seeing these crazy things people do.

It sounds really cliché, but my mind was really blown by it. Just the fact that it’s a blank canvas; it’s just an endless desert. There is no booth set up by a mobile phone company, and there are no vendors of any kind. I think it’s this blank canvas aspect that drives people to do these crazy, weird things. A gallery is very constraining in the physical size of the space and the atmosphere. Even the mode in which people will engage with the work will be defined by the fact that you are posting it on a white wall and forcing people to buy a ticket. Burning Man is a really cool space for making crazy, large-scale art that doesn’t really have a place anywhere else.

RON BLUNT/OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA Bay Area artist collective FoldHaus created this giant origami-like “Shrumen Lumen” installation for Burning Man. It was later displayed as part of an exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California.

Q Why did you choose origami as the basis for your pieces?

Silver: Much credit goes to Joerg. He had done work in graduate school on temporary emergency shelters. (They) could basically fall out of the back of a truck or a helicopter – folded up and compressed into a really flat thing.

Student: (It was) my graduation thesis project at the Royal College of Art in London – a collapsible shelter concept that could be quickly deployed in the event of a disaster. Sharing the work with colleagues at IDEO, they told me I should bring it to Burning Man. Shade is the most important element on a shelter there, (so) I redesigned it a few years later when I went to my first Burn: open on the sides and covered on top. The shelter became the centerpiece of our camp for years to come. People who saw it at our camp suggested bringing it or something similar to the Open Playa for everyone to see.

Q Your works of art are largely interactive. Why is this important to you?

Student: All designs start with paper, and one thing we realized while playing around with the paper model was that movement would be the coolest feature to have with full-scale origami. So Jesse and I and a few other friends from IDEO decided to design and design the giant interactive flowers called Blumen Lumen.

Silver: People enjoy being part of art, having a new environment created for them. Instead of our pieces running on a timer, we played with things that are interactive with humans or the environment. Mushroom Chunks have these pads in the ground that you can walk on. We stood there for days watching people figure out how to interact with them. We want to reward people who slow down and take a moment to explore. You could see people doing this and saying, “Oh my god, it’s rocking!

Q: You and Joerg have day jobs, don’t you?

Silver: We both do, yes. Although there is a core group of four or five of us who initiate the work at FoldHaus and usually come up with the designs, each thing we do usually takes between 10 and 50 volunteers to complete. It’s like weekend after weekend after weekend. You have people who come with their children and hold small assemblies. People solder and make cables. But we are all volunteers, and we all have things to do as a main job.

On the one hand, (FoldHaus is) like a time-consuming, non-paying hobby. On the other hand, we get to draw something like this five-story spiky ball with a movable outer skin and we’re like – yeah, let’s just do that. If we’re lucky, we show it enough times or sell it, and it sort of pays for itself. All the money from the screenings goes into a bank account, and we withdraw the money immediately and do other things.

Q What’s your number one tip for budding artists?

Silver: Rightfully believe in your point of view and create things that you rightfully believe should exist in the world. I would ignore the business part of it as much as possible and the “but who is it for?” part of it.

It’s not my favorite question because it’s the most justified answer I can give. I know you can’t do this stuff without paying. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have done any of this if at first we were like, do people really want an origami flower or a 12-foot-tall origami mushroom? No, no one does! We just wanted to do something. None of us, to be honest, even wanted to be an artist. We’re always a little surprised when someone calls us that, because we’re like, we just do stuff!

Jesse’s Recs: four artists to discover next

HYBYCOZO: https://www.hybycozo.com/Peter Hudson: https://www.facebook.com/PeterHudsonOfficialArtistPage
Christophe Schardt: http://schardt.org/
Aaron Taylor Kuffner: https://gamelatron.com/

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