Zach Horton

Summer 2017 Dome Building Plan

It’s that time of year again: time to get outside and build something!  And that something is, for my sister Jess and I, The Domes.  Yes, the same as last year.  This June, new friends and old are invited to join us in our little utopian project to construct a dwelling and community that preserves our core values for and in an increasingly dark future.  Energy self-sufficiency, space for creative thought and practice, communal work and gathering, re-integration with larger ecosystems, thinking and building for larger timescales… the project continues!  Join us during the month of June to help waterproof the domes and cover them with earth.  We’ll also be working on the electrical system, installing an array of solar panels, and stuccoing the front wall.  It will be exciting to finish the exterior!

For more information about the Domes, see our updated project page.

Why Trump’s Electoral Victory is an Opportunity for the Left

In my social and professional circles, the election of Donald Trump, perhaps the most hateful candidate ever to grace a major party ticket in the U.S. for the office of President, has occasioned mostly shock, despair, and depression. I would like to briefly share some reasons to view Donald Trump’s victory as a significant opportunity for radical politics.

There is no question that Trump’s presidency itself is a horrible step backwards, an already-extant disaster for people of color, women, Muslims, and the environment, and a potential disaster for world peace, prosperity, and safety. I am not arguing that Trump’s presidency is a good thing, but I am arguing that Trump’s electoral victory has and will produce many new opportunities for an invigorated politics of the left. Not the same opportunities that always exist in the form of opposition to right wing rule, but something entirely new, something to which we must become freshly and uniquely attuned lest it slip away. This opportunity takes the form of invaluable lessons that will help us re-assess America’s political situation with eyes wide open, the removal of powerfully conservative forces that have hitherto prevented any radical change from percolating through mainstream politics, and a political and social landscape that will be ripe for the creative application of unconventional political leadership.

In the liberal and left-leaning group that generally make up my social networks, the most oft-expressed opinion on social media feeds the day of the election was some variant of “thank god the election is here, so we can finally make Trump go away.” The sentiment here was that an electoral defeat would finally give Trump his comeuppance for his raciest, xenophobic, misogynistic campaign rhetoric and hateful fear mongering. The conventional wisdom, shared by liberals, leftists, and media commentators, was that no one as deeply bigoted as Donald Trump could ever be elected President. I shared this view, and it ensured that I was completely blindsided and unprepared for Tuesday night’s result.

However, the naïve view that Trump’s hate-filled discourse could be defeated with the victory of Hillary Clinton was the first sign, for me, that something was terribly wrong. This was smug, wishful thinking that not only ignored the strength, breadth, and tenacity of Trump’s populist movement, but also framed the magical solution as a return to establishment politics. How had the left painted itself into this corner?

All we could really see of Trump was his bigotry, and that made a democratic victory literally unthinkable and ultimately inevitable (whether in this election or the next). Our complacent reliance on the Democratic Party was already doomed. Here are some of the things that, in my view, we got so wrong, and why it’s better that they came to light sooner rather than later:

1. Our analytic categories were too narrow.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are categories that progressives, and especially academics, are well-trained to spot, analyze, and combat at the discursive level. Trump and his most egregious followers (the “basket of deplorables”) lit up this radar with such overwhelming regularity and intensity that the analytic machinery behind it was saturated and failed to function properly. Not much else got through.  Here we were our own victims of an essentialist and inflexible analytic framework. We have become perhaps too good (and too reflexive) at recognizing certain patterns at a certain scale, and could no recognize larger ones and larger scales, let alone entirely new shapes emerging in our cultural-social-medial assemblages. When it turned out that Trump’s support on election day stretched far beyond the basket of deplorables, that just didn’t compute for most of us. But the issues (speech and representation) that are most salient to us are not necessarily the most salient or important to the voting public at large. This should have been obvious, but we were blinded by our own proficiency, by habit and by…

2. Smugness.

Liberals have been winning in U.S. politics for awhile, and tend to view themselves as far more enlightened on social issues than their political adversaries. This contributed to the narrowing of our analytic categories and policy concerns (see below) and convinced us that Hillary Clinton couldn’t really lose, because the Trump camp was so in the wrong. But it is clear now that however despicable Trump is, many of his followers had good reasons to vote for him other than expressing their hatred of women, people of color, etc. More white women voted for Trump than Clinton, and Trump garnered almost 30% of the Latino/a vote, which seems inconceivable if race was the primary issue for voters. Most significantly, the voters that handed Trump the election were rust belt working class whites that had voted for Obama in the past, and had now switched to Trump (without the Democratic party even noticing). This is what turned the map red and handed Trump the election.

To sum up: bigotry seemed to liberals, radicals, and mainstream pundits to be the most salient issue of the election, and it turned out not to matter to at least half of the voting public. This is in and of itself deeply troubling from a social justice perspective, but the important point here is that the biggest drivers of voter behavior in this election trumped bigoted speech acts (no pun intended). A lot of this is just about priority. As Connor Kilpatrick argues persuasively in this article, racism is fungible: some voting communities in the U.S. have historically flopped multiple times from racist to progressive and back. This suggests that it is a subsidiary issue for many independent voters: when racial anxiety can be made to align with their biggest concerns, racism flares up; when liberalism can be made to align with their biggest concerns, they become progressive. On the left, we have tended to essentialize racism, which makes it far more difficult for us to understand this phenomenon and identify the most important issues to these voters. (Note: race is the most important issue for some voters, and they unquestioningly constitute Trump’s most rabid base, but those aren’t the voters who handed him this election.) This is not to downplay the significance of racism or suggest that it wasn’t an important aspect of Trump’s campaign, but only to note that the issue has been approached by liberals and radicals in a manner that is simplistic, essentialist, and  self serving (when discourse places you in the position of the morally righteous and makes you feel superior to your opponent, this should send up a huge red flag).  Liberal moralizing on this issue not only failed to sway half of the electorate, but actually made the problem far worse: it signaled a deep misunderstanding and disconnect between liberals and the concerns of the working class, and heaped insult upon injury by morally condemning voters for voting in their own economic interests. What could have been a stronger message to the effect that liberalism had abandoned the working class? That message was heard loud and clear, as was Trump’s message of radical change.

What, then, was the issue that turned the rust belt voters from Obama to Trump?

3. Neoliberalism

The left has had neoliberalism in its crosshairs ever since it appeared on the scene, but liberals—who have been in the driver’s seat of mainstream politics for the past quarter century—have embraced it so thoroughly that it has become orthodoxy in the Democratic Party. Neoliberalism, implemented as a set of policy objectives by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, was a right-wing platform until Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council mainstreamed it in the 1990s. The core philosophy of neoliberal economics is that all dynamics are best rationalized and optimized if they can be driven by and as markets. Those markets should therefore be “free” in the sense of self-governing; any external force that constrains markets prevents them from fully optimizing the underlying dynamics into which they have been unleashed. This means that public property (such as water, land, infrastructure, utilities, universities, etc.) should be privatized, government regulation should be scaled back or eliminated, and every possible market should be opened up for exploitation.

In other words, capitalism should be spread to every aspect of life on this planet and any impediment to free markets should be eliminated. In policy, this is done through free trade agreements, international lending (through the IMF and World Bank) to countries in trouble in exchange for drastic changes to their laws and the privatization of their resources. Trade agreements preempt other laws such as those ensuring social and environmental protection, weakening signatory governments vis-a-vis global corporations, which can actually sue a government for doing anything (such as protecting some part of the population or element of the natural environment) that would hamper business. Neoliberalism is essentially a grand tuning of the world to transform it into a capital (monetary surplus) producing machine. The benefactors are the corporations, companies, investors, and their political allies who reap the profits. The losers are just about everyone else. However, in particularly wealthy countries, the biggest (human) losers are the working class, because neoliberal policy ensures that labor will be outsourced to the regions of the world where it is cheapest, and labor is always cheapest in regions in which laborers can be most exploited. So while the upper classes in all countries benefit from this arrangement, the working classes get the short end of the stick. The resulting disparity of wealth and lack of employment in formerly productive regions of the U.S. (e.g. the rust belt) has disenfranchised a lot of people. Trump spoke to those people. Partly he blamed Latinos for stealing what jobs remain, but mostly he blamed free trade agreements that moved those jobs out of the U.S. in the first place. That message resonated with those disenfranchised by neoliberal policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party didn’t even put up a fight.

4. A Compromised Democratic Party

To prevail electorally against Reaganism, the Democratic Party sold its soul. The Clintons lead that pivot, and three decades of rabid neoliberalism created, as Naomi Klein argues here, the very conditions that swept Trump into power. The Democratic Party became so rich and complacent through this platform, so corrupt, and so complacent, that it not only couldn’t see this coming, not only abandoned the very class that had at one time made up its core constituency (the working class), but actively quashed all attempts within the party to re-connect with its roots. Its leadership conspired to thwart democracy and ensure that Hillary Clinton received the nomination, despite her many flaws and vulnerabilities as a candidate. As perhaps the most neoliberal candidate available in the Democratic party, she was the worst possible one to field against Trump. Even though this was obvious, the overwhelming neoliberal power bloc within the party, along with corruption from the top, conspired to quash a candidate who could actually pull the rug out from under Trump: Bernie Sanders. This is particularly tragic because as I noted above, the left has long attacked neoliberalism; it simply hasn’t been able to breach the firewall within the Democratic party to mainstream the issue. Bernie Sanders attempted to do just that, and he was crushed by the Democratic Party machine. If he, or another non-neoliberal candidate (possibly Elizabeth Warren) had been fielded by the Democratic Party, the left could have claimed the very ground that Trump took to the ballot box.

Moving Forward

For those who feel, as I did, shocked, dismayed, and depressed (or worse, for many: targeted and scared) by the results of this election, I think the first step is to learn these four lessons. The left has failed America, and we need to understand why and how. On the day after the election one of my students noted, “we did everything we could, and it didn’t make any difference.” Yes, we worked hard to combat the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and ignorance that Trump exuded, but I think we can take heart, perhaps paradoxically, in the fact that we could have done better. We are not helpless. In fact, we can and must not only continue to do all we have in the past… we need to step up our game. We need to widen our understanding and analytic categories for grappling with this election. If you’ve found yourself coping with the election results by concluding that half of the electorate is composed of hopelessly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic people hell bent on recovering a position of white supremacy, then you’re still living inside what Michael Moore called, even before the election, “the bubble.” This conclusion is not only wrong in important ways (see my colleague Iza Ding’s post here on the limitation of generalization and the importance of nuance when identifying voting blocs in electoral politics), but also hopelessly self serving.  Instead of choosing the narrative that makes us feel superior to the white working class, lumping all of their concerns into a single category, we need to consider the strategic as well as ideological role of racism, acknowledge its contingency, and effectively analyze its relationships with other ideologies and practices.  To do so is not to back down on the fight against bigotry, but to deepen and nuance it.

It is time to take some responsibility. Hope starts with knowledge and wisdom, and this election has provided that for those who are wiling to accept that they were shortsighted and smug. I’m guilty as charged, but I soon realized that my own attitude and analytic categories were contributing to my blindness and depressed affect. Regaining political agency means grappling with these hard truths, but the affective payoff is great: instead of despair at an imagined onslaught of bigots that we cannot defeat politically, realizing that we face (among other things) a populist movement against neoliberalism opens up a path forward. This is a battle we can win, if we take off the blinders. This certainly does not mean backing down from social justice struggles—on the contrary, we must continue to fight against hatred and prejudice in every possible way. What this does mean, however, is an accurate characterization of our enemy, and in this case, it turns out that one of our biggest enemies was in our own midst in the form of neoliberal policy and philosophy. The Trump voters who turned the election in his favor, the portion of the working class that supported Obama but got little from the Democratic Party in return, aren’t really our enemies at all, and can be turned into our allies.

Creative Politics

Having Donald Trump as our president is unquestionably a disaster in the short term. But the forces that he unleashed were already there, had to explode at some point, and weren’t going to go away even if Clinton won the election. Now, instead of deluding ourselves, or patting ourselves on the back for being so morally superior, we can have a conversation about neoliberalism. Trump’s opposition to free trade started a movement that should have been lead by the left. The good news here is that Trump’s anti-NAFTA stance is hopelessly compromised by his own interests (his wealth was the result of neoliberalism) and other pro-neoliberal policies (deregulation, tax cuts to the wealthy, exploitation of U. S. coal and oil reserves, etc.) That means that the fight against neoliberalism can still be taken back by the left, and will in fact become far more potent when coupled with a broad-based platform of social and environmental justice. The forces that prevented this from happening in the past—the bipartisan consensus of the political class that neoliberalism was axiomatic and the influence of the Clinton dynasty within the Democratic Party in particular—have now been dealt a fatal blow by Trump. The coalition that I’m imagining here, should it materialize (and we can certainly make it materialize) now has more space to breathe than any other time in the past thirty years.

On a more general level, Trump has shaken up the establishment, making a return to business/politics as usual in either of the two parties a lot less likely (even if his administration morphs into a traditional Republican one). The political possibilities are, for the first time in my lifetime, completely open ended. This is not, then, a time for depression or helpless anger, but rather a time for creative imaginings. The worst thing we can now do is to double down on our old assumptions and habits. Our affect should be positive, not negative; active, not reactive. We should be building—not rebuilding, but building… something new, something better. A lot of women and girls (and men) saw their dream of a female president heartbreakingly deferred this past Tuesday. But this dream will have its time soon enough, and that time will be so much more. Facing a Trump presidency, we should not be downsizing our goals, losing the gleam in our eyes, but dreaming bigger, working together toward something that, like Trump’s presidency, was unthinkable so very recently.  We lost an election, but gained something far larger, less defined, more dangerous, and more challenging.  I’m willing to wager, however, that in our current cultural context, any opportunity to write the rules of a new game is far more valuable than an advantageous move in the old one.

Closure: Shotcreting the Domes

In the past three weeks our domes underwent a transformation from wire cage to metallic spaceship made of foam to one thick, continuous concrete wall. 115merge-1280x427_1 115merge-1280x427 The process was complex, the heat soared into the 100s, some work days lasted from daybreak until we stumbled back to the main house in the dark, and mistakes were made with serious consequences. Yet, for me, this was the most fun and rewarding stage of the project- especially the crazy three days when an extraordinary team taught us how to shotcrete (a special concrete blend that is shot from a giant nozzle; also a verb!).  Our last and longest visitor of the summer, Dan Steinhilber, brought the energy, hilarity, and high spirits we needed to push through the last steps of this first season of dome-building- we couldn’t have done it without him. Like all initiates, Dan cut his teeth on the neverending rebar- this time for the difficult passageway between the domes. 70 (1280x853) The next challenge was to convince rectangular sheets of foam to become dome-like. The foam creates a surface for the shotcrete, and will eventually be peeled off to leave only a concrete shell (then it will be repurposed as an insulating layer before we backfill around the entire structure with dirt). We developed techniques to measure, cut, and fit two overlapping layers of foam to every square (round?) inch of the structure.  The edges had to fit into the I-beams. It was hard to believe, at this initial stage, that our jagged cuts would ever form the slopes we desired. 60 (1280x853) The outer foam layer was covered in mylar to keep the shotcrete from sticking. This created a temporary spectacle that must have freaked out our nature-loving neighbors. Danny Pardini, our electrician who lives a mile up the road, was certain we would get a call from NAASA. We at least impressed our regular site visitors: a woodpecker, a chipmunk,  a wild turkey hen, and a sweet pair of geriatric pups. 72 (1280x853) 61edit (1280x853) 62 (1280x853) Our initial efforts at foaming left plenty of gaps. By the time we reached the second dome, these were negligible or had disappeared entirely. 76edit (1280x853) 67 (1280x853) The foam gave us a first imperfect glimpse of how our finished walls might someday look. 75edit (1280x853) 96edit After the foam panels were placed we used wood lath and wire to form the curves and tie it into the rebar grid. The hallway between the domes was especially difficult because the curves were tighter and there were many different planes meeting. IMG_0091 (1280x853) 115edit 80 (1280x853) 86edit (853x1280) We placed small squares of 1″ foam between the sheets and the rebar to create space for the shotcrete to fill. As we worked long past happy hour stabbing toothpicks to hold each one in place, we longingly nicknamed the indigestible- or more likely, toxic- chunks “cheese.” “Pass the cheese,” “its wire and cheese hour,” “you’re a cheese whiz,” and countless other stupid phrases ensued. 79edit Metal tape partially sealed the seams (but nothing wanted to stick to mylar in the hot sun and dust). My perfectionism was constantly jeopardized; I would learn in time that Dan was right to say “we are going for the gesture.” Still, at dawn on shotcrete day, the domes looked amazing. 98 (1280x853) 110edit While Dan and I were busy foaming, Zach was solving hundreds of other problems, from putting in a large portion of our electrical system, to sawing off front wall brace boards with buried screw heads, to plumbing waterlines and setting in drain pipes. While our electrician (Danny Pardini) and plumber (Tom Davis) have provided valuable advice and labor on our project, we are determined to learn and complete as much of the building process as possible- missteps included. Zach’s electrical wire sculpture: 93edit (853x1280) Still life with mistakes: still_life_with_mistakes Our tiny crew of three struggled to keep up with the flow of work especially these past weeks. We hugely appreciate that our parents have jumped in to spot ladders, wield an occasional crowbar, and generously provide delicious meals and a well-stocked tool shed- not to mention the stunning land on which we build and a share of the capital to make this project move. Here is our dad, Robert, helping out: 92edit (828x1280)   91 (1280x853) And my amazing mom, Ann: 89edit (1280x853) 97 (1280x853) 94edit (1280x853) Finally, SHOTCRETE arrived, in the expert hands of Oscar Duckworth the nozzleman. We had a very difficult time finding the right person to take on our project; the construction industry is completely saturated in California this summer and many places were only willing to take on our rural, highly unusual project for a large profit- if they could fit us into their schedule at all. (A big thanks to Phil at Delta Gunite for matching us with Oscar!) Chemist, educator, concrete sharp shooter, and blueberry farmer, Oscar is the kind of dynamic person we love to encounter on this project: someone who labors because he loves the process, wants to take on crazy challenges, and cares about the relationships he forms. He also understood our desire to be intensely involved and put us to work- hard. The finishing guys he brought on board, Dominic and Elliot Petrella with Ken Zari, were also passionate about shaping mud. This commitment to the craft especially mattered when the shit hit the fan- or more precisely, when the fan fixture crashed to the floor along with a good portion of the ceiling. We’ll get to that. 114 (1280x853) Shotcrete has to be built up slowly in layers due to the weight of the material. Our final walls are four inches thick at the top, eight at the base. 99 (1280x853) In addition to the domes, we shot three fourteen-inch thick retaining walls to be flush with the front walls, all of which will later receive a stucco finish. The retaining wall forms were built and placed by the crew at Ron’s Quality Construction, with Damien Jones at the helm. 102edit (1280x853) 124edit (1280x853) 127 (1280x853) 120edit   126 (1280x853) The force of the concrete shooting from the hose is incredible. We watched Oscar bend his whole body into the task of controlling it- and then suddenly he thrust it into my hands and shouted over the roar of machinery, “its just like frosting a cake!” Zach and Dan each took a turn, too. 130edit (1280x853) 131edit (1280x853) 133edit As the layers rose, Oscar climbed aboard the 85-foot boom we rented, with Zach driving and running an air hose to blow loose rocks from the concrete mix. Dominic followed to smooth the surface with a trowel. 134edit (1280x853) IMG_0197 (1280x853) 152 (1280x853) Things were going really well on the second and supposedly final day. Dome 2 was encased in solid concrete. Oscar prevented cracking from the 106 degree heat by ordering chemical and fiber additives to slow the curing of the mixture. The last truck of the day, filled with 8 yards, had just pulled in. Oscar and Zach were up placing a layer of shotcrete on the very last uncovered section of Dome 1, when something went terribly wrong. I happened to capture the moment on camera, though I didn’t realize it until Oscar turned toward those of us watching from the ground and made a sharp cut in the air with his hand. 137edit (1280x853) As I ran to the front of the domes, I saw our boxes of tools and hardware covered in a thick layer of shotcrete rubble. The tube of my dad’s faithful shopvac was just peeking out from the pile (this photo was taken after the cleanup began). Then I saw the gaping hole in the roof. It was actually sort of beautiful, and we each spent a second wondering if we should have put in a stained glass window (nope, it would be buried in earth). Most likely a single wire tie broke, and because we did not reinforce the area adequately, the whole section failed. 139 (1280x853) 138edit We had to turn the concrete truck back to the plant and begin reckoning. Oscar and his crew stuck by us, cancelling personal and professional plans to stay on the extra day and help us get it right. Dominic busted ragged chunks of material off the rebar grid. It took us until dark to cut, fit, and massively reinforce new foam. Somehow, Dan had the energy to grill sweet corn and brats for the concrete-covered crew when we finally limped to the main house. It was an expensive and exhausting mishap, but far less so due to the uplifting attitude and ethics of our friends. 140edit 141edit (1280x853) We were ready for the concrete truck by 6 am on Day 3. It was a beautiful morning. The crew was unfazed. The only hole remaining was Dan, who was missed by all as he caught his flight home to DC. By the time he boarded at 11 am, the domes were covered and smooth. All that remained was cleanup and regular watering down of the slow-curing concrete.  Although some steps remain before Zach and I can return to teaching on the east coast – putting in the windows, adding some weatherproofing layers, and massive site cleanup- the shotcrete gave us a sense of closure for this first season of dome-building. 144 (1280x853) 149 (1280x853) 147 (1280x853) 154edit (1280x853) 150 (1280x853)              

Raising the Bones: A Dome Building Update

R31edit (1280x853)

Building these domes- like building anything- involves constant coordination and creative problem solving. Every material (and human laborer) has unique properties that bend, fit, or revolt before our efforts. For example, how do we raise 18 200-lb curved steel beams that kick like stubborn mules to the 17-foot apex of the domes and bolt them in to form the basic support for our structure?  (The answer: Zach learned to drive an articulated boom, we invented a pulley system using an ancient rope from my dad’s shed, and four sets of muscles guided each into place.)  When physics,  respect, and careful oversight converge, our project slowly grows skyward. At this stage, we have built front walls out of insulated concrete forms (“ICF block”), filled them with a concrete core, created a massive rebar mesh surrounding the steel beams that has become the skeleton of our domes, and begun to lay electrical circuits.

Each friend-visitor to our site has shaped this process in distinct ways. Bryan, a traveling nurse and filmmaker, transformed ladders into stilts and danced at the top of our domes. Dan, an artist based in Washington, D.C. who is accustomed to working with diverse materials (he once made a giant Cheeto out of insulating expansion foam), is a rebar whisperer- everything he touches seems to move into place. Jenevive brought an art historian’s visualization skills to the construction site, Jeremy the sure hands of a surgeon, Alex a model of quiet persistence, etc.  The extraordinary progress you see below was not possible without the sweat and generosity of our friends and family.

Raising the beams:

R3 (1024x683)The beam team; Zach on boom

R38editLaying in the first pieces of horizontal rebar after locking in the beams

Rebar, endless rebar, every intersection tied twice:

R7 (853x1280)Zach placing the first layer of rebar

R6 (1024x683)Bryan testing the curvature

R9 (1280x853)Jenevive

R40editIMG_9778Jenevive and Jess, filthy and satisfied

R10 (1280x853)The mesh grows with the help of Jeremy and Gabe.

R39editMegan’s hat, caught in a rebar shadow web

R12 (1280x853)Zach cutting rebar

R11 (1280x853)Jeremy holding rebar for Zach to cut

R21 (1280x853)Alex tying rebar at the apex of the monkey gym

R4edit (1024x694)Job boss!

Building the front walls out of insulated concrete forms (“ICF block”):

R20edit (1280x853)Jess and Zach, pausing to admire the view through the picture window frames in Dome 1

R25 (1280x853)The wall for the bedroom and office, Dome 2

R23 (1280x853)

R33edit (1280x853)Each individual ICF block has plastic webbing inside 2″ foam sides, which holds rebar and eventually, a 6″ concrete core.

R37edit (1280x853)The blocks have rows of interlocking teeth- picture a front wall made of enormous foam Legos.

R24 (1280x853) (2)The wall grows

R34 (1280x853)We inserted vent tubes into big circular holes in the wall, along with electrical penetrations.

R2 (1024x683)

R32edit (1280x853)The final challenge was cutting the curves into the top of the foam to create the contour of our dome front walls. Zach did this with a reciprocating saw while I held onto his belt loops! Then tons of bracing to make sure the walls don’t shift or bulge during the concrete pour, and disgusting yellow insulating foam to fill in all the cracks.

Pouring concrete into the front wall:

R29edit (1280x853)The pump reaching over the domes and shooting concrete into the front wall:

R27edit (853x1280)Damien of Ron’s Quality Construction guiding a huge tube of concrete into the top of the front wall.

R36 (1280x853)Dan, who arrived from Vienna via D.C. the night before pour day, got up at 5:30 am to help us out. And he was EXCITED about it!

R28edit (1280x853)Dan agitating the poured concrete to prevent air pockets by pounding a 2×4 on the side of the wall

R30edit (1280x853)The now-concrete walls.

IMG_9760Evening wanderings with Jenevive and Bryan

Introducing the Mercury: An Infinitely Extensible, Open Camera System


machining the Mercury prototype

Machining the original Mercury prototype

After over two years of development, I’m very excited to announce the debut of the Mercury, a fully modular, open, universal camera system. For years I’ve been tinkering with cameras, machining custom parts, modifying existing designs, and generally experimenting with the technical possibilities of still photography. Eventually, a “maker quest” took shape, for purely personal reasons: the fabrication of the perfect camera. For me, at the time, that meant a relatively small, compact, hand-holdable camera capable of shooting a full 6x9cm frame on 120 film. That’s standard medium format film, which has a fixed height of 60mm but no fixed width: it is up to the camera and lens system to determine how much width to use for each frame. Most common today is 645, which uses only 45mm of film width, utilizing it as the vertical dimension of the frame. Older but stouter cameras, such as the venerable Hasselblad, Pentacon 6 (about which I’ve written extensively here) utilize a square 6×6 (cm) frame. Some professional cameras from the end of the 20th century shoot even larger frames, 6×7, but are themselves so enormous and heavy that they are often referred to as “boat anchors” by photographers. I wanted to do 6×9, a format popularized by Kodak in the 1920s (for which they invented 120 roll film). 6×9 “folders” were popular through the 1940s as amateur cameras, before being replaced by the new flood of 35mm film cameras once film stock became “good enough” to shoot on such a small negative. Folders were very limited, with only one lens and an often awkward mechanism by which they would fold out and lock together into their final form when you wanted to shoot—a delicate state not conducive to protection or focus accuracy. I love these cameras, but they would not satisfy me: I wanted my camera to be able to take nearly any lens, and to be rugged.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

Professional cameras that could shoot 6×9 were made by Graflex in the USA, Linhof in Germany, and Horseman in Japan, but their heyday was in the 1960s, and they mostly faded away after that. And most of these cameras were fairly large and heavy, invariably made of metal, and contained a lot of options and controls that, for me, added too much bulk. Plus, most of these cameras were too thick to take ultra wide, non-retrofocal lenses. These special lenses, for the ultimate in wide angle photography, require an extremely thin camera; they are made for so-called “technical cameras” that generally cost multiple thousands of dollars. So I set out to make my own. I machined various parts from various cameras, but to make everything fit together, I ended up having to 3D print a number of components. When I was done, I ended up with an awesome prototype, and a revelation: I could create a version of this camera entirely from plastic components and it would be far more flexible, extensible, and lighter, as well as sharable by a community of users. So I set out to make a fully modular, open camera system based upon standard components that anyone could modify, replace, and upgrade for new functionality.

medium format rear right

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a classic Horseman 6×9 roll film back.

Slowly, a system began to come together that was, I hoped, truly revolutionary. On one hand it was a camera that could do anything, theoretically: any module could be modified or replaced to allow compatibility with some past or future part that already existed (19th century lenses, 21st century digital backs, new and old instant film formats, Hasselblad film backs, etc.). This was truly a rhizomatic camera: it could connect anything to anything else. But it was, I felt, more than that: it was also a form of hardware development that was fundamentally anti-corporate. It was meant to follow an open source software model of open community development coupled with new distributed manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and low-volume injection molding with innovative materials, and the collective potential of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.) and social media. This would be hardware development for the 21st century: distributed but centrally organized, driven by the very dynamics that make a community vibrant, without profit motive or exclusionary intellectual property (the double helix of contemporary capitalism). In short, the Mercury was a unique photographic tool, a platform for hardware development and creative experimentation, and a socially driven, user-innovator system with hardware, software, and social components inextricably linked.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

Along the way, I started working with Andrew Duerner, a robotics engineer in Goleta who is a true master of 3D design, printing, and assembly. He developed our breakthrough focusing helical unit, which takes nearly any lens and allows the user to focus it if, like view camera lenses originally made for bellows cameras, it lacks a built-in helical. For lenses that have a build in helical but lack an internal shutter (such as many medium format “system” lenses by Mamiya, Pentax, etc.), we have adapter kits that adapt the lens to a standard large format shutter (either the Ilex 4 or Copal 3), and then adapt that shutter to the camera, at the correct flange distance for that format.

The other members of the team include my dear friends Joe Babine (a veteran machist and master craftsman) and Alexandra Magearu, who has extensively tested, evaluated, and re-designed the camera’s ergonomics and aesthetics.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4x5 inch sheet film) mode.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4×5 inch sheet film) mode.

As I write this, we have one week left in our Kickstarter campaign. I do not yet know if the campaign will result in the project being funded or not. If it isn’t, we’ll reach out to users in other ways. If it is, we’ll be able to afford the tooling to create injection molds for the most common parts, which will bring the cost and manufacturing time down to the necessary level to make this system available to users on a significant scale, as well as optimizing the system itself so that each part is made in with the best method, imparting the optimal characteristics (surface finish, flatness, and strength for molded parts, flexibility and customizability for 3D printed parts).

Already, the Kickstarter campaign has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve received messages from photographers all over the world, with all sorts of wild use scenarios: adapting nineteenth century lenses for medium or large format, using their favorite lenses to shoot Instax, coupling non-Hasselblad lenses with Hasselblad backs, shooting high-end digital, etc. It has been incredibly rewarding to hear about all of the things folks want to (and will) do with the Mercury: this is what has made it truly open and universal.

The Kickstarter campaign can be viewed here. Your support is greatly appreciated!

A photograph taken with the Mercury on large format sheet film: Kodak Portra 400, with a vintage Kodak Ektar 127mm f/4.7 lens.

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