Photo by Terrance McNally
Kati Texas takes us behind the scenes of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, Grand Championship where art and science go to play. [28:10]
Kati Texas: Kinetic is just a word that means movement. It's energy in movement. So, a kinetic sculpture is any kind of sculpture that has movement. A kinetic sculpture race is when people make sculptures that you can then move yourself about on. It's glorious. Kinetic racing is glorious. It is the silliness that keeps us sane.
Jo Reed: That is Kati Texas. She's not just a Rutabaga Queen, she's also won her ACE pilot wings in the Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, CA.--And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Kinetic Sculpture Racing is glorious--it combines artistry with engineering and physical endurance. It's powered by the imagination and a tremendous sense of play. All the sculptures are people-powered; not even a battery can be used and they must be able to navigate sand, water, mud, hills, and roads. The granddaddy of kinetic sculpture races is the Grand Championship, a three-day marathon event that takes place over the Memorial Day weekend in Humboldt County, California. Begun 45 years ago, the Grand Championship is now the biggest single event in the county. It takes place in five different towns along the 42-mile-long course and it draws thousands of spectators.
It's hard to imagine a better guide for a behind-the-scenes look at this human-powered art race than Katie Texas. Aside from being a veteran racer herself, Katie currently serves the Kinetic Universe as president of its board of directors. I began my conversation with Kati by asking her some background on the Kinetic Grand Championship.
Kati Texas: The Kinetic Grand Championship is called the triathlon of the art world because it incorporates major physical as well as engineering and athletic challenges. The Grand Championship has a long history. It started in 1969 when Hobart Brown welded some extra wheels onto his son's tricycle making it a pentacycle, and his friend Jack Maze, who is also a sculptor, looked at it and said, "Well, that's interesting. We should make those and race them," and then they held the first kinetic sculpture race in Ferndale, California on Mother's Day to coincide with an art festival that they had there and neither of the founders actually won the first race. It was won by another fellow who made a turtle that laid eggs and smoked while it rolled down Main Street. Since then, the art and sport of kinetic sculpture racing has evolved. Over decade,s it stretched out from its first two-block course to be 42 miles of really challenging terrain. Humboldt County is beautiful and we've got land, sand, water, freeway, mud. We go across the bay-- and so, over three days, about 60 teams human power their artwork from Arcata, California to Ferndale. So much more to it.
Jo Reed: There is so much more to it. I have not been to the Grand Championship, but I have gone to the one in Baltimore, and it is one of the highlights of my year. I just love it. The philosophy: adults having fun so children will want to grow older.
Kati Texas: Actually, that is a quote from our race founder, the glorious Hobart Brown.
Jo Reed: I'm sure you've seen other kinetic races. How is the Grand Championship different?
Kati Texas: I've been to the races all over the country and this is definitely the grandfather race. It's definitely the Grand Championship. Other races are like obstacle courses and this one is a marathon. We go out there and we have so much fun. We are exercising and we are doing engineering to get this stuff actually moving, plus it has to look cool and be interesting and be surrounded by people in costumes and they do dances and when kids see that, they want to do that. They can see that being a grownup doesn't have to be all throwing the fun out the window
Jo Reed: How did you yourself get involved with kinetic sculpture racing?
Kati Texas: I moved to Humboldt in 2003 because I was looking for something to do and a friend of mine was involved in the kinetic race. He invited me to come help out at the Kinetic Sculpture Lab, and I did, and it was way fun. I was on a pit crew for many years and then I ran for queen and I won my crown. Then I ran my own team and won an ace and an ace is when you get your pilot wings, if you successfully human power your artwork across the whole course within the time limit following all the rules. It is extremely challenging, and not only do you have to do all that on this human powered thing that you've built, but it has to have art on it and be neat and fun. So that's how I got involved first as a peon, what we call a peon, then a pit crew, then moved my way up to royalty, then earned my ace wings, ran my own team for a few years, and I'm currently taking a break from racing while I am Queen President of the Kinetic Universe.
Jo Reed: Ok, I have two questions. First, you mentioned running for queen, getting a crown -- can you tell me more about this?
Kati Texas: I am a Rutabaga Queen. I earned my crown in 2008 as Queen Lotta Paintbuckets. The queen is a figurehead who reigns gloriously. One week before the Grand Championship, we hold the Rutabaga Ball and competitors go through a three-round pageant to determine who is going to be the best queen. There is the ball gown competition, the water crossing, which is a non-swimsuit swimsuit competition, and then the talent portion. You don't have to be female to win by any means. We had men and women run. But, the Queens then have the responsibility of having fun almost to the point of obnoxiousness. Now that's the key bit: Almost to the point of obnoxiousness, but they are the ones who are out there cheerleading. And there are some really fun characters.
Jo Reed: And what is the Kinetic Universe?
Kati Texas: In 2007 when Hobart Brown was in declining health, he was having difficulty finding reliable people to run the Kinetic Grand Championship or to run the kinetic race, and he was friends with some of the Rutabaga Queens. He asked them to put on a race one year just to make sure that it happened, and they did and since then we started a nonprofit known as the Kinetic Universe. We named the race the Kinetic Grand Championship and the Rutabaga Queens have been running the show since 2007. I am actually the fourth Queen to be president of the Kinetic Universe. It's not a requirement that you be in charge if you're a Queen, but it's just a coincidence that some really awesome ladies with some great nonprofit chops and some great event planning understanding took this over and we can reign with the iron fist of royalty, but also be sweet and everybody loves us because we're queens and we have crowns on.
Jo Reed: Describe some of the kinetic sculptures that you've seen over time. You can even just concentrate on your reign if you want.
Kati Texas: Okay. Lots of kinetic sculptures are made with human powered vehicles. They'll be three, four, or six wheeled. You can't really call them bicycles because they've got six wheels, but human powered crafts. Lots of gears and chains and then they will have artwork that attaches to the top of them. I've seen everything from 20-foot high silver chickens to tie-dye painted hippie-potamuses. I think one of the coolest sculptures I ever saw wouldn't ace our race, but it was called the Mutant and it actually set a land speed world record for a walking sculpture. It didn't have wheels, it walked. It had six legs and they articulated and it just walked down the road and it was such a visceral experience watching this thing come by. It had such pathos. It was a creature. When you see a hippo rolling by or a giant cat rolling by, it's like, "Oh, it's a giant cat sculpture," but this huge ant walks up to you, conk-conk-conk-conk-conk with all these big metal noises, it really struck me. That's definitely one of my favorite ones of all time. Then there's fire-shooting dragons and people that have a super light, very aerodynamic, very simple things like sharks and torpedoes because they're going for the speed awards and sometimes people do absolutely insane things that just bucking for an engineering award like walking sculptures, pedaling palm trees, hamster balls, hamster wheels. People come up with some really amazing ways to try and locomote themselves across our terrain.
Jo Reed: Here on the East Coast we have our own legend which is Fifi, the great pink poodle from Baltimore-- and a friend of mine came down from New York this year to join me and watch the kinetic sculpture race, and we were with some friends, and we hear this hubbub and my friend who's from Baltimore looks at my friend from New York and very seriously she says, "You're about to see a legend," and here comes Fifi.
Kati Texas: Oh, Fifi from Baltimore is a very impressive sculpture. And, that's what I love about this. When things get really, really big and it's just totally absurd and people spend so much time and effort and money, and they prepare all year and sometimes for years to make these things and then throw them at a sand dune. Try and pedal that across the bay and possibly sink, possibly lose it--something that's so fun and so silly. It just makes my heart happy.
Jo Reed: There are many rules, pages of rules involved--
Kati Texas: Pages and pages.
Jo Reed: -- involved with the kinetic sculpture race, and one of them is "if you need it, you carry it on your sculpture." So, that means that people who want to attach pontoons, for example, to their sculpture, they better be having it with them already. They can't just pick them up on the road somewhere.
Kati Texas: Rule I of the Kinetic Grand Championship, I believe it is Rule I, says "if you need it, you must carry it" and that's part of human powering your sculpture. There's no point in saying that this is a successful human powered vehicle if you had to stop along the way and pick up extra equipment to make it work. These are all-terrain. They have to go over sand. They have to go over water, and they have to be able to do that and be self contained. So if you need to wrap your wheels in wide foam in order to go on the sand, you've got to carry that with you. If you need to strap pontoons onto your vehicle in order to float on the water, you have to carry those pontoons. You have to carry the pump for the pontoons. Some people choose not to do pontoons. They'll do big pieces of foam, and there's a tradeoff for that because the foam is fast, but it's also heavy. For over 45 years people have really worked some serious strategies about this stuff and you'll see what works and what doesn't. I think one of the things that I find most interesting about kinetic sculptures is the technology and the strategies that get developed around these challenges. This is fuel-free transportation. Not only is it a way to get people and stuff through some serious challenges, it's also a good way to keep in shape. So, if we can make a vehicle that is light, fast, and easy to ride that'll go up and down sand dunes and across the water, then making a human powered vehicle that will get you and your kids to the grocery store and back is easy-peasy.
Jo Reed: "Feet on the street." There's another rule: "Feet on the street except in a legal push zone." Explain that and explain the legal push zones.
Kati Texas: A main part of the kinetic sculpture is that it has to be propelled. The propulsion has to be part of the sculpture itself. If you have to get off of it and push it, it might as well be a box. It's not a kinetic sculpture. It's not a vehicle that you can get on. So, there is a rule, a "feet-on-the-street" rule that says you can't put your feet on the street and push it. There are certain places on the course that are "legal push zones" because they have to be and that's things that we deem unsafe or un-possible. There are certain places like the entrance to the dunes. There's a big pipeline that comes across and it's too slick for anybody to go over. It's about three feet wide. It's a big slick metal slope. There is just-- I mean we would have to make claws to go over this thing. So that's a legal push or the downside of Dead Man's Drop. We call it a legal push because the pit crew are allowed to attempt to slow down the vehicle on the down slope and that's a safety thing. We want people to race in the Kinetic Grand Championship. We want them to get some glory and we want them to survive with all their body parts intact.
Jo Reed: And my favorite rule is Rule One.
Kati Texas: Rule One. Rule A for Amusement. The most important rule in kinetics is Rule A for Amusement. Amusement is the gift that we give and get. That's why we're here. If you don't got it, fake it.
Jo Reed: And I love "irritability can earn you a penalty."
Kati Texas: Being irritable or mouthing off to the race officials can earn you up to a one-hour penalty on your time, and, also, up to, and including, banishment from the race or from the Kinetic Universe. Although, in the entire history of kinetics in Humboldt, there has only ever been one person who was banished and I think it's because-- in fact, I saw the letter. Hobart wrote him a letter and said, "You aren't any fun anymore. Please don't come back." So that was a case of extreme irritability that got somebody totally banished.
Jo Reed: It's so good humored and so much fun. Everybody in the crowd is rooting for these racers to be able to make it through whatever obstacle they're facing. It's so good natured. It's such a pleasure to be there.
Kati Texas: It's glorious. Kinetic racing is glorious. It is the silliness that keeps us sane and yeah, we feed on glory, so we love it when the spectators come out. I love it when the little kids are lining the streets. "Look at this. Oh my God. Look at that thing." A few years ago my friends and I on our giant ten-person craft did a sculpture called "Heroes of Gloriopolos" where the machine had a cityscape built on it and all ten pilots were different superheroes. We made up our own superheroes, so everybody had their own. But when we would ride down the street, we'd see these little kids would jump up and sometimes they'd be wearing capes because they were their own superheroes. They'd be like, "Yeah, you're superheroes too." They're like, "Yeah, I'm super." Yay kids.
Jo Reed: Let's kind of break the race down. What happens on the first day? What's the course like on day one?
Kati Texas: Day one of the Kinetic Grand Championship starts with judging on the Arcata Plaza. And, Arcata's a lucky town. It has a zocalo. It's got a nice little town square. The teams will enter the square on one end and then they make a circuit. They go through engineering judging, safety. The ace judges determine whether or not you're following all the rules. There's art judging. There is a small hill on the plaza, so you roll down and you have to do a brake test, prove that your brakes work before we'll let you out there on your experimental craft. And then a lot of teams choose to do some kind of pageantry that goes along with their art theme, and whether that's like a choreographed dance, or a little skit, or they just give gifts or bribes to the judges, whatever they want to do. Then the teams park along the plaza and the thousands of people from all over the area and all over the world really come out to get an up-close look at these teams while they're getting ready, and a few minutes before noon, everyone clears the street and then Arcata has a noon siren, and as soon as the noon siren goes off, the pilots run to their craft and they do this huge Lamond style start where everybody races in a circle around and around and around the plaza until the Ramp-meister sees that everybody is moving and then he opens the ramp-- that's the start of the race. Then, they'll go out over many, many big sand dunes, up a couple of miles of absolutely gorgeous Humboldt County beach. Then they go into June's Dunes, named for veteran kinetic racer June Moxon because she's so good at the sand...or so bad at the sand. I can't remember. Then they go up Dead Man's Drop which is a 100-foot sand dune with an 11 percent grade with a serious left-hand pitch. The first time I went over Dead Man's Drop, I was on a pit crew. I had never seen the race before. I was just going along with my friends for the fun and they're like, "Okay, we're getting up here. You got to grab onto the back of this thing and slow it down." I'm like, "What do you mean, slow it down? This is a sculpture. It weighs 900 pounds. There are six people on it," and they're like, "Just grab on and dig in." So we crest the sand dunes, and I look down and it's absolutely like looking down the side of a sand skyscraper. So the first time I saw Dead Man's Drop, I was being dragged over it by a thousand-pound lobster. And that's Day One! If you make it through the dunes you have achieved something truly amazing. Go into the dunes with your friends, come out and you're still friends? That's pretty amazing.
Jo Reed: And Day Two?
Kati Texas: Day two starts on the Eureka waterfront. Machines will prepare to enter the water. A lot of them will have flotation that attaches and detaches, so there'll be like arms that attach and then they'll strap pontoons to those arms so the machines start looking like giant wombat catamarans or fire trucks on stilts and they'll roll into the water. There is an award for biggest splash. There is an award for the team that rolls over or sinks. Then the machines go into the water and they go down a couple of miles on the water along the Eureka waterfront and people come out and on our lovely boardwalk there and watch the machines go by and cheer them on and, of course, in kinetic racing, we say that it is all for the glory. We're doing it for the glory, for the glory the spectators give us and that's what the teams really run on, so we love it when people just fill up the waterfront and the machines go by all floating and sometimes they'll showboat. Some of these things are shooting fire into the fog. But, that's not all in day two. There is the water challenge and then they get out. They go through Eureka and then through some lovely marshes, and then up and down Loleta Hill, which is another big, crazy hill--this time on the road and this is where those brakes really come into play, because once you manage to get up it-- we make you do a brake check again--because if your brakes don't work on the curvy road on the way down, you're going to fly off a cliff into Table Bluff. Down Loleta Hill, down, down, down, down, down, praying your brakes work. Then, a quick turn out to Cannibal Island Road where there is a racers only beach campout and that's the finish line for Day Two.
Kati Texas: Ta-da. Day Three used to be known as Mud Day. We would get into the river and go through up to slippery, slimy slope, which is a very riparian area, very muddy, very tidal. Nowadays, we cross the mouth of the Eel River. So, Day Three is also a water day. Once they get out of the slough, then they go through the flats and the bottoms in Ferndale. Then into Main Street Ferndale, which is the location of the very first kinetic sculpture race in 1969. But, we stop the fun there and then get ready for the award ceremony and racers dinner that night. And then, everybody goes and gets their glory and gets their aces and gets their prizes and then gets ready for next year.
Jo Reed: Well, I think the fun is also reflected in the awards that are given out. There are the "Golden Flip," the "Best Bribe," the "Most Improved," the "Poor, Pitiful Me" award, the "Grand Championship" award. Tell me about the awards.
Kati Texas: There are many awards for winning the Kinetic Grand Championship. Of course, every team is competing in art, speed, engineering, and pageantry, and they get points for accomplishments in all of those areas and those points get added up and the team with the best score wins Grand Champion. And they get a trophy that they pass around from year to year and you get to add something to it. So, this thing has become a beautiful piece of sculpture in itself. All these teams adding and changing it. Then in the Grand Championship points, the team that comes in dead middle gets the
"Mediocre" award for being mediocre. Then there are awards like the "Golden Flipper" for the team that flips over in the sand, another dubious distinction. There is an award called the "Poor, Pitiful Me" award, and that is for the person who whines the most or is witnessed whining and complaining the most. Usually, that award is a case of toilet paper. There's the "You Clever Rascal" award for people that come up with absolutely crazy, amazing engineering ideas, but aren't actually successful with it.
Jo Reed: It's interesting, because, from this little race in 1969, I've read that the Kinetic Grand Championship is the biggest single event in Humboldt County now.
Kati Texas: Absolutely. The Grand Championship is by far the biggest event in Humboldt County because it's actually, let's see, seven events in three days in five different towns, and every single one of them is free to watch -thousands of people come out- not even including our awards dinner, which is an enormous banquet, and all of it absolutely for free for the people of Humboldt County and the people who choose to come visit Humboldt County to watch.
Jo Reed: It must be a massive undertaking to organize!
Kati Texas: There's 30 different agencies where we have to get permits and insurance from. We have to hire two contractors just to get us from one town to another because every single town has its own little rules. It's like, imagine doing an event that was not only big and for thousands of people, but happened in the county and in several different municipalities. It's a serious logistical challenge and it is entirely, entirely run by volunteers. No one in the Kinetic Universe gets paid any amount of money, and no one has to pay anything to watch it. The racers do it because they love it, because it is so much fun, and you know what? If we didn't organize this race, they would go out and do it anyway. That's how much they love it.
Jo Reed: If you had to describe the kinetic sculpture race and what you do in it to somebody who's never seen one, or have never seen you in one before, how would you do that? What would you say?
Kati Texas: I go back to Houston, where I'm from, and I tell people and they're like, "Oh, what do you do up there?" and I say, "Well, I spend a lot of time working on the Kinetic Grand Championship, which is a kinetic sculpture race," and I have a really hard time explaining to them what it is. It's an all-terrain vehicle race. "Oh, so it's like a bicycle race?" Well, it's like bicycles on Broadway. It's a parade mixed with a triathlon mixed with a rolling-- nope, that's a parade. Kinetics is hard to describe.
Jo Reed: It is hard to describe because the race demands such a mixture of talents. You need artistry, you need physical endurance, and you need to have a sense of science and engineering. And, you know, most importantly, I think, if you don't have a sense of fun, you may as well stay home.
Kati Texas: Yeah, if you don't approach this with the -- if you don't approach kinetics as the absolutely ridiculous thing that it is, it's just going to drive you crazy because it's so hard, but it's so good. It's really, really fun. Pedaling up Dead Man's Drop. My goodness gracious. Pedaling up Loleta Hill, pedaling down Loleta Hill or, I'm sorry, riding your brakes down Loleta Hill trying not to die in this thing that you built and I'm pretty sure it works. I'm pretty sure the brakes work, but I did build it myself, so I'm not sure. It's like a parade, but then you're racing, and then, but don't call it a parade because these are serious athletes. I mean when I aced, we had a sculpture that was three tricycles trained together like a train, so it was an articulated vehicle with three individuals tied together. Each individual piece with the lightest possible artwork, but carrying all of our ace gears, so carrying our pontoons, carrying our pontoon arms, and our pumps, and our tools, and our water-- my craft, just on its own, weighed 250 pounds. The art might weigh ten pounds of that. Just having a machine that is sturdy enough and capable enough to achieve this accomplishment necessitates a certain amount of weight. Your average bike weighs less than 50 pounds. Just imagine trying to do a bicycle triathlon, but your bike weighs 250 pounds, and you might be wearing some kind of crazy suit of armor made out of recycled muffin tins.
Jo Reed: I think it's a safe statement to say that it challenges you at every level.
Kati Texas: It's a really good challenge. People come out and they see you huffing and puffing and struggling and they're so cheerful and people throw parties all along the racecourse and they give us water and smoked oysters and just lots and lots of glory along the course. It really ties the whole county together. It goes through so many different little towns and so many different little backwoods places, but everybody here knows the Kinetic Grand Championship and they're all brought together by that on Memorial Day weekend. It's what everybody's doing. It's in all the papers. It's on the radio stations. It's streaming live on our website.
Jo Reed: Oh I think it's great. I hope one year, maybe next year to be able to go to the Grand Championship and see how Baltimore represents itself there.
Kati Texas: I think the racers from Baltimore do a really good showing at the Grand Championship. We love the racers from all over. They bring so much energy and so much sense of humor and so many new ideas and new ways of looking at things. I love the community of kinetic sculpture racers. Just knowing that everybody's out there cruising around, putting serious energy and love into this art form, it just makes my heart happy. I moved up here, and I love the area. I love the people. I love the landscape, but I probably wouldn't have stayed here if it hadn't been for kinetics and the Kinetic Grand Championship. It's a close family and a community of artists and engineers that come out and do this crazy, silly, difficult thing every year, and I have dedicated part of my life here to making sure that it continues to happen. Kinetic racing is glorious.
Jo Reed: Thank you, Kati, for giving me your time. And, you know, keep on keeping on, Your Majesty.
Kati Texas: Thank you, Jo!
Jo Reed: That was the Rutabaga Queen herself, Kati Texas, talking about the Kinetic Grand Championship which is held in Humboldt County. To see pictures from this years' race or to read about other interactions of Art and Science, check out the current issue of NEA ARTS. You can find it at our website: arts.gov.
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