- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

Eric Carlson describes himself as a writer, producer, architect and consultant.

Come Saturday, he will join the ranks of the Kinetinauts, a group known for its creativity, resourcefulness and pluck.

And its members' ability to navigate through a whole lot of mud.

Mr. Carlson will compete in the second annual East Coast National Kinetic Sculpture Race around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, hosted by the American Visionary Art Museum. The event pits homemade, man-powered sculptures in a dash over land, water and mud.

Think "The Gong Show," but less pretentious; professional wrestling, but more outlandish. Prizes will be awarded for the contestant who comes in dead middle and second to last.

It's a foregone conclusion that some of the racers will find themselves foundering in the mud.

The appeal of the race was simple for Mr. Carlson, who runs his own art-design consulting firm, Tangible Arts, out of his Capitol Hill home.

"I like to do serious things ridiculously and ridiculous things seriously," Mr. Carlson says, tongue inserted purposefully in cheek. Besides, he adds, "here's something extremely time-consuming and futile" upon which he can waste his efforts.

Is this any way for a Yale graduate to behave?

Mr. Carlson, 52, first heard about the race while visiting Baltimore for an indoor rowing competition.

Besides the chance to wallow in silliness, the race offered Mr. Carlson some intriguing concepts to solve.

"There are constant design challenges … reconciling land and water takes some thought," he says. "Being an architect, I approach this from the 'form follows function' design."

Mr. Carlson's Tangible Arts Bo-Cycle, a craft rather serious in its promotional push, represents a mad combination of surfboard and bicycle.

"Although it'll be somewhat adorned, it'll be a functional piece of machinery," Mr. Carlson assures. He plans to disassemble the sculpture and use the bicycle when the race is over, a practical flourish in an otherwise impractical affair.

His vehicle, still being tinkered with days before the race, will carry a color scheme he describes as "Jackson Pollock in a head-on collision with NASCAR ."

• • •

Saturday's race is part of the 2000 Baltimore Waterfront Festival, which runs today through Sunday. The winner, the sculpture with the most points for where it finishes in the race, artistic merit and engineering integrity, will be eligible for the World Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race, to be held May 27 to 29 in Ferndale, Calif. The race's creator, artist Hobart Brown, will be on hand Saturday to watch his 31-year-old Frankenstein's monster lumber through the Inner Harbor.

Last year, six teams competed. This year, up to 12 are expected to pedal toward the not-so-coveted finish line.

A press conference earlier this month to introduce 2000's intrepid band of Kinetinauts played out as if Don King were pulling the strings. Silly threats were issued, costumes were displayed, and by the end, it wasn't clear why everyone had been assembled.

Many of the contestants seemed a bit mature to be going through such tomfoolery one dressed in full nurse drag, and another spoke at length about the moon consisting of cheese.

But with good, clean fun in short supply, such quibbles seemed unimportant.

Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, says the race satisfies the museum's mission: to blend science and art, engineering and philosophy. Of course, she says this while draped in a Statue of Liberty mint-green gown.

While some racers sermonized about finding alternative means of transportation, it was clear the event has more to do with pratfalls than propulsion.

Some of the half-built vehicles on display included a dragon-shaped monstrosity rescued from last year's scrap heap and the return of the Bartmobile. Another vehicle making its second go at greatness, or at least mediocrity, was a bastardized bicycle built for two called the Punxsutawney Flyer. That sculpture won the coveted Mediocre Award last year, coming in dead middle after all of its penalties were tallied.

Mr. Carlson began working on what he calls his "Home Depot special" in mid-February.

"It's a technical challenge," Mr. Carlson says. "I also like to work against the clock. Having the time constraints is a great motivator."

• • •

Other constraints fuel the event's irrepressible essence.

Among the rules Mr. Carlson and his fellow Kinetinauts must follow, each sculpture must carry a "homemade sock creature," and bribing judges is (wink-wink) encouraged.

A plethora of honors await those brave enough to slog through the mud, from the aforementioned Mediocre Award to the Golden Dinosaur Award, given to the first sculpture to break down, or the one that self-destructs in the most memorable fashion.

Jessejames Turner, 41, of Baltimore, is refurbishing last year's red dragon entry into his mode of transport come Saturday.

"It was an opportunity to get involved … to create something and have some fun with it," says Mr. Turner, an artist who contributed a sculpture to Baltimore's millennium celebration in January.

The new, improved Ruebea the Sirius Fire-Breathing Dragon will boast a five-speed transmission rather than last year's one-speed model.

It remains to be seen whether all five speeds will be enough to keep the lumbering metal beast afloat in the mud.

"It's a heavy vehicle to be propelled by human power [alone]," Mr. Turner admits.

The race will begin at the museum at 10 a.m. and wrap up at Rash Field in the Inner Harbor, comprising 13 miles of land, sea and mud.

First-time Kinetinaut Mr. Carlson admits all the creative challenges and goofy goings-on might persuade him to try his kinetic luck next year.

"I think I might do it again," he says.

Artistic expressions aside, Mr. Turner says there's little mystery to why he signed on for this Saturday's race.

"It's a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon."

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