Bird's-eye View

A Hopkins Team Hopes Its Creation, Twitter Jay, Spreads Its Wings In Race

April 26, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

Move over, Poe the Baltimore Raven. Hop aside, the Baltimore Oriole. There's a new avian athlete in town: Twitter Jay, which boasts recycled grocery bags for feathers, Webcams for eyes and its own social networking account.

Yep - Twitter Jay takes tweets.

The big blue contraption (official name: Twitter Jay and the Recyclists) will be among roughly three dozen entrants in the 11th annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, which begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the American Visionary Art Museum. The creation of 10 bird brains from the Johns Hopkins University, Twitter Jay is part art installation, part sports team mascot and part community-building enterprise.

"This brought a whole group of people together from different disciplines who wouldn't normally be working on the same project," says senior Nora Krinitsky, 21, who helped design and build the bird. "It's also succeeded in getting a group of Hopkins students involved in the larger community."

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's You Arts & Entertainment section, a photo caption and a headline with an article about the Kinetic Sculpture Race rendered the name of a race entry incorrectly. The big blue bird was called Twitter Jay.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The sculpture is fully wired, with an onboard laptop and global positioning system, which will track the jay's latitude and longitude minute by minute. The Webcams will record the sights and sounds along the route. Other equipment will monitor the two cyclists' heart rates.

In addition, spectators will be able to send "tweets" to the bird by texting their comments to 443-453-4012. After the messages are screened by the bird's "pit crew," they will be displayed on an LED screen attached to the back of the vehicle.

"Twitter Jay is easily the most technologically advanced sculpture we've ever had," says Theresa Segretti, the art museum's director of design and eduction. "This truly is a first for us. It raises our bar."

As in past races, all the kinetic sculptures must be human-powered and must navigate a 15-mile route that passes through land, mud and deep water. As always, contestants will compete for the prestigious Mediocre Award (for the sculpture finishing precisely in the middle of the pack) and the nearly as coveted Next to Last Award (self-explanatory).

As has become standard, a sock puppet is a required part of any vehicle (Twitter Jay boasts a "worm" made from Krinitsky's used pantyhose). And as usual, bribing the judges is encouraged. For that purpose, Joan Freedman, the Hopkins faculty member overseeing the project, has bought - appropriately - several bags of marshmallow Peeps.

The kinetic sculpture race was the brainchild of a California visionary named Hobart Brown. He started the event almost by accident in 1969, after receiving a ticket for leaving his 5-year-old son's tricycle on the sidewalk outside his Ferndale, Calif., art gallery. The entrepreneur added two more wheels to the vehicle, plus other refinements that made the trike five feet high, Segretti says.

Though the modifications made the pentacycle too large for its original owner to ride, it was reclassified as "sculpture" and allowed to remain on the sidewalk outside the gallery. An artist friend of Brown's was inspired to craft a similarly eccentric vehicle and challenged Brown to a race. They told a few of their friends.

"Hobart Brown was a bit like Barnum and Bailey," Segretti says. "He made the event sound like so much fun that 10,000 people showed up to watch two old guys race down Main Street."

An annual tradition was born, and soon, similar races popped up all over. Segretti says that there are at least eight races still in existence: seven in the U.S., and one in Australia. The Baltimore event has been sanctioned as the East Coast Championship, and the art museum can boast that it has Brown's original pentacycle on display.

The Hopkins students have been designing Twitter Jay since August - the blue jay is the mascot for Hopkins sports teams - and have been building the sculpture since January. Sophomore Tabor Barranti, 19, took the lead on designing the blue bird, graduate student David Hung, 24, was the chief engineer and junior Josh Hewitt, 20, spearheaded efforts to make the blue jay high-tech.

In keeping with Brown's goals to make the race ecologically friendly, the group decided that roughly half of the bird would be constructed from recycled materials.

Thousands of blue grocery bags, many ironed into a textured fabric, went into making the feathers. To collect all those bags, Freedman put out drop boxes at two Baltimore elementary schools. Freshman Stephanie Smith designed a flash ad that ran on the Hopkins' Homewood campus, and added an appeal for used bags to her Facebook account. Barranti, a California native, arranged for all her friends on the West Coast to send her their newspaper bags.

To obtain the eco-friendly bamboo from which the jay's frame is constructed, the team took to the woods.

"We went out in the dead of day and harvested bamboo from a grove on the northern side of Northern Parkway, between Roland [Avenue] and Falls [road]," Krinitsky says. "We took only bamboo that was dried out."

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