Schmiede, a maker camp of salt, wood and digital arts

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Schmiede took place on September 11-20 in Hallein, Austria, where a former salt warehouse transformed into one of Europe’s prime venues for digital arts. Our chronicler in residence reports on the Austrian avant-garde in situ.

By Jean-Jacques Valette, chronicler in residence (words and photos)

Schmiede is a world of salt and wood, set in a 19th century warehouse built on an island in the Salzach river in Austria, where white gold from the local mines was stored up until the 1950s. Every year for the past 16 years, some 200 makers from around Europe have gathered in this post-industrial venue niched in the high Alps to imagine the future of art and technology.

“Schmiede is a sort of utopia that created itself,” says Rüdiger Wassibauer (read our interview), cofounder of Schmiede. “In 2003, a friend asked me for help in building a Holodeck like in Star Trek. The prototype was rotten, but that work week among friends and the party that followed made us want to do it again. At the time there was no other event like this in Europe, where everyone could do their projects and help each other.”

In the Schmiede makerspace, tools are available to all ages.
Schmiede Hallein takes place in a former warehouse used to store salt, which made the riches of the Salzburg region.

Grandfather of maker camps

This one week of unbridled creativity soon became a reference in the Austrian and German visual arts circles. If Schmiede is one of the grandfathers of maker camps, along with Chaos Communication Camp founded in 1999, Schmiede is distinguished for its emphasis on art.

As soon as I arrived by bicycle from Salzburg, volunteers pressed my face into a desktop scanner to produce an approximative photo before guiding me toward a room made entirely of wood. Sitting on benches, the “Smiths” listed their skills: contemporary dance, silkscreen printing, 3D animation, photography… The panel of participants was impressive—and motivated, as only 200 out of some 300 total applicants were finally selected.

On the first day, the Smiths inventory their skills, which range from classical dance to neurosciences.
The building is an industrial labyrinth constructed between the 19th century and the 1950s.

Lyrical song and virtual reality

Thanks to grants and partnerships with several universities, it only costs 65€ to attend Schmiede, plus another 65€ for three vegan meals per day of the camp. Each Smith is invited to appropriate a space in one of the many rooms of the warehouse. The only rules are to never unplug anything without permission, and above all, don’t get hurt!

You never know what you’ll discover at Schmiede. You might push open a door to find yourself standing on a metal bridge 10 meters above the floor. Below, a DJ pushes levers to control psychedelic black-and-white spirals on canvases hanging from the ceiling. Nearby, people don VR headsets, form a lyrical choir or cover their skin with latex milk.

Black-and-white spirals.
Smiths work on a psychedelic virtual reality project inspired by shamanic rituals.
Sacred chants resonate through the former warehouse at night.
In the main Upper Wood room, Smiths work on their projects late into the night.

Beyond borders

“The first time I came here, I was completely lost,” recalls a Smith named Thu Trang Eva Ha. “I was only 21 and I saw all these high-level professionals around me. But here there’s no hierarchy, only Smiths. You can go up to anyone and do projects together!” Today, the young artist is looking for an expert in the visual programming tool VVVV, to help her make a human-chimpanzee DNA hybrid and transcribe it into music. It’s the subject of her thesis, as well as her DJ practice, which she shares with everyone in the central courtyard at night. “I play very fast, but it’s a political act, a way to reclaim accelerationism and going beyond borders!”

Thu Trang Eva Ha explains how she mixes human and chimpanzee DNA to convert them into music.

In the main Upper Wood room, on the salt-encrusted floor, I put my stuff down next to Jonathan Hefter, whom I met in Croatia at the Electric Wonderland maker camp (read our report). His mission was to digitize as many Smiths as possible through photogrammetry in order to host a virtual party. As for me, I’m off to look for a diode in order to build an entirely upcycled USB solar charger.

Jonathan Hefter digitalizes Thu Trang Eva Ha for his photogrammetry workshop.
Many of the projects gravitate around electronic music.
At the Gamejam workshop, participants learn to make a video game from A to Z.
Janne Mascha Beuthel, a PhD candidate at the University of Salzburg, is experimenting with smart fabrics. Today, she is trying to connect a zipper to a potentiometer.

Vacuum-sealed sausages

Someone asks if I can lend my voice for a performance in the bathroom. Every time the toilet flushes, my soothing French accent asks the person if they feel better… and in several languages! I also help make necklaces of vacuum-sealed sausages and a wheelchair powered by three electric scooters. Along the way, I talk to an artist who decided to blindfold herself for the week.

Artist Verena Frauenlob chose to blindfold herself in order to experience life as a blind person.

Finally I find the component I was missing in the makerspace, a workspace set up in a corner of the main room behind hammocks stretched between beams, where I was also given a few tools and precious advice. Meanwhile Jonathan met another Smith photogrammetry fan, and the two of them decided to digitize a campfire. A dozen volunteers formed a circle to film the same fire with their smartphones. The software then used QR codes attached to poles to reconstitute the blaze in real-time 3D.

Made for less than 5€ with recycled solar panels, my USB charger finally works!
Smiths gather around the campfire that they have just digitized using QR codes and smartphones.
Christian Schratt presents his project Hero Match, which will later serve as the set for a Youtube channel dedicated to the environment.

“We’re very proud to have had only two injuries in 16 years of existence—and only one theft,” confides Rüdiger as he contemplates the last sparks. “People here have a great deal of self-control and confidence. Some compare Schmiede to Burning Man, but we don’t have nearly as much sex or drugs—which is a mystery to me, considering all these young adults locked up in the same space for ten days!”

An improvised bar by a few Smiths serves cocktails every night in the warehouse courtyard.
One Smith introduces his homemade liqueur at the bar.

Benevolent dictator

The atmosphere is indeed well-behaved. An electronic music concert is held every night untill midnight, and we can drink DIY cocktails at the Smith-improvised bar. “Our credo is: The autonomy of the participants should not be undermined. It’s a roundabout way of saying ‘Do your own stuff’,” Rüdiger explains. He considers himself to be a benevolent dictator. “I have the last word if necessary, but I try to create situations where decisions are made by themselves, like a jury to choose the artists, for example. My greatest privilege is to not have to give my opinion. I’m not a gallery owner!”

Rüdiger Wassibauer is cofounder of Schmiede and its “benevolent dictator” for more than 15 years.

And why the name “Schmiede”? “In German, it refers to forgery—both as in blacksmith and as in counterfeit. It’s our spirit here, a ‘playground of ideas’ where anyone can hack and reappropriate, limited only by their own imagination,” Rüdiger concludes.

Schmiede is part of the Feral Labs Network summer camp series, which is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union and led by Projekt Atol in Ljubljana (Slovenia). The other #ferallabs partners are Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) and Art2M/Makery (France).