The American Visionary Arts Museum is “shrinking” the kinetic sculptures so it can hold its 2021 race in a COVID-safe manner.
The American Visionary Arts Museum is “shrinking” the kinetic sculptures so it can hold its 2021 race in a COVID-safe manner.

Baltimore’s wacky Kinetic Sculpture Race, an iconic event that couldn’t be held as usual last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is back for 2021 but with a major change in format.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kinetic Sculpture Race” is the theme for the 2021 version, in which small-scale models will replace the normally huge contraptions powered by costume-clad creators directing them across roads and water. The mini-race will be live-streamed over the Internet.

The “Mini-Kinetic” will be held on Saturday May 1 at 11 a.m., and as always is a production of the American Visionary Art Museum. According to museum guidelines, sculpture-vehicles can be no taller than 13 inches and must have a cord attached so they can be pulled through obstacles.

Museum staff will guide the sculptures through a spectator-free course along inside and outside portions of the museum. Besides converting the race to miniature form, the museum is making an exhibit out of it. All of the scale models will be displayed at the museum from April 2 until race day. As of March 31, more than 30 have been received.

“Watch as miniature model “Dream Machine” 3D artful sculptures made by members of the public, like YOU, compete over miniature land, sea, mud and sand obstacles,” organizers said in a recent announcement about the race. “Very official race officials will operate the vehicles and stream the event so you can watch virtually.”

Information on viewing the race can be found here.

Opened in 1995, the museum held its kinetic sculpture race yearly from 1999 to 2020, drawing dozens of entries each year and observers along the route. The idea is to create “wacky, imaginative, human-powered works of art” – kinetic sculptures — that can move over land and sea to get from start to finish. Batteries, motors or other forms of stored energy for propulsion aren’t allowed.

An entry from the Real Spacewives of Uranus team in the 2019 Kinetic Sculpture Race enters the waters of the Inner Harbor. Photo from the team’s web site.
An entry from the Real Spacewives of Uranus team in the 2019 Kinetic Sculpture Race enters the waters of the Inner Harbor. Photo from the team’s web site.

After the city’s lockdown last spring, the museum reopened in September with limited capacity and new public health protocols. In recent months it has consistently been drawing its maximum-allowed number of visitors.

Museum founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger said the race couldn’t be held in its traditional form this year because Baltimore isn’t issuing parade permits.

Helen Yuen, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, said the organizers felt particularly bad about the affect of last year’s cancellation on the student teams that take part in the event. For example, she said, “the Jemicy School has a class dedicated specifically to the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which culminates in the students entering the sculptures they’ve spent the past year building.”

Yuen described last year’s event as “a virtual ode to the race” over Zoom.

“We had viewers tune in from all over for Sister Euphonia Oblivion’s virtual blessing of De Feet,” she said. “Then, the 2019 Grand Mediocre Champion, Team Soda Quackers, joined us by Zoom from Philadelphia where they re-enacted a virtual lighting of the Eternal Flame with an electric candle.”

Organizers promise this year’s race will have miniature versions of obstacles that have been challenging in the past, such as a mud pit; miniature judges; miniature cheering crowds and miniature volunteers pointing the way to the miniature finish line.

Viewers will have a chance to vote in real time for the People’s Choice Award, and prizes will be given in categories such as ‘most memorable water entry’ and ‘first sculpture to break down.”

As always, the real winner will be different from other races.

“The highest honor of the Kinetic Sculpture Race,” Yuen said, “is not who finishes first or last, but who finishes dead middle for the honor of being declared the Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion.”

The award is given that way, Yuen explained, “to remind us that winning isn’t everything.” She pointed to the words of visionary artist and race founder Hobart Brown: “Adults are obligated to have fun, so that children may wish to grow old.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.