The idea first popped up years ago, when Evan Weissman of Warm Cookies of the Revolution was still a member of the close-knit and creative Buntport Theater crew. “We used to talk about building a giant Rube Goldberg machine that would stretch from Boulder to Denver, or maybe just from the Pepsi Center to Buntport,” he says of the group’s collective dream plan.
Now leader of Warm Cookies, Denver’s first and only “civic health club,” Weissman’s been exploring the concept of neighborhood-generated participatory budgeting of city funds for a while, and looking for ways to gain public interest in the humanist model. Encouraged by Denver District 9 civic activists like Swansea native Candi CdeBaca, who’s led the district’s I-70 redevelopment fight, and Five Points organizer Candace Johnson — both of whom agree that neighborhoods should have more control over where the money goes in their own back yards — Weissman’s plan began to gel. That’s where the Rube Goldberg machine fits into his scheme.
“If you invite people to come to a budgeting-process meeting, they’re going to run the other way screaming,” Weissman notes. Weaving some fun into the learning and sharing process of discussing issues has always been the Warm Cookies way of dealing with civics-phobia. It made sense to Weissman that something large-scale and hands-on would draw people into the conversation. “Rube Goldberg machines are basically a commentary on the complexity and difficulty of getting things done,” he explains.
Until now, Weissman’s unorthodox plan for engaging the public in a participatory budgeting discussion by breaking down the process visually existed only as a concept, but with the announcement that Warm Cookies has been selected to receive a $325,000 project grant from ArtPlace America, everything changes. The Rube Goldberg machine project now has a name — This Machine Has a Soul! — and a means to an end.
“The idea is that budgets should have souls and have people involved in them,” Weissman notes. “We’d like this to kickstart participatory budgeting for the city. It would be something we could document and say, ‘We did this, in these neighborhoods, and this many people participated. Now let’s do it again, and get some city money that people can actually use, and work things up from there.”
This early in the game, he doesn’t know exactly how the project — which he hopes to roll out in the summer of 2018 — will all play out, other than that human participation will be the main element. “We’re going to build some big-ass machines,” he says. “It might be a mobile exhibit on trucks or maybe it will travel on paleteria carts. I don’t know.”
The one thing he’s certain of is that it’s coming to Denver City Council District 9, with help from CdeBaca and Johnson, along with a slew of other yet-to-be-named artists; such infrastructural helpers as Lisa Gedgaudas at Denver Arts & Venues and Bill Fulton of the Civic Canopy, a community problem-solving think tank; and “a smorgasbord of poets and mariachis and teachers — a whole weird collection of folks,” Weissman says.
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Thanks to ArtPlace America, Weissman can now assemble his team, with a promise of fair pay for all involved. It’s a start.
“I’ve never gotten close to that amount of money, yet as soon as we got it, we started thinking, 'Uh, that’s not really so much money,'” he admits. “Once you get down to it, public art projects cost a lot — even for just one sculptural element. We could use more money to make it even cooler, but I’m not complaining.” Weissman and friends are still waiting to hear about a couple of other grants, and they “might try to get stakeholders in the district to kick in, too," he says.
“The main thing is that we’re so excited, and now we’ve got to figure it out,” he continues. “I’m really thankful we were noticed by an organization like ArtPlace. This is definitely a little out of their wheelhouse, and I appreciate that they’re doing that.”
Rube Goldberg would have, too.