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Artsfans: Kinetic sculpture, such as this created by Greg Koetsch and raced in Boston, Mass., enables users to travel with style.


With the first annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, Santa Cruz starts to take artistic movements literally.

By Steve Hahn

No less a title than "Best Artist in the World" will be handed out to a lucky competitor this Sunday in a unique race that combines Burning Man aesthetics with NASCAR rules. A strange mix of vehicles with moving parts jutting out in every possible direction will gather at the Riverside Bridge Sunday morning. When the starting shot is fired, off they'll go to the Water Street bridge, three-quarters of a mile away.

The first annual Kinetic Sculpture Race doesn't involve quite as many circles and beer bellies as NASCAR racing, but the idea is still to get to the finish line first. It might be harder than it sounds, considering one of the qualifications for entry into the race is to have as many interconnected moving parts on the vehicle as possible.

The notion of racing elaborately constructed, persistently moving art sculptures along the banks of the San Lorenzo River came about as members of the local arts community were brainstorming ways to reintroduce the river as a central space in Santa Cruz culture. The result is the Santa Cruz River Arts Festival.

Kirby Scudder, who helps run the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts, organized similar "kinetic sculpture races" for 11 years in the '80s and '90s in venues as diverse as Milwaukee and Paris. When he heard that organizers of the River Arts Festival needed ideas for projects that could get people excited about visiting the river for a day, he figured the sculpture races would be perfect.

"Of all the places, Santa Cruz would be the No. 1 place to try this," he says. "I thought, given the nature of Santa Cruz and the sort of Burning Man ethos, it would be a great idea to launch it here. When I organized these on the East Coast, some of the most bizarre stuff you could possibly imagine would show up. It was amazing."

It may be hard to imagine how a vehicle that must go forward can also move in other directions, so Scudder gives an example of one of his favorites from years past. The racer had taken a wheelbarrow, replaced the standard wheels with bicycle tires and built a system of cogs and gears connected to a hand holding a pen. As the wheelbarrow moved forward, the hand would write out "faster" on a piece of paper.

"So as it moved forward and went faster, the hand would write out the word 'faster' over and over again," remembers Scudder. "The faster he went, the faster the hand would write 'faster.'"

Two categories for the race--pedal powered and human powered--will each produce a winner. Together they'll share the title of "World's Best Artist, Without Dispute."

"The point is just to bring zany and crazy art pieces out to have fun and get a little exercise. But why not have, every year, the best artist in the world located in Santa Cruz?" asks Scudder.

The River Arts Festival is an effort to re-engage citizens with the San Lorenzo River, the historic lifeline of the city. The connection of locals to the river reached its zenith from 1895 to 1920, when the Venetian River Festival attracted people from Monterey to San Francisco to revel in the glory of the gorgeous river landscape. This year's festival is an attempt to recapture some of that passion for the mighty San Lorenzo, all while benefiting the Santa Cruz Education Foundation, which will receive a donation of 10 percent of all art sales from the many booths of artists and craftspeople at the fair. Lynn Guenther, who is on the steering committee of the Education Foundation, hopes her efforts to gather the community in celebration of arts and the river will start a tradition that can be extended into perpetuity.

"I'm on the Open Studios Committee, and one thing I always hear is 'Why can't we all converge in one space?' We see Santa Cruz artists all over the place, Laguna Beach, Monterey and other places across the state, but rarely do we see them all gathered in Santa Cruz," says Guenther. "Some say the river banks are a somewhat seedy area, but we're going to take it over and have a Renaissance for a couple days. It will be completely transformed into something special."

THE SANTA CRUZ KINETIC SCULPTURE RACE starts Sunday, May 18, at 11am at the Riverside Bridge and finishes at San Lorenzo Park. Anyone showing up with a qualifying vehicle/art piece at or before 9am on Sunday will be allowed to register. $10 to enter.

THE RIVER ARTS FESTIVAL takes place Saturday-Sunday, May 17-18, 11am-5pm at San Lorenzo Park. For more info, visit; 831.427.8212.

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