Cincinnati’s First ArtsWave Hackathon: A Survivor’s Story

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The energy summoned to build something like the Tidal Art X Hackathon was worth every cease and desist letter they received for unauthorized use of Jay Z’s logo. The event, a collaboration between Cincinnati’s ArtsWave organization and Cintrifuse, an entrepreneurial engine of local start-up connection, was amazing. I got a hot tip from a co-worker at LPK about the event, and my gross urge for participation in creative competitive events led me to sign up immediately. I’ve been to hackathons in the past, especially when I was living in Brooklyn, and a lot of them can be hit or miss depending on the overarching goal of the session.

There is always a mixture of ambition, competition, and maybe a little bit of stress swirling at the beginning of these events, and I don’t think anything draws more passion out of an audience than helping connect people to the arts. There’s something in our gut that, even if we don’t particularly think of ourselves as creative, needs to nurture the innate desire to connect to movements larger than ourselves. If we’re in the age of the Internet of Things, this was definitely the Internet of Art event.

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A quick google search of “internet art gif” reveals this is probably what the internet of art looks like.

Before going to the hackathon I was pretty dead-set on helping with a project connected to the CAC. I definitely use their new lobby/restaurant space as my own private co-working space on the weekends so I figured it was time to give back. I wasn’t particularly picky about the details of the project, I just knew the CAC is easily my favorite arts organization in Cincinnati. They are the largest and most visible arm of the worldwide contemporary art movement we have locally, and the building itself is a Zaha Hadid design. I’ve had a lot of important moments inside that building from seeing some of my favorite artists perform, to exposure to exhibitions that changed my perspective on art at a very young age. 

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The Contemporary Arts Center in beautiful downtown Cincinnati.

The CAC’s challenge to the teams was to build an application that follows artists after they debut or have a show here, and allows venues to publicize their event calendars. Cincinnati is fertile ground for artists workshopping and premiering ideas, and sometimes that gets lost in the noise of the quickly moving art world. I attribute this to our low rents, and relatively low bar to entry. When owning a gallery is essentially owning a room, painting it white, and inviting people to hang stuff in it, it’s definitely easiest to do in cost-effective locations. I seriously don’t think Cincinnati publicizes this enough. Cincinnati will probably be one of the last major cities that people can own or rent property for a reasonable price, and reasonable rent is always great for artists.

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They very first time a team comes together at a hackathon is the most awkward fifteen minutes anyone could put themselves through. As someone who is painfully self aware, cycling through team members and talking to strangers immediately about goals and ideas, sizing up what kind of team member they will be is some of the grossest stress, mostly because you’re thinking the entire time, “I volunteered for this event. I’m choosing to do this. Why am I doing this to myself?” The first ten minutes of one of these events is the prime time to select or ditch a team in a manner of moments. It’s not about being rude, it’s about strategy. It’s almost like speed-dating mixed with a bit of a job fair. I was dead-set on the CAC project, so I dug in and watched my team swell and momentarily deflate around me.

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My very effective strategy when I’m looking for fellow team members at any competitive event.

We ended up with eight people total. Two marketers, one UX designer, one copywriter, two back end developers, one community-engager and me a designer and novice front-end developer. Immediately we pulled out a white-board and got to work with a sharpie.

I’m a builder so of course I’m already in my head thinking about what colors and fonts the application is going to have while I smile listening to someone talk about ‘content-engagement’ and ‘user-incentives’. Which are all very important of course. There was a lot of swirl, but after deciding on a name, things magically fell into place, and Cusp came to life. 

Me when someone’s like, “You should definitely read this white-paper!”

The rest of the weekend we focused on designing and building a story around our app, an online destination for emerging artists, local venues, and patrons of the arts. We wanted to make something that would give power to the artist to build a profile and allow the user or the ‘patron’ to follow their movements after they debut on an interactive map, eventually building out a venue profile that museums and galleries could use to publicize events or even discover and then book new artists.

There’s a lot of mystery and probable intentional opacity in the art world, and that’s what we wanted to address for this application. The art community in Cincinnati has a lot of moving pieces. Lots of independent artists, lots of smaller forward-thinking galleries, a healthy DIY community, and even whole neighborhoods dedicated to the arts (Brighton/Pendleton/etc.), but none of it seems connected. Cusp could be that melting pot. It could function as not only an arts-community calendar, but a way to track the artist that moved you at that tiny gallery in the Pendleton Arts Center last Final Friday. Cusp could be the bread-crumb trail leading a patron back to work that touched them, and ultimately driving more engagement in the arts community locally.

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My favorite power couple and what contemporary art probably looks like to most people.

It was a challenging idea, and definitely something that was ambitious to create in two days. We were able to build out the back-end databases, design a functioning prototype, and even build out a pretty solid brand identity. Not without its hiccups, though.

Hackathons are nuts mostly because you pack in almost a years worth of team-dynamics and personality learnings in two days that most teams do over the course of years. You butt heads, you make mistakes, you experience the troughs of sorrow, and the peaks of triumph. You’re basically a founder of a small company for two days. It’s exhausting, but at least there is usually free food.

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There is like a ten minute period in every hackathon that feels like this.

In the end we were able to present a pretty solid idea. We didn’t win, but team Cusp lives on. A few of the team members still get together weekly to see what we can build, and the back-end dev, Bobby, and I just finished planning out our Github-workflow, and even have a temporary landing page up on our Cusp domain.

The true beauty and purpose of a hackathon usually isn’t the free iPad you win if you come out on top, but the amount you learn in such a short amount of time. Not only do you have a opportunity to rapidly learn new technical skills, or prototyping practices, you get a rare chance pull back the curtain on the processes of your peers. “Oh so you stick that line of code there to make that hover state happen, cool.”, “Wait what was that tool you just used in Illustrator?” This is how best practices are born and shared.

You also get the chance to quickly try on new personalities or skills. One of our back-end devs became our pitch man, and watching his story evolve was pretty magical. It’s these moments of quick decision and iteration that draws out surprising things in people, no matter what you began the hackathon as. There really are no rules or right ways to do something. It’s just quickly finding that idea or thing that sticks in your gut and building something beautiful from there.

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Team Cusp forever!