The Oracle is a unique Hollander beater. Its collapsible basin and light-weight parts make it extremely portable. It can be found in paper studios from Dubai to Tibet to Washington State, and everywhere in between. One very special aspect of this machine is that is was designed to operate in the public sphere as an instrument for hand papermaking as social action.
In 2008, Drew Matott reached out to engineer and papermaker Lee McDonald to develop a portable Hollander beater that Matott could bring to India to work with women and children who had been rescued from prostitution. Lee McDonald's vision for a human-powered Hollander beater came to life, giving us today the opportunity to use The Oracle in the public sphere and in areas without electricity. One distinct and cherished characteristic of this machine is that it can be run using pedal power.
In order to operate The Oracle with a bicycle, we connect the pulley that would typically be attached to the motor to the back wheel of a bicycle. First, we remove the tire and tube from the wheel. Next, we put a long belt on the metal bike wheel and connect it to the beater's pulley. We fix the bike on a stand, and make sure the belt is taut. Now, when the rider pedals the bike, the back wheel spins and engages the beater pulley, which turns the bladed roll at the core of the beater.
As the roll is lowered into contact with the bed plate underneath, the rider experiences friction and has to work to keep the pulp in the beater circulating. As the roll is raised, pedaling becomes easier for the rider. Depending on the fiber that is being processed, as well as the enthusiasm of the cyclist, it can take a few minutes or an hour to break down the material. For example, Eurasion Milfoil can take five minutes to process, a pair of underwear can take fifteen minutes, and a pair of jeans can take upwards of an hour.
All of the work that is done to pedal power the beater gives people a realistic sense of the mechanical nature of this hand papermaking process. We often stress that hand papermaking does not involve chemicals, and once people ride the bicycle, they begin to understand that this is from beginning to end a mechanical process.
Having the power to produce one's own pulp for papermaking can be rewarding and empowering for participants.
In the public sphere, pedal power can be an effective tool for drawing attention to the deeper message of an event.
Individuals are intrigued by seeing a mysterious machine being powered by a bicycle, so they interact with the rider or others around to learn about the process taking place. Once they learn what the machine does, pedestrians learn about the fibers that are in The Oracle, and the significance for using these specific fibers as they relate to the project at hand.
We really embraced pedal power and started incorporating more of it into our work following a public workshop in Markina, Bizkaia, Spain in March of 2014. We collaborated with the local library to bring hand papermaking to the village of Markina in celebration of Basque culture. We pulped clothing from the townspeople and sorted them by color to form sheets of paper that were emblematic of the Basque flag.
Participants pulp printed images of traditional Basque symbolism, sport, and dance. The highlight of the event was the pedal powered beater, which we set up per the request of our collaborators. The bike-operated pulper was a great addition to the event, because it enabled us to communicate the steps of the process and the role of the Hollander beater visually to hundreds of people. While participants waited for a mould and deckle to become available to make pieces of paper, they churned out batches of pulp via bicycle and stayed warm in the process
After witnessing the potential for pedal power to engage the public, we sought to use it in nearly all of our subsequent 2014 workshops. We found that even taken out of the public setting, the bike-operated beater can be an excellent ice breaker for workshop participants.
In working with children, adolescents, and at-risk youth, pedal power was a great vehicle to direct nervous energy towards creativity, as everyone is encouraged to take a turn riding the bike. While one may not get the same breeze as on a moving bike, applause from one's peers can be just as refreshing and rewarding. Pedal power seems to get every participant on the same page so that they can glide into the next steps of papermaking.
We have found that pedal power speaks to people of all ages. While hand papermaking may be a foreign concept, everyone knows what a bicycle is. At the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival, festival-goers engaged in transforming old Lowell volunteer t-shirts into bright batches of pulp from the seat of a Cannondale. All who rode the bike, or made a sheet of paper, received a Pedal Power! broadside. We continue to share prints in this way in all of our public engagements.
When training institutions like Florida State University in the operation of their new papermaking studio equipment, we now incorporate pedal power into the training. It is exciting and fitting that people who own an Oracle beater know how to power it with human energy, since that is one of the machine's intended purposes.
Whether we are pulping invasive plants, spent grain, school uniforms, or underwear, using a human power source brings elements of accessibility, curiosity, and overall engagement with the content of our work to our participants.
In the fall of 2014, we put over 15,000 miles on our little sedan driving all over the United States.
Every item in our car was there to serve a function, as weight was a constant calculation for the vehicle. Our bicycle stayed with us through the entire adventure, through snow storm, wind storm, and fender bender, because it is our goal to empower communities through hand papermaking, and that is what pedal power delivers.
Video of the portable paper studio in action during our Artist Residency at A Reason To Survive, National City, CA in 2015.