We talked to the former sword swallower who's using five 3D printers to fabricate the long-gone Lunar Park of Coney Island.
Coney Island, strange place. The neighborhood proper is nice enough, largely inhabited by Russian and Ukranian families. But when we're talking about Coney Island, we are mostly referring the boardwalk area along Surf Avenue which hosts Nathan's, The Cyclone, and a bumper cars joint with similar interior design to a strip club. Common sights include a homeless man catching rays on the sidewalk and food wrappers tumbling down the beach. Next to a spiffy steel roller coaster, you'll find a vacant lot. Yet, ever-present is Coney Island's classic “come one, come all” promise to indulge a fantasy you never knew you had, for a small fee. Not too long ago, a stand called “Shoot the Freak” offered exactly the experience you would expect.
Where else, for instance, would you expect to see a street-side stand hawking 3D portraiture? Housed in the Coney Island USA building The Great Fredini's Scan-A-Rama is a little spot right across from the subway station where you and your loved ones can get turned into figurines with the aid of Fred Kahl's homemade 3D scanning rig. Fred Kahl is the information age's answer to the caricature artists who so typically line the streets of beach-side tourist towns. Equal parts inventor, magician, and artist, he is bringing the future to an area whose colorful past is obscured by the area's present atmospheric grime.
Fred Kahl is a Coney Island mainstay. In addition to founding Burlesque at the Beach, he was a sword swallower at Dick Zigun's Circus Sideshow, where he met the very fire eater who would bear his first child. The sword swallower and the fire eater got married on the Tonight Show. His infatuation with mingling magic and art extends to his stint as an NYU undergrad in the mid-'80s and by way of an extended stint designing software and games at design firm Funny Garbage, his dual passions translated into his current fascination: 3D printing. Inherent in 3D printing, he sees “one of the principles of magic: transmutation, seeing something from nothing. The rabbit out of the hat.” But instead of divining rabbits, Kahl is turning computer “bits into atoms,” to resurrect an extinct version of Coney Island.
This extinct version would be Luna Park, the original incarnation of Coney Island in the early 20th century, as designed by Frederic Thompson and Skip Dundy. Note that there is currently a Luna Park in Coney Island directly on the beach, but this stands on the grounds of Astroland, which closed in 2008. A different Luna Park, that one. Built out of plaster, the original boasted ornate towers and attractions such as A Trip to the Moon, a ride which is rumored to be Georges Méliès's inspiration for his famous film of the same title. On his Flickr, Kahl has been collecting all images of the old Luna Park possible—“photographs, postcards, Walker Evans stuff”—to guide his digital modeling of old structures.
With the financial aid of his successful Kickstarter campaign last year, Kahl has been using five 3D printers to fabricate the long-gone Luna Park since November. One of those towers demands about 100 blocks from a 3D printer, and he can only print out two blocks a day per printer printer. Sometimes, the printer glitches out, contributing to the plethora of what Kahl deems “spectacular fails.” Basically, model construction is slow, and he will continue to print his Luna Park throughout the year while it's on display in the second flood of the Coney Island museum. If all goes well, the model will sprawl from the roughly eight-by-eight pedestal on which it now sits across the entire second floor of the Coney Island Museum.
Standing together in the room housing his exhibit, Fred Kahl pointed through the window to the apartment buildings in brown and tan brick. This is the Luna Park housing development, built on the historic site of the amusement park. Such is the story of Coney Island, a place where the realities of Coney Island as a location in a dynamic metropolis are at constant odds with its status as place for a day-long escape from those realities. In turn, not a lot of money was pumped into maintaining the boardwalk for quite a few years, despite the high possibility for a vibrant entertainment and tourist economy.
There have been solutions proposed. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg was interested in turning the area into a commercialized tourist attraction in the vein of current-day Times Square. The general consensus is that this would essentially annihilate the freak culture latent in Coney Island's appeal, the very freak culture that allowed someone like The Great Fredini to cut his teeth in public entertainment by swallowing swords.
The Organization Coney Island USA has vested interest in seeing brethren like Fredini find ways to make the areas culture sustainable. Kahl is a resident of the museum's Artist Incubator Program, which brings in people with eccentric visions of how to generate money for the area. One fellow, Espo, created an animatronic diorama of a waterboarding scene that would come to life for one measly dollar. The organization also brought in Schmaltz Brewery, which opened the Coney Island Brewing Company, self-annointed “the world's smallest brewery.” It brewed one gallon of beer at a time. Sensational, bizarre, and hilarious, these channel the latent potential for joy on a beach whose grime is particularly hard to scrub off in the shower.
Fred Kahl's Scan-O-Rama, for all intents and purposes, seems like it has the potential to help the situation, not just for Coney Island, but for the 3D printing community in general. The rig that he uses to scan customers for figurines is one of his own invention, and ultimately open-source. It's pretty ingenious: subjects stand on a circular platform which rotates three times as Fred uses a Primesense camera on a hand-crank pulley rig to capture a full-body image from toes to head. The image is immediately logged in ReconstructMe software.
The whole process takes just over 5 minutes, so customers can be in and out in quick progression. To give an impression of the potential here, Kahl estimates that over 100 people lined up to get scanned when he brought the Scan-O-Rama to the New York Makers Faire. His son Kostya sells the wares to passersby and handles money. $60 for an individual, $100 for as many people as can fit on the platform. When I met Kostya, he had just finished his year at Hampshire College and was glowing at the possibility of spending all summer on Surf Avenue.
He uses the Scan-O-Rama to populate the Luna Park installation with a multitude of figures from his own life. “Everyone [modeled], I can tell you who they are and what their story is.” You'll find a miniature Dick Zigun, the CNN Money film crew that came to document the project, and Kahl's tenants from his building. He tried to scan a dominatrix but the camera's inability to pick up shiny material rendered her latex-clad legs invisible. Several pregnant women have been modeled. Soon you'll see a tiny version of Dan the Coney Island Can Man, along with his cart full of cans.
In a big way, Kahl's project is reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman's in Synecdoche, New York. But while Hoffman was writing theater that he could live in, Kahl is immortalizing the Coney Island history he loves most, juxtaposing the colorful folk he loves with the most fantastical version of Coney Island's past. And indeed, “immortal” is the operative word. He opted for ABS plastic—the same used in Legos—because it lasts a significantly longer time than the cornstarch commonly used by 3D printers. If a plan like Bloomberg's Times Square-ification of the area goes though, Fred Kahl's work will remind us that Coney Island was just so much more than a dirty beach strewn with the tanned homeless. For some period of time, it was a place full of magic and weirdos.