ISTS Asks: What’s it like to be a maker in Singapore?

7 min read
Bart’s first cardboard sculpture – at the maker space in Ground Up Initiative

Bartholomew Ting has been making larger than life structures out of cardboard since 2011.

His interest in design and crafting was sparked when he joined National University of Singapore’s Rag and Flag, an annual charity carnival event. Akin to the Chingay parade, NUS students would make large-scale floats out of recycled materials, accompanied by dazzling performances. In all his university years, Bart helped to make float after float, eventually contributing his own design in his final year.

Graduating with a degree in business, his first job was in a packaging company – a cardboard manufacturer.

“It opened my eyes to the endless potential of cardboard, and I learnt how to maximise its strength. I started to do research and found out that there were many artists who use cardboard to create, but it was only until 10 years later when I started using cardboard in art. And since 2011, I’ve never stopped building.”

As Artist-In-Residence in Raffles Institution, Bart has been teaching art and structures to students since 2015. Beyond that, he is also a freelancer. In his latest project, he built a sculpture of their kindness movement mascot in efforts to promote Tampines as an ecotown. It is now exhibited at Lobby J in Our Tampines Hub.

A sculpture of the mascot Beely, with the volunteers who helped make it

My first question for him was – why cardboard?

“Most people see cardboard as a weak material, but if you know how to plan your structural design, it’s quite sturdy. Cardboard is a very friendly and accessible material that can be found everywhere. It is malleable and extremely versatile as an art medium.

Before Bart started sculpting, he moved from packaging to the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry as a designer.

“One of my inspirations is the architect Frank Gehry. I tried to include some of his organic elements into my exhibition booth design, but I realised that most contractors found it too difficult and expensive to build. So, I had to find my own solutions for projects that is as organic. I see that as a challenge to myself.”

Challenges like these often turn into opportunities in his eyes. Since then, Bart designed blokies, building blocks made of cardboard that function like giant lego pieces.

“When it comes to open play, it is not easy for most participants to start cutting and start making something big on the spot. The idea is that blokies can help them make their own creation from their imagination without any other additional materials or tools.”

Blokies structure created by students

I also asked him about our local maker scene. The international maker movement began when Make magazine started the first Maker Faire in California in 2006. At Maker Faire, crafters, inventors, tinkerers and engineers of all ages showcase and share their creations, celebrating the Do-It-Yourself culture. The first Maker Faire was brought to Singapore by Science Centre in 2012.

Dinosaur sculpture displayed in front of Science Centre, featuring Bart (leftmost)

“From my experience as a Singaporean maker, many years ago, there was no garage culture, and no space to create. In 2012, we were all very excited for a chance to meet other makers. It introduced us to like-minded people, and that beyond a conventional job – as a doctor, banker or engineer – there are a lot more options in life if you want to be a maker; that you can make it work, you see.

“Over the years we’ve had some ups and downs. At peak Maker Faire interest, with funding from SPRING Singapore, OneMaker Group [OMG Maker] managed to house its Makerspace at National Design Centre, equipped with tools and machines like laser cutters.”

“Sadly, Make Magazine announced in 2019 that was it was restructuring, and so the Maker Faire in California last year might be the last one. Financially, OMG Maker also did have challenges, leading to the early founding members falling apart and running their own low-cost spaces.”

“Although things have slowed down, schools are now getting the budget to build their own Makerspaces, hiring maker coaches to run workshops, which is a good thing. Our local makers are also exploring the overseas market, setting up office in India and Indonesia. Some have business plans or venture into academy – running school workshops and tender projects that are more sustainable.”

He also spoke about the maker community, and those who create and maintain spaces for other makers.

“With maker meetups and the creation of Makerspaces for people like me, I feel very thankful for the opportunity to have a space to build something that is larger than life. Living in HDB is very limited and especially with the scale of the projects I want to do – It won’t even fit through my door.”

“Personally, the biggest thing that I benefit from the whole maker movement is that – it is because of other makers, it’s because of the community that makes my making process more enjoyable.”

At the end of interview, Bart warned that the maker journey is not a bed of roses. “A lot of my maker friends go back to full time jobs after a few years or start other business ventures. It’s quite sad as there are fewer and fewer maker friends. This all boils down to basic financial issues, you need to pay for bills, mortgage…”

“But our friendships remain. It’s really fun to share our projects and passions with a bunch of friends. We get influenced by each other and encourage each other to showcase their work. I would say without my maker friends I would not be where I am today.

When asked how one should start making, his advice was: “Join some local communities and build something you never thought you would or is possible! There are a lot of online resources that Makerspaces provide – it’s a good starting point. Look for these Makerspaces, show up and start making something. Just share it – and put your work out there.

Thank you for sharing your passion and taking the time to talk to us, Bart! To find out more about his work at butterNmilk, you can follow him on Instagram or check out his website.

If you are interested in doing similar paper crafts at home, watch out for our e-magazine in January, which will include a DIY activity specially designed by Bart! Subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss it 🙂

Written by Zi Shan
Photos by Bart

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