UpendED interview series: Caroline Ballhorn of Tin Can Studio
“People responding to Tin Can Studio has never been an issue. People love trailers. People are so drawn to them. Even if they don’t understand what you’re doing in it, they’re happy to be there. That’s been a real amazing part of the project.”
In a fortuitous state of affairs, I discovered the existence of Tin Can Studio by way of a random post in my Twitter feed. Following the link to an article from The Scout, I first saw the shiny silver 1971 Streamline Prince trailer that was in the process of hosting the second go-round of an underground food series called Eat Together.
Hot on the trailer…er…trail, I contacted co-founder Caroline Ballhorn, an artist and Vancouver resident, to quizzically ask her about the beautiful vehicle, and how it operates. Tin Can Studio is an enigma. It is neither an eat-in food truck, nor a pirate radio station, nor an artist’s studio, nor a concert venue. It can be any one of those things at any given time, a malleable community center with a hitch.
Tin Can Studio can be followed right here on Tumblr. I highly suggest perusing their Flickr for beautiful shots of events that they’ve hosted thus far. If you’re in the Vancouver area and desire to host an event in a mobile space, you’re in luck. Tin Can Studio may be available to rent in the near future.
You started Tin Can Studio while a student in Fine Arts at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. How did the project come about?
Being in art school at the time, I noticed a disconnect between the art I was doing in school, which was largely conceptual, and my life outside of school which was meeting all these amazing, artsy people that were not formally trained.
Tin Can Studio came out of a desire to create a hub for people to connect and share their secret artistic lives. I got the idea for the project proceeding my final year in school.
I decided to do Tin Can Studio as my senior project, but I knew that I couldn’t do it all by myself. My studio mate suggested that I talk to a design student at the school for assistance. I reached out to my friend Brodie Kitchen, who I’d only met briefly beforehand. I was like, “Hey you! You’re in design, right?” I then told him my idea, that I wanted to make a mobile space that’s both a project space and also a community hub. I also wanted the project to be something that I could continue after I graduated from art school.
Brody received a Millennium Scholarship a year or two before which had grant money associated with the scholarship for a community-based art project. He was like, “I’ll do a quick write-up, we’ll secure the grant money, and then we’ll buy a trailer.” I was like, okay. Here we go.
It became our full-time thing. In October 2009, we found the perfect Airstream trailer on Craigslist. Brodie was in industrial design and had trained as an electrician, so he was really qualified to do the stuff that I couldn’t do.
We were dealing with the physicality of renovating a trailer in the school’s parking lot while being full-time students and having jobs. During that time, we got to experience the program from different angles. We held music events in the beat-up shell of the trailer that we were renovating. We wanted it to be an active space while we were building it, and it became that for students and teachers. We had some teachers come out and sit there and tell us about what Emily Carr was like 15 years ago, that they had a mobile print mobile and how sad it was that things like that weren’t happening anymore.
We graduated in spring 2010, having completed the build out on a shoestring budget using sourced materials and volunteers. For our grad show in May, we hosted 10 days of programming, sometimes two shows a day, including the shadow puppetry act “Mind of a Snail.”
How do you monetize the project now?
It hasn’t been profitable, but we’re at a breakeven moment. Right now we’re sitting on a little bit of money that we’ve saved from different events, including fundraisers. We’re talking a small amount. I have maybe $500 that we’re sort of like, “We could spend this on upgrading the electrical system, we could spend this on promotions, or we could take ourselves out for dinner!” Drawing on the resources of friends, we haven’t had to go too much into the hole, but I feel like I’ve been on this precipice for the past year or so where I feel like either I need to invest a semi-significant amount of money in Tin Can Studio to get to a point where it would be easy to run.
What logistical challenges have you faced?
Right now, it’s difficult to move it around because we don’t have a dedicated vehicle, which means you can’t park it on the street unless you pay for a parking spot or figure something else out. Luckily it’s not been too bad. It was parked in front of my house, for example, and my neighborhood happens to be a creative hub. It’s been able to operate there and have a decoy vehicle not even attached to it be parked in the front of it to avoid ticketing. The tickets that we have received we’ve managed to pay through crowdsourcing.
How has Tin Can Studio evolved since its inception?
Brodie’s stepped away from the project. He’s more involved now with other projects that he’s doing. It’s now run by me and Jenny Lee Craig. She’s more of an administrator and an event planner.
I learned a lot of lessons last year running Tin Can Studio. Last year, we did a pirate radio station thing. We’ve been doing a lot of other elaborate, short projects with different artists that take a lot of planning, which are mostly just labors of love. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s not really sustainable. It doesn’t make sense for me to be involved in 10 elaborate projects that aren’t even my personal vision. To me, it’s about figuring out what the balance of being involved in those projects is and then stepping away. I’d also like to allow the trailer to be rented out as long as I’m comfortable with what the content of the project is.
Our first project this summer was a repeat of the Eat Together events that we did last summer. Last summer, I was way more involved — I was a food runner, I was helping with prep. I was helping out how in the way that you would help out a friend. This time, I was hands off with it and it was really successful. They artist/chefs from Eat Together were also able to pay us a portion of the profits from the dinners.
Do you have the change the build out for every event, or is it just a matter of redecorating?
It’s redecorating and sometimes adding or changing furniture. We had to build some tables for the Eat Together dinner party. The challenging part is securing a vehicle, trying to borrow one or figure something out without having to pay money, because renting one gets really expensive very quickly. You can do things for awhile without permits and without a business number. This is something we were unsure about the whole way, if this is actually a business. I think, coming out of art school context, we both wanted this to be an artist run center. But even an artist’s center has a business model.
Do you see this as a for-profit business, or do you just want to break even? Do you envision this project becoming more expansive?
I would like it to, and I think I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m not afraid of that idea. I’ve never been afraid of having a business, but for some reason, this project has felt wrong for it to be driven by profit. Do I want it to make money? Of course. The question for me is if I want this to be my full-time gig. I’m not really sure because I do a lot of other things. Up until recently, I had a pretty heavy full-time job which I think also contributed to my burnout on the project. I’d be doing art with people with mental health problems and addictions, and then I’d come home and run this other project.
How do you figure out a budget with outside people who want to run projects in Tin Can Studio so that you’re adequately compensated?
We haven’t been. It’s been mostly people that we know who come to us and we work together. In a really DIY way, we figure out how the event is going to happen, and how to do it in a way in which we’re not going to lose money.
What is the mobile scene like in Vancouver?
With the proximity to Portland and the influence of Portland, I think there’s more of an interest. Vancouver is a really weird place when you start getting into by-laws and into stuff that deals with legislation. It’s one of the most legislated places I’ve ever encountered. You need a permit to go to a park and set up a tent for your family to have a picnic.
Just recently they’ve allowed food trucks to exist. It’s basically a lottery system. It’s like, “We’re going to license 10 food trucks!” and then a bunch of people apply. I think it’s just burgeoning in the stronghold of the city on what’s permissible. I think the pressure is put on by the incredible cost of real estate. In terms of a “scene,” there’s a handful of food trucks. People like them, but they struggle, I know. I think because Vancouver is so rainy, when it rains people go home. There isn’t too much of a street culture.
How does the seasonality of your location are affect your business?
When it’s raining, it’s hard to even engage with people because everybody’s feeling it. The winters are very cold. In the winter, using Tin Can Studio as an open space works sort of, but you really need to have someone in there directing the activity, otherwise people aren’t just going to go in. I did some experiments with just having a sign out that said “Come in, use the space” and observing from a distance to see if people would go in. People are too polite here and don’t want to barge in and step on toes. I’m thinking that, in the wintertime, we should offer it as an artists’ residency in conjunction with another space that has bathroom facilities and things of that nature.