The Bridges Math Art Conference 2013

[Ed: we are writing this post about a month after getting back home to the US! Our final week of summer travels was spent at a conference from July 26-31, 2013.]

Getting There

IMG_3730We woke up with plenty of time to spare, wanting to make sure that we didn’t even come close to missing another train after our previous stressful experience going from Paris to Antwerp. We bid adieu to Jona and walked over to the train station, bought tickets to Amsterdam Schipol, located our platform, and with some time to spare now, got some coffee and bought some souvenirs.

We took the train to Amsterdam, and there we bought tickets for the next part of our journey, to Enschede, a small University town in the eastern part of Holland near the German border. We ran into Bob Bosch and Henry Segerman, two of our good friends from the conference, who had just flown in to Amsterdam. We all got on the train for the two hour ride to Enschede. Near our final destination we had to transfer from the train to a bus due to station construction. We headed over to the location of the conference’s art exhibition to do some setup.

What is Bridges?

IMG_1944Bridges is an international conference that celebrates the connections between mathematics, art, architecture, music, education, and culture. We found out about the conference in 2008 when Nathan was looking for various juried exhibitions for his work. It was in the Netherlands that year as well, and we had such a fantastic time that we’ve been back every summer since then. The conference has been in Banff (Canada), Pecs (Hungary), Coimbra (Portugal), Towson (near Baltimore, Maryland), and two cities in the Netherlands (Leeuwarden and Enschede) in the years that we have attended.

IMG_1960Like many conferences, Bridges has a proceedings where refereed academic papers are published, but it also has a wide variety of experiences and activities beyond that: fascinating lectures, inspirational workshops, an art exhibition, a short movie festival, an informal and formal music night, an excursion day, and more.

We have found that the 300 or so people that attend the conference are not only some of the smartest people we have ever met, they are also some of the most down to earth, fun, interesting and approachable people. Bridges is a place where you might meet a Nobel laureate or winner of the MacArthur Genius award, in a context where you can hang out, chat, have a beer, and explore a city together. We have made a lot of good friends over the years at Bridges and we really look forward to seeing them every summer. There’s always a ton of stuff packed into the week; we’ll include some snippets and anecdotes from our time there this year.

A Bridges tradition: the creation and display of a giant collaborative structure made out of ZometoolIMG_3738

A Long Walk

IMG_3727This year, the events of the conference were in the historic core of the city, but some of the housing was on a university campus about 4 miles away, including the hotel where we stayed. The city is large enough to have busses, but small enough that the busses don’t run after midnight and have less frequent runs on the weekends. After setting up Nathan’s artwork, we took the bus to our hotel, checked in, and pretty quickly headed back to the city to hang out with friends and get some dinner. Dinner was followed by drinks and we found ourselves out past midnight, faced with a decision: get a cab or walk back to the hotel.

Now you may be thinking, why would you even consider walking 4 miles at midnight? A fair question. We had been told that it was a 20 or 30 minute walk, and we were used to walking around Paris all day, so it seemed silly to waste money on a cab. Oh, hindsight. Although we were walking at a good clip, it took us almost an hour to get back. Note to self: don’t listen to other people’s estimates of walking time (we were reminded of the Versailles man who said it would be a quick walk to Marie Antoinette’s chateau… it wasn’t). Needless to say, for the rest of the week we stuck with cabs or the bus.

Neils and Friends

One of our traditions at Bridges is to befriend young people and musicians and find a place to hang out in the evenings and jam. This year we had some trouble with that, until we happened upon a bar called Cafe Het Bolwerk. We were hanging out and enjoying ourselves when all of a sudden, this young, very stylish Dutch man walked up to maybe the shyest person in our party and asked her to come in and play piano. One of the guys in our group had put our new Dutch friend up to this, and we all ended up going inside, moving things around, sitting down at the piano, and busting out our guitar and ukulele. Feeling a little bad that we took over the bar but really happy to have a new friend in Neils, after much thought and wandering we had finally found a place to call home for the next few evenings. Shout out to our crew of musicians, music appreciators, and beer appreciators: Vi, Mike, Patrick, Tiffany, Andrea, Nick, Conan, Curtis, Amina, Katie, Dallas, Dugan, Luke, and Henry… and whomever else we’re missing.





Towards the end of the conference we found out that attendees had been invited to check out Saxion University’s “Fablab Enschede” ( and use it for free during the conference. A group of us made our way up to the lab and marveled at the 3d printers, laser cutter, and various other equipment and products filling the room. There were some staff members on hand that gave us an overview of the laser cutter. Nathan had been playing with a little application on his computer that would take a video stream and turn it into a black and white pattern approximating the image using something called a Truchet tile (more specifically, he had implemented Bob Bosch’s flexible Truchet tiles in Processing). Amy took a nap, and Nathan made some edits to the program so that it could output an image that would be conducive to laser cutting. We took a group photo and added some text to the image, and cut a few copies out of colored paper. The laser cutter is such a cool device. Lots of Bridges attendees use it for their mathematical art and constructions, and it was a blast to learn how to use it ourselves. The staff member even stayed a bit late to allow us to get enough copies of our photo for everyone in the group, plus one as a gift for Bob.

Laser cut paper in progress
A ghost image of the laser cut color paper, that looks cool in and of itself!
A ghost image of the laser cut color paper, that looks cool in and of itself!

Bank Party

Luke and Dugan were couchsurfing during the conference, staying with some folks who lived in an old bank in a situation similar to Jona’s, where the owners of the building allowed people to live there cheaply to avoid paying fees. One night Luke had invited us back to his place to hang out on their roof, but all the stores were closed so we wouldn’t have anything to eat or drink, so we just ended up going back to the Het Bolwerk. We got a huge group together and took over the bar again and decided that the next day we’d be prepared to go to Luke’s by purchasing snacks and beverages earlier on in the day.

We met up with Luke the following day. He said that the people in the building were already having a crazy party, that all of us were invited, and that there was going to be lots of beer, a DJ, and lots of fun young people. There was some mention of bank vaults and other intrigue, but immediately the idea of having a party in an abandoned bank sounded pretty incredible.

The annual Bridges play was that evening, and the plan was to meet up with Neils and whomever he brought with him outside of the Grote Kerk, and then Luke would walk with us the 5 minutes that it would take to get out to the abandoned bank. That’s when the floodgates opened up and it began to pour an incredible drenching rain. Our dreams of a rooftop party seemed to be dashed. However, Luke assured us that all would be ok since the party wouldn’t actually happen on the roof but inside the bank. Eventually the rains let up and a giant troop of at least 20 conference participants made their way toward the bank. There was a guy waiting at the door and it looked every part an abandoned building: the bank parephernalia was still there, the revolving door… classic Europe – DJ music blaring in the background, dimly lit rooms, a train of bicycles cordoned off in an area where you should not venture – it was a strange environment.

It was very loud, foggy from smoke machines and cigarettes; we knew no one there, and most of us didn’t try to get to know anyone there. We had a bit of wine and beer with us already, which was good, because it seemed like the party would run out of supplies soon. A few of our group ventured down into the bank vault. Very little of the building had electricity because the bank was tryin to conserve resource,s so the people who went downstairs did so at their own peril, and it quite possibly could have turned into some type of horror movie. From the crew that ventured downstairs and reported back, it was pitch black and dangerous. Somebody said, “the perfect place to commit a murder.” We hung out in the lobby of the bank, away from the DJ, and reflected upon the end of the conference and the adventures of our excursion day.

Excursion Day

IMG_1979Bridges always has an optional excursion day – one or more guided tours through the areas surrounding the conference site. This year we went on an excursion to a rural area outside of Enschede that has been doing some interesting collaborations between artists, businesses, and residents. We listened to a few lectures, viewed some interesting outdoor sculpture, and met a nice cat. Then we went to an exhibition that was supposed to have artwork from Escher… it did, but they were blown up reproductions that pale in comparison to the real thing (which we have seen before). Luckily, the gallery was mostly dedicated to the sculptures of Koos Verhoeff, which are quite impressive.

IMG_3763After the official end of the excursion, Amy headed back to town to find our iPad, which we had lost… we stressed a whole bunch of people out, including ourselves; called the conference organizers, and they called people for help, got the church unlocked to allow Amy to look for it… all to no avail. Immediately our brains went back to the night before to the bank, and though we thought we had secured our belongings, we couldn’t be entirely sure. When we got back to the hotel that night, we were packing our things, and lo and behold: the iPad was on the floor, matching the color of the carpet! Boy, we felt foolish! But that paled in comparison to actually losing our iPad, and we were thankful. So many people helped us and felt so bad for us. We kind of felt like jerks but were OK in the end because we hadn’t lost it. Amy felt the brunt of this because she was the one who spent 3 hours that afternoon attempting to find our not-lost iPad.

IMG_3766Meanwhile, Nathan went with a group of people to the studio of Rinus Roelofs, a Dutch artist and one of the local organizers of this year’s conference. Rinus is a prolific artist/mathematician/architect/researcher/inventor, and it was a massive privilege to get to see his studio in person. Every shelf was filled with interesting things, and many tables had laser cut paper or wood components that assembled into more interesting things. The group spent quite awhile there, picking Rinus’ brain and discussing the finer points of some mathematical conjectures he had brought to the conference this year. He is truly a renaissance man and we highly recommend looking at some more of his work online.


The End!

We are already looking forward to next summer, when Bridges will be in Asia for the first time. Specifically, it will be in Seoul, South Korea, which is conveniently close to where Nathan’s sister and her family live. Bridges is always a great experience and we can’t wait to get back together with the eclectic family that comes to inspire and be inspired each summer! So, now all we have to do is save some money…



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