some of the origami models taught during OrigamiUSA's Foldfest 2021

“To get things done, you have to get people together”

-Christine Quinn

An analogue activity in a digital world

Pretty much everyone and every organisation in many countries around the world have been struggling with the same challenge over the last year or so: how to keep life operating as normally as possible in the face of serious disruption to people’s lives due to a global health crisis. Obviously the problem has been more acute for those involved in the healthcare sector, and some industries have fared better than others, but it has affected everyone to some degree, including origami societies.

Conventions and mini-meetings are a regular part of the calendar and something that society members look forward to as an opportunity to get together, learn to fold some new stuff, maybe teach a model, or just catch up with friends they haven’t seen for a while. Conventions are often planned months or even years in advance and – like so many other social events around the world in the last 12 – 18 months – one after another, they’ve been cancelled, or moved online.

Origami is not the kind of thing you can just do digitally – how do you fold a virtual piece of paper? Thanks to facilities like Zoom though, it’s possible to hold origami classes online. It’s easy to forget that just five years ago, this wouldn’t have been the case– or at least, it wouldn’t have been as easy as it is now. Origami Societies around the world have all been going through the same experience as many other organisations – finding out what works and what doesn’t, figuring out the logistical and technical challenges, and learning from each other to put on the best virtual event they can.

Back in September, I wrote about the BOS VCon, the British Origami Society’s first Virtual Convention, which was a success. Unlike most origami societies, the BOS has conventions twice a year, so their second VCon was on 10 April 2021. On the same day, OrigamiUSA held their first FoldFest.

(If you are interested in more virtual conventions, also check out my review of the 2020 Origami World Marathon.)

About FoldFest 2021

FoldFest is not the same thing as the main OrigamiUSA Convention, which is normally held over three days in June. They have a full virtual convention scheduled for 25-29 June.  FoldFest 2021 was an additional 24 hour event with virtual classes running continuously throughout that time.

The classes were divided up into two tracks. Track 1 was a series of tutorials, showing how to make a range of models. Track 2 began with a series of lectures for the first 12 hours, and then included a range of model tutorials covering the remaining 12 hours. Each class lasted an hour, and the time was divided up into sessions, each lasting four hours. Classes had been selected to appeal to a wide range of origami abilities – from people who have never folded before, to lovers of supercomplex models that take hours to make.

As well as the classes, there was a range of FoldFest-themed merchandise on sale. The Source – OrigamiUSA’s shop, and the Goldmine – the bargain treasure trove were operating, and the event was sponsored by Aidoh and Tuttle Publishing. There was also a new feature – the OrigamiUSA Gather.Town. More on that in a minute. This really was a convention in all but name.

If you weren’t able to attend Foldfest 2021, you can order the video recordings of the sessions here.

My experience at FoldFest

FoldFest kicked off at 10am EDT, 3pm in the UK. Because I was attending the British Origami Society VCon on the same day as FoldFest, I was a little late to the party and missed the first four hours of the convention and the first three hours of classes. This included a Self-steering Car designed and taught by Paul Jackson that would be perfect for beginner folders. All the sessions were being recorded and I knew I could go back and watch them later.

The first class I attended was led by Sipho Mabona, teaching his Geisha model. This was a two hour class. Normally I like to start a convention with something simple – a bit of limbering up for the fingers before moving onto the harder stuff, but I’d just spent a whole day at the BOS Convention so I was ready. The Geisha is a beautiful and graceful model, and one that had been on my ‘I’ll get around to folding this at some point’ list, so I was pleased to see it on the schedule. I will definitely need to fold it again, but my model wasn’t bad for a first attempt.

origami geisha by Sipho Mabona

After the Geisha I had time for a late dinner, and a bit of a break before Robert Lang’s lecture on Mathematical Methods for Origami Design at midnight UK time – 7pm EDT. I was excited for this one as I’m a big fan of his designs like the KNL Dragon.  I’ll definitely need to watch this one back as I was pretty tired by that point and not taking a lot in. David Illescas was teaching a shark design overnight that looked interesting, but that would be another for the video replays.

There were three interesting models being taught on Sunday morning (UK time). Satoshi Kamiya was teaching a dog in track 1, and Jun Maekawa was showing how to make a scarab beetle in track 2, followed by Tae-Yong Yoo running a tutorial on his dragon. The track 2 models were two hours each, and the Satoshi Kamiya design took four hours! While attending a live class taught be Satoshi Kamiya would be a privilege, I opted for the extra time in bed and got up for the dragon in track 2. I could get the others from the video.

origami dragon by Tae-Yong Yoo

The dragon is a fun model. The designer described it as ‘majestic’. I think it looks like something out of a disney animated movie – a tall, fat dragon with tiny wings. I rather like it. Next up was a bird taught by Hoang Tien Quyet. This is a wet folded model. Although the steps aren’t difficult, the model relies on judgement and skill to get the right proportions and the soft curved lines the bird needs. Oh – and the right paper! My first attempt was a complete disaster as the paper wasn’t strong enough.

origami bird by Hoang Tien Quyet from the 2021 origamiusa foldfest

The final class of the convention was a series of simpler models, taught by Mark Bolitho. These would be good for people just starting out in origami. This session was a nice wind down and the relaxed pace of the class gave me a chance to have another go at the bird.  The second one was better, but I still need to work on the proportions a bit!

range of simple models taught by Mark Bolitho at the 2021 origamiusa foldfest

Gather.Town – the Game Changer

One of the disadvantages of an online convention is that it is difficult to replicate the informal social gatherings that happen outside the formal classes. This is the time that people get together and say they haven’t seen each other for ages, meet new people over a coffee or a beer and learn to fold something new. In many ways, this is the best part of a convention. Some people go to conventions just for this and never attend any classes at all! It’s also the most important part of a convention if you’ve never been to one before. This is how you meet people and make friends in in the origami community. FoldFest was the first virtual origami convention I’ve been to that used Gather.Town to recreate that missing informal element.

Gather.Town is a bit like a cross between videoconferencing software like Zoom, and Google maps. The organisers design the space and you control a little character that you can move around that space with the cursor keys. As your character comes close to another one, or a group of them, that person’s video and audio fades up, and fades down again as you walk past. A bit like walking past people having a conversation in a corridor.

There are little tables and chairs where your little avatar can sit down and have a private chat with others, or whole rooms that link to zoom calls for holding classes, or where large groups can get together outside the organised tutorials & lectures. It looks a bit like a 1990s computer platform game. I half expected to see Sonic the Hedgehog come wandering around the corner.

The net effect of all of this is to recreate the informal side of a convention as effectively as possible. You can see who’s at the convention and whether they are online, walk over and chat, or sit down at a table and fold something together. You can see what other people are folding, and drop into the conversation and join in the folding if you want to.

I have to say it was absolutely brilliant. I was able to meet up with people I hadn’t seen for ages and didn’t know were going to be there, others that I had emailed previously to find out if they were going, and a few that I had seen at the BOS convention earlier in the day. I even got to put a few faces to names of people I follow on Instagram.

So how was it?

Great fun! There was a varied programme of classes and lectures, and the classes were pitched at a good range of abilities. They were very professionally organised and well run. The decision to break the time up into 4 hour sessions with two hour breaks between was a good one, as it meant the event felt well paced and there was time for meals built into the programme.

Gather.Town was the highlight for me. This was the facility that showed what is possible in an online convention, and that it really is possible to recreate the full convention experience in a virtual world. Just about the only bit of a ‘normal’ convention that wasn’t present at FoldFest was the convention model exhibition. I spoke with one of the organisers and they said they thought about it, the Gather.Town platform is capable of doing it and it’s something they might include next time. I hope they do. The exhibition is how you find out what other folders have been up to, and it would be good to see it included in future.

The only criticism I could make would be the timing. It is a shame that FoldFest and the BOS VCon were on the same day. I don’t know what decisions took place in either organisation or what discussions were had, but this was an own goal and should be avoided in future if possible. One of the benefits of an online convention is that classes can run round the clock, and the event can attract attendees from all over the world – all of whom can have the same quality of experience.

While both the British Origami Society and OrigamiUSA are national societies, focused on serving the origami communities in their respective communities, they both have an international membership. Just from the small number of conversations I’ve had, I know there were people that decided they couldn’t afford the cost of two conventions on the same day, and others that couldn’t spare the time for both. Scheduling clashes are less of a problem when the conventions are face to face and 3000 miles apart, but if virtual conventions are to be a part of the origami calendar going forwards, origami societies will need to liaise more closely to be aware of what’s in the diary before organising different events at the same time.

In conclusion

Scheduling issues aside, this was an excellent event. The classes were first rate, attendance was good, and Gather.Town provided a platform for the informal social side of the event, which is often difficult to achieve in an online convention. It was a well run and hugely enjoyable event. I’m looking forward to the next one!

If you missed the event, you can still order the video recordings of the sessions here.

Get Involved

I’d love to hear your views on virtual conventions.  Have you gone to any online events? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below, or you find can me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Check out my Pinterest boards too!

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