Life Hacks with Mar Williams

Mar Williams can teach you a thing or two about hacking. Whether it's picking a lock, modifying a body or tinkering with gender, the Denver hacker and artist is constantly pushing boundaries.
Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves, but Marlana Williams -- Mar, for short -- prefers to wear her hacks on her sleeves. Her tattoo sleeves, that is. The most surprising thing about Williams, though, isn't her occasional sideburns, face piercings or lime-colored coif. It is the simple fact that what drives her in business and in life is the same, exact thing driving consumers everywhere.

"I'm a high school dropout; I'm not a traditional learner," says Williams from behind a round table in the back room of The Concoctory, the hackerspace she created at 1875 S. Broadway. "Eh, that actually might be bullshit, I'm not sure," she continues. The lights are dim, the place smells musty, and Williams' three cats -- Parsley, Lebowski, and Steve, named for that other Apple guy -- lurk menacingly. 

After dabbling in a disjointed series of endeavors, Williams, now a daytime graphic designer, has gotten deep into the maker-hacker culture, and teaches others how to do it themselves, too. 

Do It Yourself, or DIY. It's more than fixing a leaky pipe. "It's taking back the things we own, either by taking them apart and making them better, or finding a new use the manufacturer never thought of," explains Williams.

Williams inspires the DIY ethic in our local community by offering workshops -- lockpicking is most popular -- for anybody who wants to learn a new trick.

A new leaf Williams inspires the DIY ethic in our local community by offering workshops.

The Concotory originally launched as a retail shop bursting with DIY kits and goodies before evolving into a member-run nonprofit for hackers, makers, and crafters. Come October, Williams' project morphs again, this time into Cabal Enterprises, a 10-person arts cooperative and incubator created with Jim Norris of Mutiny Information Cafe and 3 Kings Tavern, but promising the same shadowy corners, back rooms and insidiousness that inspired The Concoctory.

As part of the transition, Williams is having a closing sale Sept. 12-14 before Cabal takes over the space. The Concoctory will live on as the brand for Williams' classes and workshops, regardless of location.

No matter the umbrella, Williams is influential in Denver's DIY culture -- you can tell by the way others regard her. At their essence, a hacker is a person who enjoys exploring the limits of what is possible, and that's what the 32-year-old Williams does most everyday, and what she's been doing her whole life. 

"Ever use a shower built from a bucket, a hula hoop, a piece of hose and an aquarium pump?" Williams asks. The daughter of a resident-born Choctaw and eccentric artist-type mother, Williams went from being well-to-do in the Cajun Texas swamplands, to poor in Colorado, and recalls living in extended-stay hotels, "strange places in the mountains that barely had running water," and, also, couch-surfing. "Poverty is an experience I'm grateful for," she says. "There's some MacGyver pride in that." 

Aside from hacking away at social stratum, the entrepreneur is also an art hacker, and was recently featured on the Denver Art Museum's MakeArtTalk series. Williams' art is varied: graphics, cartoons, realistic portraits. Oh, and she can draw anything on an etch-a-sketch, she brags.

Williams also brags about being a "total weirdo" with her body hacking. "I used to have a magnet in my finger that allowed me to feel electromagnetic fields," she says. Williams also has UV tattoos visible only under black light.

Changing the paradigmMar Williams, center, as a 3D printout.

Whatever you do, please don't confuse Williams with a maker. "A hacker is a person who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively circumventing limitations," Williams says, reading from a business card she designed. 

Maker is "a little more vanilla," she expounds. Hacker can sound aggressive, true, "but we'd rather change the paradigm," continues Williams. Hackers haven't always welcomed women, and Williams wants to make the word more inclusive. That's when she offhandedly mentions, "The genderqueer thing is probably important." 

Williams thinks gender is simply another hack, a construct that can be broken down, tinkered with, reevaluated. She has been on and off of testosterone, and is playful with her gender presentation, often blurring the line. Williams doesn't like to pee standing up, she doesn't want to learn to change a tire. In fact, sometimes she likes painting her nails and doing girlish things. "I've found a different story within the transgender spectrum," says Williams, unwilling to be confined. 

Tonight, Williams' presentation could be described as androgynous: a loose, brown T-shirt and boyish disposition set against the soft and inviting facial features of a woman. 

That's the thing about hacking: There are no limits. "There's nobody at the top telling you what you can or cannot do; the only thing stopping you is you," says cohort Jennifer Lucky, a.k.a. Lucky. Williams nods in agreement. There's an appreciation for art and craftsmanship within the DIY culture, true, but the movement itself is also about anti-consumerism. 

"By taking things apart, the things you buy become yours," explains Williams. She doesn't want her stuff to own her, which happens often with the services-based technology model. 

Williams wants that thing we all want: complete independence and total autonomy. Most of us search for this in paychecks and possessions and houses and bigger houses -- the so-called American Dream. "That's the lie you are told so you keep doing the same things other people do," says Williams. 

Williams will gladly help you deconstruct the lie at her Saturday classes and workshops continuing at Cabal Enterprises -- and a few exciting (but top secret) offerings coming soon.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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