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Art Installation or Hackers’ Gimmick? mayo 27, 2009

Posted by christian saucedo in Essays.


Art Installation or Hackers’ Gimmick?

Tim Boer

…Die Hauptfortschritte der Zivilisation sind Vorgänge, welche die Kulturen, in denen sie stattfinden, fast zugrunde richten.“

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

When it is dark, 144 blinking windows illuminate a huge socialistic building of 54 meters height in the centre of East Berlin. It is located directly at the traffic junction of Alexanderplatz, its long side facing the public plaza with its shopping malls, train stations and stop-over points.

“Blinkenlights” is a light installation on architecture.

Das “Haus des Lehrers” – the “House of the Teacher” was planned by the East-Berliner architect Hermann Hensellmann and built in 1964. With its 12 floors and more than 160 windows, the facade of glass and aluminium offers a huge desktop to the public space. The “CCC” – the “Chaos Computer Club”, uses that space and has installed computer-controlled lamps behind each of the 144 windows of the top eight floors, in order to produce a monochrome matrix of 18 times 8 pixels. During night time this matrix is used as a big monitor, the 144 emitter/flood-lights let the front of the building be illuminated to send written messages or animations to the public – audience. The light-effects of “Blinkenlights” adequately remind of the front side of the “ZKM”, the “Center for Art and Media” in Karlsruhe, whenever that building is illuminated at nights in red and blue.

Below this temporary art, another art installation on the “House of the Teacher” makes the observer wonder: in principle on the third and fourth floor Walter Womacka shows, through a 125 meter long belt wrapped around the initial building, a reflection of the social life in former East Germany on glass and mosaik.

The Core-Blinkenlights-Crew of the “CCC” are Tim Pritlove, Thomas Fiedler, Björn Barnekow, Sven Neumann, Michael Gerdes, Ingo Albrecht, Sebastian Klemke and Tobias Engel. Like the gimmicks of hackers, “Blinkenlights” is unconventional, “low-tech” in its construction and was built up very quickly. Windows where painted white to make them more translucent for the lights directly placed behind the panes. Each light got connected to a relay which was switching the electricity source. Each relay itself got connected with the control center, significantly named “Chaos Control Center”, consisting of 3 personal computers with a relatively old hardware and self developed software based on Linux.

The “CCC”, the “Chaos Computer Club” was founded in 1981. The people of this club, which has been observed by secret service since the legendary “BTX-Hack” 1 and “Nasa-Hack” 2, are fighting against data tracing of industry and governments. The “CCC” calls attention to vulnerability in data memories, of for example hospitals, and the potentialities of surveillance and monitoring through the computer and the digitalization.

Between September 12, 2001 and February 23, 2002, during which period the “house of the teacher” was empty due to renovation works, this light installation was quickly built up in front, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “CCC”. The adequate name “Blinkenlights” has its origin in the fifties hacker jargon, and literally describes the status and front-panel diagnostic lights in early computers.

This genre of “Kunst am Bau” – “art on architecture” – is for the use of new technologies on public spaces. People were able to interact with the installation through freeware which is available on the homepage of the “CCC”. A programme named “Blinkenpaint” gives everybody the possibility to create his or her own pictures and animations, for instance a love message, the so called “Blinkenlights Loveletters”. By making calls with their mobile phones, producers and creators enable their messages and animations to start. This is the basis for interacting through “Blinkenlights”. From the 12th of September 2002 till the 6th of October 2002 “Blinkenlights” became more interactive. Regular by-passers were able to play the classic arcade game “Pong” by navigating their player through their mobile phones in “real time”. At that time “Blinkenlights” was the biggest interactive computer display in the world.

An essential part of the work is the homepage that the “CCC” has created for “Blinkenlights”. It contains a lot of information on the project, a representation of the installation and for example freeware and explanation for working on own animations and graphic design, but it does not intend to be an artistic net artwork. These different possibilities for the public to immerse in the artwork, invites it to a new way of interactivity with art on different layers.

A fundamental alternation of art on architectural surfaces is taking place. The traditional way of combining art with buildings has changed dramatically and the possibilities at present times seem endless. The traditional architecture art was mostly attached to or in front of official buildings. Concrete or abstract objects, paintings, sculptures or installations were unchangeable and usually depended on daylight or good weather, especially if they were physical interactive installations. One of the changes within the new art on architecture is, among others, the shifting role of the “artist” and the technological progress. The traditional art on architecture was implemented by painters and sculptors recognised as artists, the new art on architecture uses mostly changeable techniques and has a different starting position. New technologies create new possibilities. Big company buildings such as banks and insurance agencies are constructed of glass with chrome applications. They have their own aesthetic at daytime which changes during the night. Buildings are illuminated subtly from the inside, the outside and inside out. These new roles are taken over by architects, light designers, hackers and “artists”.

This apparent change can be related to Marshall McLuhan’s conclusion about the future probability of professional specialization. And in fact, analogue to McLuhan, our society is specialising more and more in fields of expertise. The alteration of media technologies is the basic reason for social changes. The force of media and its proceeding development are affecting people strongly. In certain ways one could perceive these developments as being in a total war of information fought by cruel and clever information-media companies. Everybody is involved in these happenings because they are taking place everywhere. The Atom Bomb made real war unnecessary and changed the focus of it; rather than leading territorial wars, we nowadays wage wors of information. (McLuhan, Fiore, Agel, 1969, p.67)

The letters on the “House of the Teacher” are written as if by a ghost hand; the Computer takes over the place of the book as “the” influential media. The “McLuhan Galaxy” ( McLuhan, M. “Die magischen Kanäle”) ends the “Gutenberg Galaxy” 3, perception of eyes and ears is separated. Although it does not agree with Jean Baudrillard 4, it is merely giving one apt aspect: People and societies are forming hyperrealities and are used as consumers. Jean Baudrillard adds that the new medias cause “anti-mediatory” and “non-communication”; the missing of mutual exchange and communication seemed to be one question at the development of the idea of the first concept of “Blinkenlights”. With its experimental design it tries to communicate matters and manage an aesthetical (visual) valorisation of the place; Manuel Castells 5 would be fascinated about this project.

Manues Castells “Internet-Galaxy”6 is completing the never ending mystery for now and giving a good example for McLuhans idea of world connectivity. The Internet is a catalyst, and media is now orientating on us and not the other way around. The hypertextification is leading to a transformation process which demobilize the paradigm and can help through media convergence and media integration to give a programmatical declaration on using public sphere.

This light installation makes a monumental impression and strikes young as well as old people. “Blinkenlights” reminds of the eighties and of the actual hype around this time; it offered several artists as for example “Sven Väth” 7 or “Die Toten Hosen” 8, a playground for their new video, thus paving the way for finding “Blinkenlights” engraved in music videos. Additionally it shows how new media opens new public spaces and, especially in that project, immerses a real public space and a virtual space (the homepage) together. Therefore the homepage constitutes an integral part of the whole project. People are invited and requested to write their own animations or even software for the use of “Blinkenlights”. Since the software is, like all gimmicks for “Blinkenlights”, for free downloading, “Blinkenpaint” gives people endless scope of design. By participating, everybody who sent in his or her self-made animations took part in an open contest. In general it could be observed that the public response and reaction for participating in installation as well as website was excellent and better than expected. The open “Goodbye-Party” in front of “Blinkenlights”, was popular and more than one thousand people came to say goodbye. Certainly the music artist of the party integrated the “Blinkenlights” installation in his music programme. Then “Blinkenlights” was switched off. On the computer only the words “EOF” appeared, but to stress the symboliosm the wiring harness was cut with a circular saw.

The symbols, movies and messages people sent in were partly entertainment, partly serious, but in fact the medium alone through which they were communicated helps to remind people of the digitalization and mediatisation of humanity.

The impact of media and installations in sociological and psychological aspects is clearly observable, although the diverse forms of the influence of media (for instance commercials) should be a bigger political and cultural aspect for governments. Furthermore, the new media allows a new public sphere to emerge in the virtual realm, the consequences and possibilities of which have still not been sufficiently considered. ”Public Space Invaders” 9 (Stefan Krempl 08.02.2002 Telepolis) try to build interfaces between telecommunication, information technology and the public – the way “CCC” has done with “Blinkenlights”. The name “Public Space Invaders” sounds cruel, but in fact these people try to help us understand an important aspect of reality: public spaces are invaded by a system of hidden control, manipulation and transparency. On the one hand “Blinkenlights” tries to describe and clarify this aspect of negative influence. We are more or less involved in a spectacle without even knowing that we are its epicentre. The free public space is taken over and penetrated by commercials, control instruments, “public displays” and other invisible observants. On the other hand “Blinkenlights” tries to give us a good example of how positive work on that topic could look like. Does this installation equal art and can it unmask the ugly grimace of the industry and state conquering “our” public space?

This medium of communication, “Blinkenlights”, which everybody can use and where everybody, worldwide, can communicate, is an exemplary manifestation of participation and support in, with and through the public space. Is this Medium is a “massage”, “message” and “mass age”? (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 2ff.)

“Blinkenlights” is craft media and changes human consciousness; it ties and questions social connections, opinions, and beliefs. People start thinking what our digitalized world is about and what their own role in it is. We cannot expect something to change if we don’t interact with it, the way we do in “Blinkenlights”. The example of “Blinkenlights” shows people their social role and their obligation: interactivity. It shows the possibilities of peoples’ influence on the media, which means that the audience is not only a passive consumption tool, and that interactivity, contribution and communication, are in fact indispensable necessities of civic society. The meaning of interaction is not narrowly only with the medium, as seen in “Blinkenlights”, but through communication and contribution with the larger sphere of public audience or/and with the whole world as with the internet medium. Craft media change human consciousness, and human consciousness can and should change craft media, and even better mass media. We have to be aware, that the aggressor is not the media but those people, companies and governments which use the media for propaganda misusing data in all kind of ways that fit their interests.

The work is influenced by the hacker culture and its beliefs. This is a reason why there is a special symbolism based on computer language. Many different animations and messages were sent in and the spectator is able to understand the symbolic meanings and broad hints of some messages. This new symbolic system of computers, mobile phones and messenger is expressed in “Blinkenlights”. One very interesting aspect is that people who participate in “Blinkenlights” become artists too. They produce their own movies, animations and messages through which they communicate with the public. A lot of them seem to be affected by their own experiences in the computer age, as well as inspired by each others animations, and obviously by games played 15 years ago such as “pong” 10.

In the historical context, the installation of “Blinkenlights” has strongly influenced the role of the ugly socialist building. The art installation of Walther Womacka is underlining the uniqueness of that building and is characteristically showing the changes of East Berlin’s social and media cultures during the last half century. But “Blinkenlights” has shaped that building and made it a mile stone of digitalization and a monument for that kind of art on architecture.

Obviously it is entering into the public space and everybody is immersed, some more some less. It is not only the visualization that the people could have already watched on TV, it is additionally the aspect of art on architecture and its unique execution that struck the people. The messages on “Blinkenlights” are different and sometimes difficult to spot, but in fact they are complementary to the views and positions of the people in East Berlin and the “CCC”. This might have been why the whole idea and production was a very big success and well accepted. This public project created on public ground received well deserved public support. 1000 animations sent in 5 ½ month prove the enthusiasm of the people, mostly in Berlin, but all over the world as well. Even if it was quite expensive to play (1,24DM /Min.) people played a lot of pong and participated at the costs of “Blinkenlights”. None of the hackers wanted to enrich himself: it was not about the price, because when one plays pong he or she does it to support the whole idea and immerse on that huge display, not for the sake of gaming.

Other examples of hacking public space exist, even before the above mentioned project and enhancement of “Blinkenlights” went further (William S. Burroughs 11 in the early sixties, for example, recorded and played bar sounds). More high-tech features appeared and some boundaries were conquered, for example the “Arcade” 12 in Paris for “Nuit Blanche Arts & Culture Festival” where an even bigger version was created. More lights and windows, and this time the display of greyscales became possible. This technology was used by the “CCC” again for a “Blinkenlights-Revieval” on their “Chaos Computer Club Congress” in the End of 2003.

Through the crack of the building there may be a visual preponderating from the 7 meter wide mural belt of Walter Womacka. But altogether the two artworks on the “House of the Teacher” are matching up quite well and constituting a profound example of the social and “media” responsibilities of people in general. They are sharing the space and combining a message. Only when its dark the lights start to move and glow, which creates something mysterious, some sort of a special aura.

What if skyscrapers of the opposite sides of the world were able to communicate with each other? Imagine playing chess with someone from another continent on a huge building. What would the social impacts at that time be? How will society and humanity use or be used by the media in the future? For the present time I consider “Blinkenlights” a successful work. Its message and intention is not obvious, but not invisible either. Even today, already more than 3 years after its implementation, it is still a symbol and inspiration for a lot of people.

The above mentioned media war is already happening and we are in the middle of it; or is our world which is changing quicker than we are? We should be aware of influences by technologies and mediums. Their power and impact on our society and its cognition could be devastating. Solving and not creating problems should be the simple function of bringing the people closer together in our digitalized world. “Blinkenlights” is “Counter Propaganda”, and “Mass-Communication” in a new cover. We will see for what media-age this installation will be always remembered.


McLuhan, M. (1968). Die magischen Kanäle –Understanding Media-.

McLuhan, M., Fiore, Q., Agel, J. (1969) Das Medium ist Massage. Frankfurt/M – Berlin

Manovich, L. (2002) The Language of New Media. The MIT Press






1 The CCC hacked the first system of the german post for money transfers in 1984

2 Computerfreaks of CCC found a security leak in the Nasa computer system

3 McLuhan, M. (1962) „The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”

4 Jean Baudrillard was a cultural theorist and philosopher

5 Spanish Sociologist with international reputation, famous for his books investigation (new) media

6 Castells, M. (2004) “The Internet Galaxy”

7 German techno “guru”; video: „je t’aime“: http://www.virginmusic.de/xml/5/3250602/5461042.html

8 Geman rock band: http://www.dietotenhosen.de/

11 Burroughs was an essayist, social critic and spoken word reformer

12 2. installation of CCC based on Blinkenlights: http://www.blinkenlights.de/arcade/index.de.html

cómo citar: BOER, Tim, “Blinkenlights: Art Installation or Hackers’ Gimmick?”, 2008 http://www.fdcw.org/0506/timb



1. Rogier van der Heide - noviembre 12, 2009

Blinkenlights converges architecture and media… It’s not art, it’s might be architecture built of data… The architect of the future has a deep understanding of technology in the broadest sense… See also the project of Realities United, Arup (where I work), AG4 and some others. Thanks for this informative article! Rogier van der Heide

christian saucedo - noviembre 16, 2009

Rogier, but for example, the interaction whit the movil telephone in the Blinkenlights? maybe it can work to create the “aura” lost, condition criticized by Walter Benjamín. “…the modern image reproduced of mechanical form cannot be considered art.”

For that reason Rafael Lozano-Hemmer says: The idea that the piece does not exist without the participation of the user, the idea that the piece is not hermetic, but is something incomplete that it requires of his exhibition to be realised, is fundamental to understand this revenge of the aura. 1

Therefore I believe that the contents enrolled in works of interactive character and mainly those that use to the face to form, they become unique and they rescue this “aura” condition when acquiring a diversity of values of representation sustained in the relations of space and time.


NOTE: 1 LOZANO-HEMMER, Rafael. entrevista BARRIOS, José Luís, publicada en el Catálogo Subsculptures de la Galería Guy Bärtschi, Suiza, 2005

2. Agel - agosto 26, 2010

Thanks for share.

christian saucedo - agosto 26, 2010

you´re welcome!
thanks for reading nait5.com


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