Hacks (an interview with Christine Bader)

By David Hudson, 21 January 2004

Over a period of four years, Hamburg-based artist Christine Bader captured a network of friends on camera thinking out loud about 'hacks'. Fortunately, she has interesting friends, starting with many in Hamburg's legendary Chaos Computer Club (CCC), its Bielefeld off-shoot, Foebud, and the founders of Amsterdam's pioneering Internet provider XS4ALL. The network expands to include Kommhelp, an organisation devoted to helping the physically challenged communicate via computers, the crew of Stubnitz, a media art ship experiment which failed interestingly, and Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd that voyages where even Greenpeace doesn't dare to go in the fight for environmental justice.

Bader's travels take her not only across the European continent but also through a particularly euphoric period in the development of net culture. The result is part home movie and part meditation on what it means to live freely despite social constraints. Some of those she interviewed years ago cringe at the naivete of their comments now, Bader notes, but she feels that editing the travel log for a late nineties sensibility would be dishonest.hacks

In a sidewalk cafe on a sunny afternoon in Berlin, Bader spoke about her portrait of the European hacking scene.

David Hudson: This is probably a question you get a lot. The movie is called hacks, and of course, some of the scenes are very much what you'd expect - for example, the bits from Hacking in Progress. Then there's a sort of broadening of the definition of hacks. Especially when it comes to the two ships, the Sea Shepherd and the Stubnitz. Did you consciously want to stretch the definition of hacks beyond what you already understood it to be?

Christine Bader: There are several ways to approach this question. One is that many of the people in the film already know each other or about each other. The people at the Chaos Computer Club, for example, support the Sea Shepherd. There's simply a great willingness to recognise and commend each other's work.

The other thing is that I understood hacking more as a way of thinking and a way of living. A way to materialise your visions without constraint or...

DH: Social constructs. Yes, that comes through.

CB: And to do it as a team. You are an individual, but you find people who think like you do if you are communicating. Paul Watson is the only person who really has a certain rhetoric which is his way to communicate - because he's very used to journalists. But he does a project which is really encapsulated. He has a very small crew of people doing really hard work, but when he goes outside to the media, he can speak very well.

Some people told me that this isn't hacking in its true form because he's so straightforward. But I don't see it from that angle. It's much deeper than that; the connection is on the level of human communication. The environment is much more than just trees and nature. The virtual environment, too, is our environment. So to live in harmony with our environment means to live in harmony with your social environment as well as your natural environment. This is what I think hacking is about.

DH: How long have you been involved with the CCC?

CB: Since 1993.

DH: So you've been filming them the whole time.

CB: Yes. The first time I was there was for the CCC Congress in 1993, and I had my Hi-8 camera with me, so I just started.

DH: So the scenes with the CCC are also some of earliest material in the film. And then you started approaching people for financial support for this four-year long project, but the money ran out. When was that?

CB: About four months before I finished. So the Hacking in Progress sequences I shot on my own.

DH: How long were you with the Stubnitz project?

CB: I think the Stubnitz project was a kind of mega-project. From the beginning, you knew it wouldn't work. It was a suicide mission in a way. Everyone wondered if these people were really so naive, but they just wanted to do what they wanted to do, knowing all along that it would fail. Nobody really knew what they were thinking.

But I think they really were naive. They really believed in this project. At the beginning, there was no recession, so they really believed that they'd get financing from the governments of Austria and Germany, cultural funds and so on. Very soon after they bought the ship, these financial problems began.

Everybody knew there was going to be no more money for culture, but they already had this big ship and they had to do something with it. They could have sold it immediately, but they didn't do that. They had the hope that it would work, and they tried very hard to find private financing. They offered it up to companies for company presentations, but nothing worked. It was a disaster.

It was at this point that we made our interviews, and there was a serious depression on the boat. They knew that it wouldn't work. They'd worked for four years on this project in return for just two months of travelling before they went bankrupt.

DH: How long did you spend with them on the ship?

CB: I was there at different times. It was a fish trawler from eastern Germany, not a media ship at all, so they had to do a lot of construction work on the ship. I was there in the winter and it was very cold; the living was very, very hard there. And then I was there in the summer a few months before they set out, and then I was with them in St. Petersburg. HacksDH: When someone asks you "What do you do?", what do you usually reply?

CB: I'm an artist. I've been working as an artist for sixteen years. I started with exhibitions and fine art, but moved away from that because it was not so interesting for me. I love teamwork. I also love works-in-progress. It's always the process I'm interested in and not in the actual product. So I moved away from the fine arts and got into multimedia, performances, lectures and did a lot of work with the computer and interactive television - and then I started work on the film. I'd done a lot of small films before this one, though. This is my first feature. I made one documentary before; it was about half an hour. And some experimental short films.

But I see myself as an artist and I understand this film as a kind of performance. It was working together with all these people. This film was made from the inside; I didn't do it as a journalist. I didn't do a load of research and then go out with the camera and the team and so on.

Paul Watson is the only person I was not so close to. But that was also a funny thing. I saw a report on him on 'Spiegel TV' about half a year before I met him. I sat there in my chair, wondering: "Who is this guy?", "What's he doing?" It's so straight and so good. When I was a child, I always said to the other children - you know, at the time there was a terrorist group, Baader-Meinhof, and my name is Bader, so the children were always making fun of that - and I asked them: "Why is there not an environmental terrorist group?" They do it for such stupid things - of course, at that age, I didn't understand their reasoning. The only thing that made sense to me was environmental terrorism. To blow up a factory, for example.

I always had this in mind, and then years later, I saw this report about this person, and I thought, this is a really good thing. I had to get to know him.

So I called my friends from the CCC because I knew a journalist there who speaks very good English, and we went together. We'd made an appointment, but it was very difficult because of all the television teams, but we got the appointment. And he agreed to give us ten minutes, but in the end we had more than one hour because he couldn't stop. Our questions were also very fundamental, and he liked the fact that this project was not a TV project.

DH: Any plans for the future?

CB: Yes, my next film will be about meditation. Because I'm very fascinated with the way people in Asia live. I'm interested in the discipline of this inner life and the ability to concentrate and create an inner freedom - despite overpopulation and social systems such as those in India and China. It isn't possible to realise yourself as an individual the way we can in the West, whether it be because of the caste system or religious fundamentalism, but many still manage to find this inner freedom, and I find that fascinating.

David Hudson Xdwh AT berlin.snafu.deX []

'hacks' (1994-98)A film by Christine Bader 73 min.

Camera: Ulla Barthold, Bella Halben, Gabi Schwark, Christine Bader Editing: Michael Thaler Music and Animation: Andreas Kunzmann, Jin Choi Production: Choifilm[]