A visit to the mothership

C-base is today's geek ground zero – an open-source playground for everything from software to sci-fi and according to it's members an alien spaceship crashed on the site of c-base 4.5 billion years ago. They plan on leaving in 2023.

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Photo By Tania Castellví
Don’t forget to bring a towel to c-base, Berlin’s geek ground zero. Berlin is replete with working spaces used by creative, open source-oriented minds. At the heart lies hacker institution c-base, the 16-year-old space station-cum-tech art playground that acts as meeting place for Berlin’s hacker, digital art and open source community. While co-working spots like the hip Betahaus or 1300sqm Buro 2.0 rent out rooms, some with an exclusively open source-only door policy, c-base is the unofficial movement HQ. Most notably, Berlin’s Pirate Party was born here in 2006. On any given night though, c-base plays host to groups like Freifunk or Ubuntu Berlin and events like Android app launch parties, software workshops, Transmediale performances, sci-fi theatre or 1980s video game nights, with an agenda more arts-leaning than that of the Chaos Computer Club. Grab a Club Mate, beer or Mier and join one of the brainy groups about the lounge. Tonight, the monthly Berliner Lockpickers meet-up occupies a round table, nimbly toying with keys and lighter-sized locks, teaching wannabe locksmiths to click through the grooves. One participant explains: “It’s like when we hack firewalls. All security is an illusion. You need to bend your mind.” Tricky to find, c-base is hidden down residential Rungestraße, its rear looking onto the Spree opposite the Jannowitzbrücke U-Bahn station. According to club lore – echoed by members with deadpan sobriety – an alien spaceship crashed on the site 4.5 billion years ago, with the ship’s antenna today popularly mistaken for the TV Tower, and tendrils of the one extraterrestrial survivor’s guts strewn in day-glo paint across the toilet ceiling. Finding the artefacts, members set about recreating the ship’s décor through the club. Dressed in military boots and a jacket adorned with UFO patches in lieu of punk bands, seven-year member e-punc assures with a grin, “We’re taking off in 2023.” Entering c-base is like stumbling onto the set of 2001: the silver entrance resembles a cylindrical space station airlock with a talking hand-scanner that registers members and reports who’s already checked in that night. Throughout, plastic aliens, metallic panes and control panels covered in buttons (labelled in c-base code, one with a ‘I ♥ OPEN SOURCE’ sticker) add playfully to the myth and the hacker playground atmosphere – as do the sci-fi library downstairs, the restored Atari video game console, original Pong and member-developed four-person touch-screen Tetris, as well as celebrations like Towel Day (May 25, honouring Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams) and pilgrimages like Chaos Camp, where this year’s c-base campers built a pancake-making robot. A girl at the bar tells us, “Anybody can make a project. If you want to learn how to splice some thingy onto a copper plate, five people will be there in two minutes helping you out.” In the downstairs workshops, members are heads down, fiddling with engineering tools or computers. One pair is building a complex 3D animation model, using donated tech from the overflowing shelves of gadgets, cables and old computer equipment. In another room, a typical c-baser – male, thirty-something, decent looking, black t-shirt and jeans – stares lost into his monitor. “What are you doing?” we ask. “Breaking the internet,” he smugly replies. Indeed. Aged between 18-60, c-base’s roughly 400 members – an estimated 15-20 percent of whom are female, a number on the rise – pay €17 a month, though visiting the club is free and open to anyone, anytime. C-base is run by volunteers and, though there is an elected board, the hierarchy-free club operates through ‘the circle’ – a fortnightly discussion with voting rights for all members who have been with the club for more than six months. If you’re not a member, you’re an ‘alien’ – and your entrance to member-only areas is announced by an alarm button that comically shrieks “Alien! Alien! Alien!” at high volume. Despite the ‘security’, members are chatty and friendly with curious visitors. The entrance hand-scan instructs “Be Excellent To Each Other” and this warm atmosphere of brotherly support permeates, from the gamer-esque genderless nicknames (Sven is ‘c-ven’, etc), the shared lingo (“Could you fix the breach in the hull?” translates as “Can you close the window?”) and in-jokes like the Hitchhikers’-referencing audibly sighing doors, down to broadcasting a member’s radio show over the PA, a welcome to members whose geeky interests perhaps isolated them in school years. Sums up e-punc, “This is a space station, and this is our crew.” It is this friendliness and openness to both people and new, sometimes radical ideas that has placed the c-base community at the epicentre of Berlin’s open source movement – whether tinkering for revolution or simple revelry.