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Berlin

An Inside Look at the 8,000 LED Balloon Recreation of the Berlin Wall

We spoke to Christopher Bauder, the light artist who co-created the symbolic 'Lichtgrenze' border between what was once East and West Germany.

by Johannes Hausen at The Creators Project Germany
11 November 2014, 7:30pm

Images via Ralph Larmann unless noted otherwise. 

This article originally appeared in German. Read the original untranslated text here.

An 11-foot barrier of 8,000 illuminated balloons symbolically redivided Germany into East and West this past weekend, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But unlike the cold stone structure that required heavy-duty bulldozers to dismantle it, the balloons that made up this installation were simply released into the night sky at Sunday's grand finale event.

Lichtgrenze, or “light boundary” was the brainchild of a creative team of brothers, light artist Christopher and filmmaker Marc Bauder. And although they were not even 18-years-old when the Wall fell, German-German history has greatly influenced their work. Prior to Sunday’s “ascension” of the balloons, we spoke with half of the talented duo, Christopher, about how this project became a reality, the materials they used, and the creative challenges in making an installation that stretches 15.3 kilometers long:

The Creators Project: When did you get the idea for Lichtgrenze? Can you talk us through how the idea evolved into this year's installation?

Christopher Bauder: We actually had the idea for the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009. We had previously dealt with German-German history in the past. After the Fall of the Wall, I went to Berlin with my high school class. It was fascinating to see how different the East and the West looked. And when I moved to Berlin eight years later, I was just as fascinated to see the Wall had almost completely disappeared. We wanted to commemorate the former Wall, by creating a temporary and physical representation.

At the same time, we also wanted to create a contrast to the size, weight and hardness of the former Berlin Wall. Something very lightweight -- which in the best case consisted of only light and air. And something that could naturally attract the attention of passing Berliners at their eye level. It should affect all people, regardless of their relationship to the Wall or Germany's history. The original idea was to hand some balloons with LED lights to a few sponsors. They would then hold the balloons for 28 minutes -- one minute for each year of the Wall’s existence -- and then let them fly. The whole action would have taken less than a full evening to complete, and would have been mainly supported by the people of the city.

Lichtgrenze is not your first installation of illuminated balloons. Five years ago, you developed the 60-minute-long performance Atom, together with Robert Henke (aka Monolake), that consisted of 64 balloons lit by LEDs, simulating the atoms of a complex molecule. Are you using similar balloons for Lichtgrenze?

[Atom] was exactly the inspiration for the balloons of Lichtgrenze. We have been producing these types of balloons for eight years now. Early on, I started experimenting with light and balloons, and quickly found pleasure in it. I discovered the fascination that people have for them. Everyone likes balloons in a certain way, and light has a magical appeal. In combination, these two things are unbeatable. The balloons we now use for the light border are made of natural rubber, and are of the same brand.

Of course, the idea to let the installation run for several days shifted the original concept of Lichtgrenze in a completely new direction. The task became extremely difficult. We needed something stable that wouldn’t be harmed by the wind and weather in November, that could be lit for three days and could easily fly away at the end of the installation. In addition, assembling and dismantling had to be easy. For these reasons, Lichtgrenze differs radically from everything we have ever done before.

Prior to the event, some critics doubted the eco-friendliness of Lichtgrenz. [They asked]: “Are the balloons environmentally friendly? How long does it take for the material to be a 100% corroded?” The balloons are 100% biodegradable. Like oak leaves, they decompose with environmental influences such as UV light and rain. We assume that it takes about eight months until the materials have completely decomposed. We have reflected on this a lot. For example, the shutters needed to mount the balloon at the top of the post’s mechanism were produced by specially-equipped researchers at the University of Hannover. They were designed to decompose with environmental influences, like the balloons. We could not find any specific materials sophisticated enough to decompose completely. There are no other materials that will meet the needs of our installation. Of course, you can always find something negative, if you look hard enough. In this context, I must say that art has always been a bit of a waste. More than 8,000 carbon posts will be deployed.

Photo: Websenat

How were the posts produced and what kind of characteristics do they have that make them suitable for Lichtgrenze?

We developed the current form of posts over one and a half years. Each post consists of about 40 different items that were produced in 18 different countries -- you can really see how global the project is. We developed the current form of posts over one and a half years. Each post consists of about 40 different items that were produced in 18 different countries -- you can really see how global the project is. For the main material of the posts, we opted for carbon fiber because it was easy and stable. No other material could be produced as thin tubes that were hard and flexible at the same time. At the upper end of the rod, there is a plastic funnel with a clamping mechanism that engages the balloon closures. A steel cable that locks connects to a lever at the base of the post. Pulling the lever of the clamping mechanism openes and releases the balloon. The base of the post is filled with 18 liters of water for stability, with each weighing around 23 kilos overall. The tank is secured with a special key to avoid vandalism. We had to make it difficult, because a post is pretty easy to carry away. After the event, the posts will be recycled in the same workshop they were built in. 

Photo: Websenat

How much longer will the balloons be lit after they are released from the steles? How far will the balloons fly?

That depends mainly on the wind. LED lights attached to the steles will illuminate the balloons for about three to four meters wide as they ascend. On the key points of the installation, including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and Mauerpark, the balloons are additionally lit up by laser projection. Here, people will be able to see the rising balloons for about ten minutes. How far the balloons fly depends not only on wind and temperature, but also on the atmospheric pressure on the night of the ascension. Sometimes balloons can be pushed down by downdrafts very quickly. In fact, 8,000 balloons distributed over a distance of about 15 kilometers are not particularly a large amount. There have been other mass ascensions with much higher concentrations.

How did you come up eventually with the number of 8,000 balloons? Will streets be blocked for the installation?

Our original idea was to recreate the whole 42-kilometers of the Berlin Wall. However, it soon became clear that the respective costs and logistics would be too demanding, and that we would need to enter some very rough terrains. Working with Kulturprojekte Berlin and Havemann-Gesellschaft [local promoters of Lichtgrenze], we decided to only recreate the course of the wall within the city train circle -- the 15.3-kilometer-long route of the central division of the city. By computer simulation, we decided the visual aesthetics of the Lichtgrenze would be best with a distance of 2.50 meters between the posts, taking into consideration the size of the ballons and the height of the posts. We also had to make sure that the balloons would not collide with strong wind, and that cars could pass easily through the Lichtgrenze in case of an emergency. On the evening of November 9th, all 8,000 balloons will rise in the Berlin night sky with personal messages from patrons, inside.

How will this balloon event proceed exactly? How will the balloons get released from the steles?

The various sections along the Lichtgrenze are assigned to different groups of balloon patrons. After the main launch at the Brandenburg Gate, the other groups will start to release the balloons at the same time, kind of like a chain reaction. Each balloon patron will received directions through an in-ear monitor, in order to ensure the release is synchronized. Shortly before the action, each patron receives a special key -- which is the only way they can release the balloon from the post. We think that it will take between ten and twenty minutes, until all the balloons are rising.

Photo: Websenat

Where will you spend the moment of the ascension of the balloons?

We will probably be on-the-go, anywhere and everywhere. Maybe even at Brandenburg Gate. Ideally, we wish to be able to enjoy the moment together with our team in a quiet place. For us, the balloon action is the final point of this exhibition in the public space. A quiet moment in which everything dissolves, so to speak. The final chord that terminates everything.

Photo: Jakob

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