San Francisco gallery shows hacker's work as art

An art exhibition of hardware hacker Joe Grand's work is opening in San Francisco.

Joe Grand has never really thought of himself as an artist, but over the weekend he had his first gallery opening.

Grand is a hardware hacker: He's at home with a soldering iron in one hand, the guts of some electronic device opened up in front of him. A former member of the L0pht Heavy Industries hacker collective, he designed the programmable conference badges used at this year's Defcon 15 hacker conference and a cheap RFID (radio frequency identification) reader, soon to be on store shelves at Radio Shack.

His show, called "When Electronics Become Art," is happening at the 20 goto 10 gallery, on the fringe of San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district. It's the kind of place where you'd expect to see a hacker art exhibit: it's populated by junkies, liquor stores and dive bars. Gallery owner Christopher Abad says the space was filled with old TVs and other junk hoarded by "dumpster-diving meth heads" before he moved in earlier this year.

Abad, a noted hacker in his own right, says that Grand's work is good enough that it deserves the kind of attention you get in a fine-art gallery setting. "A lot of the stuff that I've seen him work on is pretty interesting, and it's rare for hackers to get any kind of credit outside of that community or any exposure at all," he said. "At best you get to see some movie where it's all completely embellished."

Though 20 goto10 also has the typical fine-art exhibits and book readings you'd expect from a gallery, it's a bit of a hacker experiment. Abad featured another technology-themed installation in the gallery's first show this past February: a system that could be used to spoof caller ID, check other people's voicemail and launch unsuspecting man-in-the-middle attacks.

Abad says he wants 20 goto 10 to be a venue that goes beyond the standard hacker conference. The gallery environment lets people gather information at their own pace.

"When Electronics Become Art," includes the Defcon badges Grand has designed as well as a "Curtain of Shame" of malfunctioning badges, a Marquee sign with the word Kingpin (Grand's hacker moniker) cut into Nintendo and Atari circuit boards and a modified searchlight from a US Army M-60 Patton tank.

There will also be an interactive RFID exhibit and what Grand calls his Lichtenberg Lighting Frame -- a large acrylic block he picked up at a Boston flea market with a tiny multi-color LED (Light Emitting Diode) display in the middle.

But one of Grand's favorite pieces is a hacked up Atari computer called Atari K-9. While visiting his family, last Thanksgiving, Grand found a floppy disk containing a program that he'd written for the Atari when he was eight. He created a custom display for the machine to "make it look like it was created by Atari in the 80s" and got his old program to run on the Atari. It's a silly graphic of K-9, the robot dog, from the 1970s TV series Dr. Who, but Grand sees it as a kind of collaborative project with his eight year-old self. "It's basically to pay tribute to my past. I grew up with an Atari 400 computer," he said.

Grand makes his living running his design company, Grand Idea Studio and he's currently filming an engineering TV show, due to air next year on a popular science cable channel.

But does he consider himself an artist? Maybe electronics aesthete would be a better description.

"Engineering and electronics does have this simple, beautiful way about it. If something is done in a really elegant fashion, then it could be considered art," he said. "Sometimes I'll open up a product to see how it's made.... and there's a lot of beautiful design work that goes on."

"It's hard for me to consider myself an artist, because what I do to me doesn't seem like art," he added. "People can call me an artist. I still consider myself an engineer and a hardware hacker."

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Robert McMillan

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