Public Netbase:
Non Stop Future

New Practices in Art and Media

Non Stop Future Cover

Editors: Branka .ur.i., Zoran Panteli. / New Media

Published 2008

Publisher: Revolver - Archiv für aktuelle Kunst

ISBN: 978-3-86588-455-8

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Lisa Mayr

Blown Into Peaces. Virtual Cow Kidnapping – A Drama in Four Acts

It was not only Austrian newspaper editors who were confused about this kidnapping case – a hoax from its very beginning, as it turned out later. For some time, it was unclear whether the "kidnapping" of the cow was in fact real, who was behind it, and how the main target of the action, the Austrian federal government, would react.

Confusion was spreading in the online offices of a major Austrian newspaper. Which department should handle the breaking news about a cow kidnapped at Belvedere palace? As part of the government-sponsored historicizing "25 Peaces" spectacle, the gardens of the palace had been turned into a grazing ground for a small cattle herd, with the idea of bringing the economic scarcity of the immediate postwar period back into the public’s mind.

Apparently a group of unknown individuals had gained access to the grounds in the night of May 10th, 2005, and had brought one of the animals under their control. At first sight, then, this seemed to be a news item for the local section of the newspaper. However, there was also a mysterious letter claiming responsibility, sent by a group named Zellen Kämpfender Widerstand/kommando freiheit 45 (ZKW), (militant resistance cells/commando 45). In this letter, the cow was referred to as "political prisoner". Just how serious the kidnappers were emerged from the specified demands: The group requested nothing less than a public declaration by Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Austrian Public Broadcasting director Monika Lindner, in which they admit to "misleading the Austrian population and generating nationalist incitement by falsifying history". Powerful stuff, indeed. So perhaps it is something that should be handled by the politics department, after all. But there were more demands still: The ZKW expected a "payment of recognition of ten million Euros to female partisans and deserters", as well as a memorial for deserters to be erected on Vienna's Heldenplatz. At this point, some hard thinking set in at the editorial offices, and first doubts concerning authenticity surfaced. But there was still the kidnappers' final demand: The "immediate establishment of a museum of partisans" – right in the middle of Vienna's Museum's Quarter. Much to the relief of the journalists, the news seemed to have a clear address: The culture section.

It was not only Austrian newspaper editors who were confused about this kidnapping case – a hoax from its very beginning, as it turned out later. For some time, it was unclear whether the "kidnapping" of the cow was in fact real, who was behind it, and how the main target of the action, the Austrian federal government, would react.

Delaying the final plot was a key component of the action's media strategy, while the action itself had a much more sound conceptual and performative basis than the government's million-Euro historical spectacle: All the activists needed to do in order spread their message in an effective manner was placing information and images at some key locations in the internet. There, the kidnappers presented themselves as rough-and-ready urban warriors, complete with stocking masks, dark hoots and rifles directed at the kidnapped cow. Already in the first of the four communiqués released, they threatened to mercilessly blow up the cow – and, indeed, this is what was going to happen. On April 16th, the ZKW activists announced: "It's enough! Cow blown up in support of partisans and deserters. On May 15th, just after the evening television news, the animal was blown into pieces using 1.5 kilos of Semtex. By way of proof, the remaining half kilo of explosive was surrendered to the authorities". Only a few days prior to this, a photo of blood-smeared cow limbs had been circulated in the internet. A photograph followed that showed the kidnappers in possession of several boxes with a "Semtex" imprint. Although the action had not been exposed at this point, both the popular press and animal rights activist remained inactive. Evidently there had been an agreement that if in doubt, not to offer the activists a forum.

Several days later, activist of the Vienna-based net culture group Netbase assumed responsibility for the action. The latter never resulted in any harm to either animals or humans – blowing up the cow was a mere media plot. Right after the declaration was released, the Viennese weekly "Falter" reported it, and the daily "Der Standard" followed suit; The "City Magazin" was the only publication that continued considering the action a "less than funny media guerilla idea" and as "polemical and ideological muckraking posing as political history". Surely, a view bound to dwindle into nothing once a really serious look at the project is taken.

The aesthetic codes used by the ZKW at the beginning were adopted from urban guerillas and anarcho-terrorism, which immediately triggered off the intended surge of interpretations. These interpretations would have needed no content had the action really been only a "less than funny media guerilla idea" – which it was not. While the action was fed into an iconized discourse of resistance, as well as into the media, by the activists' precision-targeted and sparing deployment of images, the letter claiming responsibility asked specific political questions related to the "culture of remembrance" practiced in the "commemorative year" 2005. Why was there no public outcry when a leading representative of the Austrian state said that deserters were "murderers of their own comrades"? Any why is fact that partisan warfare in Carinthia and Slovenia had been a major contribution towards the liberation of Austria only mentioned in the most marginal of ways? The communist resistance fighter Agnes Primocic, for example, who together with her friend Mali Ziegenleder liberated seventeen inmates of Hallein concentration camp, saving them from being shot dead, celebrates her 100th birthday this year. Who will be there to congratulate her?

From the perspective of the governmental view of history, this seems to be an irrelevant question. In fact, everything is done to gloss over any possible fissures. While the officially ordained, comfortable view of Austrian history required a packaging in the form of large-scale visualization and event engines, the cow kidnappers did something very different: From the very beginning, they left out any of the pre-packaged narratives. In this way, they were able to develop a language and identity of resistance at a time when all the images seem already occupied, resistance is already defined, and no method seems to be effective any more. In one of the communiqués, the ZKW activist defined their political goals as "attacking the current strategic projects of the symbolic political formations of Austria's revisionist system". In another place they say: "We aim to destroy the state's machinery of domination by targeting selected pressure points and by partly suspending it, in order to destroy the myth of the system's omnipresence and inviolability". The purpose was to undermine the existing hegemonic structure a government that prefers the cultural over the political – a government that seeks to transform any political gestures questioning the existing order into cultural expressions, reducing them to "empty gestures" in the process. Culture, then, is clearly a political battlefield, no cow metaphor needed here. All that is required is a look at Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony which, not by coincidence, has received renewed attention in anti-globalist critique, and which lies at the basis of Netbase's project. According to Gramsci, oppositional movements that have no share in official politics must make culture and everyday life the basis for their quest for political power, in order to be able to build cultural hegemony. Radical political ideas that remain confined to intellectual and artistic circles are quickly reduced to passive symbolic representations, leading to a situation where the producers end up stewing in their own juice. This is why the ZKW activists, not without a sense of self-irony, refer to the friendly "" media action as "bloodless intellectual traitors".

A concept of politics informed by Gramsci is not about isolated demands, but about interventions that change the very framework of official politics. While official politics seeks to normalize the social order, interventions of this type geared towards blowing up this order. Which takes us back to the cow full circle. Her name, by the way, was Rosa.