Intermission at the Combat Zone - A Review of Public Netbase's Urban and Symbolic Lines of Conflict
On 5 April 2000, Public Netbase was dismissed from its facilities at the Museumsquartier under the pretext of imminent building works at the Fischer-von-Erlach section, the section housing its offices. The date set was 30 April 2001, and no replacement facilities or prospective date of re-entry were indicated.
When the Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0, launched in 1994 by Konrad Becker and Francisco de Sousa Webber, went online with its server at the Vienna General Hospital, internet access was still in its infancy. The discovery of this medium, today inextricably linked to everyday experience, marked a moment in cultural history when artists and cultural producers began to explore new forms of engagement with information and communication technologies – and found them at the Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0. Initially, then, it was mainly the mediation work at the interface between art and technology that lead to a new understanding of cultural practice, allowing the establishment of an internationally networked media platform. Before long, the platform set up its dedicated culture server at the Vienna Messepalast (later to become Museumsquartier), where the committed cultural project t0 was institutionalized as Public Netbase. Apart from Internet service providing, Public Netbase offered a varied program of workshops and conferences on the promises and risks of a rapidly growing information society. In his inaugural speech on 17 March, 1995, philosopher and essayist Peter Lamborn addressed the challenges emerging in an increasingly media-driven world, in which information becomes the raw material of modern society. Under his pseudonym Hakim Bey, Wilson became known mainly for his notion of "Temporary Autonomous Zones" (Bey 1990), referring to a situation in which the existing order is suspended within temporal and local limitations. A far cry from immaterial cyber utopias, Bey's theory insists on connecting the TAZ to real space, as this is the only way of providing it with (social) meaning.
From the very beginning, Public Netbase clearly distanced itself from any virtualized notions of the new media, focusing instead on an urban articulation of the cultural practices arising from the use of information and communication. The modern city represents a hybrid intersection of physical and digital space, whose architecture covered with layers of data flows. Apart from mobile communication technologies such as phones and laptop computers, this data sphere also contains rapidly expanding surveillance systems and increasingly invasive advertising media. Given this rapid progression of new technologies into all realms of social life, the cultural use of electronic media increases in significance. Urban space provides a field of artistic action on which new publics are created by means of confrontation, agitation and intervention, with the aim of countering practices of enclosure by government and business. Public Netbase is among the first in Europe and in Austria to exploit digital space for critical media practice. Its efforts were focused on political awareness building vis-à-vis an increasingly networked society in which virtual and real space progressively converged. Theories of symbolic rule provided a conceptual backbone for experimental forms of artistic and cultural practice beyond any consumer-oriented use patterns. The conflicts resulting from this had to be taken up and translated into negotiable positions in public debates – "particularly since contemporary art itself has now been normed, organized, channeled into the safe-havens of museums. The debate must be created, extended, deepened and resolved in public, where the issues themselves exist" (Holmes).
MUSEUMSQUARTIER: A ZONE OF COMBAT
A first step towards securing an autonomous position within the cultural environment of Vienna was taken by promoting public access, providing low-cost internet access to approximately one thousand art and culture projects within a very short period. Acting as an interface of technology, science, and art, Public Netbase began to build digital networks of cooperation at an early stage, which made it possible to bring leading theoreticians and artists of the new cyber culture to Vienna. The diversity of Public Netbase's program and the intense demand from local and international communities soon made it possible to relocate to larger facilities. The opening of the Media~Space event space in early 1997 made the significance of electronic media in the cultural debates on creativity current artistic practice the centerpiece of a varied event program, underlining Public Netbase's potential as a fertilizer of innovative cultural policies at the outset of the 21st century.
Before long, though, Public Netbase's understanding of an adequate space for action and production – a space that would reflect the latest artistic forms of expression and offer appropriate exhibition and performance facilities – began to fall out of step with that of the management of the Vienna Museumsquartier, which at that time was initiating a large-scale reconstruction scheme. It is surely not surprising that a project of this order of magnitude – a surface of 60,000 square meters right in the center of Vienna – would give rise to opposing views, turning the project into one of the fiercest cultural combat zones in Austria.
A total of 300 years separate the building complex from its origins as imperial mews, its later use as a trade fair center, and the official inauguration of the Museumsquartier in June 2001.
The development of the Museumsquartier itself, a project sponsored by the Austrian and Viennese Governments, stretched over a period of 20 years. In 1977, when the buildings were first considered as a possible extension for the Austrian Federal Museums, the debate around the specific design of such a new museums quarter took off. Ten years later an invitation for tenders was published, resulting in a unanimous jury verdict in favor of architects Laurid and Manfred Ortner in April 1980. The project, at that time still referred to as "21st century house" by Minister of Culture Erhard Busek, involved a newly built museum of modern art, an additional art and event hall, and, most strikingly, a media tower (often referred to as reading tower) designed to overtop the baroque front section the quarter by 67 meters. This symbolic transgression of the former imperial mews became a point of conflict in the debates on Austria's cultural heritage. A citizen's group was launched to spearhead a cultural crusade against the "museums monster". Supported by Austria' popular press and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), it demanded a public enquiry and the intervention of the Federal Agency for the Protection of Historical Monuments. When in 1992 the Vienna People's Party (ÖVP) yielded to the pressure, dishonoring its previous agreement with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), the idea of a media tower acting as an archive, a forum for reflection, a research center, and as a location for the democratization of the media, disappeared for good.
This cultural tug of war, which resulted in the conversion of a center for contemporary art into a mere additional asset in Vienna's bid as business location, reflected a line of conflict in Austria's cultural landscape that "reduces art to its decorative exhibition value instead of understanding it as a mode of thinking" (Rollig 1995). However, any art mediation targeted primarily at event marketing and consumption disregards the larger aesthetic developments at the turn of the 21st century. This is a time when art can break its hermetic closure and open itself to new social realms. The interface of culture, technology, art and society had been Public Netbase's most central field of activity, so that its efforts to gain an autonomous creative space now found themselves in direct opposition with restorative cultural policies. While in 1998 Public Netbase had had to resort to court in order to stop a populist, FPÖ-initiated slander campaign occasioned by the feminist lecture series "sex.net", the authoritarian turn in Austrian politics represented by the new governmental coalition between People's Party and Freedom Party now lead to an alarming intensification of hostile maneuvers. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel suspected that a supposed "internet generation" was the mastermind of the public protests against his right-wing extremist government. Since most of the projects critical of the government were hosted by t0, suspicions intensified and lead to a repressive policy in governmental art funding, before finally resulting in a massive cut in basic subsidies.
On 5 April 2000, Public Netbase was dismissed from its facilities at the Museumsquartier under the pretext of imminent building works at the Fischer-von-Erlach section, the section housing its offices. The date set was 30 April 2001, and no replacement facilities or prospective date of re-entry were indicated. In spite of the "readiness for dialogue" recurrently claimed by Wolfgang Waldner, General Manager of the Museumsquartier's carrier company, there was an overwhelming impression that Public Netbase, by then a successful cultural institution, was supposed to be stripped off its vital assets. As an early indication, the planned enlargement of the Media~Space at the Museumsquartier's Ovallhalle H was overridden by a different plan in 1999.
All of a sudden, the assurances given by Waldner's predecessor, according to which Public Netbase would not only remain a crucial and integral part of the new museums quarter, but that its presence would even be strengthened, no longer seemed to count. Following the fall of the media tower, one of the most successful cultural institutions in the field of new media was also facing its end. The structural plan for the future Quartier 21, produced by Markus Weiland and Vitus Weh, neither considered the space requirements of Public Netbase, nor reflected the standard phrase of "cultural diversity". Instead of a non-hierarchical platform of different cultural groups that would develop their programs at the greatest degree of autonomy, Quartier 21 turned out to be a centralized organization allowing Waldner, whose original role resembled that of a caretaker, to directly intervene into content development.
After the governmental subsidy was first cut for political motives and then eliminated altogether, Public Netbase now had to fear for its location at the Museumsquartier. Since Waldner delayed the conclusion of an adequate rental agreement and instead made every effort to force all the institutions concerned into the rigid Quartier 21 scheme, the affected tenants (which included, apart from Public Netbase, Basis Wien, Depot, and springerin) informed Waldner on 11 June that they considered the dismissals as null and void.
In a further development, Waldner cancelled Public Netbase's participation in the inauguration festivities scheduled for late June 2001, whose motto "Baroque meets Cyberspace" seemed an appropriate headline for the existing conflict. The Museumsquartier management was intent to impress the invited celebrities from politics, culture, and the media with a concerted performance. Public Netbase's idea to involve the anonymous masses in the celebrations by "urban screening", projecting spontaneous text messages, graphics and animations onto the front of the historical Museumsquartier buildings aroused fears of an art practice that could not be calculated. However, since obviously censorship cannot censor itself, the ban provided the occasion for an art action pointing at the heart of the matter: An army tent circled by sand bags, tank traps and barbed wire was set up in one of the Museumsquartier's courts with the idea of highlighting the political maneuvering of "curator" Waldner, and reminding decision makers that "art and culture are in no way comfortable, let alone pleasing".
The statements screened by "remote viewing" were intended to underline the continuing need, contrary to public declarations, to struggle for and defend cultural diversity. How serious Public Netbase was about this became manifest when in the night from 26 to 27 September, 2002, a tent installation surprisingly appeared at a central spot of the Museumsquartier. Under its title "Remote Jam", this Base Camp acted as a literally "shining" example of participatory media culture by featuring a novel internet application that allowed a world-wide audience to participate in a real-time musical composition – a loud and clear signal in favor of Public Netbase's re-entry. An agreement proposed by Vienna's government seemed to facilitate a compromise solution, but failed as a consequence of Waldner's rigid position, leading to the final eviction of this troublesome cultural institution in early 2002.
COMBAT ZONE KARLSPLATZ
Following its eviction, the base camp was moved to a location just outside the Museumsquartier, where the interactive SMS radio project "text-fm" was launched in cooperation with British media artists Graham Harwood and Matthew Fuller. A special software converting incoming messages into computer-generated voice responses, provided an interface between private and public space, once again underlining the need for critical art practice. In the end, the Government of Vienna agreed to recognize Public Netbase's cultural significance. While the City Council had already expressed itself in favor of Public Netbase's continuance at the Museumsquartier, it now gave assurances of stronger financial support. As a consequence, Public Netbase's survival was secured at least temporarily, allowing the group to continue its work at a temporary quarter (at Burggasse, later Neustiftgasse). Given the precariousnesss of its lease arrangements, Netbase focused on re-appropriation strategies in urban space, a location of media spectacles reflecting the symbolic order of existing rule. The specific occasion was provided by a debate that had been going on for years, and that concerned the rebuilding of the Karlsplatz square – an area to which Otto Wagner had already referred to as "wasteland". In the public mind, this centrally located square is a busy, traffic-ridden nightmare whose underground stations provide shelter to Vienna's drug addicts. Following decades of enlargements and reconstruction, Karlsplatz was now supposed to be converted into an "art space" that would generate more attention for the adjacent cultural institutions (Secession, Technical Museum, Musikverein, Künstlerhaus, Historical Museum, Kunsthalle). This manner of instrumentalizing art and culture indicated a political will to clear up this urban wilderness with its marginalized social groups.
"Upgrading the Karlsplatz art space" was one of the main objectives of Vienna's Councilor of Culture, Mailath-Pokorny, who had exchanged his previous post as Federal Art Secretary for this position in the Vienna City Government. The reconstruction of the Vienna Underground did, in fact, provide an opportunity to transform the traffic hub Karlsplatz into an attractive urban environment, and to turn its sub-surface space into a thriving cultural location. In order not to leave the debate in the hands of Austria's most notorious tabloid "Kronen-Zeitung" and its readership, Public Netbase launched a citizen's group in early 2003 that demanded a dynamic experimental space for the 21st century. Its motto was "Open up Karlsplatz! Make way for open cultures!". The fake statements published by the group, often purposefully expressed in clumsy wording, pointed at the shortcomings of cultural policies concerning the Museumsquartier, both in an aesthetic and argumentative manner. By contrast, the "Karlsplatz art space" had the potential of becoming a focus of critical art and media discourse, and an abode of non-compliant art debates that would literally stand out into the world. When the City of Vienna suggested that the visionary Karlsplatz plan was going to be yet another attempt of a mere embellishment, Public Netbase embarked on another political intervention: In order to reappraise the question of public space in the public debates, Netbase organized the two-day "Open Cultures" conference in the early summer of 2003.
At the Kunsthalle's "Project Space", international speakers demanded free access to information and education, backing up the request for an institutionalized structure for independent art and media producers.
Leaving behind emotionalized tags such as "drug square" and "traffic nightmare", Karlsplatz was supposed to become a "productive urban jungle", rather than being trimmed and dressed by bourgeois security paranoia. A "Free Media Camp" set up by Public Netbase, Radio Orange 94.0, and PUBLIC VOICE Lap on 27 June, 2003 in cooperation with MALMOE magazine and cultural lobbying group IG Kultur Wien, left no doubt that there was no lack of concrete initiatives towards a cultural renovation of Karlsplatz. The Media Camp, whose presence at Karlsplatz throughout the summer carried a strong symbolic value, offered more than one hundred events dealing with the precarious survival of free media in Austrian cultural and media policies, and demanded strong foundations for a participatory public in a future network democracy. The latter is jeopardized not only by governments, but increasingly by private business interests, as a further step in the Karlsplatz campaign was going to show: together with the international artists group 0100101110101101.ORG, Public Netbase staged a fake re-naming of Karlsplatz to "Nikeplatz", with the idea of highlighting the disappropriation of public space occurring at many places. However, the "hardly believable Nikeplatz trick" was not directed against Nike per se; it was meant to illustrate the symbolic dominance of global business in public space. In recent years, the boundaries between the public and private realms have been experiencing a shift, transforming open urban space into semi-public areas. This process of privatization, manifest at railway stations, city squares, and shopping centers, leads to the exclusion of large segments of the public, in particular of groups already at the margins.
The fact that Nike, a sporting goods producer known for its underground marketing strategies, would threaten to litigate for 78,000 Euros of damages, only strengthened the artists' determination to make the functioning of public space the object of their work.
The world-wide interest generated by this action, then, can be accounted for by the important function of contemporary artistic practice interested in the real means of production in a society increasingly determined by media and technology. The artistic reflection of symbols of everyday culture provides an example of a new form of intervention in public space: "We see it as our task to initiate a debate on the conflict between public interests and the commercialization of all realms of life, and to expand the scope of action by directly intervening in urban and media space" (Becker 2003). The action was meant to spark off new ideas for a future "Karlsplatz art space" by showing how a combination of net art, politics, and theory delivers alternatives to a culture of representation. However, the Vice Mayor of Vienna, Grete Laska, finally appeared to be overcharged by such a radical construction of a critical public. As a response to the Media Camp, she cancelled Public Netbase's budget at the end of March 2004. As a result, ongoing efforts to obtain space at the Karlsplatz, as had become necessary following the eviction from the Museumsquartier, ended up in nothing. Instead of an "art space" providing a solid base for critical culture and media discourse, Vienna witnessed the establishment of Austria's first "protection zone" symbolizing police order and zero tolerance vis-à-vis drug addicts.
Security policy was at the center of yet another Public Netbase action at Karlsplatz: together with Slovene artist Marko Peljhan, and heralding the slogan "Eyes in the skies, democracy in the streets", the fictitious civil counter renaissance system "S-77CCR" was presented to the Viennese public from 13 to 27 May, 2004. At a time when street protests against the right-wing government still took place every Thursday, a counter renaissance system operating with unmanned aerial vehicles was supposed to provide civil society with the required information advantage vis-à-vis the police, the military, and the secret services. The idea of a civil society counter renaissance did generate a certain amount of nervousness – as the response from the Interior Ministry indicated: The Ministry made it clear that the expansion of surveillance systems as promoted by the Government did not represent a "charter for so-called counter-surveillance". Sure enough, the stealthy privatization of public space is itself a result of the outsourcing of public security to private contractors. "Lawful" surveillance by third parties undercuts the distinction, crucial to every democracy, between the public and the private realms, and fosters the acceptance of control technologies in all areas of life. The progressive disappropriation of public space, and the consequent weakening of civic rights, requires concrete strategies of re-appropriation. In the "Free Bitflows" event – a package of conferences, exhibitions and workshops on new forms of accessing and distributing knowledge – Public Netbase showed that such strategies also concern digital space. Together with Vienna's largest political sound project "Free RePublic", in the summer of 2004 presented for the fourth time by the Austrian National Union of Students and various youth organizations, Free Bitflows was one of the last signals demanding an "underground" media tower at the "Karlsplatz art space". "Such an inverted tower is not a metaphor, but rather the creation of something invisible, of discourse and dissent, of a conflictual public" (Raunig 2003). Precisely because in early 2006 Public Netbase had to pay for its unbending position with its own existence, it continues to be an example for the possible inversion of cultural concepts, for digging pits of one's own in the cultural landscape. For sure, the intermission at the combat zone won't last long.