Building a Netbase from Scratch
In 1993 Der Spiegel reported that status-conscious hipsters were very proud of their "email-adresses", distinguished by the funny-looking teletype-character "@".
At about the same time, an obscure magazine aptly named Wired (pun intended) had started to hyperventilate about all things digital. Visionaries were gloating over the prediction that the internet, or "World-Wide-Web", would soon be marginalizing mainstream media, phone companies and other information monopolists.
Konrad and I were among those enthusiasts and most certainly no strangers to marginalization, although to the receiving end. To us it was clear that we could hijack the new medium, wire the subculture, give the underground a voice, put avant-garde theory on massive rotation and marginalize back! Fortunately, Konrad and I were well prepared, for this was the second time we were hit by a computer revolution.
In the early 80s, when I was coming of age tinkering with transistors, synthesizers and microcomputers, Konrad and I formed a productive partnership as early and enthusiastic adopters of the then new technology. Like the internet in 1993, microcomputers evoked more sympathy than awe. LEDs flashed, buzzers chirped and UFOs zapped – "so what?" asked superficial observers.
But superficial observer I was not, and my fascination with the material found an interesting application: experimental music, artistic expression, artificial life... And whenever I ran out of technical problems or interesting uses, Konrad (then an achieved avant-garde musician and artist) stepped in and supplied them in abundance. For me, your prototypical computer-kid of "the Atari generation", the 80s were interesting times, and I was always happy to buy, trade, borrow, improve, explore and fry all sorts of amps, synthesizers, graphic cards, modems and computers – from the seminal C-64 over the insanely advanced Amiga to the obscure DAI.
Patience and ingenuity were not only key-virtues when it came to making those machines work, but also for procurement of equipment if you were poor. Our clique of geeks and artists and hybrids thereof discovered that you could trade technical proficiency and exposure for hardware if you proposed interesting projects to vendors and manufacturers.
At times Konrad and I traveled the world to show off orchestras of chips chiming the tune of the square-root of five or playing drum-sequences on animal furs stretched over PVC sewer-pipes (real ear-candy!).
This decade-long apprenticeship of thrift and improvisation and rooting in international art and art theory circuits were instrumental for the success of "The Public Netbase".
In the late 1980s and early 90s I put my computer-skills to good use at the AKH, the General Hospital in Vienna. I aimed to become a medical doctor, i.e. fix up and trouble-shoot the human body. While being a student, I started out as a cleaning droid for test-tubes at the AKH and worked myself into the hospital's IT-department where I computerized the management of the AKH's renal transplant waiting list with a database, for example. Most of the little money I earned, I invested into extra electronics for my Amiga and virtual reality experiments.
A logical intersection of medicine, art and the Amiga was "mind-machines". In the early 90s we made a visualization of bio-rhythms synced to psychoactive sound, what made some visitors at the "Tranceformer" presentations pretty high. Another great success was "Brain-Vader", an EEG-controlled Artificial Life-simulator. Since EEGs were expensive and I was poor, I built my own EEG from scratch.
However, the most interesting hardware at the AKH was an "internet-server" named kernighan. Like the entire internet at that time, kernighan was used as a tool for connecting scientists (typically rocket scientists) and serving their theses over FTP. Just as with the early toy-computers of the 80s, operation was tricky, instructions had to be read skeptically and tolerance against frustration had to be high. Probably for this reason, there was little competition for the machine, and I got inofficial permission to use kernighan for dissemination of all sorts of pamphlets on culture, society, new media and technology. The WWW was virtually unknown outside the CERN. The ruling tools were mailing lists, FTP-download and USENET, all text-based in its monochrome glory and collectively known as "The Internet". Then, in 1993, a web-server was installed on trusty old kernighan. Konrad and I were awed by the implications. Unlike the text-based, finicky sys-op-only world of "The Net", the WWW was virtual! visual! interactive! hyperlinked! fun! easy! Just the right thing to empower the people and find kindred spirits around the globe!
We were lucky that nobody found a use for the idly running web-server at the AKH, not even the system admins who had installed it under the pretext that it could serve "telemedicine" purposes. AKH officials turned a blind eye when Konrad and I tacitly were making kernighan the home for all sorts of art-theoretical manifestos, gender-issues in the age of cyborgs, hyperlinks to virtual museums and the like. I put my own computer-games and source-code for artificial life on an FTP-server and invited the public to contribute their own material. All those artifacts quickly found an enthusiastic international audience. Konrad and I fed the news on free hosting opportunities for digital art and experiments quickly into our global network of friends and contacts, and soon trusty old kernighan's bandwidth was disseminating pioneering new media uses, forum-dialogs on culture-critical issues and subversive pamphlets. Kernighan gave artists, experimenters and theoreticians outside the "white cube" a voice, a platform and, last but not least, each other. The only people who started to frown upon this development were kernighan's system administrators. By far, most of the AKH's bandwidth utilization was "data" entirely unrelated to the hospital's agenda. There simply was too much stuff going on for my benevolent colleagues to hide from their bosses. However, the sheer depth, breadth, reach and seriousness of that stuff gave us a lot of leverage when we looked around for other ways to support it.
Our proposal for "Public Netbase" was simple. We wanted to give web access to a large audience, in particular artists and younger people, and the public in general. We would educate anyone interested in the web, from organizing workshops for hands-on instruction to hosting week-long festivals sporting international multimedia artists, theorists and pioneers. All we needed was a location, some computers and modest amounts of money. We could point to our success with kernighan, our vibrant community, our own artistic achievements and our technical and operative prowess. If you think it was easy to convince prospects that we were well-suited for preparing The People for the 21st century, think again. Eventually, however, we got noticed by Stella Rollig, the curator of the Depot, a place for art-discourse in Vienna's high profile Museumsquartier (MQ). Stella Rollig liked our work and gave green light for us moving into rooms on the MQ's premises (former stables for the Emperor's horses). My end of the deal was to provide time and skill for the MQ's IT infrastructure and include its institutions in our plan for wiring and enlightening the people. Konrad and I soon we were running the MQ's LAN, various servers, and offered public web-terminals for Netbase users. We held weekly web-workshops and classes for students, government institutions, provided dial-up service and web-space for a dollar a month and let artists and experimentors use our two manufacturer-donated Silicon Graphics Indy workstations, one of them doubling as The Webserver, or, kernighan's successor at Public Netbase.
Soon Stella Rollig's Depot was teeming with cypher-punks, thrasher-dudes, sys-admins, web-heads, digital pamphleteers, computer graphic artists, virtual reality theorists and hackers – some of which had traveled for thousands of miles to meet us and check out our system. And due to our tradition with dissent, spectacles and guerilla humor, Public Netbase had a lot of press, and the reactions and reviews of the cultural establishment were "varied". To our surprise, a comparably innocent event – "Sex, Lies and the Internet" – resulted in litigation over years with Austria's ostracized right-wing FPÖ party and Jörg Haider, its leader. At its peak, Public Netbase was the Internet Service Provider for thousands of people, a well-entrenched think-tank for a large variety of government institutions, its website(s) had millions of visits a year, we were quoted and invited by international art institutions and festivals, and it was a lot of fun, to boot.
Today, in 2008, two years after the end of Netbase, there is no doubt that the web is more than a short-lived fad for busy-bodies and evil pornographers, as the wishful thinking of the mainstream media claimed when Public Netbase was established. The web has grown up and permeated virtually all nooks and crannies of society, often more than some people can handle. Web-access and -exposure is not a privilege anymore, as it was in the 90s. However, the fight for being heard, seen and taken seriously will continue, and also who is allowed to know what. In fact, control of bits for the people and about the people will become one of the defining struggles of the 21st century. Public Netbase was just a very early player, but this agenda and aims will hopefully never run out of fashion.