A Look at Vienna's Ruins of Future
A commentary from Berlin.
How times change! Ten years ago, we Berliners became pale with envy when we looked at Vienna's urban media culture landscapes – what a boundless ocean of possibilities! Vienna was brimming with media art, creative cranks, and critical media projects. This was a time when public broadcasting took an intrigued glance at free radios, when museums adorned themselves with the unpredictable, and when a greenhouse of art and academia produced the most beautiful wondrous plants and personalities. Ten years later, the last cherry is being picked from the cake as Public Netbase is being closed down, or, at any rate, prevented from continuing its work.
Ever since the mid nineties, Public Netbase was one of the most internationally acclaimed platforms for critical thinking on media and on the development of art in the age of information. It was with pride that those who had introduced the political into the discourses on the "new" digital network media – the Lovinks, Warks, Kurtz's, Fieldings, Holmes, Fullers, Wilsons and Druckerys – remarked that they had presented their ideas at a Public Netbase event. Public Netbase, which had soon become more than a mere provider of network services, had launched the important World-Information.Org in 2000, a project which showed how urgent a hyped media world required a critical, intelligent and persistent enquiry in order for it to be able to shape the information society in a somehow democratic manner. And then there were impressive gestures such as Nikeground or the critical bio performances of Critical Art Ensemble. Vienna's audience was at the heartbeat of global time.
A project of this kind has to sail near the wind, and it risks passionate friendships as well as enmities. However, anyone interested in clever media policies will retain such structures in order to be able to keep abreast with new developments that artists do, in fact, often sense and articulate years before the rest of society. Locations are needed where the international discourse can become locally manifest, where experiments with new technological systems can be performed and possible consequences be simulated. The fact that the proud city of Vienna bereaves itself of Public Netbase, and appears to limit the sponsorship of critical media initiatives to project pittances, shows an open refusal to face up to the challenges of a future that will be determined by digital systems and complex circuits.
Who will organize the key conferences on new forms of creative network communication, on copyright legislation, on the "third world" of the information age? Linz's Ars Electronica, always eager to hide its critical potential behind pro-American populism and faked techno euphoria will hardly want to fill this gap.
It would certainly be nice rhetoric if one could say, "Vienna, why don't you risk a look across your borders?" – Unfortunately, even in the Netherlands, the promised land of media culture, all relevant institutions are driving with their hand-brakes fastened, moving in a deeply unsettled society afraid of its present, not its future. In Helsinki, the Nokia Community counts the sold product units instead of thinking about the emerging iPod world. Karlsruhe's ammunitions factory of 1990s installation art re-enacts the burial of the past century every six months, its increasingly monumental exhibitions always have a huge catalogue on top serving as gravestone.
In Britain, once the fourth carrier of hopes of a European media culture, where lottery money has paid for the ruins of a misguided policy, minuscule networks have to laboriously rebuild what years ago was available for much less money.
Well then, Vienna, welcome to the club, go on cherishing and despising your cultural heritage as before, and don't let buzzing computers, camera lenses, or system failures in intelligent buildings bother you. Those with a hunger for machines and an addiction to media, the X-boxers, will tear down the temples of the old soon enough, for in their part of reality, nothing really significant – a stunning adventure in a virtual world, a sound unheard of, an online community of the sincere – has ever received "institutional support", and along with the junk of the past they will also throw overboard this relic of an outdated concept of culture. We will live in cultural ruins of interest only to Asian tourists. Welcome to the club.