Reclaiming Spaces and Symbolic Culture Netbased Public Interventions in Vienna
"Reclaim the Net" was a theme that Public Netbase took up in the late nineties, the time of the dotcom bubble and its subsequent crash. This was about reclaiming public space for free speech, free electronic media and digital cultural practice. The time was both right and difficult. The need for creative forms of resistance was as urgent as never before.
Clearly, global domination has long become de-territorialized and the implementation of power is now grounded in the control of flows and symbols. Nonetheless a "Reclaim the Streets" movement emerged in the early nineties as a form of protest, quickly spreading around the world.
"Street parties" were held in cities all over Europe, Australia, North America, and even Africa. Dedicated to reclaiming public space from being an arena for control society and consumerism, these tactics successfully countered the isolation of diversified urban lives.
Critical Hedonism, the basis for a culture beyond simple pleasure-seeking, is gaining in importance in fearfully bored societies. Angst as a tool to leverage behavioral changes is especially efficient if suggestions to the target are feasible, and above all largely practicable. Symbolic domination of informational societies is not in conflict with a bio-political order or symbolic culture in the flesh.
People need escape routes not only from political oppression or exclusion. They must find ways of escapist engineering away from a demonic circulation of forced labor and recreation, to escape the symbolic dominance and cultural entrainment of global capitalism. These actions to create a presence on the street were not intended to disturb the flow of commodities, but to playfully intervene into the symbolic landscape of the city. The virtual world of digital communication and the streets are closer to each other than it may seem.
POLITICAL DANCE MOVES AND THE NEW FLANEURS ON THE BLOCK
In Vienna, these issues came to the forefront when, in 2000, a new right-wing government was formed, which included a far-right party that had previously been ostracized. The forms of protests on the street were a burst of popular cultural resistance unseen in this country and Public Netbase served as an important organizing platform, providing a large number of initiatives with technological and cultural support. Never before had Vienna seen so much anti-riot police force in martial uniforms, combat helmets and shields. In all cultures of the world it is part of folklore to drive out the evil spirits and to clean the atmosphere with noise, yelling and drumming, to banish them with loud music. These ancient practices were adopted in a brand new folk culture to dispel dark powers through "sound-politicization", a project by Volkstanz one of the many groups innovating cultural resistance. Initially Volkstanz was a label I used in the early eighties for collaborations with Turkish immigrants, playing nouveau electronic folk with songs like "Native Austrians Out!". The name struck well with the group of people meeting at Netbase to organize the cultural dissent on the streets of Vienna. When the daily protest marches in Vienna faded to the regular Thursday demonstrations, Volkstanz decided to stage weekly street protests on Saturdays. Artists were asked to give incendiary speeches, musicians and DJs were put to work and hundreds of flyers, stickers, posters and banners were produced. As I wrote in the FAQ on the website "Gestures are infectious, movements are contagious" and Volkstanz developed some unique forms of political street theatre mobilization with small trucks and mobile sound systems. Focusing on raising awareness, preparing action and listening to good music, six dozen events in resistance against the sexist, racist and antisocial politics were realized. 200 km of Vienna streets were covered in planned visits or aimless wandering but the tourist areas proved to be increasingly sensitive and usually ended in a shuffle with riot police. When the police increasingly curbed the zones of access for the free roaming Volkstanz group, bring-your-radio demos organized in cooperation with the local community radio brought 1000 mobile micro sound systems to bloom instead. Every Saturday for one and a half years Volkstanz did reclaim the Streets in a multitude of alliances.
When weekly Volkstanz mobilizations proved hard to sustain, a new group formed around Public Netbase. On July 7th 2001 more than fifty institutions and organizations, 40 trucks loaded with sound-systems and "Free RePublic", with a crowd of more than 50,000, paraded on the inner city circular Ring street. There was a highly diversified message that reflected the heterogeneity of the participants and was free of any corporate or sponsorship. A far cry from the commodified, neo-liberal, business-hippy "Loveparades", it drew inspiration from the legendary Vienna Free Party I was involved in organizing in 1994, a protest march which brought 50 sound-vehicles and close to 200,000 people on the Ring. It was a loud and celebratory political protest against the crackdown on the thriving independent party and rave scene existing at that time, comparable to the UK Criminal Justice Act. In line with this tradition, Free RePublic not only stood up against the government, but stood for social self-determination – rather than racism, sexism, discrimination and institutionalized violations of human rights. It demanded free access to education and the promotion of participatory electronic media – instead of tuition fees and the dismantling of democratic structures. Free RePublic called for the right of self-organization, and opposed the commercialization of all areas of life and the sellout of youth culture. Free RePublic was not only against a climate hostile to freedom of expression, the criminalization of dissent, and the intimidation of cultural and marginalized groups – it was for the right to a self-determined life.
LOCATIVE MEDIA, ART AND RESISTANCE
The Basecamp installation series illustrated the approach of staking claims both in the real and the virtual worlds. This series came in three parts which were designed to highlight the politics around a new cultural complex in Vienna, the so-called Museumsquartier (MQ). Located next to the Imperial Palace and the museums, the old imperial stables served as a venue for trade fairs and exhibitions for many decades before falling into disrepair and being colonized by small initiatives and cultural groups. Heralded as a space for critical and heterogeneous cultural practice and advanced artistic experimentation, it later became a symbolic asset of conservative political forces to test their ideas of hegemonic control through a culture of consumerist entertainment. Unsurprisingly, these forces were determined to cleanse the area from all critical groups independent organizations considered all too dangerous. At the time of the pre-opening of the newly renovated Museumsquartier, a charade of negotiations with critical groups, and the pretense of wanting to include them into the new structures were still played to the media. For this reason Public Netbase was officially invited to present an artistic project in the pre-opening event end of June 2001 and decided to do Remote Viewing. This was an installation project equipped with internet and data projection interfaces allowing interventions into the local environment on urban digital screens, a kind of open-access electronic billboard. It meant that the invited artists and those with internet access and a password could anonymously post on a big video screen visible to large audiences. Invited artists included Martin Krenn, Oliver Ressler, Maschek, Bady Minck, Max Moswitzer, Eva Wohlgemuth, Christian Hessle, and WR. However, as the Prime Minister and head of the ruling conservative party was scheduled to attend the opening, the Museumsquartier management began to be anxious lest artists might spoil the occasion with critical comments. Eager to avoid indignation or offense on the part of right-wing government officials, the management made it clear that uncensored art would not be tolerated. In flagrant violation of the freedom of art, and negating the potentials of real-time dialogue on the net, only pre-screened and authorized postings and graphics were going to be allowed. Earlier versions of Remote Viewing were displayed internationally at festivals and museums in Antwerp, Dublin, Chicago, and at many other places, meeting with consistent success. In what seemed an inevitable act of civil disobedience, the installation was installed illegally. Slogans, graphics and animations were displayed online as well as locally in a military defense installation set up in the Museumsquartier's Staatsratshof court – all secured in a military tent surrounded by barbed wire, sandbags, and mobile obstacles.
Instead of being removed after the opening weekend, the defense installation remained in place as a highly visible symbol of dissent. Despite a compromise achieved between Public Netbase and the Museumsquartier management in August, it became evident in early autumn that the agreements would not be honored. Harassment of critical voices continued, and the temporary removal of organizations like Depot and Public Netbase, initially for purposes of renovation works, was going to be final. The need to draw attention to a supposedly guaranteed, but in actual fact very unlikely return to the Museumsquartier was a challenge met by placing a highly visible work of art in the main court of the MQ. In the night of 26 September 2001, the installation located in Staatsratshof was unexpectedly moved into the center of the MQ's attention. As an installation, it was developed further and engaged a new framework for artistic projects in electronic space. The new Public Netbase Basecamp with its rows of vertical fluorescent
light columns presented a "shining" example of applied transparency and participatory digital media culture. The visual attractiveness of the green fluorescent glow of a transparent tent structure in the middle of a pool and reflected by its water allowed for an experience of concerts on the net which were broadcasted by the built-in loudspeakers. A new open source internet application invited all users to participate in a musical composition in real time, a global online jam session. Although the installation was met with overwhelming agreement on the part of visitors and the surrounding institutions, the management decided to act against Public Netbase with unprecedented ferocity. Even before the installation went into service, MQ staff violently intervened against its deployment, although the destruction of the object could be prevented in the last moment. But it can be tough to find a licensed electrician in Vienna who would be prepared to give a professional legal clearance for a technical installation when threatened with severe personal consequences. Instead of honoring the agreements, the MQ management decided to mobilize its solicitors and to once again initiate litigation against artists and cultural workers. Although the director of the MQ had always preferred to conduct his dialogue with cultural workers via lawyers, the trespassing and eviction action against Public Netbase marked an all time low. Conservative politicians in Austria always challenged the need for physical space in digital culture. This aversion to physical space for "deviant" cultural practice was telling.
Already in 1998, Public Netbase established sound generation as collective cultural production. In cooperation with the London-based "Society of Unknowns", a freight container was installed in front of Vienna's opera house. Bearing the title "Information Terror", it acted as a psychogeographical feedback device. Listeners operated the device via email and web address indicated on all sides of the container. Sound was generated from texts converted to midi information and samples, fed into a mix board installation at Public Netbase, and transmitted to the container as audio stream. Information Terror was expressive of a culture of remixing and sampling in which originality was dismissed in favor of collectivity and anonymity, and art concepts of composition and authorship were destroyed in a public decoding of both urban and media spaces. Demonstrating once more its mobility and flexibility, Public Netbase's new Basecamp model moved to a location at Mariahilferstraße just outside of the MQ in January 2002. With the new installation, Public Netbase called attention to the escalating conflicts inside the MQ complex, as well to the political intimidation practiced around it, and a marketing budget of millions. Apart from its function as a "blazing" symbol of critical cultural practice, and acting as the sole landmark of a cultural diversity that was a constant in MQ rhetoric, the semi-transparent orange mesh tent, illuminated by two rows of vertical lights, was also a "sonar" media installation. Passers-by and remote users could listen to and interact with Text-FM, a participatory SMS-to-Radio project created by British artists Graham Harwood and Matthew Fuller, in collaboration with Public Netbase. With instructions silk-screened on the netlike fabric of the tent, users were invited to send short text messages to a mobile number that transformed them into computer-generated voices, creating an interface between public and private space. Cooperation with local bars and the community radio "Orange" gave the project even wider presence. Unfortunately, it was repeatedly set on fire by "unknowns" and finally went down in flames.
URBAN ZONES OF CULTURAL CONFLICT
In 2002 it became clear that the MQ was a totally lost case in terms of emancipatory and independent cultural practice. All critical groups that were not in possession of solid contracts and did not enjoy the support those in power were thrown out. Slimeballs moved in, useful idiots ready to serve as window dressers and minions of a conservative hegemony. The bland stupidity of a less-than-sophisticated notion of creative industries, with its cultural shopping malls, gastronomical sites and recreation zones, was put into practice at the MQ. Confronted with this hopeless situation, Public Netbase had to look into new strategies for an urban culture action plan in Vienna. Karlsplatz, an inner-city redevelopment area with an image problem, was identified as the new theatre of battle. The idea was to combine high-profile urban dynamics with the idea of advancing emancipatory forces. A traffic hub and low-life refuge, with a large amount of committed restructuring funds and a high situational potential, Karlsplatz seemed the right choice. Developing an operation plan for the territory of contention included intelligence assessment and reconnaissance, procuring plans and restructuring concepts and talking to the City Councilor for Urban Development about possible areas for new cultural practice. It also meant preparing the ground with psychological themes, writing newspaper commentaries and press releases on the issue, handle rumors and generally make it a subject, to collaborate with academics for high level panel discussions and engage in political negotiations with City Councilor for Arts and local powerbrokers. Tactical maneuvers included launching a front group called "Öffnet den Karlsplatz" ("open Karlsplatz"), a fake citizen initiative propaganda campaign, fake government press releases, "funny" papers and immersed actions. Some people found out about it but played along anyway – there was no need to go to great lengths to "hide" it; some thought it strange or fake but didn't know who or what – but many more, officials or not, thought it authentic. Early June 2003, the international conference on free flows of information and the politics of the commons, "Open Cultures", was positioned prominently on location at Kunsthalle Wien. But Free RePublic 03's tactical advance to Karlsplatz on 14 June was denied access by police and the nice protest party with more than twenty sound-systems had to escape to a space between the baroque museums, just opposite the MQ. In a surprise attack launched on 27 June, Karlsplatz was repossessed and a free Mediacamp was set up that consisted of containers and the old Basecamp tent and featured radio and satellite linkups, a free hotspot, daily workshops, discussions, screenings, performances, concerts and parties. Established as an illegal base for regular cultural practice and media discourse, its demands were not only targeted at the right-wing government, but also the city of Vienna itself: A space that would free cultural media from its marginalized and precarious state. The base of a broad alliance of heterogeneous groups in independent media practice squatting the place was heavily reliant on the logistics and structural support of Netbase, but at last it was not the lack of resources that ended this temporary autonomous zone in October. It was the imminent threat of brute force removal.
The city government became very suspicious of activities on this location. Consequently, obtaining a permit for a temporary installation with 100101110101101.ORG shortly after the Mediacamp was removed, proved impossible despite intense efforts. Although all the safety requirements were met down to the smallest details, the installation had to be done illegally. A two-story high-tech design container with glass fronts was set up, hosting the tactical media project Nikeground. The project addressed the issue of symbolic domination, corporate commercialization and public space by way of a drastic example.
In May 2004, following a live performance of Signal Sever! and the opening of a massive temporary installation between the Otto Wagner pavilions, the System-77 Civil Counter Reconnaissance consortium announced its plan to set up a surveillance base in Vienna. Dr Brian Holmes, S-77CCR speaker in Paris, declared: "We are convinced that the city of Vienna will support the release of surveillance technologies for civil society, not just for democratic reasons, but also for economic ones". The unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles (UAVs) made it into the evening news of private TV, and the Interior Minister saw himself obliged to come forward with an official denial. The installation set up by PACT Systems/Projekt Atol aroused a high level of police anxiety and plain-clothes interest. The intervention picked the civil unrest of the year 2000 as its central theme, and provided demo-ware demonstrating tactical uses of S-77 in Vienna as part of the installation. Instead of looking at Seattle, Genoa or Geneva, S-77's planning routines were informed by the local protest movement that emerged after a right-wing government was installed in 2000. The spectrum of swarm activities and above all the extreme mobility of actors was a foremost reason to select this particular form of civil protests for demonstration purposes. In early June, events such as Shu Lea Chang's TramJam and installations produced as part of the "Free Bitflows" festival on cultures of access and the politics of dissemination succeeded yet another time in penetrating the security zone created around Karlsplatz. One Saturday in early August 2004, the fourth edition of Free RePublic was finally occupying Nikeplatz itself. With dozens of organizations and sound systems protesting against increasing restrictions and repression in everyday live, it was a great party and a successful politicization of public space.
At that point in time, though, Public Netbase had already made itself the enemy of the entire political establishment, regardless of party affiliation. Clearly, politicians were not amused, and warnings had been expressed earlier. It was also very clear that the repossessing of physical space itself was seen as a most significant offence. Plans were made to get rid of a project that continued to be a public troublemaker. Soon these measures would take effect, and by 2005 Netbase's synthetic terror cell ZKW was only virtual. Looking back some might think that it was all in vain, since seemingly nothing was gained and all hopes had to be buried. But what would have been lost if it wouldn't have been done.
Looking into the future, what is needed are new strategies of resistance that the virtual and the real, the symbolic and the physical. Building on an understanding of practices in the past, new forms of critical interventions beyond artistic gimmicks must be developed. Today more than ever, culture is economically exploited and bio-politically instrumentalized. The idea of a critical public as a prerequisite for democratic societies is widely being abandoned. In the face of this, it is crucial not to fall back into repeating history as a farce and instead to push ahead with lucid analyses that then may lead to future intelligent tactics. The challenges ahead demand cogent processes that enable new and advanced concepts of cultural articulation.