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Obituary of an Endless Myth: Public Netbase, 1994-2006

by Brian Holmes

Creating the truth of our post-democratic societies is a deceptively simple affair. A thousand techniques lie ready at hand. Send out a mail-barrage of glossy brochures that will land on every coffee-table. Arrange for a headline in a best-selling local paper. Pre-empt a television newscast during prime digestion time. Stage an astonishing event on a public square. Organize an objective opinion poll proving the popularity of whatever fact you've just invented. Every major corporation or political party does such things at a snap of the fingers.

The American publicist Edward L. Bernays - who was born in old Vienna - put it like this: "The engineer of consent must create news.... The imaginatively managed event can compete successfully with other events for attention. Newsworthy events, involving people, usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence our ideas and actions."

Bernays sought to quell any fears about such influence. "Freedom of expression and its democratic corollary, a free press, have tacitly expanded our Bill of Rights to include the right of persuasion." These expanded rights were a result of technological advances: "All these media provide open doors to the public mind. Any one of us through these media may influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens." Of course there's just one condition: you must somehow obtain the millions of dollars that are required to get your favorite message through that wide-open door.

Enter the Institute for New Culture Technology/t0 - better known by the name of its physical installation, Public Netbase.

The project was launched by Konrad Becker and Francisco de Souza-Webber in 1994, in a bit of virtual space on the server of the General Hospital. Public Netbase soon became an Internet-access provider in its own right, but also a workshop organizer and exhibition/conference venue, offering a casual "E-scape Lounge" for all kinds of reading and relaxing people. It shared a location with the Depot discussion group before opening a full-fledged media lab at the still-unreconstructed MuseumsQuartier in 1997. Its aim was to create alternative culture, critical analysis and unpredictable urban happenings, by experimenting with networked media-machines. After a few years of development, the Netbase would be able to send an image into every living room, to replace the daily paper as an information source, to rival with the TV, to catalyze events in the city, to reveal shocking facts on outdoor screens and even to orchestrate public opinion polls. All of this, not through the expenditure of huge amounts of cash, but through the direct cooperation of inventive people. As though the raging Leviathan of modern mass communications could still be tamed by mischievous Lilliputians. This was the tantalizing illusion - perhaps influenced by the goals of one of Konrad Becker's more notorious performance-pieces, entitled "Resocializing the Devil."

Worlds of Opportunity

Not everyday do you get the chance to squat a brand-new global infrastructure, designed and perfected by the military-infotainment complex of the planet's sole remaining superpower. Still it's strange how few were there to seize the occasion. By filling a website with a free text-library, and a physical location with radical artists and thinkers attracted by the lack of bureaucratic control, Public Netbase became a north star or magnetic pole in the still-uncharted realms of networked culture.

The American writer Peter Lamborn Wilson a.k.a. Hakim Bey, author of the "Temporary Autonomous Zone," was there to inaugurate the media-space in 1997. Luther Blissett, the Italian activist movement that launched a bewildering series of media hoaxes all "signed" by an obscure English football player, was reincarnated at the Netbase for the Intergalactic Conference of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts. The Critical Art Ensemble carried out their genexploitation project Fleshmachine. Group exhibitions like Robotronika, Synworld or Interface Explorer opened pathways through the latest technical and artistic possibilities, while conferences and performance events like Infobody Attack, Information Terror (including a container-module near the Statsoper) and Sex, Lies and the Internet took up questions around the clashes between freedom and control in the emerging social dreamscape of the networks. All that culminated in the exhibition and conference series entitled World Information, which had various incarnations in Brussels, Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Munich, Helsinki, Novi Sad, Belgrade and finally Bangalore. Serious data mining was giving rise to subversive and satirical cultural forms. The specialty of the Netbase could be described as "the infosculpture of dissident mythologies."

On the international scene, Public Netbase will be remembered for some of its later conferences, like "Dark Markets: Infopolitics, electronic media and democracy in times of crisis," or "Open Cultures: Free flows of information and the politics of the commons" - and perhaps best of all, for the amazing exhibition stunts it staged on the Karlsplatz. One of the masterpieces of tactical media, Nikeground - Rethinking Space, carried out with the Italian group 0100101110101101.ORG, involved the semi-legal installation of a bright red, split-level container weighing several tons, with displays and information panels revealing the uncannily plausible hoax of corporate plans to rebrand entire urban districts and replace traditional monuments with brutally simplified logos exploded to massive scale. System-77 Civil Counter-Reconnaissance, done in collaboration with the Slovene artist Marko Peljhan, was a tent-like structure sporting a high-performance communication antenna and filled inside with plans and mock-ups of miniaturized, camera-equipped drone aircraft to be used by civilians for counter-surveillance of the formidable snooping arsenals now trained on all of us by the secret services and even the local police. S-77 CCR featured footage of police actions from the anti-Haider protests of the year 2000, injecting a strictly Viennese reference into these complex projects driven by sophisticated analysis of world-wide trends. But what most people from abroad will never have realized it that the Karlsplatz itself was the theater of a largely tacit conflict over what kind of city people want to live in.

A large open space on the edge of the tourist-flooded first district, the Karlsplatz was perceived by city managers as a zone of drug-addiction and deviant behavior. Early plans involved transforming it into a bizarre sort of surveillance park that would literally be called "Kontrolplatz." Finally the underlying intention was cloaked in acceptable guise and the idea of "Kunstplatz" emerged. When artists and alternative media-makers stage occupations of a public space - as they did with the Free Media Camp on the Karlsplatz, with events every night from June to October 2003 - what is at stake are the real meanings of the word "art," and the possibility to have ideas and expressions of your own in a society that tries very seriously, with the use of very considerable technical means, to "engineer the consent" of its unwitting citizens.
Going out Kicking
The Netbase is dead, and you're reading its obituary. The reasons for its disappearance have everything to do with the continuing need for critique in a networked, future-oriented technological society that has never managed to rid itself of any of its old demons.

Public Netbase was celebrated by everyone in the social-democratic cultural establishment of Austria during the year 2000, when it staged campaign after campaign against the far-right Freedom Party government, lent logistic, communicational and aesthetic support to the protests, and staged roundtable conferences like "Der gläserne Mensch: Grundrechte im Informationszeitalter," held under the auspices of the fake-official site, But in 2001 the same Public Netbase was considered persona non grata at the remodeled MuseumsQuartier (which now resembles a banking complex for pictures). The growing sophistication and depth of its investigations and projects - including the online election-polling tool, invented in collaboration with well known political scientists - was apparently perceived as a threat by municipal politicians and funding officials, unable to comprehend the urgency of supporting a critical civil society at a time when control drives are reappearing everywhere, with all their atavistic force. Faced with a project that was overspilling conventional aesthetic and intellectual limits, the establishment treated it exactly as they have traditionally treated the avant-garde - by fearing and despising it, and forcing it back to non-existence for want of the most minimal comprehension and support.

Public Netbase could have become a neutral and innocuous cultural institution like hundreds of others, biting its tongue in order to keep the funding-streams flowing. But the people who worked on its dissident imaginaries preferred to take the mythical status of an exemplary counter-institution, and to refuse the resignation of a failed adventure that lives on after its own death, just as the ordinary vampires do. True to the project's origins on a hospital server, they wanted to peel away the soft gauze and bandages from a media-battered society's eyes - to tear the veil of aesthetic complacency that covers up the hardware of engineered consent.

Let it rip!

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