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  Opposing nest culture: the political conflicts of Public Netbase, 1994-2006
by Katharina Ludwig

In early 2006, after 12 years of internationally successful work, the Vienna-based internet group Public Netbase closed its doors for good. The complete withdrawal of all funding by the City of Vienna meant that Public Netbase, whose work had provided an interface between art, science, new media, and civic education, had to completely abandon a program that had already stripped in previous rounds of cuts. Offering a wide range of activities and services, Public Netbase was leading the way in exchanges and debates around the internet understood as a culture technology, and over the years became a focal point of the critical public. In a country whose cultural policies are based on “nests” rather than nets, this aroused suspicion and resentment. The political history of Public Netbase shows the impossibility of a sustained and critical cultural practice in place where slander campaigns are mistaken for culture, and where funding programs are used for settling accounts.

1. TECHNOLOGICAL ENLIGHTENMENT AND OFFICIAL IGNORANCE

Foundational work for critical internet use
According to an information leaflet published by the Austrian Government’s State Secretariat for Art, 80 percent of the role of information and communication technologies in the information society of Austria consists in conservation: “e-culture aims to preserve cultural heritage through the use of information and communication technologies, and represent it in a transparent and tangible way; it seeks to promote the engagement with cultural and knowledge heritage, rendering the cultural heritage of the nation accessible to interested parties at home and abroad” (1). From this point of view, net culture would amount to digitizing Mozart. By contrast, Public Netbase, founded in 1994 by Konrad Becker and Francisco Webber, sought to promote an understanding of new media as a means of expression capable of transcending established orders and norms, and suitable for emancipatory purposes. Artists and cultural workers could familiarize themselves with the possibilities offered by the new technologies and gain free access to the internet. Introductory workshops and lectures were offered in order to exchange the required know-how. Before long, the number of users on the t0 platform had risen to 1000. From the beginning, socio-cultural and political reflection in areas such as the politics of information, the question of rights in the world-wide web, and issues such as surveillance were of primary importance.

Lobbying and official futurologists
In parallel to building structures from below, public authorities were lobbied and involved in debates on basic aspects. According to Konrad Becker, Director of Public Netbase’s carrier organization Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0, decision makers in culture considered the internet a temporary fad no one would remember a few years later. “In fact, we were facing ignorance and skepticism from the very beginning. Early on we were functioning as a sort of info workshop, and directly approached politicians and administrators, explaining them why the internet was a theme of wider social significance, and not merely a ‘gimmick’”. Soon the Netbase team gained “a special status as experts and futurologists”, became involved in the activities of the Austrian EU Presidency in 1998 and acted as Austria’s official representative in conferences of the EU Commission, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO.

2. THE LOGICS OF TRADITION AND LOCAL GROUNDING

FPOE attacks: Nest foulers and the “clean internet”
As national and international recognition mounted, Public Netbase aroused the attention of Austria’s extremist right-wing Freedom Party (FPOE). The program series “sex.net. Sex, Lies and the internet” moved Public Netbase into the cross wire of anti-cultural and populist oppositional policies. The FPOE accused the Art State Secretariat, headed by the Social Democrat Peter Wittmann, of spending tax money on “perverse and pornographic actionists”, and demanded a “clean internet” (Parliamentary enquiry of FPOE, 16 Aug. 1998). Jörg Haider’s FPOE, and its MPs Karl Schweitzer and Ewald Stadler had “used Public Netbase as a pretext to extend their cultural campaigns to the internet”, recalls Martin Wassermair, Public Netbase’s former General Manager. As in the cases of the writer and later Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek and theatre director Klaus Peymann, campaigns of slander and agitation were used in order to disqualify critical art as nest fouling.

The space question: net culture outlawed
This kind of “nest thinking” found its continuation in later conflicts concerning the availability of space for t0 at the Karlsplatz “art space”, and previously in the prestigious showcase project of the Museumsquartier. Public Netbase’s eviction from the former imperial mews that now house the Museumsquartier became a national political issue and the object of parliamentary debates. Politicians of the Austrian People’s Party (OEVP) governing in a coalition with the FPOE repeatedly argued that work with new media was fully independent from place and time, and that it was therefore unnecessary for it to be located precisely in Vienna and, above all, the Museumsquartier. “This office may also be located in Toronto or in a small town like Aspang, or wherever else.” (MP Gertrude Brinek, OEVP, Plenary Meeting of the National Council, 10 May, 2000). Instead of securing the presence of an innovative and successful organization that evidently needed more than just an IP address for organizing international conferences and workshops, MPs from the governing parties more or less explicitly encouraged Public Netbase to leave the Austrian art space.

3. ACTIVISM AGAINST FPOEVP AND SANCTIONS

Anti-governmental protests and electronic resistance
The roaring year 2000, when the OEVP formed a coalition government with Jörg Haider’s FPOE, triggering off a wave of protests both in Austria and the EU, marking a turning point in the public perception of the internet and of Public Netbase in particular. The protest movement against the coalition government brought the first massive use of the net as a tool of critical public opinion and cultural protest. Public Netbase’s culture server provided activist initiatives and groups such as gettoattack, volkstanz.net, no-racism.net and Volkstheaterkarawane with an online presence and a communication outlet. While Chancellor Schüssel’s government toured Europe during the “sanctions” period and pleaded for “fairness for Austria”, the multi-lingual platform government-austria.at offered different views and analyses of the government’s work to information seekers. The protest movement was labelled “cell phone and internet generation” by the rightist government, and Public Netbase became its cipher, a kind of “electronic Ernst Kirchweger house” (referring to a building in Vienna named after a socialist militant) and a red rag for the new traditionalist Austrian culture project. In a public hearing, FPOE MP Karl Schweitzer said: “Public Netbase does not just bite into the hand it is fed by, it is right at the government’s throat.”

Funding cuts and auditing
According to Martin Wassermair, Netbase’s work in the realms of social policies, critical participation, and culture, was read by the government as an uncomfortable “red-green” project. “The Schüssel government was committed to identifying symbolic victims that would provide the conservative turn with points of reference, and make it clear that culture was to be understood in parochial and edifying terms.” In the same year, Public Netbase’s basic subsidy was reduced to a level below subsistence, and funds already committed to the project World-Information.Org, part of the Brussels 2000 culture capital programming, were withdrawn. An auditing procedure of a type entirely uncommon in the culture industry was commissioned from KPMG Alpentreuhand auditors, providing the government with an “official” excuse to delay even that decision by one and a half years. “The audit went on over weeks on end and brought our work to a standstill”, says Konrad Becker. “It was designed to ruin this institution”.

4. POST-TURN CULTURAL POLICIES

Project funding replaces basic funding: culture on probation
The advances against Public Netbase were representative of a re-structuring of cultural sponsorship in Austria. A large number of groups saw their basic financing removed, forfeiting possibilities of long-term independent work. With applications for funding to the State Secretary for Art becoming more frequent, the latter’s possibilities of influencing the content of culture increased. Martin Wassermair: “Netbase was one of the most famous, most widely known and earliest victims. Netbase was made an example of the new cultural policy.” This single-out strategy was an official component of Austrian art and culture sponsorship. It was not by coincidence that OEVP politician Andreas Khol, President of the National Council, had promised to “separate the bucks from the sheep” in a parliamentary debate on subsidy cuts for civil society initiatives.

Privatization and “Netbase, Inc.”
In addition, the strategies adopted against Public Netbase bespoke an understanding of culture and information as merchandise, with little use for the demands of an open culture and free access to knowledge by new technologies. Both Public Netbase representatives identify this as the “logic of privatization, putting the private sector above the state”; a logic according to which private providers do everything better, and implying that “people should turn to private providers such as Chello or GMX if they want to do an art project”. Oddly enough, federal politicians continuously accused Public Netbase of being a profit-orientated company not worthy of public subsidies. This campaign sent ripples into the municipal politics of Vienna, raising suspicions and preparing the ground for the city’s posterior position according to which free server access for cultural workers would not require any subsidies.

5. THE CITY OF VIENNA AND THE EXCESS OF PUBLIC

Social democrat support: dissidence as election campaign accessory
As the attacks against Public Netbase continued and federal subsidies were nullified, the City of Vienna stepped in as sponsor. It was during the municipal election campaign of 2001 in particular, with federal issues dominating the agenda even more than usual, that the governing Social Democrats prominently backed Public Netbase. Martin Wassermair recalls rallies in which it was claimed that “the City of Vienna will not allow the Federal Government to destroy critical projects such as Public Netbase. Only two years later, this statement was worth nothing.” Indeed, the activities of the critical public and committed civil society received a positive feedback only as long as they could be used in the oppositional politics of the SPOE, or did at least not contradict them. However, once Netbase’s work had moved into the public space of Vienna and local potentials of participation and articulation became important themes, the previous democratic consciousness soon reached its limits.

Electional dynamics: independent education vs. party squabbles
Wahlkabine.at was a civic education project probing the statements of political parties for their agreement with the users’ demands. According to Martin Wassermair this project, a simulated online election booth, contributed to a decisive mood change. “The Viennese had begun to divide the world into friendly and hostile projects. Hostile projects were rejected.” In this type of thinking, critical projects are typically associated with the competing party. In the city of waltz, independent positions were apparently considered as tactless. Incensed officials told Konrad Becker that the online election tool did not render the “right” results. “Once you are caught in a swirl of political conflict”, Martin Wassermair remarks, “it becomes impossible to convince people with factual arguments, such as the quality of the Nikeground project, the quality of the Wahlkabine project, and many others.”

The city as fortress: “my home is my castle”
According to Martin Wassermair and Konrad Becker, the Nikeground project, a fake campaign claiming that Nike had acquired Vienna’s Karlsplatz square for promotional purposes, was officially understood as an attack directed at the city government. The musical parade Free Republic was considered primarily a source of noise and litter, and the demand for free expression voiced by the Mediacamp as an offensive against well-meaning city policies and a personal affront against Vice Mayor Mrs. Laska.

In 2004, these and other actions were followed by a cut in the funds for education and youth work previously provided by the city, and representing, alongside the cultural funds, the financial mainstay of Public Netbase. The official motive of this move was exemplified by the assertion that the workshops offered to young asylum seekers did not meet the criteria of the city’s promotional policies for young persons. “Laska’s withdrawal was justified in completely absurd terms and triggered off a circle of increasing debt; it was the beginning of the end. Art Secretary Morak and his staff must have jumped with joy when they realized that the City of Vienna had completed the job the Federal Government had been unable to do”, say Becker and Wassermair. In the fall of that year, Public Netbase was forced to discontinue its free ISP services for artists and cultural producers. No longer offering any “public” access, Public Netbase changed its name to Netbase.

6. THE NET CULTURE PADDLE

Promoting abutters: the politics of de-politization
In a strategy that brought together all projects occupying the Museumsquartier, the City introduced a model of sponsorship based on popularity points. Outside of the alliances bartering “peanuts” (as the currency of popular recognition is termed), the individual groups and initiatives adopt divided positions vis-à-vis the city government and the art state secretariat. In Wassermair’s words, “it finally became possible to drive the cannibalistic behavior of the independent art scene to its extreme. We have reached a point where people encounter one another primarily at court.” After years during which “resistance was the art of the hour”, supporters of a sterile, de-politicized notion of art finally won the upper hand. Following 18 months during which a reduced amount of educational work was carried out and international projects in Serbia and India were completed, the final cut of all subsidies on the part of the City meant forced Netbase to cancel its entire event and project schedule. Only the Institute for New Culture Technologies, Netbase’s carrier organization, remained.

In a declaration of support for Public Netbase, Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek had commented: “So-called de-politization is nothing harmless, even if it sounds harmless.” De-politization and a doubtful understanding of the internet secure the harmonious state of the Austrian “culture nations”. “New information and communication technologies offer culture nations a vast range of possibilities of preserving, archiving and presenting their holdings.” (2) However, in order to be able to realize and share the social and economic potentials of the new technologies that mark our world, what is needed is more net culture. In order to reach this goal, Public Netbase shied away from no local or national conflict during its twelve years of existence, even when it was already internationally successful. However, with its mobilization against Netbase and its members, the makers of cultural policies in Austria have succeeded in closing a major access point to this world of new culture technologies. Welcome to the nest!

(1) Federal Press Service: “Informationsgesellschaft in Österreich”, Vienna 2005
http://www.bka.gv.at/2004/11/26/infogesellschaft.pdf

(2) Federal Press Service: “Informationsgesellschaft in Österreich”, Vienna 2005
http://www.bka.gv.at/2004/11/26/infogesellschaft.pdf
 
 
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