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"In Austria, the Clock Ticks with a Different Beat"

A Short Story of Public Netbase t0, its International Success and Recent Political Struggles

Von Martin Wassermair, in: Cultivate Interactive, issue 2, 16 October 2000

Net art is an important component of democratic opinion formation in today's Information Society. It contributes to cohesion and innovation in society by stimulating critique and by offering objective information and creativity away from the mainstream of commercial pressures. It believes that public policy is responsible for creating a stimulating legal and financial framework.

Since 1994, Public Netbase t0, based in the Museumsquartier of Vienna, has developed from a small, active cultural project into one of Europe's most respected media-culture institutions. Subsequently the Public Netbase t0 team has been doing pioneering work related to providing skills and competence in media. It promotes the artistic use of digital media and as a non-profit Internet service provider supports a number of artists and cultural initiatives with its technical expertise, storage capacity, and Internet accounts.

Introduction

Embedded in a tight Austrian and European network, Public Netbase t0 focuses on work that lies on the cutting edge of technology and art. This is shown through successful activities, projects and events in the Museumsquartier as well as throughout Europe.

Public Netbase t0 has succeeded in establishing a connection between popular culture and advanced art theory and in attracting a broad, young public to Net culture with exhibitions, discussions, and art exchange projects. Among the most successful events of the past few years have been the exhibitions Robotronika hypermatic:automagic and Synworld playwork:hyperspace. World-Information.Org was Public Netbase t0's contribution to the media project of the European cultural capital Brussels in 2000.

Net art initiatives such as Public Netbase t0 are early pioneers to fuse culture and the arts with digital media in manifold ways, thus enabling free speech and diversity of opinion in the Austrian public space. It is self-evident that culture and the arts greatly contribute to new ways of digital communication and interaction in society and between people.

One of the most important tasks Public Netbase t0 has is to raise public awareness on the interconnectivity of digital networks with a democratic, participating and socially balanced cultural development. Its work appeals to political responsibility to enable and guarantee a pluralistic and democratic Information Society for all.

Net art is an important component of democratic opinion formation in today's Information Society. It contributes to cohesion and innovation in society by stimulating critique and by offering objective information and creativity away from the mainstream of commercial pressures. It believes that public policy is responsible for creating a stimulating legal and financial framework. The initiatives' main objective is to guarantee a pluralistic Information Society, firmly rooted in regional and local networks, unlimited diversity of opinion, and diverse artistic and cultural content produced and distributed by independent media.

Political Problems

The new right-of-centre coalition government between the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) represented by the new State Secretary for Media and the Arts, Mr. Morak, has now stepped back from all funding promises for 2000. This drastically threatens the realisation of the goals and the socio-political missions of Public Netbase t0. Konrad Becker, one of the founders of Public Netbase, says his organisation is only one of many cultural institutions to face closure because they are judged by the government, which includes Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party, to be on the wrong side of the political tracks.

The interventions of the ruling government aim at undermining cultural promotion for critical organizations and institutions as well as destroying their structures. The strategy is manifold: termination of rental contracts for federal, provincial or community property, cancellation of subsidies, increased postage rates for newsletters, donation mailing campaigns and program folders. The government reserves the right to subsidise the postage charges for individual organizations and thereby intends, according to the chairman of the ÖVP, Andreas Khol, "to separate the wolves from the sheep."

Already, in April of this year, Public Netbase has had to notification that the lease for its premises in the Museumsquartier will be terminated in 2001. This action threatens to bring an end to the internationally successful achievements of one of Europe's most respected media-culture institutions.

"That is because, in Austria, the clock ticks with a different beat", Konrad Becker declares. In Europe, development and expertise in the field of new media receives a broad base of support. But here in Austria, Public Netbase - a successful model of expertise, skill and mediation - is nearly at its end after years of successful work and achievement; after serving as a provider in 1, 200 important art and cultural projects.

The step taken by the Museumsquartier Errichtungs- und Betriebsges.m.b.H threatens any further development of an important, innovative cultural center in Vienna. Moreover, it confirms all of the fears and criticism that have been expressed about the Museumsquartier since its own beginning.

Austrian cultural policy and administration obviously has no interest in creating or securing conditions for free and active cultural activities and development. Despite - or perhaps even because of ? - the indisputable international, and even national, recognition of Public Netbase t0, the existence of all organisations like ours is under serious threat. In general Austrian artists, journalists and intellectuals describe a climate of fear and intimidation that they believe is part of a government attempt to silence opposition to the coalition government that has become the pariah of European politics.

Becker has given up hope of receiving any more public funding for Public Netbase t0 by the Austrian government, and as he watches its progress he believes that he underestimated the threat to free speech.

"At the beginning, we were all quite happy to see a mobilisation of the public and it was very impressive to see so many people on the streets", Becker says. "But I'm very much afraid if this goes on for a long time. Austria doesn't have a very big tradition of dissenting democratic structures, and I'm very worried about the consequences".

For further information about Public Netbase t0's new campaign see free.netbase.org.