Public Netbase. A Political Controversy

In January 2006, the City of Vienna cut all funding for the Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0, forcing the final closure of the successful media culture institution Public Netbase, along with the discontinuation of all international research activities and projects. The organization also lost all its technical, archiving and event facilities, marking the end of a 12-year of history rich with conflicts and cultural disputes.

From its beginnings in early 1994, when Public Netbase shared its location with the theory platform Depot, the organization’s work was marked by critical cultural practice, reflecting an emancipatory understanding of new media use beyond the established norms. Nevertheless Netbase’s early work met with a strong interest on the part of artists and cultural producers, familiarizing them with new information and communication technologies and providing free internet access. Introductory workshops and supporting talks were in great demand, and soon the t0 online platform reached 1000 users. Page hits, in particular, had reached an impressive level, and Public Netbase became one of the earliest culture servers of worldwide standing.

On this basis it became possible to move into new facilities in the former trade fair center Messepalast (today’s Museumsquartier), adding life to what was then a derelict complex of buildings. During this time, Public Netbase became a highly valued partner cooperating with other institutions residing in the Museumsquartier. Public Netbase’s program of events (including Flesh Machine and Intergalactic Conference) appealed to a varied audience that shaped the project’s socio-cultural orientation.

The conflicts that followed must be considered within the context of right wing radical Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), whose cultural campaigns targeted critical voices in contemporary art, hitting Public Netbase in 1998. The FPÖ’s attention was aroused by a series of events on feminist perspectives on internet censorship and pornography. The event title “ Sex, Lies and the Internet” provided the FPÖ with a pretext to slander and criminalize Public Netbase’s successful work in leaflets, TV shows, press conferences and parliamentary debates, making intentional use of the Nazi concept of “degenerate art”. The conflict ended in a court ruling against Jörg Haider, who, represented by the later Minister of Justice Dieter Böhmdorfer, was barred from repeating his accusations under threat of punishment.

In the meantime project work continued, resulting in exhibitions, conferences and interventions such as Robotronika and Information Terror. In 1998, Period After was launched as a cooperative project of civil society media during the war in former Yugoslavia, providing many media activists of the affected regions with resources and a work base in Vienna.

In 1999 first signals of an imminent shift to the right became apparent when the Museumsquartier was put under new management. Up until that point, cooperation between resident institutions and groups on the one hand, and the management of the Museumsquartier project carrier company on the other hand, had largely been of a cooperative nature, generating a climate beneficial to artistic and cultural diversity.

Jörg Haider’s success in the 1999 general elections marked the starting point of a development that put a sudden end to the hopes that Museumsquartier had inspired. Around the turn of 1999/2000, followed by the establishment of a new government, it became clear that any future involvement in the Museumsquartier on the part of Public Netbase would be without foundation. Critical groups were harassed, received insecure lease contracts and were even criminalized in order to be evicted them from the Museumsquartier.

These developments solidified into a permanent feature of the new government’s policies. The cultural policies designed by the People’s Party (ÖVP) were intended to remove critical and disagreeable projects. Providing technological and communication facilities to an anti-governmental protest movement referred to as the “internet generation” by the ÖVP Chancellor, Public Netbase turned into a priority target. Before finally slashing all federal funding, the government had spent several months harassing the group with futile fiscal and financial audits, and withdrawing funds that had already been committed as part of the Brussels 2000 culture capital programming.

Against this background, the City of Vienna was prepared to step in, with the Finance Councilor providing the funding required for preventing a cancellation of the EU project. However, the city’s culture department, controlled by the ÖVP and falling in line with the right-wing positions of the conservative Federal Government, refused to disburse the money and instead extended its anti-cultural practices of defamation to the capital’s cultural policies. In the end, the funds had to be paid through the youth and education department (controlled by the Social Democrats).

Following a wave of strong international protests, the City of Vienna agreed to act as a mediator in order to secure Public Netbase’s continued presence in the Museumsquartier. However, only 10 months later this agreement was violated, with no resistance whatsoever on the part of the Culture Councilor, leading to a permanence of make-shift rooming arrangements. At the same many time reservations regarding the Museumsquartier turned out right and it did become a location of a culture of consumption and spectacle.

As a consequence, the demand for a future-oriented development of art and culture returned to the agenda. According to the city’s Mayor, Karlsplatz, a large square in the center of Vienna, was supposed to be converted into an art space, providing a counterweight to the right-wing national government’s representative culturalism. Moreover, the program of the City Government, drafted by the SPÖ and the Green Party, promised substantial efforts in the culture and media fields.

In the summer of 2003, protests became necessary in order to remind the City of its entirely unfinished agenda. The Mediacamp set up on Karlsplatz, as well as the Free RePublic political sound events generated wide support for these demands. Karlsplatz then also became a suitable location for art interventions such as Nikeground, System-77CCR, and “Bürgerinitiative Öffnet den Karlsplatz” (“citizens for an open Karlsplatz”).

In fact, the City Government had already offered Public Netbase a new space at Karlsplatz as early as 2002, when plans for the remodeling of the square’s subway stations were designed. However, the previous critical activities had prompted the City to reduce its funding for 2003/2004, resulting in a severe predicament as well as complicating the planning for a new location, and leading to a first curtailing of Public Netbase’s activities and services.

The Culture Councilor’s refusal to secure the foundations for ongoing international project work and to disburse committed co-sponsorships forced Public Netbase to discontinue ISP services for thousands of art and culture workers, a move that also affected Public Netbase’s own programming of workshops, access promotion and services to the public. The reduced portfolio of activities also found its expression in a removal into yet smaller facilities. This forced reduction of services was reflected in a name change – Public Netbase became Netbase.

At the beginning of 2006, only a few months after the inauguration of a newly restored location and the launch of a widely acclaimed project in Bangalore (India), Public Netbase was told that all funding from the City Government’s culture department would be withdrawn for good.

The book is available at Amazon