The town of Linz, Austria is nestled between subalpine hills and industrial wastelands,
and it straddles the Danube. The Danube and wastelands furnish excellent recreation
for visitors: the annual Ars Electronica festival, for example, hires a boat to
get people between the Hotel Steigenberger MAXX, the Bruecknerhaus (Linz's main
conference building--Anton Brueckner being, besides Hitler and Eichmann, Linz's
most prominent spawn), and the Ars Electronica Center itself; the festival also
hires a train for scenic midnight rides through the Hermann-Goeringwerke, the
steelworks that furnished most Nazi steel (shut a steelworks down for an hour
and it's ruined forever--which is why this one was renamed in motion, and why
midnight rides are so scenic).
WTO/GATT has been invited to temper the hard sell
of technology that seems to be Ars Electronica's charter ("face the future",
a three-storey mural on the Center's building proclaims): we're weird,
we're disturbing, but mostly we're vivid and likeable. Like sympathetic
bad guys in a western, we're here to change the festival from an apologia/trade-show
for the frontier into an absorbing, engaging story, and to help make the
substratic orgy of techno-hype less mechanical, more fraught with the electricity
it needs to keep the media's eye, which in turn helps keep it engorged
Half out of pique, half out of a quixotic sense
of duty, we have resolved to frustrate this plot by being less digestible
than expected. It doesn't look good for us--the windmills are fancy, the
gadgets relentlessly fascinating, and "cyber-subversion" is hopelessly
trendy--but by the time we arrive at the festival, it is clear we have
begun to succeed: the organizers already hate us.
The theme of this year's Ars Electronica festival is "Infowar," by
which is meant "information warfare," which, to judge by the list of speakers
assembled here to discuss it, is something that the Pentagon (John Arquilla),
the US Air Force (George Stein), Russia's defense department (Igor Panarin),
spy agencies (Michael Wilson), Wall Street (Doyne Farmer et al.), CNN (Peter
Arnett), "armaments experts" (Georg Schoefbanker), thinkers (Paul Virilio
et al.), and WTO/GATT have important knowledge about.
Most of the speakers do seem to think that "Infowar"
is a grave threat, that "cyber-terrorists" could ruin the world, and that
governments, corporations, and citizens should get cracking to bring these
fiends under control. But to WTO/GATT, the only thing to examine about "cyber-terrorism"
is the fictional concept itself, its trendiness, the elan with which it's
embraced or attacked--in other words, the conceptual hand that feeds WTO/GATT.
Another sceptic is cyber-activist Geert Lovink,
who, with artist Vuk Cosic, has used his position as speaker to form the
InfoWeapon contest, conceiving it as a way to point out the real terrorists:
corporations engaged in especially heinous practices. By awarding the very
worst such entity $1000 and a lot of public recognition, he hopes to divert
a few festival-goers' attention from the recondite rites in the Bruecknerhaus
hall to some things that not only matter, but actually exist in physical
When WTO/GATT was asked to be on the InfoWeapon panel,
we immediately thought of awarding the prize to 20th Century Fox, which
made the movie Titanic. Ars Electronica had just decided to give that
movie its $10,000 special-effects prize, and we felt that an art festival
had no business rewarding such a piece of mega-grossing shlock.
The story quickly got better as we learned that
Fox, like many giant corporations, had cut costs and avoided environmental
regulation by doing its (literally) dirty work in a Third-World factory:
in this case, a giant studio adjacent to Popotla, Mexico. (San Diego was
the first choice for location, but there was "too much civilization" there,
according to Fox's own press release.)
It was in the Popotla maquiladora that the nine-tenths-scale
model of the Titanic was repeatedly sunk and raised, sunk and raised,
until the filming was done, the water polluted, the sea urchins ruined
(too chloriney, the Japanese said). And Popotla not only lost its primary
source of income thanks to the studio, it gained no business from it: the
Titanic workers dined within the enormous shard-topped wall that Fox
built to protect its spectacle factory, a wall that incidentally cut the
village off from what used to be unspoiled coastline.
Popotla reacted to all this nastiness by covering
that wall with a mural constructed of garbage.
Because Popotla might actually benefit from a $1000
gesture, the InfoWeapon panel decided to rewrite the rules a bit and award
the cash to the village for its "remarkable low-tech gesture against an
unpleasant high-tech situation" while giving the actual InfoWeapon prize
to another corporate bandit. (Popotla is reputedly paving its streets with
By the time we arrive in Austria, several articles have already been
written about Ars Electronica's "cutting-edge" Titanic/Popotla, oppressor/oppressed
pair of prizes (the cry of "public relations disaster" is raised), and
WTO/GATT has further fouled the air by being banned from the festival's e-mail
list and then raising a ruckus about it (quickly de-banned).
And this is why, as we float toward the Bruecknerhaus
to install our display (the on-board sound piece of religious and poetic
texts about Jerusalem, in Hebrew and Arabic, is described by the festival
guide as "about the Holocaust," her voice appropriately unfestive), we
get ready to face the worst Linz has to offer, at least here in the '90s
future, now that transnational aspirations have begun to be safely achieved
without local bloodshed.
The worst isn't so bad. "The architect spent so much effort on this
building to make it beautiful, and you ruin it with your banner, it is
not beautiful, you cannot put it there," says one of the organizers, and
though we disagree with most of the ideas expessed in his speech, we don't
really mind scaling back. We figure there will be other opportunities to
demonstrate our opinions, in subtler and more tactful ways than with a
We're wrong, unless a yelling match in front of
thousands of spectators can be called subtle.
The Infowar speeches take place in the Bruecknerhaus's huge auditorium.
In case you're in the back of the cavernous hall, the speakers' faces are
projected on a screen that reaches from the ground behind them up to the
ceiling, and there's another screen like it off to the side, for those
seated at uncomfortable angles. And for those who can't get seats in the
hall, there's an array of thirty-six video monitors with the same giant
composite image in the foyer. Just for good measure, the lectures are webcast,
and everyone in the exhibition area outside the doors is tuned in. For
those eager to hear about cyber-terrorism and lucky enough to be in the
presence of all this technology, things couldn't be better.
This is the context in which we find ourselves publicly
rebuked by the moderator after we speak. Admittedly, we did not expect
to get by scot-free, or with only an expression of disgust at our banner.
For as if the Popotla thing wasn't enough, we have continued earnestly
trying to frustrate the plot of the festival. After showing our video,
whose main point is that corporations are legally people in the U.S., we
have discussed Ars Electronica as a stage for the "dominant narrative,"
in which we subversives play a role like that of happy darkies (two archetypes
of which, minstrel and slave-child, happen to be reproduced life-sized
in porcelain in our Hotel Steigenberger MAXX). Even worse, we have also
made certain to lambaste two of the earlier speakers, "neo-liberals" who
insulted the intelligence of the audience with their babblings about coexistence
with these engines of progress called corporations, and with their thoughtless
but elaborate embracing of the "organic" marketplace. We have pointed out
that all of this is even remotely comprehensible only to the relatively
rich, those who have access to all this technology surrounding us, have
resources to interact with corporations on their own ground, etc. If you're
unlucky enough to be of limited means, or, God forbid, you live in the
Third World, you're fucked. To illustrate, we yet again bring up Popotla
and the betrophied Titanic.
What we have failed to note is that the moderator
himself, the author of several über-hip books about machines and progress,
is of the same ilk as the neo-liberals we have so energetically attacked,
and to make matters worse feels proprietorship over matters Third World,
having been raised there himself. It is only later that we understand that
these are the causes of this moderator's most immoderate display of vitriol,
in which he accuses us of not knowing our facts (corporations were not
born in the U.S., he says, as if we had asserted such a thing), of exhibiting
"radical chic" (we stupidly deny it, and perhaps luckily fail to point
out his ponytail), of embodying the "worst of the left" (we admittedly
hadn't considered our place on that spectrum), and, finally, of having
an us-them attitude towards corporations (non-plussed).
The salvos finally end with several audience members
asking the angry fellow why he has attacked us, of all people, rather
than the spies, soldiers, corporate hackers, business apologists and assorted
amoral others who were among the previous speakers; we are then regaled
by what we are later told is the symposium's lengthiest round of applause.
Having come, seen, and enjoyed some applause, we relax for the rest
of our stay in historic Linz.
The Danish TV crew easily furnishes the high point
of our stay with their insatiable appetite for fun and wonderful pride
in their regionalism. Our other entertainment option besides the Danes
pales in comparison: the stridently and monotonously antiregionalist "European
culture month." Austria is "chairing" the European Union for this second
half of 1998, and Linz is now hosting a massive advertisement for European
unity, a series of spectacles each of which has an implicit or explicit
moral as clear as any in La Fontaine's fables, but always the same: big
is good and fun, no matter how stupid.
For example, there are several installations involving
monumental manipulation of a remote environment: you can make any ten-by-ten
pattern with a building's lights, make an array of speakers on the bridge
play various samples, etc. Like the garden at the Ars Electronica Center,
watered and tended from a public web site, these pieces might seem to
comment on the fictionality of freedom within telepresence, and more broadly
on the limits of fun within a mechanically ordered society, but in fact
there is no hint that they are anything but guileless and celebratory.
On an even bigger scale are the river shows. One
night, dancers on a barge are silhouetted on a screen across the Danube.
Another night, an anti-dollar (sic) laser show is projected across the
Danube onto that screen, and maybe fifty thousand people watch with free
3-D glasses, bombarded with music from speakers hoisted aloft by five giant
cranes. That show is followed by a massive fireworks display (in monochrome--no
national-color faux pas here), culminating in what seems to be an outright
TV spot for Europe, there on the screen, and the people applaud and walk
off through a giant inflatable arch surely meant to symbolize the arbitrariness
of place, boundaries, historical triumph: Germany seems to have finally
won Europe, but so what? Everyone benefits.
In fact Germany has not won Europe, the U.S. has. Or rather, the same
corporate concerns that have long made the U.S. their domain are learning
to do the same to Europe, to erase its boundaries, regulations, hindrances
to capital flow.
Europe is still in the process of shedding the socialism
and regionalism that makes forums like Ars Electronica, flawed as they
are, possible. (Ars, for example, is funded mostly by the city of Linz,
in a desperate attempt to supplant the city's history as Hitler's would-be
"culture capital" of the world with a present reality as virtual culture
capital of the world.) Europe has at least six big technology-art festivals,
all funded by government entities for regional reasons; the U.S. has none,
unless you count SIGGRAPH, the art side of which does not even pretend
to be more than an afterthought, noblesse oblige.
In the great united future, Europe will resemble
the U.S.: art festivals that may now merely pander to commerce will be
divested of hypocrisy and turned into by-the-books trade shows, as they
are forced to pay for themselves; the only large-scale civic entertainments
will be rigidly scripted, without space for even predictably risky bad
guys (and they probably won't be monumental, either--that is a quality
reserved for the unlimited budgets of global-economy advertisements only).
European unity has nothing to do with history, nor
with political correctness, nor with rights of people to travel unhindered
by visas: these are all explanations that come upon one automatically,
thoughtlessly, like the explanations we form of what happens when we hit
a computer to make it work. European unity has only to do with business.
As we go through the inflatable arch of arbitrary law, border, and
place, we notice a zipper on its side. In the U.S., if you see a zipper
you pull it; public space is nearly unknown (it's unprofitable), and we
don't know how to respect it. Since WTO/GATT is from the U.S., one of us
pulls it, and the arch comes sailing down with a great big whoosh on top
of five passers-through.
If only politics were always this simple....