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An Austrian Travelogue

Linz, Sept. 7-12, 1998
 
esta página en Español 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 and lucrative.
    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 space.
    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 the money.)
 
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 giant banner.
    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....
Viaje de invierno En Espa˝ol


Last updated:
10 February 2001
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