RTMARK on Mon, 2 Nov 1998 19:18:47 +0100

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<nettime> A Linzer Halloween

Here is a little story about this last Ars Electronica (Sept. 7-12), that's
supposed to appear in shorter form in a magazine.  This is tardy but
date-appropriate, as today in the U.S. is Halloween, all about ghosts and candy
and trying to be scary....

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).

    RTMARK 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 Ars 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
RTMARK 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 RTMARK, 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 RTMARK.

    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 but awe-inspiring rites in the main Bruecknerhaus
hall to some things that not only matter, but actually exist.

    When RTMARK 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.

    Popotla reacted to all this by covering that wall, which incidentally
cut the village off from what used to be unspoiled coastline, 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" (the money is being used to pave the streets) while giving the
actual InfoWeapon prize to another corporate bandit.

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 RTMARK
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*

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 addressed 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 persons 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). 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
brainless but elaborate embracing of the "organic" marketplace.  We poin!  t
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 his
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 the rigid structures available in a mechanically ordered society,
but in fact there is no hint that they are anything but guileless and

    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.  Then comes 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.  In the great united future, Europe will resemble the U.S.: art
festivals that may now happen to pander to commerce will be turned into trade
shows as they are forced to pay for themselves; the only 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 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 RTMARK 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....
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