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Public space and personal media politics

Public space and personal media politics
Public space and personal media politics

Public space and personal media politics

Thursday 19 April 2007
I See You: You See Me
Public space and personal media politics
with Thomas Lehner, Dorit Margreiter, Barbara Musil, Georg Ritter, Gunda Wiesner

The concept of public space as open space is in a state of crisis. In both a material sense as an urban zone of interaction and in its immaterial dimension as an arena of mass media communication, public space is confronted with the economic and political pressure of privatization and commercialization. After the apparent loss of public space, the idealism with which it is retrospectively transfigured into a space that is free from control neither cancels out criticism of the dissolution of public space nor does it pose the question of potential alternatives to the failed agora models translated by media technology. As early as the 1970s, concepts increasingly arose that countered the practices of the mass media, perceived as manipulative and repressive, not only with theories, but also with a practice of appropriating the means of production and a minoritarian occupation of the open channels. Free radio like the legendary Radio Alice, which went on air in Bologna in 1976, made situationist inspired techniques of subversion the program of a counter-public sphere. Video collectives like Paper TV translated similar ideas to television and began supplying the New York cable network in 1981. In Linz a group from the independent art scene affiliated with the autonomous cultural center Stadtwerkstatt, founded in 1979, began in 1986 with the mobile production of a playful critique of media and representation, which they called Stadtwerkstatt TV.

Given this local background, opening this discussion of the theme of “public space and personal media politics” with a historical approach to the work of STWST-TV seemed to suggest itself. Thomas Lehner and Georg Ritter, two leading protagonists from the start, presented the program and principal developmental stages of this lived media utopia with a documentary video: from the beginnings with hotel room TV in Wels to international participatory projects such as the one in Buffalo in 1990 or a live conference between New York, Moscow and Linz in 1995. With reference to Enzenberger’s radically democratic demands for an emancipatory use of media, transforming every receiver into a potential transmitter, Lehner described the allure of making television especially in its collective dimension. According to Lehner’s statement, TV is “just as much a public space as the main square of Linz” (which was itself the location for carrying out a public viewing in the course of a STWST-TV action in 1987), whereas video is more of an individual phenomenon of solitary wandering producers. Lehner regards the result of an actual broadcast as less crucial than the fact of the communal appropriation of a medium and the probing of its possibilities.  Lehner's colleague Georg Ritter expanded on this emphasis on the procedural by opposing all forms of fixed content in alternative television. Instead, he argued for the importance of communication per se and for “more channels”.

A possible diversification of media options and their interactive use is demonstrated by the current project Cody-TV, which Ritter also presented. Since 2004 the Linz media initiative Matrix has been working on the idea of saving video entries to the Black Box Internet archive in order to pool an “artistic and cultural memory for the region”. The “collective dynamics”, summarized in the name Cody-TV, are controlled via the Internet and are to result in a video on demand program beginning in autumn, which is both user-determined and user-generated. An opportunity was available during the exhibition of Video as Urban Condition to digitize video material in analog format and add it to the growing archive.

Barbara Musil and Gunda Wiesner, both artists with a background in Linz, explained a second option for critical video practice in their presentation. In contrast to the media politics ideology of the Stadtwerkstatt, however, this option does not involve establishing an autonomous infrastructure for a partial or counter-public sphere (which is painfully missing among today’s media activists, according to repeated statements from Lehner, but all the more demanded by them). Instead, it is a temporary intervention in the urban media structure. The series fragmented reassembled, curated by Musil, Wiesner and Bernadette Ruis, transformed the shop windows of the Linz branch of the entertainment electronics chain Saturn into an exhibition sculpture for video art from 13 to 16 February 2007 with walls made of television sets. The show, comprising 60 works of art, displayed an hour-long program of videos from recent years every day. According to Musil and Wiesner, the installation carried out a “disruption of reality” in the passageway between the private commercial display and the public sphere of reception, the street. The insinuated images were additionally interrupted by prerecorded reflections from several media theorists, who, presented their opinions to the camera in the style of television news broadcasters. In addition to this, the artists were interested in playing with the installative “overwhelming effect” resulting from TV screens towered on top of one another. By switching serially among certain videos, the curators also flirted with the ability of electronic images to evoke “great emotions”.

In conclusion, the Viennese artist Dorit Margreiter presented a research-based approach. Using examples of video excerpts and commenting on them, from works like The World May Not Be Deep But it is Definitely Wide and Shallow or The She Zone, she discussed the postmodern restructuring of urbanity and the status of public space in the age of media saturation by the entertainment industry. Given the disneyfication of city zones once perceived as authentic, the question that Margreiter poses seems especially relevant: “How do media format urban architecture?” The historical mimesis of public space as it is staged in shopping malls and high-income gated communities does not indicate an interest in mediating between the present and the past, but rather the availability of styles as a commercial good. In the case of the unique shopping mall exclusively for women documented in The She Zone, for instance, the illusionist character of the architectural allusions creating brandscapes instead of landscapes by masking real conflicts is revealed. Or as Margreiter says: The malls “tell of a longing for clarity and order. In their collage of different temporalities, they remind us of something that doesn't exist.”

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