Beginnings in Austria
Elisabeth Schimana talks to Seppo Gründler and Martin Schitter

Which Internet forerunners do you know of here in Austria?

Martin Schitter: Computer communication with modems. In the early1990s I got myself a hip designer modem, it looked like a shark fin and I had no idea what number to call with it. I flipped through a computer magazine and found a number so I could test it. I dialed it and ended up in a neo-Nazi mailbox in Vienna. On my next try I reached a FidoNet mailbox [FidoNet – computer network that spanned the globe in the 1980s and 1990s, interviewer’s note], which soon grew quite large and from which there was eventually a direct gateway to the Internet.

Ultimately, this box called “Krimskrams” [FidoNet Box: 2:310/39, interviewer’s note] became one of the most important gateways from a private computer network to the Internet. Alex Talos, today an important security expert in Austria, coordinated this box and I was the fourth to join. There was a room (at Schwedenplatz) filled with modems and they handled all traffic in Europe.

In the early 1990s there was a panel discussion in conjunction with a pirate radio conference at WUK [Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus, autonomous cultural center in Vienna, interviewer’s note]. There are a lot of connections between radio and Internet, one is Ethernet, the physical basis for local networks. The name comes from the original notion that the Net somehow has to do with radio communication, the airwaves: ether. Herbert Hrachovec, professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, was the first to point out that the large files from radio programs that were at this time being exchanged via FTP [File Transfer Protocol, a specific network protocol for transferring files, interviewer’s note] in order to be heard were now accessible to everyone and that they would give way to a new paradigm. I disagreed vehemently, claiming that the Internet was extremely elitist and only people like him – he being a professor – had access to it, whereas “normal” people had no opportunity to use it. After this discussion we agreed that I would study with him, and he would arrange an account for me on the mainframe computer, which would give me access to the Internet. In this way I really was one of the first in this country to have the chance to play with this new technology. Soon after that I collaborated with Gerfried Stocker, today head of the Ars Electronica Center, on the project “Realtime” [a radio project for ORF Kunstradio 1993, interviewer’s note]. Gerfried was looking for someone who knew how to operate modems and that’s how I got involved. These people were working heavily with modems and with classical and MIDI-based [Musical Instrument Digital Interface – digital interface for transmitting musical control signals between electronic instruments, interviewer’s note] communication, e.g. the translation of MIDI to telephone modem protocols written specifically for that purpose. My contribution was exactly what made the Internet what it was, TCP/IP [Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, interviewer’s note], a standard protocol that makes communication possible without the need for custom tinkering. Today it’s nothing special anymore since everyone is already connected to the Internet. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, a family of network protocols that forms the basis of the Internet.

Seppo Gründler: In the late 1980s I somehow stumbled upon BBS [Bulletin Board System – computer system that can be used for communication and data exchange via remote data transfer, interviewer’s note], I wasn’t aware of FidoNet at the time. In 1988 Josef Klammer [Austrian musician and composer of electronic music, interviewer’s note] and I came up with the idea of organizing a network concert between Graz, Trent, Ljubljana, and Budapest as part of the festival “Entgrenzte Grenzen” (Blurred Boundaries). We smuggled two acoustic couplers from Germany [variation of the modem with which data could be sent via a telephone connection, interviewer’s note] because in Austria all you could get were the very expensive official post office modems. I wrote a program in assembly language that allowed you to transfer MIDI data via the Net. But since data transfer was so incredibly slow, a chord sounded like an arpeggio. In my first experiments with this project I dialed a phone number I found in a computer journal and reached a cruise missile station in New Mexico. That confirmed our suspicions that this, at least for the time being, was still a military technology. A short time later we came across the Chaos Computer Club [A hacker club in Germany, interviewer’s note] and FidoNet. After that I ran my own FidoNet subnode.

What did you find most exciting about the art context?

Martin Schitter: For people like me who came from a small-town industrial area and were pushed by one’s environment and the well-meaning intentions of one’s parents into a technical career, art offered a degree of freedom and was an intelligent means of critically reflecting on all the external determinism.

Seppo Gründler: To me the main thing was the space being created here. I wanted to fill this space with something “other” than purely technical and military applications. I tried to stage an opera on FidoNet, but it was a flop. The idea was to use texts from the Net, but we were called parasites and criticized harshly. People told us that art had no place on the Net.