interview with austrian student occupation activist

Nathan Coombs interviews a participant in the university occupation movement in Vienna, Austria. See here for his previous article ‘The battle for free education begins’, featuring a video on one of the occupations.


Why did you decide to occupy? How and when did you occupy the building, and why did you choose the particular space that you did?

After years of exhausting fights between students, teachers and the rectorate there was evidently great discontent. One of the main reasons for this was a successive undemocratisation of the academy of fine arts going along with a structural empowerment of the rector. Even the election of the rector caused significant resentment and was followed by a state ruling that Clementine Deliss, who applied for the rector’s job, was sexually discriminated against, as she was not chosen although she had been the only candidate with a broad popularity amongst students, teachers and the senate.

Our goal was not to get stuck in political helplessness, which we had experienced for a long period before, but to take action and participate in political decision processes.

At October 22nd, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, the rector of the academy, signed the new development and financial agreement that would likely include the realisation of the Bologna process, including at this stage the institution of the bachelor-master system for the teaching department and the department of fine arts.

As a form of protest against the neoliberalisation of education there was a press conference organised by the students that led to the occupation of the main hall.

Besides the demonstration the goal of occupying was to overcome the lack of consciousness, to create a situation where information can circulate, where alternative concepts can be worked on theoretically and in every day life and to give a voice and publicity to the aims of students and teachers (who were in solidarity right from the beginning).

The main hall, which is the geographical center of the university, until then had been an underemployed space that could not be used by anybody except by enterprises having their festivities and Christmas parties.We occupied a room – or a room was taken – that was badly needed and that we did not have before.

Have you been influenced by the Occupy California movement?

We knew of the things happening in Santa Cruz and I can also say that they impressed us. But as the political situation – based on the politics of the last years – made this step necessary, I think we would also have occupied without knowing about the Santa Cruz movement. We have now established contact and exchange with those students.

Are you interested in making demands? Are these limited to education? How do you see student occupation movement in relation to wider political issues?

As our starting point was defending the contract between our university and the ministry, we regarded demands (against the implementation of Bachelor/Master, against neoliberalisation and economisation of the education system) as being necessary and important for our situation.

But we still are aware of the discussions and problems that are connected to making demands.

Our demands are not at all just university specific but are meant to show the broader social context connected with educational problems. This is not only part of our demands, but furthermore texts are being produced that deal with different social issues as for instance the kindergarten protest, the problem of wage-labour and precarious workers’ conditions, the marginalization and discrimination of people because of sex, sexual orientation, religion, ancestry… a critique of neoliberal politics, and so on. As an open space, the university radiates into society and is soaked by its outside. That is why topics of education politics can never be understood and solved without a social connection and an awareness of broader structures. And even the students themselves have experiences with discrimination concerning their identity as men, women, migrants, etc.

In the text of the University of California Santa Cruz movement, they described their position as “communist”– how do you take this? Do you associate yourself more in the communist or anarchist traditions? What do you think of the analysis in the Communique from an Absent Future?

Of course we read the Communique from an Absent Future and just quoted a passage today that I think perfectly fits the point: “We demand not a free university but a free society. A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.” But unlike them, we are not bound to a specific political tradition. Although we define ourselves as politically left wing and there are anarchist positions as well as communist ones amongst the students, we think it very important to make pluralism possible. I am personally much more connected to anarchist theory and traditions but that’s my private approach and not the topic of the protests.

What do you think of the text by the French Tarnac-9 collective’s The Coming Insurrection?

I think that there are people who have read that text, I myself actually have read it. I would not say I am influenced by it, but at the same time I do not want to deny. But as I tried to explain earlier we do not define ourselves as a specifically anarchist movement although some of us would call themselves anarchists.

What has been the response to the occupation by students, staff and the mainstream press?

There was solidarity with the protests from the teachers right from the beginning that exhibited itself, for instance, by some teachers becoming active within the occupation, compiling the programme for the occupied room where we have different things happening such as workshops, talks, concerts etc. But the reaction of the press was radically different as they tried to infantilise the protests and define the objectors as lazy, beer drinking, partying, apolitical students. By now this has kind of changed as we worked very hard at communicating our theoretical demands, opinions and where we are coming from.

What is the future?

An end to the occupation is neither planned nor foreseeable.

By now we are in the situation where we start to realise the problems with demanding utopias – although I think that the only things you can demand are necessarily utopian. That does not mean that there is going to be a relativization of our theories, goals, wishes and demands but it means that there are many things left to be talked about and that there is loads of theoretical work to be done still.