A Viennese Hackerspace

As we enter the cellar, we are facing piles of boxes with empty and full bottles. The next door to the right brings us to the main room. Phileas is our guide for tonight, he immediately notices that we don’t know the place and comes to greet us. The visit is going to start in a few minutes, after he had helped the musicians to set up and check the sound.

There’s a telephone booth. A door full of stickers. Big LED screens. This place is mysterious, soon we’ll know more about it. We start with a few questions to complete the Wikipedia notice that we read before coming.[1] There are about 150 members in the Metalab association. The subscription is open to everybody and costs 20 € per month. It gives access to the full resources and also a key to get in when you want. Although it’s forbidden to sleep here – one of the very few rules – there’s someone almost H24. Visitors are very welcome, not only to visit but also to use the machines. It’s self-understood that if you want to use the machines on a regular basis, people expect you to join the association. The subscription fees are needed to pay the bills for the rent and all the rest. The few sponsors cover a lesser part of the total cost.


A telephone booth from where you can take a picture of yourself and send it to the future.

Metalab exists since 2006. It’s one of the oldest “modern” hackerspaces in the world, not so known as the c-base in Berlin, but it influenced the “scene” a lot. As I’m curious about this special organisational model mentioned by Wikipedia, Phileas advices me to check https://hackerspaces.org. There I would find all the information describing the Metalab model, that has been re-used by many hackerspaces all around the world.[2] The Viennese initiative apparently catalysed the formation and the development of hackerspaces.

After the recent renovation of the lounge, a friendly room with couches, a collection of old video game consoles, an arcade waiting for a new screen[3] and other curiosities, it has been decided to make the whole place completely smoke-free. This should have been quite a change for some persons, since the lounge was the designated smoking area for years. But that’s not a problem for the two young people we meet there. To save a few steps and add to the atmosphere, a small ladder has been installed to join the street directly through the window.


Metacade waiting for a new screen

Beside these two rules, we hear about a third one, which is not really one: do what you want! If you want to do something, don’t ask the group, just do it. This is a corollary of a principle that made Metalab’s success: whatever you do, you are right to do it![4] Two other main tips from the Viennese space to people willing to build their own one? Choose a central location (it’s more expensive, but you want people to come by, don’t you?) and keep the rooms as clean as possible (try to make people clean after themselves and do it together after a common event).


Reminders to clean up the space

After we stop at the bar, we visited the photo laboratory and the electrical workshop. Before the heavy machinery, we stop in front of the sole computer running here a Microsoft operating system. It controls the laser cutter. Phileas explains us that two guys reverse-engineered the driver last year, so it should now be possible to use the cutter with a free and open source driver (and that computer may run GNU/Linux the next time I come!). But what do they do with a laser cutter? Oh, you can cut or sculpt wood and plexiglass, for example. One of these two hackers, a bit more imaginative than that, programmed a tool to analyse digital music tracks and burn them to old fashion LP records.


Entry to the photo laboratory

When the visit is over, so is the concert. But the band offers to play one more time. The audience is larger now to listen to the guitar, the flute and… the computer. No need to mention that they play experimental music!

Finally, where does it come from, the name Metalab? “Meta” is a greek preposition (heavily used, especially in computer science) to designate an abstraction, something more general. So the answer is, from the book Hackerspaces: The Beginning:[5]

“Their name developed from the fact that they wanted to have a „laboratory“, but one for all kinds of things and projects.” 

(Adrien, dieKulturvermittlung, 30.05.2015)


[1] vgl. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metalab

[2] vgl. Wikipedia, https://wiki.hackerspaces.org/Metalab/Lessons_learned

[3] We heard that since our visit, a new screen has been found for the arcade!

[4] This organisational model is sometimes referred to as do-ocracy.

[5] Bre Pettis, Astera Schneeweisz and Jens Ohlig (2008): Hackerspaces: The Beginning

(Picture credits: dieKulturvermittlung)

One response to “A Viennese Hackerspace”

  1. gapi says:

    klingt spannend!

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