About Sound Writing Net Art


Interview for MobileGaze


Interview for MobileGaze by Valérie Lamontagne, 2001  


Helen Thorington is the director of Turbulence, a New York-based new media center involved in the production and dissemination of net.art. Turbulence has been a seminal organization in fostering financial as well as promotional support to net.artists in the New York area for over 5 years. We recently interviewed Helen via email concerning Turbulence’s role within the net.art community as well as vis-à-vis recent technological advances on the Web and the involvement of museums/institutions in curating net.art.

How did Turbulence begin? What were its initial goals and how have these evolved over the years?

New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc., the not-for-profit organization I founded in 1981, was for many years a radio producing organization. We originated and produced New American Radio (1985-1998), a national weekly series of commissioned work by American artists for public radio. And for many years New American Radio was our principal focus. In 1995, as public and private funding for radio declined and public radio began to rely almost entirely on market research for its programming decisions, we redirected NRPA's activities to the new media. Our first act was to create a web site for the New American Radio series (http://somewhere.org). It was a kind of up yours to a system that claimed creativity but denied its expression in any form but the one used by NPRA. Almost simultaneously we initiated the Turbulence Website (http://turbulence.org), with the idea that we would continue to commission artists in the new medium.

Our objective was pretty straight-forward.
Turbulence was to fund established and emerging artists to explore the Internet environment, and making use of the latest web and multimedia technologies, to create specifically web work.

This goal, which has resulted in over 35 online projects, has not changed. What has changed is our understanding of what is needed now. While we remain interested in what all artists want to do on the Internet, we are more than ever focused on artists willing to break out of the individual art work format, to network with other artists, to connect to other net work, and to open their work to the participation of others.

These are not new ideas. In 1996 Laurel Wilson proposed to the
Turbulence site a public 3-D gallery space where anyone could uplink his/her work, and Harris Skibell created in Snuff a primitive Java engine that went out and gobbled up other net work. But they are ideas that are appropriate for artists to work with in the networked medium, and they are more easily realizable than ever before.

To me the individual art work, the fixed or self-contained work with limited predetermined options for its user—and I would include multimedia work as well as work based in a single discipline—seem phenomena of the past century. To move ahead into our own century we must delve deeply into alternatives— participatory, networked, intermedial which have the potential to suggest new horizons for net artists and make possible fusions that more nearly mirror our contemporary world.

What kind of support do you believe net.artists most need today? Access to tools? Networking? Promotion of projects? Critical exchange? Which of these do you believe is most lacking and why?

Two things strike me as of particular importance:

There is a great need for artists to rethink their business practices, and find some way to develop self-sustaining community systems through which they can generate revenues for the support of their work. We are currently setting up a new site, "e-turb", which we hope will be operation by late Fall or Winter, and which will comprise a unique intersection of the not-for-profit and the commercial. Its goal is to facilitate the development of support for the artist and to provide a self-sustaining engine that will encourage independent art practitioners to take advantage of the emerging online economy.

That's one.

Then there's a desperate need, in my opinion, for critical exchange. A lack of critical engagement, as we know, tends to facilitate the widespread acceptance of mediocrity—the promotion of opinions rather than the development of critical criteria. Artists need to sit down with one another and reflect on their own opinions, hear one another's thoughts, and challenge one another in the interest of some informed understanding. The field needs thoughtful criticism to advance. I think it should come from the artists who more than anyone else understand the limitations and possibilities of creative work in this medium at this time.

The technology that is exploited by net.artists has evolved dramatically in the past 4 years. Has this, in your opinion, created a significant change in the content/themes/ideologies explored in net.art?

My answer to this is a guarded I'm not at all sure it has.

I had thought that perhaps there is a greater and more critical focus on the Internet itself in net art today. But from the start
Turbulence artists have focused a critical eye on the medium. Not Walls a 1996 work by architect Laurel Wilson began with thoughts about the browser's flat format. Wilson initial idea was to create a three dimensional public space, a kind of gallery, where anybody could upload their work, and where the work could live, not as an object in the flat space of what she called "a shopping catalogue", but as it does in real space. She imagined a kind of 3-D Netscape, something completely counterpoint to the page.

What she found out, of course, was that she didn't know how to let people upload work, and that it was very difficult to find someone who did. It was, she said, like dreaming something that you know is very easy to do in the real world, and finding its very difficult to do in the mathematical world.

Not Walls ended up a place of two worlds—the place of the Netscape page and of 3-D space...but in the process of making her comments on the browser's flatlands, Wilson embedded, perhaps for the first time, her VRML images in the browser page.

Radio Stare by John Neilson, a 1997 work, provides almost no opportunities for the user whose finger twitches eagerly to move on. "Leave the driving to us" the work announces. And as a passenger in Neilson's vehicle, you watch the night highway unfold before you, at its own pace, at Neilson's pace, slowly. He is in control. There is music, Neilson's music, and perhaps most interesting for its time, a connection to the real world through its use of the scanner radio. Radio Stare is a critique of how the medium is used.

I had thought I might find in today's works, a diminished interest in what we at NRPA are now calling "humanities" issues—but this is not so. Tina LaPorta's
Distance, explores the age-old desire for communication, only her interest now is that desire as it exists between geographically separated participants mediated by the surface of the screen.

And David Crawford's
Here and Now focuses on the impact of the exponential growth of instantaneous global telecommunications technologies, and the unprecedented shift in our relationship to time and space brought about by the speed of information exchange in real time.

I had thought I might be able to document a declining interest in narrative. I have certainly seen a decline in the number of users wishing to participate in narrative writing projects on
Turbulence. The contributions to the Story of X, numerous during its first years on the site, have all but stopped. But artists still tell stories; they just come in different forms—they are less book-like and more likely to be found in visual and multimedia works.

No, I think it is not so much the content, the ideas, the themes as the fact that what the artist might dream for his/her work in the earlier years can now be more fully realized with the dramatically evolved technology.

What I have begun to think might be new to the field is the increasing number of truly creative programmers entering it as artists. They come in all kinds, but many are without backgrounds in the arts. They do not know the history of art, or what has already been done. And while I think this will have its negative impact in the appearance of some extremely clever but substantially shallow work, the existence of many skilled programmers aspiring to be artists will also have an important positive impact. Instead of work created with off-the-shelf software, we will see the development of new programming not necessarily influenced by bottom-line decisions that can be copied and/or further developed by others. These men and women will make it possible for all of us to do and to try more and different things.

With museums beginning to be more actively involved in curating net.art (such as the inclusion of net.art projects in the recent Whitney Biennial) do you foresee your role as a cultural disseminator changing? Do you anticipate collaborating with museum networks or do you predict a division to occur between "museum" net.artists and "independent" net.artists supported by organization such as Turbulence?

1998 was probably the year in which net art began to resonate with museums. The Guggenheim and the commissioning of Brandon by Shu Lea Cheang—Julia Sher's work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Now in 2000, seven net art works have been included in the Whitney Biennial. I suppose this is important to the field, stamping it, as it were, with the Good Artkeeping Seal of Approval. Actually I experience it as a complex of goods, bads, and inevitables that would take endless hours to talk about.

Basically museums have different interests and/or objectives than small independent organizations like NRPA have. It is our job to help the field, which we understand to be comprised of thousands of artists whose names have never been heard within the administrative walls of museums. It is our job to understand that the works we support may be "unfinished insufficient precursors of what one may expect tomorrow" (Andy Deck), and to support them anyway. This is a developing field—and the many small explorations of the yet to be recognized will make for a far more interesting and vital field tomorrow than the generously commissioned work of the few already known.

No the growing interest of museums doesn't change what we do. It makes it more important that we do it.

Do I anticipate collaborating with museum networks? I would, if they would, but I approach the idea cautiously, very cautiously, and they? Not at all so far. We are creatures of different species.

New media centers, e-commerce and Web design/publishing are prevalent in New York City in spite of the Web being "international". Do you see net.art as being tied to geographical boarders and if so (or not) how?

No I really don't.
Turbulence has been pretty much tied to New York City, but that has to do with its funding. The private foundations that have funded the site are mandated to fund artists only in New York City, and in the case of the Jerome Foundation, Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN. Recent funding from the National Endowment for the Arts has allowed us to fund artists in other parts of this country, but not artists from other countries.

But that funding should limit us does not tie net art to geographical boundaries. Artists all over the world are contributing to the development of this field, influencing one another, exchanging stuff....A more interesting question might be how net art from different geographical locations differs, if it does.

What feeds you as an artist (either at Turbulence or on the Web) and what are your upcoming projects?

Inspiration in my life and art has always originated pretty much in dialog with friends or people who share similar interests and can talk about them, and in reading and writing. All these activities involve language, a degree personal openness or receptivity, and attention. Sometimes a word, sometimes a phrase, or thought will prompt the mind to retrieve and reorganize images and events, to respond with half-know urges: impulses toward creation that must later be worked with. With me it can get pretty funny...I wish it happened more often.

What am I working on now?

For some time now,
Adrift has been THE project on which my efforts as a writer and sound artist have focused.

A groundbreaking and, to my knowledge, unique Internet performance event, Adrift combines movement through 3D space, multiple narratives and richly textured sound delivered in real time. I should say it all at once; the space, its narrative and sounds are not really separate or divisible, but moving toward some intermedial state.

Adrift is a collaborative work. There are three artists and two programmers—Jesse Gilbert, Marek Walczak, myself, Jonathan Feinberg and Martin Wattenberg. And Adrift performances originate from multiple locations—wherever Walczack, Gilbert or I happen to be. They are integrated and made available in real time to Internet audiences and audiences in performance spaces through programming written by Feinberg and Wattenberg.

Gilbert and Walczak don't think of themselves as performance storytellers, I'm sure. Gilbert is a musician and composer; Walczak, an architect and VRML 3D expert. But in
Adrift, they are storytellers every bit as much as I. And the realization of exactly that and what it means to me as a writer has shaped an interesting journey— from a more or less traditional role as a writer of the story or stories to the developer of short, porous (i.e., open to multiple interpretation) lines of text—some computer programming, some signs, others metaphoric— that are incorporated into and made a part of the VRML (3D) space, parts of its transforming environment. Adrift is a story about space—never fixed, never finished—told by all its converging parts.

Adrift was premiered at the Ars Electronica Festival in September '97, performed in Vienna, Austria for the tenth anniversary celebration of Austrian Radio's "Kunstradio/ Radiokunst" program, and from various locations in New York City through 1998. Its next performance will be from multiple locations: New York City, Albuquerque, NM, and Los Angeles. For the upcoming performance, the work will be projected live into an auditorium at the University of New Mexico using three computers and three projectors, and will seen as a panoramic cinematic flow of 3D images with multiple narratives and quadraphonic sound.