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 Turbulences 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
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 userand I would include
multimedia work as well as work based in a single disciplineseem
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
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
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.
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 mediocritythe 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
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.
ended up a place of two worldsthe 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.
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
I had thought I might find in today's works, a diminished interest
in what we at NRPA are now calling "humanities" issuesbut
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 formsthey
are less book-like and more likely to be found in visual and multimedia
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
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
CheangJulia 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 fieldand 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
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
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.
is a collaborative work. There are three artists and two programmersJesse
Gilbert, Marek Walczak, myself, Jonathan Feinberg and Martin Wattenberg.
performances originate from multiple locationswherever 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 textsome computer
programming, some signs, others metaphoric that are incorporated
into and made a part of the VRML (3D) space, parts of its transforming
is a story about spacenever fixed, never finishedtold
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.