The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

December 23, 2002

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Cyberspace Artists Paint Themselves Into a Corner


In a 1950's horror movie the Thing was a creature that killed before it was
killed. Now in a real-life drama playing on a computer screen near you, the
Thing is an Internet service provider that is having trouble staying alive.
Some might find this tale equally terrifying.

The Thing provides Internet connections for dozens of New York artists and arts
organizations, and its liberal attitude allows its clients to exhibit online
works that other providers might immediately unplug. As a result the Thing is
struggling to survive online. Its own Internet-connection provider is planning
to disconnect the Thing over problems created by the Thing's clients. While it
may live on, its crisis illustrates how difficult it can be for Internet
artists to find a platform from which they can push the medium's boundaries.

Wolfgang Staehle, the Thing's founder and executive director, said the
high-bandwidth pipeline connecting the Thing to the Internet would be severed
on Feb. 28 because its customers had repeatedly violated the pipeline
provider's policies. While the exact abuses are not known, they probably
involve the improper use of corporate trademarks and generating needless
traffic on other sites.

If Mr. Staehle is unable to establish a new pipeline, the 100 Web sites and 200
individual customers, mostly artists, that rely on the Thing for Internet
service could lose their cyberspace homes. In a telephone interview from the
Thing's office in Chelsea, Mr. Staehle (pronounced SHTAW-luh) said, "It's not
fair that 300 of our clients will suffer from this and I might be out of

The Thing's pipeline is currently supplied by Verio Inc. of Englewood, Colo.,
which declines to comment on its troubles with the Thing. Mr. Staehle said that
he had not received official word from Verio, but that the company's lawyers
told the Thing the service would be cut off because of the violations.

For some digital artists, these are perilous times. With the Internet's rise
have come increased concerns about everything from online privacy to digital
piracy. Naturally artists are addressing these matters in Internet-based works.
So an online project about copyright violations inevitably violates some
copyrights, and a work that warns how a computer could be spying on you could
very well be spying on you.

Most Internet service providers yank such works offline whenever legal
challenges are raised, so open-minded providers like the Thing become an
important alternative. But as Alex Galloway, a New York artist, said, "There
really are no true alternative Internet service providers because connectivity
is still controlled by the telecommunication companies."

Mr. Staehle has learned this the hard way. The project that overheated Verio's
circuits was probably a Web site created by an online group of political
activists called the Yes Men. The site, at, resembled Dow
Chemical's real site, at But the contents were phony news releases and
speeches that ridiculed Dow officials for being more interested in profits than
in making reparations for a lethal gas leak at a Union Carbide plant (now owned
by Dow) in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

The hoax's supporters said it was a parody. But Dow's lawyers contacted Verio
to complain that the site infringed on its trademarks, among other sins.
Initially it seemed to be just another fracas over corporate logos and other
forms of intellectual property on the Internet.

What happened next stunned Mr. Staehle. The Yes Men project had been put online
by, a politically active arts group that uses the Web as its base
and gets its Internet service from the Thing. After Dow complained about the
fake Web site, Mr. Staehle said, Verio alerted the Thing, where a technician
said he was not authorized to act. Within hours Verio cut off access to, as well as to all the Thing's Internet customers. These included
innocent victims like Artforum magazine and the P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
in Long Island City, Queens. Starting mid-evening on Dec. 4, the Thing was
offline for 16 hours.

Ted Byfield, a Thing board member who teaches a course at the Parsons School of
Design on the social effects of technology, would not call Verio's action
censorship. Instead he said, "They hit the panic button." He compared the
temporary shutdown to a meat packer who recalls all his beef products after
discovering a small batch of tainted hamburger.

Mr. Staehle soon discovered that his virtual supermarket might be permanently
closed, too. When he called Verio to ask why his entire network had been
unplugged instead of the sole offending site, he said, a Verio lawyer told him
that the Thing had violated its policies repeatedly and that its contract would
be terminated.

Verio had shut down part of the Thing once before. In 1999 the online toy
retailer asked a California court to stop an online arts group from
using its longtime Web address The Electronic Disturbance Theater, a
Thing client, staged a virtual protest by overloading the retailer's site with
traffic during the holiday season. Verio blocked access to one of the Thing's
computers until the protest site's owners agreed to take it offline.

These two episodes may give Verio enough cause to bump the Thing from the
Internet. If so Verio would appear to be a surprising censor. In January the
company earned praise from Internet-rights supporters when it refused to grant
a request by the Motion Picture Association of America to shut down a Web site
containing DVD-copying software.

Mr. Staehle said he had no knowledge of the Yes Men site. "I am not in the
business of policing my clients," he said. "I am just a carrier."

Although some Thing customers pursue a radical political agenda, most do not.
Even was included in the Internet-art section of the 2000 Whitney
Biennial exhibition.

One might assume that museums and other cultural organizations could provide a
safe haven for challenging works. But they are just as susceptible to legal
threats and technical restrictions. For instance, in May the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New York was forced to remove a surveillance-theme artwork
from the Internet after its service provider said it violated its policies.

Mr. Staehle said he was considering several plans that would keep the Thing
alive. While he is confident that he will find another pipeline provider, he
said, he is worried that customers will abandon the Thing during the
transition, financially ruining it.

The Thing is one of the oldest advocates of online culture. Mr. Staehle, who
moved to New York from his native Germany in 1976, started the Thing in 1991 as
an electronic bulletin board where artists could exchange ideas about how the
new medium would affect the arts. The electronic forum continues at bbs.thing
.net, where artists post projects and review works.

Charles Guarino, Artforum's associate publisher, said that should the Thing
vanish, "it would be a terrible loss." But he noted that the Thing's customers
would simply find new, if less sympathetic, Internet service providers. Mr.
Guarino said, "Everyone will still continue to exist, probably even the people
who got them into all this trouble in the first place." He added, "Poor thing."

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