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December 23, 2002

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 business."

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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