One of The Oldest Art Servers On The Edge of Survival

19.04.2001

The Thing New York offers special membership services for art lovers and philantropists

'We live in the Digital Dark Ages', said Brian Eno recently at the Doors of Perception conference. Most of our culture today will be lost for future generations. Whether this is so not only depends on the unstable technologies we work with, it mostly depends on the way we treat our heritage. This heritage not only consists of texts and artworks, but it also includes first and foremost the digital spaces these can sprout from and reside in.

One such space, The Thing New York, is now in a critical phase. For a few years already this famous, even legendary server and host to numerous cultural endevours is having trouble staying afloat. Funders that were approached for help have neglected it in favor of new kids on the block. Art institutions have failed to see the cultural necessity of giving support to an institution that has an openness they don't understand. Something needs to be done to open the eyes of both funders and the general audience, in order to support and save this important digital monument. The Thing definitely is such a monument even if it, like most physical monumental buildings, is still part of a lively culture.

Wolfgang Staehle, founder of The Thing, receives his ETOY Share for his support of the TOYWAR campaign

The Thing has served as a new media incubator on the net since 1991. It's name came from the idea of building a 'Res Publica', a People's Thing. Many of the earliest members have gone on to become important forerunners in the new media art world including Benjamin Weil, curator of new media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Jordan Crandall, artist and director of the X-Art Foundation and also members of Fakeshop, which was included in the first Internet Art section of the Whitney Biennial, were or still are part of the Thing structure.

Next to its function as breeding space for new culture The Thing for instance also currently hosts the influential mailinglist for internet theory and criticism nettime, it is host to the groups RTMark and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, and it offers different online services, often supported by members, like its reviews of books and projects. And when the Net is burning, like it was with the now legendary TOYWAR the significance shows of an independent provider like The Thing who did not buck to the lawyers of the then still mighty eToys corporation. Not only is The Thing an online phenomenon though. The Thing as a physical space is an important meeting place for artists, writers and curators working in or visiting New York.

Three years ago The Thing was spun off as a not-for-profit organization in order to be able to accept tax-deductible contributions from individuals and foundations. The commercial ISP thing.net is still the major donor of both funds and equipment (meaning, basically, founder Wolfgang Staehle and the technical staff). Since the ISP isn't very profitable to begin with, they also do web design and hosting to bring in money. This means that this commercial work is the most important means of support for The Thing: all support The Thing offers is leaning on the commercial work of a few enthusiasts. This cannot continue much longer as one can imagine. It is simply too much to ask of individuals to support a major part of a cultural program like The Thing is offering.

Wolfgang Staehle's attempt to auction The Thing's old interface and content on Ebay to raise some money about a year ago triggered much interest from museums, but they all wanted a free ride. Until this day MoMA has a copy of this interface along with an extensive archive, but it neither has decided on what to pay for it, nor where to fit it, or whether it fits, in its collection.

The exhaustion of its founders and sole supporters is not the only danger for The Thing. The Thing is also having increasing trouble convincing its target groups of the importance of its online independent cultural services. As Robbin Murphy, ex development director of The Thing, says:

"There are plenty of artists who want to do projects and use the server for network projects, but we can't offer them any grant money so they go to organizations like Turbulence, The Alternative Museum, Thundergulch, SFMoMA or the Walker Art Center etc., because they have the funds to award commissions. The Thing can offer much more to artists because it has its own servers and even more importantly, a community of expertise and support."

What is easily forgotten is that with the further development of large institutional sites and networks, independent servers like The Thing could very well be necessary breathing places for culture in the near future. It would be easier to maintain this structure then to have to rebuild it from scratch. The Thing would be helped much if it's importance were emphasized by the online community that grew up with it and around it.

Structural support from international electronic art institutions (Ars Electronica, ZKM) could be an idea these might want to consider. Why not share more then just information resources, even if only in a modest way?

But founder and director Wolfgang Staehle also has another model in mind which combines real value for donors with extra revenue for The Thing. Appearantly Staehle watches with something close to horror how many people use branded free email services like Hotmail. Culturally savvy Internet users now can obtain a number of subscription services with The Thing. With ThingGold members get a The Thing Email adress plus 10 MB of Webspace for $75 a year. Who wants to get involved as a true philantropist and art sponsor can get special Membership starting from $ 100 a year. This includes the same services (Email, Webspace) but donors also get signed artworks from artists Peter Halley and Max Schumann and VIP invitations for Thing events. Apart from that The Thing offers a range of ISP Services (dial-up, Web hosting) whereby non-commercial projects can receive discounts of up to 20 - 30%. Email for further info is admin@thing.net

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