Josephine Bosma on Sun, 19 Apr 1998 05:05:33 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> audio art: Helen Thorington

Helen Thorington is administrator of a primarily new media arts
organization in New York City. She is also the initiator and producer of
the New American Radio series which has been in existence for the last
ten years.  New American Radio has commissioned  hundreds of artists to
explore and create for the radio medium. Thorington is mostly known as
a sound or radio artist. She is concentrating on new media and the
internet the last few years.

Helen Thorington:
About four years ago I became aware of the failing radio system. I say
failing but what I really mean is public radio was turning more
commercial, looking more to the bottom line and the mass audience than
it had in previous years. Stations were depending more on audience
research and what audience research said, of course, was that the kind
of work we do, experimental work, new work, would not command large
audiences or bring money back to the radio stations in the amount
that they thought was important. Generally the system began to spread
the word that you should drop those programs that were not bringing
in money. Slowly documentary and drama, experimental work, experimental
music have all disappeared from the public radio system.
So lacking access and combining with that the diminished funding for
the arts in America I became convinced that I better look somewhere
else. I began to look at the new media and I developed the Turbulence
web site, where we commission artists to create for the web medium.
At the same time I did an archive of the New American Radio series.
You can hear audio excerpts, read scripts, some scores and artists'
writings on radio and their experience in radio. It's a large site,
and would be larger if I were able to keep up with it. A lot of
material still needs to get up.

JB: You say you have been doing something similar to what ORF
Kunstradio has been doing here in Europe for audio art in the States
for ten years. What did you do before that, how did you get into
audio/radio art?

Helen Thorington:
I began my career as a writer. I was living during the seventies in a
rural area. I was doing a piece for theater and I wanted to have music
with it. I turned to some composers in the area and they created the
music, but they were not willing to write it down, so I said: "Okay,
I'll learn taping techniques."  I went and learned taping techniques
in a studio where there was also hands on access to synthesizers. I
became fascinated with the synthesizer. This was in the seventies, the
early days for a synthesizer. I took one home with me to use in the
theater, became enamored of it, started putting my written works to
music, creating my own soundscores. I became involved with some dancers,
like Bill T. Jones, a very well known postmodern dancer. I did some
scores for him and then moved back into New York city.

Because of the kind of work I had been doing, combining my own writing
with sound I decided to start a place where it would be possible to hear
that kind of work. That is how New American Radio had its beginning.

JB: Was this inside an existing radio station?

Helen Thorington: No. I started a not for profit organization, raised
funding, commissioned work and used the national public radio satellite
to distribute the work to public radio stations around the country. This
is something we could do at that time which is entirely foreign to
Europeans. Most of the Americans I worked with either had studios of
their own or access to studios. It is very common for Americans to have
their own studio's. The artists were spread around the country so we
never had the group feeling that you get from working out of a single

The artists we commissioned for New American Radio were from all
disciplines, some from video, mostly from the performing arts and
music, some from the theater and some who actually came from media

JB: But how did the actual collaboration work, did that all happen via
this satellite?

Helen Thorington: When you have a country that is as large as ours and
the artists spread all across it, you don't have a group. So we were all
simply isolated artists working. When the work was complete they would
deliver it
to me. Now the
trouble also with our public radio system is that there are hundreds of
stations across the country. Not all of them take this kind of programming
seriously. So some artists couldn't even hear what the other artists were
doing. We never got that sense of a field, even in ten years. There was
never a sense of a field of radio art in the country, just a lot of
excellent work that was produced for our series.

JB: Did you happen to discover the internet at the same time when the
funding began to drop and that the radio stations commercialized more?

Helen Thorington: I actually turned to the internet very deliberately.
I got a small group together and we created a CD-ROM. I knew nothing
about the technology at that time. From there I went to working with one
or two people who helped me to set up the initial sites, both for New
American Radio and for the Turbulence group. I learned my lessons.
Turbulence has actually become a group of artists, because we have pretty
much dealt with New York City Artists. They do come together on a regular
basis. We know each other and view each others works. On the other hand
there are many artists across the country who are not with us yet. The
need to work together is very important now, because the technologies
change so rapidly and not one of us can keep up with everything. There
is a sense of collaboration in this. If you need help with something,
you can call.

JB: The internet has not helped you communicate better between people
spread all over the country?

Helen Thorington: No, except by email. Not the Turbulence site. This has
worked well because it is a New York site.

JB: Are you now producing audio art especially for the net? Has it changed
the way this radio or audio art is made?

Helen Thorington: My approach has changed, as an artist, certainly. I was
initially enormously happy to be able to incorporate visuals in my work.
I always had an interest, but had never done it. Initially I resisted the
whole idea of radio on the internet, primarily because my understanding of
radio is of this wonderful, invisible, 'eyes closed' medium, in which it
is the imagination you are touching in a very unique way. Now you get
onto the internet where it is visual and the finger works very rapidly,
the user's finger, the interaction is of an entirely different sort.
Interaction in radio is really between what the artist creates and how
the user imaginatively interacts with it, which is what I think true
interaction is.

JB: What kind of works can we find on your 'net', are there audio files
as well?

Helen Thorington: New American Radio, as I said, has audio excerpts. It
has scripts, some scores, artists writings and it has a full catalogue
of works and bio's and that kind of stuff. It's a real archive. The
Turbulence site has works by artists created specially for the web
medium, and some of them make use of audio.  Quite a few actually.
I did a work called North Country for the web. We launched it April
1st. 1996 with RealAudio 1.0 (laughs). When I look back the site has
actually become a sort of archive of technological developments
of the last year and a half, two years. The first works relied on
technologies that have long been superseded. By the time I got to do the
second part of North Country I was using RealAudio 3.0, and now we are
up to 5.0 I believe.

The Adrift piece which we will be doing tonight (Vienna, Recycling The
Future, simultaneous with people of Fakeshop, Brooklyn. December 1997)
is a networked piece between three environments: sound text and virtual
reality. It is an interplay between these three environments. Each
performance is different. We developed programming to make new things
possible. At this stage I think we are just at the beginning of what
might happen. We have had programmers develop Java applications that
allow me to write text into a writing space or import it into a writing
space, and then send it out to my collaborators. I color-code it for my
collaborators, so that a word might be in red, that would go to my
sound person or sound collaborator; yellow would go to the person
working with the vrml environment, saying: pay attention to this word
(which they don't have to do of course); and then they respond by
sending back to me vrml and sound. As it happened in Linz, where we did
Adrift the first time: I sent the text to them and they sent the rest
back to me and then we projected it in the space in Linz. Tonight we
are going to be working out of two spaces, doing two performances: one
in New  York and one here. I have my collaborator in sound with me here
and my collaborator in vrml will be in the Fakeshop in Brooklyn New
York, presenting the same performance to an audience there. It is a
process work. We do work with pre-sets. I have some pre-set texts, Jesse
has some prerecorded sounds, but each time as we perform this, we
approach it differently. I throw some of my texts away, I move them
around in a different way. Jesse uses his sounds differently,
Marek uses vrml differently. But also each time we are using new
programming. When I was in Linz, I just sent text. Now I send my voice
as well and now the programmers have made an application for me that
allows me to format my text, so that I can align it left or right or
center. Besides this I can  color code it, and determine how it is going
to appear to you, whether it is going to pop up or fade in or scroll up
from the bottom. This is brand new, it was not finished last night, and
whether I will have it tonight is a good question.

Next in January we are going to add to this the ability for someone in
one of the physical spaces that we work in, to input text, besides
myself. The audience will be able to respond to the work. Later on in
the year there will be another artist inputting vrml, so that there
will be two  vrml artists working. In April we'll be streaming video
into the vrml part of the work. We have a wonderful crew of programmers,
who have come on from the advertising world in New York City. They are
apparently bored with the programming they have to do, so they are
absolutely delighted to work on something very exiting and new.
We are all working for free.

I am really looking forward to developing the whole work as a multiple
performance, with some cohesion. It will not be just internet, but
multiple performances in a performance space where people are
interacting, until we get a real net, that is happening in the physical
space just as in the virtual space. How far can we go till it gets so
confused that it gets uninteresting? I wonder.

The other thing I just want to tell you is that while it is a
process-work, we also have been very careful to archive it, each
performance. So we have fixed works as well. We want to keep in touch
with where we came from.

JB: I am sure you see many people come and go in the sound scene. Is
there anything that one needs, what are the specific things for people
to keep working with sound if they do? Is there a difference between
sound artists and other artists?

Helen Thorington: My initial reaction is not really to your question.
I am convinced that sound on the internet is going to be more and more
significant. It is, from my point of view, a grounding material. Sound
is a way of creating space. You can create space with sound, so you can
in this very immaterial (again: as in radio) area, locate people,
temporarily, through the use of sound in a space, a geography.
I think this is very important.
While we are still geographical people and floating with our feet above
the earth it's an instinct to be grounded somewhere. We are loosing
this sense, particularly in the corporate world where they are
switching people around from one location to another. The sense of
belonging to a community anywhere is sort of dissipating in our lives.
That does not mean the need for it isn't there. I think sound is one
way of creating a space that people can enter and feel that they know
where they are, at least imaginatively.

So I think you will find that the sound arts will develop very well in
this area, as long as RealAudio and other things keep developing.

The sound artists I know in New York right at this time are working
largely in the downtown Manhattan area. There are some really fine
improvisational artists, who have not moved yet into other media, now
that radio is no longer available to them. They haven't moved into
the new media area yet, but my guess is they will at some point.
They are improvisational musicians. There is a whole group of them, who
work out in performance spaces in lower Manhattan, excellent, excellent
musicians working together.

JB: You said there is a difference in sound art from the States and
from Europe. What is the difference?

Helen Thorington: I can't speak for the whole sound art field, but
definitely radio art. In our heyday with New American Radio, radio
art was developing as a cultural and social critique, where the spoken
word and its message was as significant as the sound or musical sound
accompaniment. In Europe it has always struck me that composers play
a larger role and that what I would call electro-acoustic acoustic
music is the European equivalent for American radio art.
In the States there is some conceptual art, but there is also a lot of
storytelling and different ways of storytelling. Terry Allen created a
wonderful work for our series. He always called it radio play. But it
was different from radio drama, although that is what he called it.
He was I think one of the best writers and storytellers our series had.
He also created all of the sound for his work. He is a country musician
and a sculptor.
Storytelling played a large part in our series. There were many artists
who elected to tell stories. They told them with sound, they told them
with words. I think that the point that I am trying to make is that they
were all social and cultural and political commentaries of some kind.
They reflected on our country and on what it was doing. Terry Allen's
first work was called Torso Hell, about the Vietnam war. It is a bizarre,
very violent piece. A woman by the name of Jerry Allen, who is a
performance artist, dealt with waitressing, which sounds innocuous. But
all of America's race and class conflicts were in those stories, and
that is what she was dealing with in a fascinating and very human way.
When I look back on the series, the first eight years, I could see that
it was political and social comment, whatever form it took. Then it
became, in the last years, more musical. That is a funding thing. I can
get more funding for composing at this time and I cannot find funding
for the spoken word.

JB: Can you tell us something about the new groups that are emerging,
like Fakeshop?

Helen Thorington: There are quite a number of people involved in the
internet in New York City and I think as a result of that we are
beginning to see the development of performance areas specifically
for web related activity. There are two of them with which we are
presently associated. One is the Fakeshop. They do performances
regularly, not all of them are internet performances. There are still
some problems about getting the right lines into these spaces and the
right equipment. There is a smaller space called Cyberhum, in Brooklyn,
where they have already some very interesting musical exchanges with
Japan. I forget what the instrument was, but someone in Cyberhum
played an instrument in Japan, using ISDN lines. Its been mostly
musical so far, but they recently became interested in us, wanted
to enlarge their scope.

And now there's the Dumbo Art Center in Brooklyn, 10000 square feet
on two floors. It's  donated space, and the artists from the area are
painting and fixing and running lines in to make all kinds of artistic
activity possible, including Internet related work.

JB: What do you think about the European scene? Do you know anything
about the developments here in audio on the net?

Helen Thorington: I have two impressions. One: I think your telephone
monopolies have really prevented the explosions which we have had with
thousands of people getting in and trying and doing.. I find a great
deal of resistance in certain area's. Heidi (Grundmann) and I were both
at the Literary Colloquium in Berlin last year and there was an
enormous amount of resistance to what we were saying. This has been
characteristic at virtually every place I have been in Europe talking
about the internet and the world wide web for several years now. It is
different here (Vienna) because you have Heidi (laughs) in a position
in the ORF, actually having this long history and you have Bob Adrian.
That's different, but you don't have the access we have and I think
that's what makes the real difference.
We have all these young people,  generations now of young people who
have just been brought up in this stuff or soaked in it, who make me
look silly in terms of their knowledge, of how to operate on the web.
Someone like my colleague Jesse (Gilbert) knows the unix system, he
knows all about RealAudio, he can talk like a technician or a programmer
as well as being a musician.

I am beginning to open the Turbulence site to guests now and I think the
more people find out that they can get on the site without being
commissioned, it will become more vibrant itself, more active, more
turnover and more works for people to see, which will bring more people
to it. But there aren't enough sites like that. There should be many

About audio art: I have noticed a lot of sort of new people popping up
who are interesting. MassMoCA, which is the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art has been restoring old mill buildings in Massachusetts,
huge brick buildings. They have started a sound festival for this next
spring and I keep hearing about more initiatives in this area, so it is
in the air. I am wondering where it is coming from. In music there have
been many developments over the last ten years, but sound art has been
kind of sleepy. All of a sudden the last few years I hear more and more
about it. I am convinced it is that sound does something that the other
senses do not do, and that is a need, a growing need. Sound addresses
the interior man in a way which the other senses do not. Except for
touch, but we can't go round so easily touching everybody. It is the body
coming back at you. It has been neglected and now it is going to come
back. There is going to be a need for the things that sound can do and
that visuals don't.

__________________another variable____________________
______________another degree of freedom_____________

                      New Radio and Performing Arts,Inc.
     _______________ dba Ether-Ore__________________

       _____________120 Tysen Street_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
   ____________Staten Island, NY 10301_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
 ____________email: newradio@interport.net_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
 _____________ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
______________ _________________

JB: FreePPP (Free Paranoid Pirate in Paradise)

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: