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Kenneth Goldsmith

In his own words, the UbuWeb founder on bringing poetry into the digital age

This is part of a series of articles about creative online subversion, #HackYourFuture, on Dazed Digital, inspired by the June issue's Hack Your Future special feature. A different guest-editor will discuss a different discipline everyday. This piece is taken from the June Issue of Dazed & Confused:

“I was born in New York in 1961. My parents were early adopters of New Age. So our whole family grew up doing Transcendental Meditation, eating vegetarian food and practicing holistic health1. Of course, when I was a teenager I shovelled as many drugs into my body as was humanly possible as a form of rebellion.

I never did drugs for fun, but rather to find some sort of transport out of my own boredom. In my freshman year of university I took a drawing class, and walked out seeing the world in a totally new way: a car was no longer a car; instead it was an amalgam of colour, shape and form. I never did drugs again and dedicated myself to art.

I studied sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design in the early 80s, right in the wake of Talking Heads. The real action was happening in post-studio schools like CalArts. RISD was anti-intellectual; the emphasis was on outsider and folk art. In reaction, I became a theory head and conceptual artist.

I came back to New York and spent 15 years as a fine artist with a great career, which I (stupidly) ditched for poetry. Choosing to be a poet is like choosing to have cancer. No one in their right mind would do that. But it chose me. In the late 80s I was making large-scale wooden books with words carved in them, and I began to become more fascinated with the words than the objects. I morphed from a sculptor to a ‘text artist’ and finally dropped the need to make anything physical, ending up as a poet.

I steeped myself in radical modernism, reading everything by Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Cage, Mac Low and so forth. I thought this tradition was dead until I encountered a group of contemporary writers known as the language poets2, who were working in radically deconstructive ways. I started hanging around them and they eventually took my work seriously, as an extension of their own concerns. 

I’ve been involved with conceptual writing, whereby the idea of the work — the conversation around the work — is more interesting than the work itself. I often say I have a ‘thinkership’ rather than a readership. The same moves that are old hat in art (appropriation3, everyday life as art, the body and so forth) are shockingly radical in the context of poetry. Soliloquy (published in 2001) was a book of every word I spoke for a week, from the moment I woke up on Monday morning until the moment I went to sleep on Sunday night. It was horrible, turning out to be 600 pages of gossip and pettiness. I lost many friends as a result. Some forgave me, many still won’t speak to me. 

Fidget was an attempt to describe every move my body made on Bloomsday4 of 1997. I locked myself in my apartment and tried to dictate every time I twitched. It drove me crazy. I masturbated incessantly, fell asleep, and finally got blindly drunk – which all went into the book. As such, it turned out to be very Joycean. In 1959, the poet Brion Gysin claimed that poetry is 50 years behind painting. Today, I’d say it’s more like 100. It’s been very easy to take worn-out tropes from the art world, translate them into literature and piss people off. In 2013, in poetry, you can still have a scandal. It’s wonderful.

When I left the art world and a good career, economically speaking, I needed to get a job, so I trained as a computer operator as the first dotcom boom was taking off. I rode it until it petered out in the early 2000s, when I went into academia5. I learned to code HTML by hand very early on and began to build UbuWeb. 

UbuWeb began in 1996 as a site focusing on visual and concrete poetry. When streaming audio became available, we extended our scope to sound poetry, and added mp3s as well as video. Today UbuWeb is the largest site on the internet for the study and free distribution of the avant-garde. It’s full of artefacts that are historically and intellectually valuable but finan-cially worthless. So it’s the perfect place to practice utopian politics: let’s pretend copyright doesn’t exist. In a world that’s crazy about copyright, UbuWeb has ignored it and succeeded for 17 years. If that isn’t a working definition of avant-garde, what is?

Copyright holders all have Google alerts and when I put up some obscure sound-poetry LP from 1965, I’d get an angry letter from some estate threatening to sue me. I would gently explain that UbuWeb runs on no money and that we are just fans, etc. They would always come to understand that it was better to have it there than not. But it took a lot of time and energy to fight those battles. So I just removed it from Google and my problems stopped. We’re still on all the bad search engines. 

Still, to this very day, I write UbuWeb by hand in the identical way I did in 1996. I come home from my day job at the university, put my kids to bed, take a big glass of whisky, and from 10pm to 1am, I get drunk and update UbuWeb. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. UbuWeb is only one person. Me.

I love the idea of the cloud, but the reality is nothing like what’s promised. It’s too centralised, too easily blocked, too easily controlled. And it’s privatised, owned and administrated by someone other than you. Then there’s the issue of politics. When I recently attended a conference in China, many of the presenters left their papers on the cloud – Google Docs, to be specific. You know how this story ends: they got to China and there was no Google. Shit out of luck. Their cloud-based Gmail was also unavailable, as were the cloud lockers on which they had stored their rich media presentations. Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, exploit it, but don’t believe in it. Or the web for that matter.

In a sense, UbuWeb’s content takes care of itself; but keeping it up there has proved to be a trickier proposition. This is similar to the way my writing functions. With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more; we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

In 2011, I read at the White House to the Obamas. That evening, with the president sitting five feet away from me, I read appropriated texts, including transcribed traffic reports. Nobody flinched. The crowd – Democratic party donors, senators and mayors – was seemingly stunned that quotidian language (“congestion”, “infrastructure”, “gridlock”) – could be framed as poetry. It was a strange meeting of the avant-garde with the everyday that was instantly understood by all. It was really fucking bizarre.
With my new book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters6, I wanted to find out: what are the words we use to describe something that we never thought we’d have to describe? So I transcribed historic American radio and television reports of national tragedies as they unfurled. The slick curtain of media was torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. It was as if the essence of media was being revealed while its skin was in tatters. It felt like a Godard film. 

The Museum of Modern Art7 gave me the keys to the place and let me have the run of it. I’m doing guerilla readings, and I’ve brought over 50 poets into the museum. With my work, I’ve been able to challenge the dominant discourse of poetry, to help bring it into the digital age. Although I’m broke, it’s been a thrilling ride.” 

This is part of a series of articles about creative online subversion, #HackYourFuture, on Dazed Digital, inspired by the June issue's Hack Your Future special feature. A different guest-editor will discuss a different discipline everyday.