After Kenneth Goldsmith: an interview
Michael Romano and Kenneth Goldsmith
I have a bunch of questions but they’re still pretty disorganized in my mind.
So let’s just shoot. It’ll all fall together on the editing board.
I asked you something a few years ago, about whether you consider Ubuweb a work of art, and you said something interesting, but, you know, I lost the tape, and then I saw this book here, the Letter to Bettina Funcke.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Where you start off by answering that same question, and you say it is, that perhaps it’s the most significant work you’ll ever create, but then you veer off, plagiarize yourself and others, and it gets kind of crazy, and you don’t give anything like a conclusive answer. So I want to ask it again.
Well, I think Documenta didn’t really understand poetry, and they understood Ubuweb, and somehow they needed to legitimize me through Ubu, whereas they couldn’t quite legitimize me through poetry. They wanted me to claim it as an artwork, and I said okay, I don’t usually do so but I could go there if provoked. On my own, day in, day out, I don’t think about it, but it’s not so far from the concerns of the other stuff I do.
One thing I’ve always thought was interesting about Ubuweb was how it enacts the principles of the art it collects.
Absolutely. I mean, it’s all part of the same thing. Most of the materials on Ubu were never economically valuable, but floated freely from one person to another. They were shared, xeroxed, handed out, traded; it was this cassette culture, mail art, you know, all that weird ephemeral stuff that people tend to do. Most of it wasn’t meant to be sold or paid for. Most of the avant-garde was predicated on free culture, nobody ever assumed anything was going to be worth anything, and most of the time it wasn’t.
But at the same time it’s something more. You’ve spoken of cataloging and archiving as artistic endgames in themselves, and in your MoMA lecture, when you talk about the inversion of consumption, how we now spend more time organizing and archiving than engaging with content, I thought of Ubuweb.
Yeah, I mean, I have no idea what’s even on Ubu.
I couldn’t consume it all. And this is something rippling through culture a lot right now. Even the data leaks from the NSA and Wikileaks, what they’re calling information vandalism, it’s too much to digest. And that was really the whole point of my Printing Out the Internet—it’s absurd, of course you can’t, it’s too much. There are new metrics of magnitude, of infinite. I think the web shows us, the 21st century, what infinite might look like, and it’s incomprehensible, mind-bogglingly incomprehensible, as big as the universe, that kind of big.
It’s big but we still hold on to these notions of cultural authority, of importance, entities we think of as important and authoritative but for obsolete reasons, based on the old situation. If you take a big institution like MoMA: obviously by most people’s standards a really important institution, but from another perspective almost completely insignificant.
Well, it depends. We used to think that those verticals were the ones that made the narrative and lived by it. Now most of the world doesn’t care about that because they have their own narratives, which are coming through online culture or meme culture. So the museum becomes not a space of authority but a social space, which is what I talked about in the MoMA lecture, how the role of the museum changes into a nightclub, or, you know, social, relational space. Most people don’t go to look at the art, they go to be with each other to show they were there at that monument.
You talk about some other interesting things in that MoMA lecture. One was this dynamic of how institutional critique, the critique of the institution, gets absorbed into the institution itself, becomes an institution of critique—that’s super interesting. The other was that idea of the institution as survival strategy for the artist, and the sort of inevitable drift toward institutionalization of the career of the artist. I thought that was interesting partly because I didn’t really buy it.
You mean the [Marcel] Broodthaers thing?
Yeah, you treat him as exemplary, but I mean … his case was interesting, but I don’t think his fate was inevitable.
Well, it’s enviable. He lucked out. I don’t know any artist who wouldn’t want to be crowned by the institution as being important.
The institution has always acted as a filtering system; that’s what makes us pay attention to certain things and ignore others. All these people who critiqued the institution were then hoisted up by the institution and licked, not bit, the hand that fed them.
You know? But that’s always happened. Everyone that’s claimed to be anti-art since the beginning of art has happily been embraced by the institution.
The part of the lecture about the White House was pretty amazing.
Yeah, that was funny.
You said something, I don’t remember the exact words, something like, The security is so tight there that it paradoxically becomes the most relaxed and welcoming environment, and I thought it was an interesting microcosm of, I don’t know, this idea that the institution of art can be so in control and welcoming of everything that nothing can really critique it or subvert it. Everything’s absorbed into it and there’s this kind of universal innocuousness.
Everything is relative. When I was the MoMA Poet Laureate, I did a series of guerilla readings, and everyone said, That’s not guerilla! MoMA knows about it! But I was like, Hey, man, within the rigid structure of MoMA, it’s pretty radical, haha. Of course they knew, of course they enabled, but nothing like this had been there before. It’s all contextual. All contextual.
When I was looking at those pictures of you in the White House I thought of how our word “parasite” comes from the Greek word for dinner guest. It referred to a professional class, guests of authority, who wouldn’t give anything but maybe a song. And there you were, reciting poems to President Obama. It’s such an interesting situation. And I thought of how your writing is always toeing this fine line between what is merely interesting or provocative and what is illegal or destructive.
Yeah, I’m trying to hit that line all the time, that’s what gets me in, into a place like the White House or MoMA or The Colbert Report, it’s this weird line between totally wacko radical and quite sane, complicit culture. It’s credible enough for the right so that it’s something they know, but it’s also breaking the law. Reading appropriated texts at the White House, they had no idea what I was doing, even though it’s more radical than getting up there and saying stop the war. I really like playing with that, it gets me inside a lot, to be able to mess around. And it’s the same with Ubuweb. People think Ubuweb is some big institution when it’s a total fucking pirate site with the institutional clothing of authority. I mean, it looks like the MoMA or something.
So it must be very official, well-funded. No. There’s no money here at all. There’s no nothing. Even at [The University of] Pennsylvania, I teach plagiarism, they seem to think it’s great: teaching kids how to steal. I don’t say I’m not doing it and do it; I say I’m doing it and I do it, and they seem to love it. So I think that’s a very good definition, the fine line, I really like that. If it’s coming across that way, if it’s reading that way, I think I’m doing something okay.
I’m interested in where art becomes crime, and I think it’s interesting that you can do this stuff and not only survive in the institution but be endorsed and, you know, supported.
What I do really isn’t that dangerous.
I mean, no animals were hurt during the making of this movie. It’s harmless shit. People say Ubu is the Wikileaks of the avant-garde, but Wikileaks foments revolution, Ubu distributes abstract film. I mean come on, honestly, you can’t compare the two, it’s ridiculous, why would you? I’m dealing with poetry and avant-garde art, what the fuck, that’s not dangerous.
But that’s not what a lot of those avant-garde artists thought. A lot of them thought art could be revolutionary and subversive.
I don’t think it can from the outside, but I think it can change things from the inside.
People screaming outside the walls of the academy are seen as insane and won’t get a chance to get in to change it; they never have and they never will. You’re going to be ignored. When you think of the most radical revolutionary art of the century: Warhol, super sane, Cage, super sane. These were not crazy people. Frank Zappa, super sane. Super straight, not outsiders at all. They were able to present a sane enough face to the world that they were able to get in and change the world. The outsiders never got in.
Constantly toeing this line seems to boil down to a practice for you, a discipline. It’s like what you say in your essay on dumbness, where the state of smart dumbness is something you arrive at through smartness and requires skill and dedication to maintain.
And it’s the same with your writing. You touch on it in Uncreative Writing, and it can be inferred from your output, that your writing is rooted in a constant practice, less product-oriented even though it may materialize as a product from time to time. So this practice of being dumb and of uncreative writing, how does it manifest in your life? What is it like?
Well, I don’t have to be inspired to write, that’s for sure. I can do it anytime, anywhere, for ten minutes or ten hours, waiting for the doctor or in the airport. It becomes part of life, part of the rhythm. I don’t need inspiration. Though I do get inspiration. I get inspired once every eight or nine years and then I need years to get it out of me.
Inspired meaning you have, what, an idea you think is shareable?
Yeah, an idea that’s nagging at me, that needs to get out. I keep rolling over these ideas, testing them in my mind, and if one lodges in my mind and won’t leave while I’m working on something, then I think it’s probably worth spending another dozen years pursuing.
It seems like you had a moment of inspiration when you decided to do Seven American Deaths and Disasters. You wrote that addendum to your essay on boredom around then saying you were done with being boring and bored. How did you arrive at that point?
Well, I published Day, retyping a day’s New York Times, and it was constantly misread. Everyone thought the day was September eleventh two thousand and one when it was actually September first two thousand, but I thought, Hey, that’s a good idea, so I went and found the paper from September eleventh, not the twelfth, where you see the planes going in, but the day of, the paper everyone was carrying, and I retyped that whole thing, and it was very moving, everything was foretold in the paper, very ominous, very strange, and very moving, and I thought, Wow, I’m doing the same thing I did before but I’m working with hot content, hot material, and I’m having a whole different situation, this is amazing, I can do the same thing and get a different result. What if I start working with texts that are really hot, really loaded? So from there I went online and found nine-eleven air-checks from radio shows, broadcasting guys watching the towers fall, and I began transcribing those, and I thought these are good, very interesting, just transcription, which I love to do, and I thought, I should do a series of these, what else, what else would have that kind of emotional resonance?
That sudden fascination with dramatic, like you said, hot material, it does seem to, not contradict, I mean, it’s a perfectly natural development, but it’s different from your previous practice.
I was bored with that practice. I was bored with being bored. What could I do? Within uncreative writing there are legions retyping or data scraping the Internet and publishing books, but I don’t need to do that anymore, that work for me is finished. I did that for a while. Time to move on.
What are you moving on to?
Well, finishing the thing I’ve been working on for the last eight years, a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project for New York City in the twentieth century. I just signed a contract to publish it and that’s what I’m working on now.
Are you nearing the end?
Yeah, well, now there’s closure. A manuscript of half a million words is due in two years, so I’ve got to tie that one up now. I’ve been working on it nonstop for eight years, and now I need to shape it and get to the finish line.
It seems like Benjamin’s been a touchstone for you.
I don’t know. I mean, Benjamin people are angry about this project, I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people who feel they own Walter Benjamin. A lot of people think they own him, and he’s an untouchable figure, and of course a saint on a lot of levels, so the fact that one would redo Benjamin and rethink Benjamin is blasphemous for a lot of people. I don’t understand Benjamin the way most people do. I’m not too concerned with Marxism. You know, media theory I like; the collecting stuff I like. I’m not a huge Benjamin fan. But I really love that book. I mean, I liked Benjamin before that, but when I saw about that book I thought, Man, I want to do something like that.
You’ve said it’s a nice book to float around in instead of reading linearly.
Yeah, I’ve never read the thing.
I’m interested in these new ways of reading, new strategies, and how they relate to uncreative writing. It seems like you’re proposing a kind of experimental reading, where reading in new ways becomes a practice as well, just like writing and archiving; that the three go together.
Well, I’ve said the new writing is not writing and the new reading is not reading. It’s moving information, parsing, bypassing. You can’t do the deep engagement, there are too many interesting things. I talked about that in Uncreative Writing, about Twitter, the headline, but you see it even more so today. I think the citation today is more relevant than the thing it is citing. The citation is more relevant than the cited. Sometimes I’ll tweet out on Ubu a four-oh-four, a page where I messed up the link, and before I even have a chance to fix it, it’s been retweeted two hundred and fifty times. That means not a single one of them has clicked on the link! It’s just a cool name, Wow, William S. Burroughs, I’m going to pass that along and get some cred. People just move this stuff around.
And that’s the evacuation of content. Content is no longer king. It’s all the scaffolding, the structural stuff around the content that we care about, all the paratextual stuff. The text is the last thing we care about, the last thing you read. Nobody reads it. You don’t want to say nobody. People still read. But I think a lot of people use language differently than close reading. We’re living in a time of radical changes and that’s one of them, that we all have short attention spans now. And I think it’s a new avant-garde, the short attention span.
I want to talk about “The Death of the Author,” Barthes, how what you define as uncreative writing grows out of a lot of the things he talks about there, and also his vision of the reader, the rebirth of the reader, and what that could mean. You talk about the difference between an absorptive relationship to a work and a, what was it, generative?
Yeah, it’s really in S/Z that he gets into that, the readerly text and the writerly text, the writerly text is the executable file, you can go in and tinker with it; one is untouchable and the other is ultimately remixable. I think S/Z gets closer to those ideas, the real exploration of that article; it’s a great book. Yeah, you know, I tweeted out that Barthes was on Ubu, the Aspen magazine from sixty-seven, which was the first time “The Death of the Author” was published in English, and somebody responded saying, Wow, I remember when I used to really believe in those ideas, and how far I’ve drifted from them now. When you look at culture now, there’s no trace of Barthes, no trace of the death of the author, it doesn’t exist, it’s been so forgotten, you have authorial voices, unchallenged authorial voices, literary fiction, no trace of that in writing of people like Jonathan Franzen or even people who know better, like Jonathan Lethem, or the entire New Yorker, it’s all authorial, you know, the authentic. But I actually think those writers are somewhat irrelevant. I mean, they’re entertaining, but it seems so naive to me. These guys know this stuff, but they’ll tank their market if they start fucking with it; they’re slaves to their multimillion-dollar market; they can’t write the books they probably know they should be writing because they’ll lose those big advances; they’re slaves, you know? But I think for anyone who’s not like that, and who’s in touch with web culture, Barthes and his ideas are still valuable signposts.
So I had this weird Ubuweb moment recently when right before going to bed one night I was reading that thing Three Dialogues with Beckett and this guy I forget.
Yeah, Georges … I know it. I know of it.
They’re talking about modern artists, and Beckett is trying to give his vision of a new art, and at one point he says, What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?
Then I closed my computer and went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. So I got up and took a book off my shelf, The Temptation to Exist, by E.M. Cioran, which has this great introduction by Susan Sontag. And the epigraph of the intro, one of the epigraphs, is that same Beckett quote!
It’s a good quote.
But it was uncanny, this really weird coincidence. And it’s been …
And I wanted to, I don’t know, just float the quote by you, because it seems like you’ve thought about Beckett a lot.
Hm, yeah. Well, writing that way is untenable. You’re never going to win doing that. Which is why Eugenides doesn’t do it. Clearly he wants to win. And yet, you know, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, like Beckett does. The untenable is also the utopian, that which cannot stand, for whatever reason. That’s why Ubuweb is untenable and yet it’s enacted, which is really remarkable, for all this time, it shouldn’t have gone on this long, it’s untenable. I’m going to break copyright law, that’s untenable. But it tests reality. And those are huge victories. Sometimes people give me things and sometimes I just post things and get away with it, and I get a much bigger thrill out of the untenability of breaking the law than I do making it more legitimate, moving toward tenability. The untenable is magic. The tenable, there’s nothing left to strive for. It’s not defeatist. You just try to live in a state of untenability.
I like that take. The Sontag essay with the Beckett quote is ultimately about John Cage. The other epigraph is from Cage: Every now and then it is possible to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing. She talks about this kind of intellectual and artistic crisis mid-century, and how Cioran was the dark poet of the impasse, while Cage was really doing something new and opening new pathways.
Yeah, Cage opens a door. He doesn’t keep doing the same thing. He may use the same process but it’s a door out. An exit strategy.
And I wanted to ask what you think of Cage, what he’s meant to you.
I’ve found Cage to be very helpful at certain periods of life, philosophically, musically; you know, he had a beautiful ear; he’s been really important to me. But I found there were limits to Cage. He said anything could be music, but there were some sounds that weren’t permitted, sounds of violence, sounds of anger, sounds of hip-hop, most popular culture wasn’t permitted because it was violent; so his ethics, or what Joan Retallack would call his “poethics,” actually got in the way of him enacting what he really believed in. So then I jumped over to Warhol, who did away with that, who was a-ethical, not unethical but a-ethical, totally transparent and permeable for everything in a way Cage could only speculate about being. But it got ugly for Warhol, it’s really an ugly position, it’s real but it didn’t turn out well, and it turned out pretty well for Cage. Ethics helped Cage, but philosophically Warhol was truer.
This idea of the untenable reminds me of your essay “Provisional Language,” which forms this sort of coda to Uncreative Writing. Language waiting to be undone. It’s kind of utopian and apocalyptic at once.
Yeah, it comes off of Rem Koolhaas’s idea of provisional architecture, junkspace, the architecture of airports, the flimsiness: you go into Heathrow and realize the whole thing’s an ugly stage set. Everything’s so cheap but made to look really substantial. A Brooks Brothers shop in the Heathrow shopping mall is nothing but sheetrock you can punch your fist through.
It’s architecture that wasn’t meant to last, and now it’s the same with language. Words come together temporarily, form constellations of meaning, and then are blown apart again. You take that into the digital world, the transferability of language in the digital ecosystem, it’s not that much different from busting down a sheetrock wall or reusing the wood in the store to build a hotdog stand over there. It’s all provisional. Language is provisional. This language wasn’t meant to stay together forever. The bound book is an absolute illusion. Words are splayed out, torrented, spammed, emailed. What are words worth now? They’re cheap. They’re super cheap.
It’s kind of like when you talk about how literary works and literary careers just pop up and spread like memes and then vanish.
Yeah, I mean, I see it. Like Printing Out the Internet, like, I actually became a meme, on Know Your Meme I was an official meme, and it was amazing, how it spread like wildfire and then died, bang, psh, fabulous. We generated six hundred pages of press around that fucking project, around the world. So I ended up enacting that scenario for real and it was fucking wild.
Can you step back and tell me about that show?
Did you see the pictures?
I saw the ones of
Of me floating on the giant sea of paper?
Oh, go google that one up, it’s amazing, they’re all over the web. Anyway, yeah, it went really crazy. What happened was, I was asked to do this show as a tribute to Aaron Swartz at a big gallery in Mexico City and I began looking for artworks that materialized the quantity of the Internet. I came across some pretty amazing stuff, like a guy who made a book this high where he’d bound every picture of Natalie Portman on the Internet, and I was like, Wow, and another woman had bound every article written about the Iraq war, this high, seventy-two thousand-page volumes in this giant spread across a gallery.
Oh my god.
But each of those gestures seemed too small and too prescribed to get at the enormity of what Swartz heisted from JSTOR, or what Snowden was leaking, or Manning. And I started to think about how to deal with that quantity, that enormity, and I thought, Fuck it, let’s print the Internet, let’s crowd source it, there are ten billion pages on the Internet and six billion people in the world, if everyone sends in two pages, we’ll have more than enough!
So I put out the call and by the time it was over I had ten tons of paper contributed by twenty thousand people from around the world, a giant pile in Mexico City up to the ceiling of a place like this. These boxes came in and I threw them into a big pile and that was it. It was pretty cool.
And is that all you really wanted to point to, the enormity?
Yeah, the quantity, the enormity, information overload, how little we are, how big everything else is, a scale thing, magnitude, the new metrics of infinite.
Something clicked in my head with Benjamin’s idea of the constellation, in this context of printing out the Internet at this one moment in time.
Where it can all constellate, come together, and blow apart again.
Yeah, hm, I like that too. I mean, I didn’t have much of an agenda, no political point, nothing ecological, not even much to do with Swartz in the end. It was a poetic gesture, like, Wow, what would happen if we fucking printed the Internet? Not a whole lot more behind it, but it triggered something I didn’t expect, a global conversation, it touched some kind of nerve I hadn’t intended. I was like, I don’t know, I’m a curator, let’s print the Internet! It was actually very stupid, very dumb, fucking dumb, no great idea, that was the dumb part, let’s print the whole thing, haha, of course it’s impossible, we don’t even know what it is, haha, so it was just a dumb idea, and it touched some crazy nerve, and vanished, poof.
Do you feel that, like Cage, you’ve opened doors for writers?
I think the work I’ve done points in a direction, not the direction; it’s some kind of bridge between. I look at some of these writers data scraping and publishing, you talk about untenable, ridiculous works, they’re publishing all in PDF and their publisher is Lulu, they can make the most ridiculous things; there’s this guy named Chris Alexander who made a work called McNugget where he scraped all of Twitter for every mention of the word McNugget and made like a six hundred page book.
Now you can buy that book for 30 dollars, and I don’t know how many people will buy that book, but it’s wonderful, it blows open weird notions of authorship, poetry, publishing, code, distribution. I think a lot of the younger writers are moving toward this. But my production was always very prescribed, and when people criticize me for it, I take them and say, Hey, you’re absolutely right, but I’m 52 years old and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I think the next wave is really blowing the whole thing open. Things are changing really quick and you’re lucky to have a little window to work in before the culture moves on. One continues to work, but the game’s moved elsewhere now, beyond what I could ever conceive of.
Okay, so you feel like you have this window, you’ve imagined your own obsolescence. I’m just curious, looking into the future, if you feel like there’s some aspect of your work or something that you’ve learned that will continue to be relevant.
You know—if nothing else, I’ve tried to bring writing up to speed with things that have long been taken for granted in the other arts and never tested in writing. Copying was never tested in writing, never. I mean, it was proposed by Borges in “Menard,” but even that wasn’t retyping, it was an original work, this weird thing, kind of a magical realism. So that, wow, that’s weird, it’s weird that it hadn’t been done, and now it’s very natural, you know, with cut and paste and here we are in the digital age. Again, it’s so stupid, so dumb, that only an artist could do it, dumb like Duchamp is dumb, dumb like Cage is dumb. As far as the future, I don’t know. I see these younger writers data scraping and doing much wilder things than I did, it may just fizzle, there may be no legacy, it could be there was this weird moment of conceptualism in writing, and everyone’ll be like, Remember that? And everyone’s like, Oh yeah.
Cage always said his audience was perpetually one of students, because people have the time and the open mind to embrace these crazy ideas, but the minute they, quote, “grow up” they reject them as a waste of time, because they have family to support. But he said, you know, Don’t worry, there’s always more students.
So I don’t know if there’s a legacy to it, but I do know it’s been very much of its time, and I think that’s all an artist can hope for, and I think my writing does that pretty adequately, for writing, in this weird time, figuring that out. It’s of its time. But that time is moving on to another time.
Image: Kenneth Goldsmith at Street Poets and Visionaries, Mercer Union. Toronto, 2009. Charla Jones/Globe and Mail.
Kenneth Goldsmith is the founding editor of UbuWeb and teaches Poetics and Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published ten books of poetry, including Fidget (2000), Soliloquy (2001) and Day (2003), and the American trilogy, The Weather (2005), Traffic (2007), and Sports (2008). He is also the author of the non-fiction work Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age (2011). In 2013, he was appointed the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate.