PRINT March 2008


Kenneth Goldsmith and UbuWeb

UBUWEB ( started out in 1996 much like an online fanzine devoted to concrete poetry, but it has grown to incorporate the functions of a virtual publishing house (via PDF), record company (via MP3), and, most recently, film distributor (via Flash). In its archival breadth, UbuWeb is now something like a library or museum. And since it doesn’t require a building and has nearly no overhead, its usefulness to the avant-garde seems certain to continue, uncompromised and unabated, at least as long as its creator, Kenneth Goldsmith, devotes his energy to it.

Goldsmith credits himself as “publisher” of the site, but his role seems more closely related to his work under another moniker: Kenny G, a DJ on WFMU in New Jersey whose weekly three-hour radio show, currently titled “Intelligent Design,” is like a cross between Uncle Floyd and a PBS documentary on “new music.” To take a recent example, Kenny G introduced an extended interview with Alex Ross about his history of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, by singing Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library” (this took a half-hour to complete) and playing a set of movie-inspired logorrhea including answering-machine descriptions of second-run films showing at the Badger Theater in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Kenny G often promises, at the start of his show, that much of what you are about to hear will be unlistenable; and he is often right. What’s more, the station fears the FCC would agree, and so Kenny G has been suspended from broadcasting on a number of occasions (most notably for airing unauthorized material and obscenities).

Not that Kenny G is the free-form Howard Stern. Kenny G’s version of unlistenable radio is nearer in spirit to the unreadable books by Gertrude Stein, the unwatchable films by Andy Warhol, and the unplayable compositions by Erik Satie—samplings of which are all available on UbuWeb. The site is an increasingly encyclopedic compendium of precisely this sort of art, which Goldsmith—in his guise as professor and author of conceptual poetry—has termed “unboring boring.” In an eloquent and amusing 2004 lecture, “Being Boring,” Goldsmith describes himself as “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” and his own books of poetry as “impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly.” And yet, he maintains, these books are not “boring boring” but “unboring boring”—that is, in their conception or execution or both, there is something that transcends or transforms boredom, much as there is in the work of Andy Warhol and John Cage (to choose Goldsmith’s two primary influences).

Goldsmith’s latest opus, Traffic (Make Now, 2007), is a word-for-word transcription of the traffic reports broadcast every ten minutes by an AM radio station in New York on the Friday before Labor Day 2005. “Textual gridlock,” says Goldsmith about the effect on the page. The audio version, with Goldsmith reading the entire work himself, is like a breathless (Godard allusion intended) three-hour curse, damning the listener to a linguistic suffering at least as bad as a suburban commute on the worst traffic day of the year. It is, to borrow Goldsmith’s description of his own radio show, “extremely challenging listening, often veering into boring boring territory . . . but I don’t mind doing this, because nobody is forcing you to sit straight through. If you don’t like it, you simply get up, turn it off, and put something else on.”

That shrug, invoking a consumer’s power of choice to trump potential objections, is Goldsmith at his most Warhol-like—he’s the editor of Warhol’s collected interviews, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and has learned his lessons well. But Goldsmith can also be unabashedly moved by unboring boring work, praising it with an enthusiasm that Warhol would never have allowed himself. Here he describes the effect of retyping an entire issue of the New York Times—ads, stock quotes, and all (this became the book Day [The Figures, 2003], which, like Traffic, documents a Friday before Labor Day): “Far from being boring, it was the most fascinating writing process I’ve ever experienced. . . . I felt like I was taking the newspaper, giving it a good shake, and watching as the letters tumbled off the page into a big pile, transforming the static language that was glued to the page into movable type.”

This is Goldsmith at his most Cagean. He professes a sincere love for retyping, both the process (“I was trained as a sculptor, and moving the text from one place to another became as physical and as sexy as, say, carving stone”) and, in a bit of Stein-like self-admiration, the result: “After it was finished, it became clear that the daily newspaper—or in this case Day—is really a great novel, filled with stories of love, jealousy, murder, competition, sex, passion, and so forth. It’s a fantastic thing: The daily newspaper, when translated, amounts to a nine-hundred-page book. Every day. And it’s a book that’s written in every city and in every country, only to be instantly discarded in order to write a brand-new one, full of fresh stories the next day.”

It’s an almost blind enthusiasm for words and sounds that powers UbuWeb. Goldsmith may be a provocateur, but he is also a fan—exactly the sort of obsessive, crate-digging fan familiar to the world of radio. Just as a DJ makes idiosyncratic use of the same records potentially available to all, UbuWeb is using the same tools as the boring boring Internet to build an unboring boring collection of art. And UbuWeb is free—free of charge, free of copyright, free of institutional and governmental oversight, free in as profound a manner perhaps as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu himself. UbuWeb is pataphysics.

Damon Krukowski is a musician and writer based in Cambridge, MA.