Words, Poetry, Translation and Boredom

For at least a decade my favourite website has been Ubuweb. Not in the visit-it-twice-a-day category like BoingBoing – more like a hot cross bun or a mango – it’s made more special because it’s visited infrequently.

UbuWeb’s main trade is in the otherwise unfindable, the undesirable, the unlistenable, the unreadable – a treasure trove of avant garde artists and their art. And more over. As a long time fan of the avant garde and outsider art, I am constantly shocked at how little I know from within the archive.

There’s the obvious points of reference – Yoko Ono, Dali, Foucault, Kinski, and Cage. Then there’s the less obvious – almost contemporary provocatuer Stewart Home‘s films and music, Ergo Phizmiz, Delia Derbyshire, Hoffman and Rubin, and Guy Debord. Then there’s those that are just plain…well, obscure. Like

If you are feeling overwhelmed I recommend the strategy of finding your birthday within one or both of the 365 Days projects and listening to what you find.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the founder of UbuWeb and MoMA‘s first Poet Laureate, amongst other things, and this interview in The Awl is a must read. Expounding on patchwriting (“post editing” in translation) and plagiarism, poetry, the internet and the new spaces for art he is absolutely mesmerising. In keeping with the theme of the piece, and because you should be reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll only reproduce the juiciest segments.

On his latest book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, a transcription of radio and news reports of national disasters and the peeling back of the media’s façade:

These DJs woke up thinking they were going to the station for a regular day and then they were in the position of having to narrate, say, 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination, to the world. They were completely unprepared and in their speech, you can hear this. It’s stunning. The slick curtain of media is 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. Usually confident DJs were now riding by the seat of their pants, splaying raw emotion across the airwaves: smooth speech turned to stutter, laced with doubt and fear. Unhinged from their media personalities, these DJs became ordinary citizens, more like guys in a bar than representatives of purported rationality and truth. Opinions—some of them terribly misinformed—inflected and infected their supposedly objective reportage. Racism and xenophobia were rampant— somehow the DJs couldn’t help themselves.

His latest books were:

(interviewer) Your 2000 book Fidget transcribes every single movement your body made during thirteen hours. In your 2003 book, Day, you chronologically re-typed every single word from every page of a copy of The New York Times. Your later trilogy, Weather, Traffic and Sports, transcribe random radio reports. Now with Seven American Deaths and Disasters you’re transcribing reports of specific events.

On teaching students to copy and steal – plagiarize – to use it as a creative tool:

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they’re forced to defend choices that they are making about what they’re plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you’ll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they’ve never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They’re one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don’t create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they’re linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

On words and writing and the change that they have gone through with new technologies:

This is a great challenge to traditional notions of writing. In the digital age, language (aka code) has become materialized, taking on a whole new dimension (although one that had been proposed throughout various avant-garde movements during the twentieth-century: futurisms, concrete poetry, and language poetry, and so forth—which is why the 20th c. avant-garde is more relevant than ever).

Words are no longer just for telling stories. Now language is digital and physical. It can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses and imported into a sound editing program and spit out as music; the possibilities are endless.

On boredom and inspiration:

John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” So what is boring? I find narrative boring. I find truth boring. I once wrote an essay called Being Boring where I claim to be the most boring writer who has ever lived. I can’t even read my own books—I keep falling asleep. But they’re great to talk about and think about. So I think we need to redefine our relationship to boring. Reality TV is boring with all the boring parts taken out of it. Instead, go watch An American Family from the early 70s, at this weird moment where mainstream TV fell under the spell of Andy Warhol. You’ll never be bored in the same way again.

I don’t think that journalists can be boring because to do so would be to shed too much truth on what they do. They’re mostly writing boring stuff, they’re bored, their editors are bored, and their readers are also bored, but nobody will admit it. Again, it’s here that Warhol is prescient. When asked if he reads reviews of his works, he replied, that he doesn’t—he only adds up the column inches.

His radio show on WFMU:

(interviewer) I did radio with you at WFMU in the mid-00s. Your radio show, which ran from 1995-2010, seemed to push the format as far as possible. By 2010 you were broadcasting three hours of silence, which you would break every thirty minutes with a station ID. The station staff was often angry with you and the listeners always complained it was the most unlistenable radio imaginable. 

On poetry and writing as a living in an age of advanc(ed/ing) technology – and what “being a writer” means:

…the emerging poet Steven Zultanski just put out what I feel to be perhaps the most important book of his generation called Agony. In the old days, this one book alone would’ve made his career. Now it’s just another in a sea of Lulu publications and Facebook likes.

….

Literary works—and careers—might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and un-authored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors.

Read through to the end for the easter egg, the master stroke…

Warhol claimed that, “Art is what you can get away with,” something I am inspired by. Artists ask questions, and they don’t give answers. Artists make messes and leave it for others to clean up. I’ve left a long trail of appropriated texts, dishonest statements, and brutal pranks. I’ve stolen things that weren’t mine and have made a career out of forgery and dishonesty. I’m proudly fraudulent. And it’s served me well—I highly recommend it as an artistic strategy.

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