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.

YouTube adds a Translation Service

Late last year Google added a subtitle translation function to make it easier for video uploaders to transcribe their videos and to then have others translate them.

Of course, sometimes you want that Swahili subtitle translation but you don’t know anyone that will do it.

Google has announced an initial collaboration with two translation services so you can get a translation done for you:

When you request a translation for your captions in YouTube, we’ll display a list of vendors along with their estimated pricing and delivery date so you can easily compare. We’ve initially collaborated with two companies, Gengo and Translated.net, to make their services available to you and to streamline the ordering process.

There are two aspects to note here: two weeks ago Amara (previously Universal Subtitles, mentioned here often) announced an update that automagically sync’d subtitles to your YouTube channel – the timing of this move by Google’s is cynical in the extreme.

Amara are still doing a better job of it – who else has a Closed Captioning (CC) request service:

These are videos that our deaf and hard-of-hearing users have asked the Amara community to caption. Join the team – via http://bit.ly/Join_CR – and help us make these videos accessible to everyone. Are you deaf or hard of hearing? Feel free to submit a video to this team or send your request to our Deaf HoH email list: http://groups.google.com/group/universal-subtitles-deaf-hoh

Did you see that? A deaf/hard of hearing subtitle request list. Fantastic. This type of development gives me faith that while the Google Translation engine will impact upon translators incomes, there is still room for groups to make a living if they think outside the box.

More importantly and fascinatingly, Amara also offers a Music Captioning service:

The place where music is captioned to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf world.
Everyone is welcome join this team – via http://bit.ly/Join_MC – and share and create a worldwide audience to enjoy music in every language of the world.
We also have a Google group where you can discuss the captioning/subtitling of each video:
See also our “Guidelines about collaborative captioning / subtitling” there:
https://groups.google.com/d/topic/musiccaptioning/HNPz-1sw56E/discussion .

My other concern, or more correctly the obvious conclusion, of this development, is that Google will be using these subtitles more and more to help it with its voice recognition and understanding service, Google Voice Search – one of the most important steps to integrating robots and AIs into our lives.

First post from Kiribati

We have arrived in Kiribati! It’s lovely – the weather has been rough and ready, but hot and wet. The people are lovely and the scenery is quite amazing. I pinch myself every day. The internet connection on the other hand is appalling. And when I say internet connection I mean Internet Connection – there are a few bottle necks, but the most frustrating is that of the national telecom monopoly – their uplink, the main one on the island, is appalling. This blog post is being constructed in a text editor offline on the weekend from tabs I didn’t close on Friday afternoon and it feels quite unnatural. Anyway, more on the Kiribati language is coming, in the mean time I thought I’d mention two articles I noticed during the week.

The first is from Fully(Sic) the Crikey’s language blog about the localisation of comics in the daily papers here in Australia. In focus is the localisation of Zit’s use of mom being changed to mum. The bulk of the artile ruminates on the limited use of localisation from American (or British) into Australian – we have internalised their spellings and language usage over the last 50 years by importing their culture:

The Zits case is different though. We’re quite used to our locally produced content (or British content, for that matter) being edited for US audiences. But changing mom for mum in the Zits cartoon goes the other way. And this is something we’re not used to. We in Australia are effectively bidialectal – we hear US English (and likely other dialects too) very frequently and can effortlessly translate phrases, lexical items and spellings without it even breaching our conscious mind. For this, I suppose we can thank fifty years or more of pervasive US culture dominating our media. Perhaps this is the reason that such substitutions irritate Alan – just like everyone else, he knows that Americans spell it mom, and has no problem understanding it, but critically he also knows that Zits is an American comic strip – the characters’ voices in his head would most probably have American accents. So when he reads mum where he expects mom, it’s clearly going to be quite jarring.

The second article is from the dependable dev/null. A German company have started “creating” t-shirts – or more accurately t-shirt slogans, in both English and German:

Some of the results are more presentable than others; one might believe that “Budapest Bicycle Flux” was a semi-obscure math-rock band whose gig the wearer happened to catch in some college-town bar back in the day, and there are situations where one might plausibly wear a T-shirt reading “I Reject Your Reality And Replace It With Cupcakes”, which, alas, cannot be said for some of the outputs, such as “your vagina is a wonderland”, or a grid of words including “Hitlerponys”, “Mörderpenis” and/or the decidedly euphemistic-sounding “wurstvuvuzela”. … Interestingly enough, after clicking through the site for a while, a reader with a limited grasp of German may find their German comprehension improving slightly; perhaps the flood of meaningful (if nonsequiturial) sentences exercises the language pattern-matching parts of the brain in some kind of process of combinatorial fuzzing, reinforcing plausible word sequences.