An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith’s work is considered among the most eye-opening and perplexing writing being created today.

His books such as “No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96”, a collection of words and phrases ending with the sound of “r” sorted by length; “Soliloquy”, documenting every word he said in a week;

“The Weather”, a transcript of an entire year’s worth of weather reports from WINS; and “Day”, a retyping of an entire issue of the New York Times are examples of how he creates “boring” texts but lacks any frills or artfulness.

Through his radio show for fifteen years called “Kenny G.”, a jab at the easy-listening saxophonist who shares the same name, he aired performances of the same work as the “Hour of Pain”, questioning the patience of the station’s listeners.

Goldsmith’s writing challenges the notion of what a book or text can be. Mixing surrealism, concretism, and sound poetry, his work celebrates words as aesthetically pleasing or manipulable pieces of data.

His texts, which are organized and itemized, go far beyond conventional “list poems” and exhibit a sort of Asperger’s-like enthusiasm for categorization.

His use of the internet’s copy-and-paste technology pushes the boundaries of postmodern remixing or Situationist-style detournement.

Simultaneously, his work comments on and encourages the passing of authorship and originality.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Goldsmith provides instruction in poetic practice and the craft of plagiarism.

He has edited I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews and was a curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s The American Century, Part II: Soundworks.

Additionally, he was granted an Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship in American Studies at Princeton University.

He is also the founder and publisher of UbuWeb, an expansive online library of avant-garde music, writing, and film.

In 2009, he was awarded a Qwartz Electronic Music Award in recognition of the archive.

His recent book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, was released by Columbia University Press.

Although Goldsmith and I are both working at WFMU and our little ones attend the same school in Manhattan, I opted to communicate with him through email instead of meeting face-to-face so we could take our time with our queries and responses.

— Dave Mandl’s words

According to Dave Mandl, it is essential to recognize the value of hard work.

He emphasizes that no success or accomplishment can be achieved without the dedication and effort put into it.

He suggests that if one is willing to put in the time, energy and dedication, success is within reach.

Do you mean that there is no requirement for your books to be read?

In Kenneth Goldsmith’s opinion, his books should be thought about rather than read.

He concedes that they are tiresome and difficult to get through, noting that who would want to read a year’s worth of weather reports or a complete transcript of a day’s worth of traffic reports.

However, he believes they are great to converse and reflect on, to browse through, and to have on one’s shelf.

That is why he calls his craft “conceptual writing,” as the concept is more significant than the outcome.

BLVR: For me, they have a captivating quality that is similar to a huge library of facts or a store with shelves full of buttons organized by hue, size, and other factors.

Is there something that draws people to these sorts of tidily sorted and systematized types of knowledge?

KG’s shelves are full of his favorite books which he cannot read, including Finnegans Wake , The Making of Americans , Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and The Arcades Project.

He is enthralled by their size, scope, and ambition and loves the surprise that comes with randomly opening the pages.

He loves how these books are timeless, always new, and never go out of style. He wanted to write books similar to these, however he wanted them to be reference books rather than poetry or fiction.

He refers to them as ‘pataphysical reference books. Once someone freed themselves of the need for language to always have a “meaningful” interpretation, they can experience language in unconventional ways.

This could include sorting words by sound, constraint, and appearance rather than solely by meaning. Language is naturally loaded with meaning and emotion, and if someone looks at a sentence, word, or phoneme with a different perspective, the world changes.

The stock tables can become list poems and the newspaper can be turned into a novel.

With the abundance of material now accessible on the web for use, does this mean there is no longer a requirement for creating something new?

Can we make do with just reworking existing sources from now on? Is there nothing that has yet to be said?

KG: In the current era, the amount of language being used has changed drastically compared to a few decades ago. As writers, we need to take this into consideration when composing our works and think about the environment they will be distributed in.

Our digital world is made up of alphanumeric language, as seen with incorrect JPEGs showing up as garbled text instead of an image.

Every media piece is now composed of language, which is a contrast from analog production, where no language could be found under the surface. Interesting changes have come about with this shift, as language has become something to shape and mold in various ways.

Though this is a new development, there are still stories to be told and ideas to be written. Even though I have discussed “uncreativity” and “unoriginality”, what I am suggesting is new and original. This presents an interesting paradox.

BLVR: It’s a coincidence that when we open a JPEG, we see a long string of letters. This is comparable to Hebrew, where characters can also be numerals and letters, which has been investigated and utilized by esotericists and numerologists.

Do you think this same concept can be applied in a different way, such as with images that contain verbal messages when opened with certain software, or with texts that form images when viewed with the right program?

KG: Absolutely. It is a popular way to encode confidential material: packing revolutionary documents into a jumble of JPEG or MP3 code and then sending it away as an “image” or a “song”.

Even so, code has literary worth as well. If we view it through the perspective of literary critique, the last century of modernist and postmodernist writing has demonstrated the artistry of seemingly random assemblages of letters.

For illustration, here is a snippet of a JPEG opened in a text editor:

ˆ?Îj␣ÔI␣fl¥d4 ̇‡À,†␣ÑÎoajËqsoeY”␣ ̋/

1Í.§ÏÄ@ ̇’␣JCGOn aa$e¶aeQÍ ̋5o’5a is a)

The ́'[“Òa␣ˇ §s}e␣{_ p#n›=à mà flÓ auuÊ oei”›_$iÛμ}Tß‹ae

In order to Õ ¢ø¥}e &£S ̈Æ␣›eÉk(C)ı=/, Í=aÖ␣;Í”␣

The ̋/” ̇uoÈ>␣ad_iÉuo ̇Ì–eÆ␣’aø6aÿ- Á is required.

It is evident that a close study of the text does not provide much in terms of the meaning or plot. A cursory look at the material reveals nothing but a nonsensical conglomeration of symbols and letters.

Nonetheless, what if the meaning is not considered to be of utmost importance? We must then ponder different inquiries about the text.

Here is an excerpt from Charles Bernstein’s poem “Lift Off,” penned in 1979:

HH/ thus, observing the sequence of events which form the basis of iibf gmMw

er,,me”ius igor¢jeu vine+pee.)a/nat” ihl”n,s

one can identify the pattern of Bruce-oOiwvewaa39osoanfJ++,r”P emerging from the løøpitemo.

The poem has been crafted to omit any literary devices or displays of human feeling, and Bernstein chooses to feature the functioning of a machine rather than a human’s feelings.

This work is accurately titled – it’s an exact copy of everything that has been taken from a page through a correction tape from a manual typewriter.

Bernstein’s poem is, in a way, code presented in the form of a poem.

Does conceptual writing require a specific source of content, or can it originate from any source? Is the selection of material and the way it is recontextualized the key to making this type of writing an artistic endeavor?

KG: In the 1960s, Sol LeWitt stated something similar to “Conceptual art is only effective if the concept is good”. I think this applies to conceptual writing as well, especially the best of it.

Everyone is looking for that “Aha!” moment when something so near is seen as incredible, deep, and extraordinary.

Writers sometimes try too hard to be expressive when it is simply a case of rearranging what is around them or incorporating a preexisting text into a distinct setting, which is what makes a successful piece of writing.

This isn’t a new idea, for instance, think of John Cage’s concept of silence or Duchamp’s urinal. However, these approaches have not been explored to the same degree in writing.

Nowadays, we live in an era of almost instantaneous capturing and recording of everything.

Is there any sort of performance or piece that should be vanished into the atmosphere straight away, and be forbidden from being recycled or “remixed”? Is something viewed as “sacred” (as Benjamin alludes to) ever lost with unlimited duplication or reuse?

KG: Nam June Paik once stated that the internet is available to everyone, not just those living in New York City.

Although NYC has a surplus of concerts, readings, and events, that is not the case for most people.

UbuWeb is an example of this, as they are often contacted by people living in rural towns or those who simply cannot make it to certain places due to their financial or social situation.

It would be wrong of me to say that live, human interaction is more important than the web, considering I’m fortunate enough to attend various events regularly.

To put it simply, the more that is documented on the web, the more everybody benefits.

BLVR: Absolutely, however do you consider there is a need for people to be able to express, “I would rather not have this reproduced or tampered with in any way”?

This could be more of a technical issue, however is something wrong with the way things are if I cannot ever declare, “I would positively prefer that not a hundred persons comment on (in the blog sense) or remix this specific piece of writing”?

KG suggests that in order to be subversive and radical, one should consider publishing on paper, bypassing traditional publishing structures.

This is the perfect way to keep thoughts, ideas and works private, away from the web.

Putting anything in digital form, however, could result in it being picked up by spiders and used for advertising, or being bootlegged, remixed and commented upon, making it out of one’s control.

Therefore, to keep things away from prying eyes, paper publishing is the way to go.

BLVR: Is it possible that when printed books become obsolete, the world will become a place where there is no censorship and people can say whatever they please?

I’m thinking of deserted neighborhoods that have been re-inhabited by artists, or perhaps people conversing on old-fashioned computer bulletin boards today.

KG opined that while the world will never be a place without policing, there is a degree of freedom on the fringes.

David Antin speaks to this in works like Talking at the Boundaries, which promote practices that hide in the margins of culture, away from the “white hot” light.

John Cage also addressed this, when he was criticized for filing his taxes but calling himself an anarchist; he said he’d do the bare minimum to comply, so he could work in relative peace rather than a place where he wouldn’t be allowed to do so at all.

BLVR: Have you found that readers don’t necessarily need to read your books from start to finish in order to comprehend them?

How does that contrast with your radio broadcasts, which are temporal in nature? Do you think people should listen to them in their entirety, and if so, how does that compare to reading one of your books?

From your perspective, would you describe the experience of tuning into your radio work as more experiential than intellectual?

KG noted that the ability to switch off the radio is an advantage that other mediums such as reading or concerts lack.

He stated that this freedom enables radio to take risks, something commercial radio usually does not do.

His job as a DJ on WFMU is to take as many risks as possible, without forcing anyone to listen. Surprisingly, KG shared that some listeners told him that his nine-hour weather report was one of the most profound radio experiences they ever had.

His conclusion was that he believes in providing the content and letting people decide what they want to do with it.

The query arises: Is it the presence of additional organizations like WFMU, or the minor publishers you work with, that would cause more people to be welcoming of this type of work? Or is it the peculiarity of these associations that gives your work its potency?

Gestures of appropriation often start at the corners of the literary world, where there is more room for experimentation.

With an ever-increasing amount of language, along with the means to manipulate it, these strategies are quickly making their way to the mainstream.

Recently, when the bestselling author Michel Houellebecq was accused of “plagiarism” in his latest book, which was praised as a “work of genius” by Liberation, the author defended himself by saying that he was simply following a method of muddling fiction and real documents, which had been used by many authors before him; citing Georges Perec and Jorge Luis Borges as an influence.

This shift in attitude demonstrates how exciting of a time it is in the literary world.

BLVR: It is quite clear that the concept of what is considered ‘fair use’ or homage is always changing.

Do you think plagiarism is now antiquated? Or, because of the modern advances in technology, it is hard to determine what plagiarism is? As an example, consider the dispute over music sampling.

It was necessary to come to an agreement on how many seconds would be considered as copyright infringement.

As there were no regulations in place to adjudicate such cases, a judgment had to be made.

KG noted that sampling culture was tamed by people making money off of it. The speaker then noted how lucky they were to be in the current moneyless economy of poetry, which allowed for more freedom and no one to be concerned.

They then mentioned one of their favorite quotes from Tim O’Reilly, which was that “being well-enough known to be pirated [is] a crowning achievement”.

The speaker concluded by saying that money was a distant third or fourth to most artists, as they wanted to be loved and make history first and foremost.

BLVR: What similarities and differences do you find when you compare your reworking of information such as weather and traffic updates to the way industrial music artists like Throbbing Gristle utilized the sounds of the industrial world in their musical pieces?

KG: Brion Gysin’s assertion in 1959 that writing was fifty years behind painting can still be applied to the current day.

Although numerous artistic fields, such as visual art, music and cinema, have explored what can be done with writing, this has not been thoroughly tested on the page. For instance, there has been limited experimentation with appropriating preexisting texts, until recently.

Now, there are projects such as Simon Morris’s retyping of On the Road into a blog and my own Day, which is a transcription of a day’s copy of the New York Times. Vanessa Place’s _Statement of Facts republished court transcriptionist in their entirety as literature.

The main difference is that, prior to the digital age, transcription of text was too laborious for many people, whereas now, with the use of cut and paste, the entire works of Shakespeare can be held on a clipboard, ready to be repurposed.

This has caused us to consider words and writing in new ways.

BLVR: Are all these pieces of “information” (sounds from the environment, traffic updates, and the material of On the Road ) the same, or do you think there are different motives for reinterpreting them?

It could be that one artist is attempting to show the beauty of everyday objects which people usually overlook, while the other has a more “structural” purpose in mind.

KG: This question brought to my mind an exchange between John Cage and Morton Feldman in 1967.

Feldman was voicing his displeasure about being at the beach, with transistor radios playing rock and roll, and Cage replied, “I figured out how to handle the issue of radio in a crowded environment like that.

It’s almost like how ancient people dealt with animals that scared them. They’d draw pictures of them on their cave walls.

So I made a piece that used radios. Now, when I hear any radio, even a single one, it makes me think of my work.”

Do you think people will be more likely to write programs or purchase software for the purpose of cutting-and-pasting content?

If so, what would the consequences of this be? Would it assist people in avoiding falling into habits, or would taking away the human factor make the work pointless?

KG: Technology and automation cannot solve the problem of repeating behavior patterns, as they only create new instances of them.

As an example, I no longer allow my students to craft poems using search engine results. This has been done too often, and the poem always turns out the same.

Jonathan Swift articulated this idea in 1726 when he proposed a writing machine that could “produce books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study” at a low cost.

The machine was composed of a grid with every word in the English language inscribed within it. Cranking the handle shifted the grid and randomly generated groups of words.

These fragmented sentences were then written down by scribes, with the intention of reorganizing the English language.

Swift’s moral of the story is that the English language was perfectly fine as it was and that recreating it by machine did not improve it.

This serves as a reminder that our faith in the potential of technology to change the world is often misplaced.

BLVR: It can be humorous that Google is a common source of frustration for academics.

History instructors frequently deal with students copying their reports directly from the web, and you have to counteract the students who attempt to construct conceptual poetry through search results.

You are an ardent supporter of technology, so is it funny that you must act as a traditionalist when it comes to stopping pupils who were raised to believe that Google can answer any inquiry?

KG: It is astonishing how much more adept I am with technology than the majority of them! I am in awe of their capability to not be so entranced by it, like I am.

I simply can’t get over its existence, but for them it is a day-to-day part of their life.

Their flexibility is something that I look up to, as they are able to go from oil painting one moment to using Photoshop the next; they are able to access MP3s while also having a vast LP collection.

I have recently taken a step in the Luddite direction by attempting to make UbuWeb less visible on Google. I’m aiming for the website to be more hidden and spread more through word of mouth.

As a result, the only way to find it will be through someone linking it or talking about it, like music used to be before MTV. It can still be found on the less utilized search engines like AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo!.

It seems like everyone desires to converge into the middle, and even write books on how to increase their Google ranking. We are going in the opposite direction; we want to be away from Google.

BLVR: Is there a relationship between UbuWeb as an archival effort and the bricolage you use in your writing? Is one of your objectives with UbuWeb to open up the possibility for future generations of creators and authors to repurpose and reinterpret this material?

KG’s UbuWeb is an outgrowth of their writing. There is a certain economic system which proposes utopia might be possible without copyright.

The website is full of avant-garde films, music, and books–most of which have not been permitted. It is not a clandestine site such as RapidShare; it is all out in the open, free for anyone to use with no passwords or charges.

The goal is to create a repository of the avant-garde, with the belief that all economies are not the same. Most of the material on the platform never made money, so it can be shared without cost.

No donations or grants are accepted, and the server and bandwidth are offered without any conditions. If permission had to be asked, the site would not exist.

BLVR: This poses an intriguing political situation: By disregarding the law and publishing this material, you discovered that the vast majority of UbuWeb’s artists have no qualms about it.

Had you been more wary and suggested adhering to the regulations, you likely would have encountered countless counterarguments and never gone through with it.

But have there ever been occasions where you were asked to take something off?

KG noted that it is rare for artists to copyright their works; it is usually handled by galleries or estates who utilize Google alerts for names.

UbuWeb has become canonical through its wrongdoings, and artists are now approaching them to be on the website.

The institutions are too scared of copyright issues to create a large archive, as it would involve considerable paperwork and legal fees to negotiate contracts and royalties. Ubu operates without any money, and acts quickly to get materials online.

However, its archive is unstable and could vanish at any moment. Thus, its role is to provoke someone to come and do it correctly, and its success lies in its own obsolescence.

BLVR: How does the concept of copyright fit into the notion of unrestricted reuse of texts?

Is the writing of a novelist any more their own than that of a meteorologist if all texts can be viewed as more or less interchangeable data?

KG: It’s an interesting query, and the response relates to various economic systems. Let me use my own work as an illustration.

A few years ago, I wrote a dull book that was a transcript of a Yankees-Red Sox game for radio. Everything that aired on the radio was included, from the pregame show to the adverts to the commentary from the booth.

The book opens with the standard disclaimer for sports broadcasts that goes: “This copyrighted broadcast is presented by authority of the New York Yankees and may not be reproduced or retransmitted in any form.

And the accounts and descriptions in the game may not be disseminated without the express written consent of the New York Yankees.” After the book was published, I sent a copy to the Yankees organization and didn’t hear anything back.

If a commercial publisher had made the same gesture, they would have been taken to court. However, a small press publishing a book of “poetry” likely prompted the Steinbrenners to scratch their heads and promptly discard it.

BLVR: It’s possible that the deciding factor for someone like Steinbrenner concerning whether to care or not may be based on whether there’s a financial gain.

However, as you implied, the Yankees’ management may not have understood the project.

There are cases such as Negativland’s parody CD U2 where they were not going to benefit financially, but U2’s record label still took legal action, possibly due to it being a source of humiliation for the band.

KG: The U2 incident vividly illustrates how much the times have changed.

A year prior, John Oswald faced Sony’s ire over his Plunderphonics production, in addition to the taming of sampling culture which we discussed.

It was like a witch hunt. Nowadays, record labels use such incidents for positive publicity, like with Danger Mouse’s Grey Album , where legal threats were dropped after the Grey Tuesday protests. As a result, Danger Mouse enjoyed great success.

In contrast, literature is still mired in antiquated concepts of originality. We are still fifty years behind the rest of the world when it comes to these issues. It’s incredibly tedious.

Possibilities You May Be Interested In

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The utilization of modern technology has made it much easier to access and manage data.

Nowadays, it is much simpler to store, analyze, and share data due to the availability of advanced tools.

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Readers show their support for our content. When you purchase items through links on our website, we may receive a commission.

A picture of a tranquil setting is presented, with a lake and mountains in the background. The water is a deep blue and the sky is a vibrant blue.

The mountains are lush and green, providing a peaceful atmosphere.

The concept of coolness was highly appreciated, yet did it hinder any other prospects?

Hilary had moments of uncertainty. Frequently, she thought she was on the verge of detecting something more profound, but each time, something exciting would take place unexpectedly.

Occasionally, she would find herself in an amazing situation, like having an encounter with renowned people on the brink of a spiritual awakening.

She sensed that she was being put to the test, or enticed.

At that period, the prevailing cultural representation of temptation was a chocolate cake. Frequently, these types of cakes had titles referencing something sinful or alluring.

It was like two identical twins vying for the same magenta jumpsuit when deciding between feeling sexy and getting a sugar rush.

Hilary was triumphant in receiving gift certificates repeatedly.

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