Collateral Damage

The Wire has been running an interesting series of columns called Collateral Damage in recent months — mostly in response to a provocative piece written by Kenneth Goldsmith celebrating the apparent triumph of quantity over quality in downloading cultures of the musical variety.  My own response to the issue is published in the latest issue of the magazine — you can read the column here.

The most important points I wanted to make in the column are: that copying in music didn’t begin with Napster, it’s essential to any musical culture or practice; that there’s something utopian about the current situation in which anyone with a computer has access to almost any sound recording made; that the resulting erosion of revenues from the sales of musical recordings isn’t in itself a valid reason to insist on more stringent intellectual property laws, which might in theory reduce the amount of copying of music, even if they (debatably) support indie music scenes.  Music scenes, indie or not are part of a broader economy and an economic crisis that affects most workers today. Music and sound are part of a global commons — they belong, or should belong, to everyone, and the challenge is to ensure that our economy and political systems support that commons.

Last paragraph: “One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to such questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.”

UPDATE: Kirkley has written a beautiful piece on his blog Sahel Sounds describing the details of a Saharan mp3 market.

Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith in Bomb magazine


I have an in depth interview with conceptual poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith in the latest issue of Bomb magazine. You can listen to audio from it and read an excerpt here.   Here’s the intro to the piece for those who are curious: “”Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.

Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.””

Ether Talk

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Visual. Concrete. Sound” announces the sleek, minimalist homepage of UbuWeb, giving little indication of the vast store of sonic, visual and textual treasures that lies within: thousands of MP3 and real audio soundfiles that archive a vast area in the international history of oral and sound poetry, sound art, and concrete poetry beginning with recordings of Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky and Dadaist Hugo Ball (from 1916!), passing through Antonin Artaud’s 1948 radio broadcast, a miscellany of Beats, Lettrists and Fluxus, current Wire obsessions like Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, to more contemporary sound work from the likes of Vito Acconci, text-sound composer Charles Amirkhanian and Cecil Taylor. There are whole issues of pioneer sound art magazine Tellus, an impressively complete set of MP3s of New York poet John Giorno’s Poetry Works LPs, all unavailable on CD, including the historic Dial a Poem series from the early 1970s and the William Burroughs celebration, 1978s The Nova Convention. And to go along with it, there’s a large, exquisite selection of writings that document the evolution of the sound and concrete poetry worlds.

UbuWeb was begun in 1996 by New York based visual artist, writer and DJ Kenneth Goldsmith, as a side project to a web design business he was running at the time. As the possibility of distributing audiofiles over the internet developed in the late 1990s, Goldsmith’s voracious appetite for burning and ripping obscure out of print vinyl and CDs and posting them online soon overwhelmed even the generous ISP who was donating free server space to him. Charles Bernstein, guru of language poetry at U. Buffalo (famous, amongst other things, for the presence of minimalist Tony Conrad), offered unlimited server space at the university and Goldsmith has made full use of it, making UbuWeb the largest resource for the sound/concrete/poetry nexus on the web today.

Goldsmith, who grew up on a downtown New York sonic diet of punk, funk, jazz and head music, was converted to sound art around 1990 while working in his studio in downtown Manhattan. “It was around the time of the first De La Soul LP, and somebody was walking by with a beatbox blasting and as I listened, it sounded just like music concrete to me. And I thought: wow, someone is walking down Houston Street playing Pierre Henry??? And what I realized was that it was actually a break between two rap tunes. With hip hop, you could take any sound at all, even the most abstract ones, and the minute you put a beat behind it, it’s legitimized. Whereas if you take the beat out, it becomes completely illegitimate and has no place in the culture.”

Goldsmith has made this illegitimacy his modus operandi on his WFMU radio show Unpopular Music a.k.a. Anal Magic, which has become infamous for sonic headfucks like his broadcast of the whole of John Cage’s Indeterminacy last Thanksgiving to New York City. Goldsmith’s own work has walked a fascinating path between concrete poetry, John Cage, and hiphop. At one point, his concrete poems (see picture above) were set to be presented in collaboration with rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien. Del bailed, but the project later evolved into his collaboration with Cage’s favorite vocalist Joan La Barbara as a book/CD 73 Poems. While a lot of language poetry sounds pretty academic, Goldsmith’s interest in hiphop has given his work a vibrancy that’s firmly rooted in everyday NYC language and experience. Speaking of his book No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, a vast catalog of found and processed words and phrases which he describes as “a big rhyming text”, he notes “I was listening to a lot of rap, but seeing the connection between James Joyce and rap in the compounding of words. “Funkdoobiest” could be something ripped out of Finnegan’s Wake.”

Goldsmith sees the web in the same terms. “For a long time, the URL for Modell’s wasn’t modells.com, it was “gottagotomos.com”: it’s out of hiphop culture and it’s out of Finnegan’s Wake. The web is the manifestation in concrete language terms of the meaning of hiphop and Joyce.”

For Goldsmith the future of sound poetry is digital and web-based, because of the access the internet provides to an enormous archive of sound. He walks over to his turntables and puts on Stock, Hausen and Walkman’s “Flogging” from Ventilating Deer complete with it’s sample of Henri Chopin’s sound poem classic “Rouge”. “Everybody’s grabbing stuff from the web, including UBUweb. People are going to be chopping this stuff up and reassembling it. It’s totally thrilling. I hope people are sampling the hell out of UbuWeb!”

Asked whether he’s had any Napster-style problems putting up such a vast collection of proprietary audio material he shakes his head. “If John Giorno called me and told me he was putting the Poetry Works stuff back in print, I’d take it down tomorrow because the job would be done. The distribution for these things was extremely marginal in the first place: mostly they just die, or become huge collectors items. None of the MP3s on UbuWeb are in print. The Henri Chopin all comes from out of print vinyl. I’d never take an in print Alga Marghen record and put it up. I realize there’s no economy there, and I’m not going to take money out of the hands of people that are doing good work. I’ll put up real audio files, but the sound quality there is degraded to the point that it just stimulates sales for the CDs.”

Goldsmith sees UbuWeb (on which he is an anonymous presence, and for which he receives no money) as an example of the way in which the web functions as a gift economy in which low production costs and free distribution make possible a utopian cornucopeia of hitherto unknown experimental richness. “The web is a new way of giving shit away – in a major way. And the web is made for poetry. The avant garde remains the counterculture – non-narrative, opaque, things without beats and stories, things that are weird. As the culture gets more and more oriented to pop, to beats, rhythm and capitalism (R n’ C?), this stuff is just forgotten. There was a moment where the avant garde and the main culture came together in the sixties, when the Beatles were talking about Stockhausen and Cage, all that crossover stuff. The eighties killed it. So this stuff remains as potent as ever. Nobody makes money doing this, so why not give it away? It’s beautiful.”

UbuWeb is at http://www.ubu.com. Goldsmith’s writing is at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/. His musical writings are at A Popular Guide to Unpopular Music at http://www.wfmu.org/~kennyg/.