Of all the stupid things you are likely going to do today, I must insist that printing this PDF is not one of them. This portable document format file is anything but portable and calling it a document is, at best, a euphemism. Believe me when I say that I like printing digital artefacts on dead trees as much as the next guy, but this is one PDF that was never meant to make it to meatspace.
Unless, of course, you happen to have a burning desire to coat a square kilometer of the planet with black rectangles. In that case, you should definitely print this 2,568 page PDF.
The PDF in question was unleashed on the world in a tweet by Kenneth Goldsmith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches classes about how to waste time on the internet, founder of the avant garde repository UbuWeb, and self-described “uncreative writer.” When I spoke to Goldsmith over email, he said he was in the process of printing out the PDF.
“It’s only six reams of paper, and at $3.99 per ream I can print my square kilometer for about $24,” Goldsmith told me. “Assembling it, however, in my small apartment in Manhattan is another matter…”
The project was done in collaboration with Aarea.co, a digital artspace maintained by Brazilian curators Marcella Viera and Livia Benedetti. Each month, Viera and Benedetti host a project on the site without any context and after four weeks it is taken down. Last month, for instance, there was a live stream from the cab of freight trains. Viera and Benedetti reached out to Goldsmith and asked if he would be interested in doing a project.
“A few years ago, I did a one-mile line in the digital space,” Goldsmith told me. “I had tried to do the one square kilometer years ago, but the CPU wasn’t able to render an entire kilometer. Now that it could do it, I did it.”
According to Goldsmith, actually creating the square kilometer was quite simple. It used just one line of code to render a single black pixel 4,320,000 times.
The PDF is exactly what you’d expect from an artist like Goldsmith, who created a conceptual art project in 2013 called ‘Printing Out the Internet’ that invited people from around the globe to print out portions of the internet and send it to a gallery in Mexico. ‘Printing Out the Internet’ was dedicated to Aaron Swartz, a hacktivist who helped create Reddit and took his own life while facing decades in prison for releasing nearly 5 million journal articles from JSTOR, a subscription-based platform for scientific papers. As detailed in Goldsmith’s book, Wasting Time on the Internet, the gallery was eventually filled with a “ten-ton heap of paper that was nearly five meters high.”
Goldsmith’s digital square kilometer is also an homage, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked at the document’s hyperlink. There it says that its “for%20Walter%20De%20Maria,” a 20th century avant garde artist known for works that are concerned with and embedded in space. Some of De Maria’s most famous works involved the distribution of objects over large spaces: ‘The Lightning Field’ arranged 400 metal rods in a grid over a square mile and ‘Vertical Earth Kilometer’ buried a metal rod a kilometer into the ground so that its top was flush with the surface.
In this sense, Goldsmith’s ‘One Square Kilometer’ project is a digital response to De Maria’s work.
“A square kilometer is an enormous amount of space,” Goldsmith said. “It’s like 16 square Manhattan blocks, or Grand Central Station five times. But on the screen, you can scroll past it in a second. Yet on a digital device, it’s like trying to thumb across a kilometer. It’s really painful. So, [‘One Square Kilometer’] is about real space and digital space and quantification.”
Although Goldsmith’s square kilometer has been online all month (and is archived here), he said the PDF will be available for one day only before the entire project is scrubbed from the website. Unless, of course, you download it and redistribute it—something which Goldsmith would undoubtedly approve of—which raises the question of whether anything on the internet can ever truly be “one day only.”
“I suppose that if it’s cached, it can be forever, but we see things only one time on the web these days and forget about them,” Goldsmith said. “So in that way, the entire web is for one day only.”