Currently sitting in a gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany is a print out of Papers from Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. This was Kenneth Goldsmith's idea, and it resulted in the printing of around 250,000 sheets of paper. Thomas Piketty's very thick tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century, occupies only about 350 sheets of paper; Infinite Jest is about 550 sheets. These 250,000 sheets of paper are 33 gigabytes made physical, the 33 GB of JStor documents legally obtained and then uploaded to The Pirate Bay by Greg Maxwell on the day after Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was indicted by the US Attorney General's office for his attempt to rip JStor's content out from its pay wall. In a blog post, Goldsmith acknowledges that no one will ever read all the way through these 250,000 pages but still said, “the fact of this material—and its ever-present availability—outweighs what practical applications we might render from it.”
This project is old hat for Kenneth Goldsmith. Last year, his printing project was even more ambitious. He attempted to print out the whole internet with the aid of whoever was interested. You may have read about it on the Huffington or Washington Posts. You may have signed the unsuccessful (by 26 measly signatures) petition to stop the act. You may have even helped Goldsmith by printing out some Youporn search results. Not many spectators came out to see it, but there it sat at a gallery in Mexico City with over 20,000 submissions by 600 people who helped the installation reach a total weight of 10 tons.
600 is also the number of pages, roughly, that Goldsmith estimates were dedicated to stopping the project. You could find backlash on Twitter, where SynicHex suggested, “How about no. Then we bash him in the head because his ideas are stupid.” You could find backlash from environmentalists, who noted that the sheets of paper stacked would reach over 305 miles high. Of these 600 pages of protest, Goldsmith wryly noted in an email exchange that there were “600 more pages of the web that needed to be printed and thrown onto the pile.”
Funny, right? Indeed, you would be remiss to consider Kenneth Goldsmith a stone-faced conceptualist. He is a prankster at heart, and used his old show on WFMU to enact a series of shenanigans under the name “Kenny G,” a sure nod to the reviled smooth jazz saxophonist. Some years the show would be called “Kenny G's Anal Magic,” and some years it would be “Kenny G's Hour of Pain.” Always, he would program hours of sound around joyfully ridiculous concepts.
He would host karaoke without backing music or whisper The Communist Manifesto while wearing an expensive suit. One week, Goldsmith played a recording of Chicago at Carnegie Hall, and the next he played an hour or fart sounds. One segment which recurred on Goldsmith's show for four weeks in a row was “Reading the Traffic,” a project which would later become one of Goldsmith's books of poetry by the same name. On the show, Goldsmith would read transcript after transcript of traffic reports from New York AM radio station, 1010 WINS. Here was find the mark of Goldsmith's longest-lasting project, Uncreative Writing.
The idea of Uncreative Writing is based on the simple conceit of creating no new content, only organizing the existent. In his 836-page book, Day, Goldsmith simply transcribed the entirety of the September 1, 2000 edition of the New York Times. In Seven American Deaths and Disasters, Goldsmith transcribes radio and television reports on, well, what's described in the title. He teaches a class on Uncreative Writing in the University of Pennsylvania's poetry department.
Uncreative Writing has gained Goldsmith prominence. He was invited to a poetry reading at the White House early in Barack Obama's first term––where he wore quite the suit––and, in 2012, was named the first ever poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art. His project also, as luck would have it, got him caught in Shia LaBeouf's snares.
Publicly flailing after plagiarizing a Daniel Clowes comic for his short film's story board, Shia LaBeouf went into performance art mode, claiming that this whole debacle was an intentional comment on originality and appropriation. He named Goldsmith and Luke Turner as inspirations and collaborators. Goldsmith claims that he never heard of the actor prior to being publicly implicated, and dismissed him out of hand on The Colbert Report. Elaborating on the incident in an email exchange, Goldsmith said that LaBeouf was “the limiting point at which all art based on questioning authorship is pointless.” Tongue likely in cheek, Kenny G dubs this a “LaBeoufian moment.”
Truth be told, Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing has little to do with plagiarism and much to do with the flow of information in the digital age. One of his most fruitful projects is UbuWeb, a massive compendium of experimental music, avant garde film, and sound poetry hosted on the University of Pennsylvania's servers. “UbuWeb appropriates not artistic objects but instead, appropriates entire oeuvres,” explains Goldsmith, “but it's all just data.” The idea that recent history's greatest ideas and statements are now “all just data” is comes up again and again in Goldsmith's work. He'll muse that today's downloaders, himself included, are “hoarders of the worst sort, even if that hoarding is invisible.” Consider all of the external hard drives you have filled solely with media.
Hence, Seven American Deaths and Disasters presents moments of national gravitas as “just data.” The idea that the most profound ideas and events of our lives today are “just data” resonates deeply with Goldsmith. As evidence by the fall out of Aaron Swartz's act—the indictment, his ensuing suicide—the “just data” status does not rob work of relevance, but instead prescribes it a precarious, and potentially high, value. Hence the uproar over Printing the Internet.
That project is a very similar gesture to UbuWeb, which is a very similar gesture to transcribing an entire newspaper, which is a very similar gesture to reading one radio station's traffic reports on another radio station. Where as so much conceptual art seems hermetically sealed within whatever institution acquired it, Goldsmith's body of work demands the attention of the world that it culls from. His is a technological, media-driven oeuvre, drinks from the teat of the everyday world. Through UbuWeb, by crowdsourcing material for Printing the Internet, Goldsmith is only asking us to play along, to keep suckling and hoarding the milk. The supply won't run dry, after all.
See Goldsmith's Tumblr Printing Out The Internet for more: http://printingtheinternet.tumblr.com/