Kenneth Goldsmith's Textualities

Poliester Fall 1998
by Bill Arning

"If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard," read the invitation card to Kenneth Goldsmith's Soliloquy exhibition at New York's Bravin Post Lee Gallery. While the phrase may be a tad too self-consciously Yoko Ono-like it does succinctly locate many different aspects of Goldsmith's practice. The artist has consistently attempted to measure the relative weight or lack thereof that words possess, and how they are woven throughout the fabric of lived life, and the practice has led Goldsmith, who was trained as a sculptor, into a hybridized world in which he is just as often the visiting guest speaker in university poetry and literature departments as in their art schools. He often collaborates with renowned figures in the world of contemporary avant-guard music. Even Goldsmith's weekly radio show on uber-cool New York Station WFMU, the appropriately titled Unpopular Music, is linked to his undelimited art practice. Today artists routinely within the gallery/museum context design furniture, cook, make movies and records or animate cartoons but often do so only in the art world out of habit. Goldsmith's fluid yet considered movements between adjacent spheres of culture is a fascinating case study.

His earliest mature works were sculptures of books. Some were pun-like, as with a ten-foot tall self-evidently unpilferable replica of Abbie Hoffman's yippie classic Steal This Book! He began turning towards card catalogs as a source and in one instance made a funeral sculpture with six books from the New York Public Library card catalog that started with the phrase "Death of a....(Death of a Perfect Mother, Death of a Simple Giant, Death of a Minor Character). The simulated books were black and laid out like a row of tombstones. Then in the late 80s he turned his attention to a rarely considered, unloved by anyone tome, The Rhyming Dictionary, which in its systematized, non meaning-based attention to words gave Goldsmith a method to denaturalize his own use of language.

Rhyme, the agent of generations of moon, June, spoon romanticism, had all but disappeared from contemporary high arts except in the form of appropriated snippets meant to remind the viewer or listener of less sophisticated time. But of course pop songs and most insistently rap music were strongly rhyme driven. It was at this point that Goldsmith's practice left the traditional sphere of sculpture and moved toward a hybrid literary/visual/performance arts practice in which pieces were translated between book, gallery installation and theatrical form. He began to jot down phrases that somehow crossed over in his consciousness from back ground hum to be memorable enough for Goldsmith's notepad. They were then organized, as in The Rhyming Dictionary firstly, according to the sound of the last syllable, and secondly in the order of the number of syllables in the word or phrase. One such drawing might start with "beau. Blow, bo, Bo, bow, bro", winding through longer sound bites, such as "Adrian Barbeau, accelerando, Andres Serrano" and ends with "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. "

The magnum opus of the rhyming works, No. 111 2.7.93 - 10.20.96 was in book form, its title describing the dates of his collecting activities. It begins with one syllable sounds "A,a, ear, acts, aer..." and ends with a 7, 228 syllable appropriation, a complete short story by DH Lawrence. Goldsmith's first participations in poetry readings were often hysterical to witness. As each piece of the period begins with one syllable words Goldsmith would always sound at the start as if he were honking like a goose, which was surprisingly refreshing after having sat through romantic poems by more traditional practitioners about drive-ins and lost loves. Then as he climbed his syllabic ladder the words became, even in their chance arrangements quite haunting and resonant.

While Goldsmith's self-imposed systems mangled context and phrases that would have seemed familiar became abstract, almost nonsensical, still they could be read like a diary, a history of listening intently to words that otherwise would have passed quickly into the ether. Goldsmith refers to speech as "the second most ephemeral human product, the first being thought" and his practice is a way of considering this invisible mass that always floats around us by materializing and concretizing it. For a show at the Artist's Museum in Lodz, Poland he made a poem in Polish, a language he doesn't speak, just by recognizing similar patterns of letters and checking with Poles to make sure they actually rhymed. As he was drawing his phrases from Polish rock and porn mags he was given by his local university student assistants, the Poles were cracking up at ludicrously funny juxtapositions that Goldsmith could not have a known were there. That fact pleased this resolute Cageian belief in the incomparable value of chance occurrences.

To create Soliloquy he tape-recorded continuously everything for a period of one week. He then laboriously transcribed only those words that had issued from his mouth. As the host of a radio show Goldsmith often did speak in soliloquy form but the piece of writing also includes dinner party chatter, gossip, commands and endearances directed toward his dog, Babette, and intimate conversations with his wife, the artist Cheryl Donegan. Although one is aware of being taped at first, no one can maintain the mental self censorship for that long a period and Goldsmith did not edit out those things that he knew would cost him both personal and professional relationships.

The exhibition form of Soliloquy was a wallpaper that covered every surface of the gallery space. It could theoretically be read beginning to end, but the specifics of the gallery space made both the top panels and lower extremities trying to read, so visitors meandered through looking for juicy bits. Again the lack of context, not knowing what the other person said to provoke Goldsmith's response, made the common words strangely indecipherable. One was left with a startling new awareness of the sheer quantity of effluvia that each and every one of us expel every week. While Goldsmith had been moving further away from the normal art world distribution systems, pieces such a Soliloquy made clear that there were certain things he wanted to accomplish with his writing that could only occur in the gallery/museum system. In this case the spatialization of words, replacing the temporal coordinate system onto which language usually fall with an architectural lattice, called us to consciousness of the mass of evanescent verbiage in a way the same words in book form could not. Goldsmith has said that process forever changed his relationship to his own speech and that of others, stating "I could not longer find a way back to seeing speech as transparent. "

When working as a librettist with new music legends Joan La Barbara and Theo Bleckmann he has not allowed himself to be a full collaborator, but rather only given them text to interpret as they will. Bleckmann recently turned Goldsmith's newest text work, Fidget, into a multimedia performance staged at the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris. In Fidget, Goldsmith's most narrative work, he spoke aloud and taped every minute action, motions, micromotion and sensation of body processes he could articulate, every moment of the day, from waking to sleeping. His day begins "Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head." While the function of language in making life experience cohere enough to be recorded in memory has been much commented on, Goldsmith, by extending this to the point of absurdity, gives us a terrifying take on what it feels like to reside in a sensate body. If we could not ignore most of our motions and processes we would quickly go insane, as Goldsmith does. He tries to masturbate to calm himself, but maintaining the constraints of describing every motion leaves no mental space for sexual fantasy, causing what he latter described as in intense body-only sensation far removed from traditional onanistic reverie.

Finally he drinks an entire bottle of whiskey to pass out, the only way to legally end the piece within his self imposed rules. Of course, before nodding off his mumbles became increasingly unintelligible, and are transcribed as such. The last hour which was an inebriated blur is the first hour written backwards.... "xaler swaJ .wollawS .pil fo cra gniwollof tfel ot htuom fo edis thgir morf gnivom pil reppu ssorca snur eugnoT Eyelids close". It was planned that Goldsmith's over-described day and the performance version both occurred on June 16th one year apart because it is Bloomsday, the day described in James Joyce's Ulysses.

Bleckmann sang the first chapter of Goldsmith's Fidget, describing his first hour after waking from a balcony above the stage with each description on a separate sheet. As each was sung it was dropped to seamstresses waiting at sewing machines. They then joined them into a man's suit into which Bleckmann changed at the end of the hour, literally inhabiting the described actions. To hear the expulsion of morning mucus from the nostrils ethereally sung by Bleckmann was as startlingly incongruous as to read such an unsensational act described by Goldsmith as if it were a recipe for a difficult but exquisite soufflé.

Fidget also exists as an installation of 12 suits sewn, one from each of the hours Goldsmith described, and it will soon be available in book form as well. Perhaps the most interesting form is the Java applet Goldsmith created with programmer Clem Paulsen on view at http://www/ On seeing Goldsmith progress through his day, the words float, hover and fade. It is as if we were hovering in his word-besotted head. When the whiskey kicks in the words throb, and when the day ends we move slowly towards darkness.

Goldsmith knows that when we see a sizable block of text in a gallery we expect to either be hectored about topical matters or to be made to feel inadequate for not fully comprehending the artist's witty retort to Lacan. But in such visual arts use of text, the artists are using language in it more traditional role, to speak "of things", to report on the prevailing conditions either of the outside world or of our interior thought patterns. Goldsmith has realized that the language is the constant companion through life, concomitant with it. He goes beyond a simple equation of language = life since that still implies two equal things, but beyond that to language and life are the same thing, inseparable, impossible to consider independently. To wake, work, and rest within a verbal cloud is a specific component of being embodied in sentient vessels, and therefore irresistible and should be cherished. Goldsmith attempts to look at language as the part of life it is, and in through revealing it processes in his daily life to consider it's functions for all of us.

Bill Arning is a curator and art critic living in New York City.

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