Exchanging emails with Kenneth Goldsmith: an Interview

zingmagazine, Winter 2000
by A.S. Bessa

A.S. Bessa: I have recently read a book on how Mallarmé would rework his prose poems on the occasion of each new printing of them, and one prominent aspect was how he increasingly augmented the quantity of commas in each paragraph, as a way to slow down the reading act. That reminded me of your drawings about punctuation which is an aspect of language that we tend to overlook.

Kenneth Goldsmith: The fact that commas slow down the act of reading is very much in keeping with John Cage when he quoted Norman O. Brown as saying that "syntax is the arrangement of the army" and Thoreau's idea that "when he heard a sentence he heard feet marching." Cage felt that the function of syntax was that of a regulatory body-language's policeman-and as an anarchist, was uninterested in those types of order and restraint. The drawings to which you're referring come directly from a Cage piece "Writing Through Finnegans Wake for the Second Time" published in Empty Words (Wesleyan University Press, 1981). In the piece, he creates a typical Cageian mesostic write-through of Finnegans Wake yet he does something that, to my knowledge, he only did once: he scatted the text's syntax all over the page as dictated by chance operations. I was struck by the beauty of that piece and was shocked that neither Cage nor anyone else ever followed the idea to its logical conclusion-or illogical conclusion as the case may be-by removing language altogether and allowing the syntax to play freely. I tend to think of the pieces as syntax on holiday.

ASB: Another analogy would be to make a comparison with traffic signs, and in the case of your drawings it's as if the city had disappeared and only the signage persisted. I am also struck by the randomness in them, although I am sure they are very precise. Your work has always had a very brainy finish to them, but at first glance, these drawings seem more abstract and intuitive.

KG: All my work has a brainy finish to it, though just below the surface, it's all intuitive, abstract and poetic. The problem is that most people in the art world refuse to go below an object's visual surface and thus never get past an initial impression of what they're seeing. But the dynamic that I'm invoking is completely intentional and functions to turn the paradigm of text art on its ear. By employing text art's conventions-which I'm quite fond of--it's a perfectly rigorous way of subverting them.

I figure that I lose over half the gallery audience by working with text. Many people walk into a gallery and just turn around because they "don't read" their art. In addition, most people feel that with text-based work, they have to read the entire thing, start to finish. My work functions differently in that it is impossible to read conventionally start to finish; it works better as browsing, the way we read a newspaper. Who reads a newspaper start to finish in that order? We are already trained to skim-it's how we read today.

The difference between one text artist and another should be in the way their work reads, not in the way it looks. An occupational hazard of being a text-based artist is that your work is going to look like everyone else's! It's something that one acknowledges when they devote themselves to working exclusively with text; after all, there are only 26 visual forms your work can take. You consciously accept the medium's limitation-it's a radical stance to take in an art world obsessed with individuality and differentiation. And the strange thing is that writers don't seem to have this problem: Open any book to page 50 and it's pretty much going to look the same as page 50 of any other book. Once again, the question writers ask themselves is: How does it read? I think that's a question that more text-based artists need to be asking themselves. Once you enter into this way of thinking, you realize that text-based art is a wonderfully open field.

ASB: Audiences want to be visually entertained-they shy away from anything that will ask more work on their part. Many people will not read works like Ulysses or Finnegans Wake because they think of them as unreadable, thus missing all the wonders of the text.

KG: Finnegans Wake is certainly beyond the novel. Joyce wrote a book that, in no way, could ever have been mistaken for a novel: It's unnameable, unknowable and uncategorizable. To me, Finnegans Wake is as much an object as it is a book, something to be looked at as much as it is to be read.

When I wrote my 600 page No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, I wanted to create an object that couldn't be named, categorized or identified. I looked on my bookshelf and saw that any reference book worth its salt was at least 600 pages. Hence, I stopped writing my book when I hit 600 pages. In the end, No. 111 can never be mistaken for a novel or a book of poetry. To this day, it remains unnameable.

In addition, in the spirit of Finnegans Wake, I wanted to write a book so large and complex, that I could open it at any time and be surprised. However, after having spent over four years working on it, I found that I ended up knowing every word in the book. Only recently-it's been two years since publication-have I begun not to know it anymore. And now, every once in a while, I can pick up the book and be surprised!

ASB: What is striking about No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 is its encyclopedic character, which one associates with Joyce or Pound, but in your case the choices seem more aleatory. The attempt to sum up all books in one is present in Joyce and Pound but their processes were highly selective--perhaps we can even call them elitist--whereas yours is more democratic (for lack of a better word). Even the title of your book has a more detached tone to it. What your process was like in writing No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96?

KG: It was both an aleatory and a highly structured process. I am a collector; as a writer, I am a collector of language. For three and a half years, during the time in which I wrote No. 111, I collected words and phrases that ended in sounds relating to the "schwa": are, ah, air, ear, uh, and so on. I collected these sounds from conversations, the newspaper, television, books-anywhere that there was language. I was constantly scribbling down things or speaking into a tape recorder. At the end of each day I would bring my harvest of language home and dump it into a word processing program, where I would hand-count the number of syllables in each phrase (there are no computer programs that can accurately count syllables). It was in this way that the book became structured: alphabetically and syllabically.

ASB: A few years ago I saw a panel discussion led by Jerry Saltz at the Drawing Center in which you participated, and I had this image of you as a person that does not throw anything out. That was the first time I saw your work, and I had the feeling that you were doing a poetic inventory of sorts. The "found poetry" section on UbuWeb is another fascinating example of your collecting drive. Do you agree with Geoffrey Young when he calls you a "taxonomist of the language environment?

KG: Yes, but I'm not so much a namer as I am an organizer of language. In Ron Silliman's The New Sentence, he posits the idea of language becoming commodified and privatized when used in "public" places such as road signs or advertisements. In Silliman, there's a sense of regret and loss. While I can sympathize, my generation doesn't see it as a problem thanks to having come of age with ideas such as appropriation and sampling as part of the lingua franca. On the contrary, the more public and commercial language becomes, the more available it is to re-employ and re-purpose with the life that was drained from it. There's so much great language out there for the taking; if we open our eyes and ears to it, we'll find it in abundance.

I have often worked with concretizing the ephemeral, making the invisible visible, finding out what language weighs. In 1996, I did a piece called Soliloquy where I tape recorded and transcribed every word I spoke for a week from the moment I woke up on Monday morning until the moment I went to sleep Sunday night. The tag line for the piece was " If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard." The book was 350 pages long and the language just fell together. Marshall McLuhan talked about the creative process as requiring nothing more than the "brushing" together of two chunks of content; the variety of results can be shocking. I wasn't trained as a writer, yet I am now one. I was trained as a sculptor and as a result, have a strong urge to make language physical.

In the past, I did not edit (No. 111 and Soliloquy); I simply accumulated. But my recent project, Fidget-every move my body made on Bloomsday 1997-was heavily edited. The methodology was the same, but the parameters slightly shifted. As a result, editing was part of the process or machine and, for this project, was permitted.

In my life I'm also a collector. I'm a DJ on WFMU and have several thousand LPs and CDs. I've also been collecting found and insane poetry off the streets of New York City for the past fifteen years, the best of which is housed on UbuWeb. There's so much language in this city that one could spend their entire life making different sorts of collections of language that is here.

ASB: Heidegger wrote on the issue of using language for practical purposes which he was, of course, against. But I do agree with you about the possibilities in commercial language, or language as commodity. It is a matter of trusting the power of language to renew itself, always creating new words and syntax.

KG: Yes, over the past decade we've seen language renewing itself at a remarkable rate. For example, compound words forming URLs have become common parlance (my favorite is Modell's: gottagotomos.com: It's something right out of Finnegans Wake). I first noticed this tendency in the early 90s when rappers started slamming words together to create compounds like "funkdoobiest." Around the the same time there was rap movement sometimes known as The Daisy Age (A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers) which incorporated modernist collage and noise into the mixes. It was as if they took classic musique concrète and added beats to it, not to mention radical Burroughs-esque cut-up and John Oswald-like plunderphonic practices. It was an amazing confluence as modernism and pop culture worked together to stretch and twist the parameters of language.

ASB: Even the concept of the "book," which we are all so fond of, has been blown up to accommodate new necessities. The fact that you were trained as a sculptor, for example, sets up an entirely new attitude towards the book.

KG: Actually, over the years, I've grown less fond of the book and more devoted to the internet. I've come to feel-and this is particular to literature and music-that if it doesn't exist on the Internet, it doesn't exist.

Now, having said that, I'm convinced of the web's radical powers in those spheres. A few years ago, a French filmmaker said to me "in a time of pluralist practice, the issue is not 'make it new' but the new paradigm concerns methods of distribution." How you distribute it counts as much as how you make it. This has radical implications for those arts which have functioned on what is basically a gift economy. Take poetry, for example: Hardly anybody ever makes money from poetry. When you get poetry books, they've usually been given to you by their authors or you've bought them for a couple of bucks from Small Press Distribution at little profit to the poets. Because most poets are still under the illusion that there is a career to be had from the production of paper books, they unnecessarily saddle themselves with an old distribution system. Also, they are at the mercy of publishers who have no money, but whom nonetheless dangle the prospect of publication in front of the authors. As a result, many friends of mine have literally waited years for a book to appear that will ultimately have no distribution to speak of. On the web, you can publish instantly, in full color and have terrific global distribution at virtually no cost.

UbuWeb is proof of this. In 1996, I decided that I would put an obsession of mine up on the web. I had been collecting concrete poetry books ever since I went to visit the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry in Miami in the late 80s. Without permission, I started scanning and posting my collection under the name UbuWeb. Three years later, it has become the definitive collection of this work on the web. Poets find their work on UbuWeb and instead of threatening to sue me for using their work without permission or issuing a "cease and desist" order, they thank me for taking an interest in their work. It's a win-win situation: A dying art form is given new life and artists whose work had been out of circulation are thrilled to see their work "in print" again. It's all thanks to a new system of distribution; again, it's McLuhanesque-it's the medium here that is the real story, not the "content," (the "content" has always been interesting and we need not worry about it-it takes care of itself). In the words of John Perry Barlow, it's not wine in new bottles, it's wine without the bottles.

ASB: There are certainly a lot of possibilities to explore on the internet and in this regard, UbuWeb is a model to be followed. What I find most interesting is the fact that it is an open book, so to speak, always under construction.

KG: I'm only interested in forms of art that are "open books"; once we know a work, we are finished with it. Take pop music, for example: we quickly learn not only the songs on an album but the order in which they appear. As a result, the experience is completely anticipatory. It's based on memory and, in turn, on nostalgia. It cans the music and pins it to a specific place and time, limiting our experience with it.

ASB: Still the "idea of the book" will persist for a long while, even if the internet succeeds in replacing it, exploding it or erasing it. You, for instance, still use the book format even though you acknowledge its limitations.

KG: This is a book, right? {{{ sigh }}} Yes. I love the book. Deeply. I love language and in my time, the book has been the vehicle that's delivered language most effectively to me. However, there are now other means of linguistic transport that are making the book format seem very limited. If we look beyond the book, we'll find that language is the most plentiful natural resource we produce/possess. And far from becoming a long-promised/threatened predominantly visual culture, we still can't seem to debunk the preeminence of words as a primary transport of ideas.

ASB: I wonder whether with new technologies of "linguistic transport," as you say, notions such as "reading," "writing," "looking," etc. will also be transformed, expanded. I'm really taken by the fact that the internet brought about the performative aspect of language to such a physical dimension-we need "pass-words," we click icons, we are transported to "sites" by clicking on sensitive words, etc. At the same time, all aspects of language have been completely transformed such as in "gottagotomos.com," or even in its simplest traces such as http, www, .com, etc.

KG: Yes. It seems that with the examples that you've brought up in regards to the internet and technology, we've physicalized language to a new degree. I love the physicality of language and I'm thrilled with a new technology that can make language even more muscular, more opaque. The less transparent language becomes on a regular basis, the more sensitized we become to its formal and physical qualities. We start to pay attention to the concreteness of language, instead of taking it for granted as a commodity, a unique medium for exchange. Through this process, language becomes more curious and valuable in and of itself.

I have dealt with these issues over the years by working in languages I don't know. I've worked in Spanish, French, Greek, Polish, to name a few. I found that it was a particularly effective way to could get past my likes and dislikes-my tendency towards transparency, you might say-in using language. When I work in languages that I don't know, I am able to work with the words formally and concretely; I don't have to worry about what they mean, only what they look like and maybe sound like. And the great thing about language is that it will always mean something, but in this instance, it's often not what you intended. It's very liberating.

I've have this fantasy of working exclusively in languages I don't know for a long period of time, say, 5 years. Imagine that-5 years of working with something you don't understand a word of! This is one of the reasons I refuse to learn another language: If I learn it, then I have no use for it-artistically speaking-anymore!

ASB: Are you preparing any new projects as we speak (I mean, exchange e-mails)?

For several months now I have been trying to organize a major project: a year-long version of Soliloquy. It will be a documentation of every word that I speak for an entire year-unedited. But it will differ from the first version of Soliloquy in that it will take place live over the Internet. I'll be hooked up to a wireless headset, which will cellularly beam my words to a voice recognition system on a computer that will, in turn, automatically churn my words into web pages. In short, anyone anywhere will be able to see what I'm saying at any given moment during the course of a year. Think of it as a text-based Truman Show.

But what I really care about is the language itself and, in the end, I will have archived all the text files and turned them into a 52 volume work-one book for each week-with each book about 350 pages long (the length of the printed edition of Soliloquy) giving me a total of approximately 18,000 pages. It'll literally be an encyclopedia, a reference book of what one average person said for an entire year in the early part of the 21st century. It'll not only make a great artwork, but every library in the country will have to have a copy, due to its sociological relevance. And best of all, it's a book that will "write" itself. The new version of Soliloquy neatly sums up my attitude toward language: language will flow and mold into whatever form its poured-it's at once ephemeral and permanent, concrete and digital.

A.S. Bessa 
Brooklyn, New York

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