Artist's Book Beat: Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget

Art On Paper Nov-Dec 1998
by Nancy Princenthal

"This may be my first work of total fiction," Kenneth Goldsmith says of his latest project, Fidget. It's not what he had in mind. A multi-faceted project involving a web site, a performance, an installation, an introductory pamphlet, and a full scale book, Fidget was meant to be utterly objective. Its premise was a movement-by-movement auto-narration, achieved with a mike worn around his neck, of his body's progress through the waking hours of June 16,1997; the date, celebrated annually by James Joyce fans as "Bloomsday," is the same on which Ulysses transpires. Intended in part as a kind of silent twin of Goldsmith's 1997 Soliloquy, which recorded every word Goldsmith spoke for a week in the spring of 1996, Fidget was to be as laconic as that book was loquacious, as neutral as Soliloquy was, occasionally, not. Goldsmith reread Joyce in preparation for Fidget, and Beckett, too; his aim was for a text entirely stripped of props-no attending objects (description was to exclude anything outside his own skin), no adjectives, no psychology. But alas for us all, bodies have minds of their own.

Fidget's public life began in the spring of 1998, with a performance at the Philip Morris branch of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, an exhibition at Printed Matter in New York, and the publication Selections from Fidget (New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris and Printed Matter, Inc./ Stadium Projects, 1998, signed and numbered edition of 100, $10), an elegant little book containing the text of the day's first three hours. Approximating the perfect egotism of an infant, Goldsmith devotes rapt attention to every contracting muscle and expelling orifice-indeed, to every active pore. Thus absorbed, it takes him a full hour to get out of bed. Two more hours go by not much more eventfully, though once he is up it is surprisingly hard for the reader to figure out what he's doing. The obscurity does not result from lack of candor; Goldsmith is nothing if not frank about the least lovely of bodily functions, from nose picking and mucus swallowing to eye rubbing and ass scratching. It is simply that bodies are not easily recognized in total isolation. So, inexorably if slowly, the rules begin to break down. The long, arduous process of waking up can't be described, he discovers, without naming bed and floor. By 11:00 there is metaphor (when upper teeth "comb" lower lip), by 12:00 both cup and coffee.

It's Fidget's first hour that figured in the performance, sung one phrase at a time by musician Theo Bleckmann (who was invited to collaborate with Goldsmith by the Whitney). Taking advantage of an odd, pulpit-like balcony high above the gallery's tall lobby space Bleckmann intoned the text in an extraordinarily flexible voice ranging from deep tenor to falsetto; his voice was further modulated electronically and augmented with percussion and keyboard. The performance, staged on June 16 stressed the Joycean associations of the project, and through Joyce established a connection to Catholic ritual, eliciting ecclesiastic associations to the space and transforming the text into a cross between a Gregorian chant and medieval Book of Hours. As each phrase was sung, Bleckmann dropped the sheet of white paper on which it was printed to the floor. These slowly drifting sheets were collected by young boys dressed in Bloomsday-period costumes (that is, turn-of-the-century), and presented to a small battalion of similarly attired seamstresses. At the conclusion of the hour-long performance, the two-piece suit into which the paper sheets had been transformed was hoisted to the balcony so that Bleckmann, who had stripped, could clothe himself in it.

Paper suits, in turn, were the basis of the installation at Printed Matter (there was also recorded music). The suit made during the Whitney performance was hung on the back wall; eight additional suits, in four pairs, were suspended down the center of the store, and two more were displayed in the windows, resulting in one new suit for each of the 12 hours Goldsmith was awake on June 16 (the seamstress was Sydney Maresca). The exhibition introduced the full text of Fidget, though its legibility was progressively compromised: Goldsmith kicked up the ink level on the copier 20 percent each hour, achieving 100 percent at 2:00 p.m., at which point he began xeroxing xeroxes. (In a reversal that anticipates the published text, the final suit is printed white on black.) The hourly decline from crisp, pale letters on clean white paper to dark, smeary, and finally unreadable text is meant, in part, to parallel the movement from morning light to evening darkness. Though the decline in visual clarity also suggests an underlying loss of narrative lucidity, the overall impression of the installation is of verbally supported propriety, of bodies protected, and rendered presentable, by the words they produce.

For Fidget's equally well-tailored electronic life at Stadium Projects (, Clem Paulsen wrote a Java Applet (it can run on any platform) in which the text is organized by hour, each represented by a different colored screen. Within each hour, the program produces a constantly changing selection of text fragments in a variety of typefaces and sizes. Continuously fading in and out with mesmerizing irregularity, the electronic Fidget illustrates an aspect of physicality that the whole project makes inescapably clear (and which accounts for its name): even at rest, a living body is constantly, if incrementally, in motion (the parallel with screensavers helped formulate Goldsmith's conception for the website). Describing-or even observing-its ceaseless activity in exhaustive detail is simply impossible. (And Goldsmith is not easily defeated: in addition to his career as an artist, he maintains a concrete poetry website, writes regularly about experimental and classical music for New York Press, and has a weekly radio program on WFMU called "Unpopular Music.")

The collateral elements of Fidget are all, then, fairly proper, conceptually and formally: they look good, they hang together. On the other hand, the full-length unmanipulated text (also available on line at Stadium, and soon to be published in Baltimore by Black Square Press, 1999, price not yet determined; a CD may accompany the book) is deviant enough to do Joyce proud. Having reached a kind of premature climax at 1:00 (given the book's premise, a bit of onanism seems inevitable), Goldsmith has more than half the day to go and not much more in the way of bodily function to relate without tedious repetition. He pushes his fingers in his eyes and watches the stars. He stretches. Scratches. He gets bored. And then his narration begins to unravel. The text grows angrily staccato, silences itself (a nap?), and reemerges in even testier single word exhortations. And then it begins to expand, and blur, into prose that is florid without being quite poetic, vaguely obscene, and, ultimately, incoherent. In a word, it is drunk.

Goldsmith admits that by late afternoon, the entire exercise had become so unexpectedly difficult and disturbing that he sought escape by any means, first in sleep, and after that in a fifth of Jack Daniels. Any coincidence with Leopold Bloom's after-hours debaucheries was, Goldsmith says, unintended. He kept up the narration for as long as he could, but transcription (under more sober circumstances) proved nearly impossible. He was forced literally to reconstruct the last hour of the day by reprinting his account of the first hour but running it backward, word by word and letter by letter; the directions of physical movement are also reversed. The reader can only be relieved when, in a brief final restoration of semantic order, Goldsmith allows his eyes to close.

Fidget conforms to the look of Goldsmith's previous books: its design is simple and handsome, and the type (following Beckett's late work) is given lots of space. But Goldsmith knows this is a different kind of project, one in which the most vigilant self-scrutiny produced the smallest quotient of reliable fact. Art has had plenty to say in the last decade about physical exigencies and desires. But Goldsmith alone has had the good grace (curiosity? self-absorption? slightly wacko sense of humor?) to let his body have the last word. Much to his surprise, it spoke fiction.

Nancy Princenthal is an art critic who writes this column regularly for Art On Paper.

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