Meet the American poet bringing highbrow literature to the masses

Dazed and Confused September 2009

These days, if there's such a thing as an avant-garde, it probably lives in the most disturbing, cat-infested corners of YouTube, but apparently there was a time when it was more about difficult poetry and stuff. And if you want to compare the two paradigms, you don't even have to get off your computer, thanks to UbuWeb. Founded in 1996 by American poet Kenneth Goldsmith as "a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts", the site has expanded from its text-only beginnings to include many gigabytes of images, music, spoken word and video, as well as a 24-hour online radio station and personal selections by the esteemed likes of Dennis Cooper and Pauline Oliveros.

UbuWeb's approach to copyright is pretty cavalier - "Let's face it, if we had to get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb" - although Goldsmith doesn't think all his online archivist colleagues should necessarily take the same attitude. "The avant-garde gets a pass because, unlike pop music, what we host has never made money and never will make money. Instead, the site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists - the music of Jean Dubuffet, the poetry of Dan Graham, Julian Schnabel's country music, the punk rock of Martin Kippenberger, the films of John Lennon, and pop songs by Joseph Beuys - all of which was originally put out in tiny editions and vanished quickly."

Some might even say the site is too big - does anyone really wade through all those incredibly long Dadaist texts, for instance? Yes, absolutely!" insists Goldsmith. "Ubuweb's readers range from from pre-school kids studying visual poetry to post-graduate students listening to the Séminaires of Jacques Lacan. The next time you need an incredibly long Dadaist text that's not stocked in your local library, the chances are that it will be waiting for you on Ubu." ubu.com.

Text: Ned Beauman

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