Why didn’t anybody tell me about Kenneth Goldsmith?

Some time in November the essential Wood s Lot pointed me in the direction of UbuWebb which I’d visited before but never really looked at the content. Whilst looking around I came across a number of Goldsmith’s texts and suddenly the lights went on. By this I mean that the idea behind these pieces became immediately clear to me and the work seemed entirely appropriate to these complex and difficult times. I’m particularly struck by ‘Traffic’, ‘Weather’ and ‘Sports’ which are verbatim reproductions of radio reports in chronological sequence.

I’ve never been a fan of conceptual poetry (or art) but this combination of artlessness and plagiarism is strikingly different from most other conceptual stuff in that it isn’t trying to do anything clever or cute but to reflect and re-frame central aspects of the information age. Whilst this kind of appropriation isn’t at all new (Sloterdjik quoted a German who was making the same kind of point in 1927) but nobody has done with the same kind of relentless determination as Goldsmith.

Before ‘writing’ the above trilogy, Goldsmith transcribed everything he said for a week and published this as ‘Soliloquy’ and also noted every movement his body made for a day for ‘Fidget’.

I referred earlier to these texts as being artless, by this I mean that they aren’t invested with any kind of aesthetic value by Goldsmith but there is a longish tradition of this kind of thing in the art world. Goldsmith trained as a sculptor and is clearly influenced by Warhol and probably by Jasper John’s ‘Flag’ series. Both of these invited us to consider the mundane or the obvious in different ways by presenting them as art. Goldsmith invites the reader to think again about what is often aural wallpaper in our everyday lives.

Boredom is also an important element in Goldsmith’s work, as if the intention is to jolt us out of the twelve second attention span that mass media currently caters to. This is not to say that nothing happens, the weather changes, traffic jams move around, teams win and lose (even the the terms used in American sports are incomprehensible to us Europeans). Following these changes through is involving and I have found myself trying to visualise the effects of what is being reported. ‘Weather’ is taken from a New York radio station and consists of all the bulletins that were broadcast in 2003. In March of that year the US and its cronies invaded Iraq and the  station broadcast forecasts for the battle zone as well as New York. These lasted for three weeks and are included in Goldsmith’s text.

Several critics have fallen over themselves to draw comparisons between Goldsmith and Oulipo. This is an error in my view, Oulipo was a distinctly French and overly arch attempt to be clever that didn’t quite work- except for Perec’s ‘Life, a user’s guide’. I don’t see Goldsmith as having the same motivation.

To conclude, everyone must download all the Goldsmith texts from Ubuweb and play the audio files of him reading his work which are on Pennsound.  You won’t be disappointed.

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