Tag Archives: ubuweb

Erica Baum on ubuweb

I’m not normally a fan of conceptual/concrete poetry and Erica Baum isn’t a poet but what she does with photography is both stunning and poetic. As I intend to demonstrate, her work is both witty and confrontational. Some of her work can be found on the ubuweb site and I want to draw attention to two of these ‘pieces’.

‘Dog Ear’ consists of a series of images of pages which are folded in such a way so as to produce text which runs from top to bottom as well as from left to right. This sounds fairly simple but the experience of looking at these images is such that they force the viewer (reader) to question the nature of language and its relationship to communication.

What (literally) struck me first about ‘Dog Ear’ is the amount of violence that it does to the eye. By this I mean the amount of damage that is done between seeing the image and trying to make cognitive sense of it. I don’t think that this is due entirely to the fact of juxtaposition (text going in one direction, more text going in another) but also due to the immense roadblock that this simple act (the folding of paper) can create in our/my understanding of how language may be used.

We now come to the words and fragments of words (and letters) as they appear on the folded page. The first image begins on the left-to-right side with the page number (174) and then- “Yes? / Yes / How”, the first line is followed by a long gap and then “MI” followed by part of what looks like a capital ‘S’,the last word is followed by part of what may be the letter ‘l’ but this is purely guesswork on my part. The top-to-bottom side of the fold begins with the page number (175) and then- “I? I would not do that / differently. There is a huge gap between the first and second line so there may be further words that are hidden from us.

I will notice that I am writing about this image as if it was a poem. This may say far more about me than Baum but I feel as if I have to make some kind of sense of what is before my eye. These could be randomly selected pages from yellowing second-hand books but I don’t think this is the case- I’m guessing that you’d have to spend a long time in the selection process before arriving at what is presented here.

The second image that I’ve chosen begins (left to right)- “threw his elegant solution into di / red tape held thing up. Peopl / with their successors didn’t / front concentration ca / heavy snowfalls. Pow / Rail lines were b / of uncertainty / At his / His rec”. We then go top to bottom- “round sort of clearing. Surrounded / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / illuminating the ground at / sit down in the sunlight / a chocolate bar from / ll over again how / ach second of / sness I felt / he sun’s /path”. I’ve avoided the temptation to include the letters that are partly hidden by the fold- there’s a letter after “concentration ca” that could be an ‘m’ but could also be an ‘r’. As a reader of poetry I’m fairly familiar with allusive stuff and find myself rushing to fill in the gaps with this image, putting together ‘solution’ with ‘Rail lines’ and wanting ‘concentration ca’ to be ‘camp’ when it could be anything.

As I said at the top of this piece, I’m not a great fan of fucking about with text but ‘Dog Ear’, in its own quiet way, has taught me that even tired old sceptics like me can still be jolted out of long-held prejudice and this is surely a Good Thing.

The other Baum piece that I really like is nowhere near as clever but still has a kind of grainy, spectral wit. ‘Card Catalogues’ is a series of images of library card catalogues which mostly show the index headers protruding from the files. I think it’s safe to say that this is primarily about juxtaposition which others have commented on (especially ‘Subversive activities / Suburban homes’ image) but it’s also a historical document. ‘Card catalogues’ was produced in 1997 at a time when we were beginning to move our indexing processes onto servers (which is now the norm) and these images stand as a reminder of what life was like when knowledge / information / data wasn’t readily available via the click of a mouse.  In terms of the images, there’s one shot of a open filing cabinet drawer that just has the word ‘God’ protruding and another is the front of an old wooden drawer which is labelled ‘Jersey City – Jesus’ both of which made me smile a lot.

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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.