Sculpting with words: Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith

New York based writer and conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith divided public attention last year with his much-controverted piece, ‘Printing Out the Internet’. Teaching poetics and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, Kenneth Goldsmith draws inspiration from the modernists, and approaches artistic creation from an experimental, conceptual, avant-gardist slant. Self-proclaimed ‘uncreative poet’, UbuWeb founder Goldsmith believes contemporary art should be radical and reflective of its digital internet-based age.

Printing Out the Internet paid homage to the late internetkenneth goldsmith imageactivist and programmer, Aaron Schwartz. Similarly, with your online sharing platform, UbuWeb, you encourage a democratization and free dissemination of culture and text. How do you feel new media and the internet will shape the experience, dissemination, and creation of writing?

When the entire internet is cut-and-pasteable, why would anyone continue to “write” only in a traditional way? Once language can be scraped en masse, language is material and objectified, to be molded like clay, really, sculpting with words. The dissemination similarly is implicit in the workings of the internet, which is comprised entirely of language (code is all alphanumeric).


Do you feel a personal responsibility as a contemporary artist to feature new media technology into your work? Do you believe that art should be “modern”?

My work, while informed by the internet, doesn’t really use it. I mostly transcribe preexisting language sources. What I do could’ve been done in 1930 with a radio and a typewriter. But nobody would’ve thought to do that in 1930; it was the rise of the internet that gave us the permission to become mimetic or uncreative writers. Modernism was the period before the digital age; in order to be contemporary artists, we are no longer modern, instead we are digital.


You have often labeled your own work as “boring”. With this in mind, how do you experience the creative process? Conversely, how do you feel your work should be approached?

I find that boredom opens up the mind to other states which when one is mentally occupied, one cannot arrive at. Boredom is important for artists; we need to embrace time to do nothing, time to dream, time not to be particularly productive. I have no prescriptions as to how my work should be approached; all approaches seem valid to me. I produce objects that stimulate thoughts and all thoughts are accepted and good.

Printing Out the Internet was made possible through crowd-sourcing. You have spoken of your vision as an attempt to “reframe” what has previously been written, as if language has now become in “excess”. Could you tell us more about this?

In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as: “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information — how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.


You have often called yourself an “uncreative poet”. What does uncreative writing consist of exactly; and why do you feel this kind of approach has become necessary?

Self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices. After a semester of forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making them plagiarize and transcribe, she will approach me with a sad face at the end of the semester, telling me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative” she produced the most creative body of work writing in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity — the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training — she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity – as its been defined by our culture with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs and films – is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” Living in a time where technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them out of the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something – finally – relevant.


How do you distinguish your conception of art from that of the French post-structuralists of the seventies? What is the nature of your relationship with the reader?

I was more interested in people like Baudrillard who early on identified in analog culture the direction we were headed when we became digital — simulacra, mirroring, mimesis, artifice, and so forth. I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership.


You have also experimented with the radio, and broadcasted your own shows, Kenny G’s Hour of Pain, Anal Magic, and Intelligent Design. How did the medium of the radio compare in relation to writing or conceptual art? How did you experience the constraints of time and sound on your art and the circulation of your ideas?

Many of my ideas in writing were tested out on WFMU. I broadcasted traffic and weather reports for weeks on end. Having a weekly radio show for 15 years also helped me to understand performance styles. The project of my radio show, UbuWeb, my teaching and my writing are all part of the same pie.


In Fidget, you record every movement made by your body during the space of thirteen hours. With a strong emphasis on the physical, your novel strongly echoes Beckett’s theatre. Fidget, however, is set during Bloomsday, on June the 16th. What is the significance of James Joyce and Bloomsday in the novel and your overall vision? You have listed Finnegan’s Wake as an influence. How do you respond to Joyce’s earlier, more realist work? Do you think that his shift towards formalism in the second half of Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake was the next logical step?

I don’t care for early Joyce. While I admire Ulysses, if Joyce never wrote the Wake, we wouldn’t care about him the way we do today. The lesson is that we must be as radical as we can, particularly in poetry where there is nothing to lose.


What are some of your next projects? In what ways do you feel you need to move forward with your art?

I’m now rewriting Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project for New York in the twentieth century. I’ve been working on it for 10 years; it’ll be another two before I’m done, and finally a few more before it’s printed. With any luck, it’ll be ready for my 60th birthday.



First published in River’s Edge Journal on April 5th 2014.