Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
This is an unedited raw transcript, made available as a BOMB Web Extra.
New York Live Arts presents
Kenneth Goldsmith Burrough’s documentary?
Marcus Boon The new one? No.
KG Yeah, it’s really good. I have an AVI of it if you want.
MB Oh, cool.
KG A young guy. Like a 26 year old guy … made it and it’s wonderful.
MB Yeah, I think I heard something about it.
KG Yeah. I’ll give you, before you go. Do you have a computer or anything with you?
MB I have a memory stick.
KG Yeah, sure. I’ll give it to you, it’s just an AVI … its very, very good.
MB So how is it different from that last Burroughs documentary?
KG I don’t know. I mean the last one was a long time ago. Well, this one was like that Gysin thing that you were in, which I really liked. Really liked that film. I have it up on Ubu, don’t tell any body.
MB Oh, you do?
KG Well, it’s so apropos to what Ubu does and I just thought, I’m not gonna say anything. I never really advertised it.
MB So is there a link to it?
KG Yeah. It’s a link on the film page, it’s not on the front page. I don’t like to put things that are in print up there.
MB So that’s what’s happening with Ubu right now is that there’s kind of a stealth Ubu alongside a public Ubu, eh?
KG Well, you can’t get Ubu on Google. I took it off of Google. So the only way you can find out about it is when other people link to it. It’s become very underground even though of course, it’s very open, there’s no password, none of that.
MB One of the promises of the kind of work you do is that of an almost limitless dissemination, right? And yet, in a certain way a lot of your work is about stealth. I remember when we were talking about your book Day and why you never got a cease and desist letter from the Times and you said, it’s a certain kind of experimental work that passes under the radar; it seems like that’s true with Ubu as well. There’s a stealth aspect to it, do you enjoy that? How do you think about it?
KG Well, it’s a way of flaunting all the rules, somewhat safely. I’ve actually found a major loophole in copyright culture, literary culture, in distributive culture which happens to be, for lack of a better word, the avant-garde—which nobody can understand. It’s so hard for people to understand this stuff. And number two, it’s really got no commercial value whatsoever. It has great historical and intellectual value, but people lose money when they try to release this stuff so most of it goes unreleased. So it’s been this, kind of, really beautiful grey area where it’s all out in the open and it’s all in front but you get a pass on it in a way that legitimate economies don’t give you that latitude.
MB That’s sort of a beautiful thing in itself—the notion of this kind of existence, secret, and you have to discover it.
KG But isn’t that always the way art and culture has been? It’s always been that way. All the most interesting stuff has sort have been underground or the best bands are always found out through a friend. Or the way we found out about Fela Kuti in the early 80s was when you gave a double LP to Dave or told him to buy it when he was in London; Dave brings back this incredible artifact of something we had never seen in music and something we’d never heard and we were like, Woah! I mean, you weren’t going to find that at Sam Goody. This is sort of the way all the most interesting stuff has disseminated itself. I look on my bookshelf and there are all those Research magazines, remember those? Those were the coolest things in the world; they were from the early 80s, just a way of disseminating underground culture in a really sexy package. I went, Wow! I never knew … this is where I found out about Brion Gysin, Throbbing Gristle … what was the name … Survival Research Labs.
MB I guess it was distributed via mail order or you had to go to some alternative culture related bookstore.
KG Sure, and they were beautiful. Actually, Ubu took a lot from Research. Research were beautifully designed magazines and it said to me that the avant-garde can be edgy, different, and also, sexy, and also, really beautiful, and also, product-oriented. And then after Research, particularly in the 90s there was all this kind of repackaging of the avant-garde that went on. Places like Other Music would sell beautifully packaged, sexy box-sets of sound poetry, you know, stuff that used to come out on ugly, white, xerox … mimeo [tk??] boxes. But suddenly, avant-garde in the 90s becomes fetishized— sort of like everything else—and packaged and desirable as a sort of commodity which, I actually kind of like idea. I don’t think they sold very many but to me, all of that stuff has always been very sexy. I mean, who’s sexier than William S. Burroughs? You know? And Giorno understood this with Dial-A-Poem. See, he was on it early. Look how beautiful.
MB Oh, the design sense is really beautiful.
KG The design sense is great.
MB Is it Les Levine?
KG Les Levine yeah. So he had a real artist doing those things and they looked good, they felt good, they were weighty. I remember the first time that I saw that the—I was in art school in the early 80s and they put the record out with Giorno, Laurie Anderson, and William S. Burroughs: You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With. That was so beautiful, I mean, the three of them looked so great, the sounds were great, the thoughts were great. There was this whole, kind of, sexing up of things that were previously underground and untouchable. I kind of think that Ubu is the inheritor of all of those things, of all those sensibilities in the digital age.
MB The design of Ubu is very generic, in a certain way. Everything finds a place in Ubu but the design is very minimal.
KG You have to remember that Ubu is fifteen years old and so when it started the web was just ugly and cluttered so, Ubu decided to go against all that and be extremely minimal. And you know, lots of blank space. You know in the early days of the web you never saw white space. Ubu wanted lots of white space and constructivist color, serious constructivist color. Now, blog design has become much better and you see a lot more clean, white spaces on the web and now Ubu looks more like a blog than an old website. But this has always been the aesthetic, to go against the grain; there’s no advertising.
MB Did you think of Ubu from the beginning as being this vast, global, encyclopedia for the avant-garde? What was it at the moment that you first thought of it?
KG At the beginning it was a repository for visual, concrete, and sound poetry. Really old dusty stuff that suddenly, when it was scanned and put online looked really beautiful and fresh. In a weird way, the theory behind so much of concrete poetry predicts the digital age. If you start to read Mark Andrés manifestos you start to see that they’re predicting so much of what became to be the internet, they just didn’t have the technology to do it so they did it on the page. But, all of that theory transfers to the web aesthetically better than any other theory that I know so it’s kind of fueled by concrete poetry, in theory.
MB Because it’s the theory of the mobility of the word?
KG Mostly. It was also that concrete poetry embraced the sense of iconicity—the concrete poem was an icon, right? Which was kind of a break from the line and the stanza and the verse. You can actually throw this over from computing: first you have codes and DOS [tk??] prompts which are lines, stanzas, and verse—lines and lines of code—and then you have the move to a graphical user interface which is based on the icons. So, you actually see the parallel of computing and poetry as put forth by the concrete poets being almost identical: the fast, the quick, the knowable, the universal.
MB When did you start thinking about it that way, because I saw a couple of your gallery shows in the 80s and you were doing installations with books and things. In a certain way, you were already treating books as icons back in the 80s and in a way I didn’t really know of what to make of why you were doing that; you were taking bibles or religious texts … were you aware of the concrete poets then? Where were you coming from at that point?
KG I was just a sculptor, trying to find my way through sculpture. But always, of course, been a big reader and book collector and collector of everything. So I began making these book forms in the 80s and book forms were these beautiful wooden book forms and they needed something on them so I began using book covers. Just kind of painting covers on—religious trends … all sorts of nutty, sort of outsider, extreme stuff, propaganda—mostly propaganda art. Then, I got this commission … it wasn’t a commission … I don’t remember … I made this book, finally, that was a book of anxiety because I was dealing with a lot of psychological stuff—I come from a New Age background. My parents are New Age and so all of that kind of religion and New Age stuff has always been really a part of what I do. So I started doing a series about anxiety and I picked up on Bloom and The Anxiety of Influence and I did this piece that said The Anxiety of Influence and then I wanted things that came off of influence so I found a rhyming dictionary. So I did The Anxiety of Influence, The Anxiety of Impotence, The Anxiety of Affluence, all of these “-ence” rhyming things and I got really hooked on it and I thought, God, this is so much more interesting; the word play is so much more interesting than anything I am able to do formally with this. So I began to go deeper and deeper into the words and the rhyming dictionary stuff and that was actually the beginning of the move to literature. I got so interested in the way words sounded, coming off of hip-hop and all of the things that were in the air at that time. I was also at the same time really, deeply involved in modernism and going back and really reading Joyce and Pound and Stein from Henry James on, everything I could get my hands on. One thing I realized that the modernists weren’t doing were rhyming! So I began looking at anti-modernists like Ogden Nash, a witty and marvelous rhyming poet but it seemed so wrong; and I thought, but hip-hop seems to right. I thought about what happens when Joyce meets hip-hop? At that time you had the Daisy Age of hip-hop and so you had A Tribe Called Quest which was actually beginning to use samples of music concrète, modern music, kind of dipping its toe in the avant-garde and rapping on top of it, rhyming. I thought, gee this is an amazing moment; and I wanted to make text that mimicked that kind of rich moment which got snuffed very quickly by gangster rap and never came back as far as I can tell.
MB Yeah, well it sort of came back in weird ways. The margins of hip-hop I guess.
KG But that was the center of hip hop for a moment in the early 90s! That was the center of hip-hop, it was absolutely incredible. What if you combined Stockhausen with rhyme? Anyway, this is how it all—
MB —Did you read Joshua Clover’s book 1989? A big chunk of it is actually about the Daisy Age … t’s about how, in 1989, with the collapse of communism there’s this weird utopian moment in pop music where people image that all boundaries and areas are truly being transcended and broken. It’s this … a moment of Daisy Age, also Public Enemy in a certain way. And … that it doesn’t last very long, that it suddenly shifts to neo-liberalism and gangster rap. It’s interesting that that’s the very moment you have that vision too.
KG Absolutely. Yeah … but one thing that the web gives us is that sense of eclecticism, that permission to indulge in guilty pleasures. I always say that the first time I saw Napster I would do a search for John Cage and I would browse another users files and they would all be alphabetical according to artist and snuggled up next to John Cage, C-A-G-E, was Mariah Carey, C-A-R, and suddenly you realize that a lot of people are liking Mariah Carey who also happen to like John Cage. So I just think that the web kind of flaunts that impurity which I adore and that impurity is really strained through … comes through Ubu as well. Ubu is a very impure idea of what the art world can possibly be.
MB And your radio practice also kind of flaunts that impurity, right?
KG Absolutely. But actually, it’s funny it all goes back to what Clover calls “1989”. That’s when my ideas of what radio could be, of what literature could be were all forged in that moment.
MB Presumably the web itself, also, must have kind of been a dream circulating at that moment, even though it wasn’t capable of being substantiated or materialized, right?
KG I think there were visionaries out there long before we were. I mean, I didn’t get on the web til ’93. At that point the web was still just links, it was eunics [inaudible], it was all words and then suddenly, you could grab those words and that was amazing too. I had been writing a book, I had been collecting things, copying things out of magazines, and hearing things on TV and suddenly, I have this flow of language that’s coming across my screen and ALL of it could be grabbed! And I thought, oh my goodness … Something is really changing here about writing.
MB Actually that reminds me of this quote, which is now half soaked in water so I can’t read it but … from you … the quote is … and this if from The Wire, that piece you just wrote which turned out to be kind of controversial; there’s been a lot of responses to that right?
MB And you ended saying, “And I think this is the real epiphany: the ways in which culture is distributed become profoundly more intriguing as a cultural artifact itself. What we’ve experienced is an inversion of consumption, one in which we’ve come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring, the bottles over the wine.” That is a huge shift, right?
KG Yeah. It’s structuralist really. Actually, you start to think about structuralism … Ubu is filled with structuralist films and, of course, they’re all about the process of the film itself, much more than the content that could possibily come into it. So that same ethos goes also for our engagement with language. When we’ve got all of these texts, which begin in ’93 for me flowing into the computer, you begin to become more interested in managing them than you do with traditionally engaging them or even creating more of your own. That becomes a much more pressing cultural practice, so I say now we’ve become word processors, information managers; we are moving information both in the way of moving it from one place to another and also being emotionally moved by that process.
MB Do you think art can actually still exist in that new environment or is that kind of a legacy that we’re, sort of, shoe-horning into the new situation because a lot of the older structures still require it?
KG It has to do with market, doesn’t it. I mean, as long as there’s a market for oil painting, I see no reason why oil painting won’t continue to be viable. Oil painting succeeds because the web can’t do it. So does pottery, so traditional crafts become more interesting now to us because that’s something the web can’t do. I don’t know if that will always be the case or if the web will be able to do these things. I think that on many levels that we’re more interested now in the value of the hand; the hand becomes more valuable than less valuable. I think that those kinds of art-making practices are absolutely thriving as an antidote to what most of us live in, which is just ephemeral, digital material.
MB Still, your own practices committed to working in that new environment and a new material and I’m just curious whether art is the right word to describe … like with conceptual writing, for example, as a phrase it doesn’t actually have to refer to art at all and if you think about Henry Flynt coining “concept art”, part of his thought was that you actually just had to drop art as a category and step into conscious conceptuality which was a kind of open choice of how you valued things.
KG Well, I don’t feel that way. I feel that art provides a necessary framework and narrative that is essential to living in an environment of over abundance. OK? So, just to kind of walk away from that…the whole practice now then becomes a practice of reframing, repositioning that which already exists. The bracket of art is very helpful to reframing. I mean, otherwise, then we don’t have any device by which to call this, by which to name it. I really believe it’s a complete paradigm shift when a new moment—so we latch on to things like Duchamp. I mean, Duchamp is visionary but in a way, it is very useful; it’s a way to understand how to proceed. I think at some point, in Wittgensteinian terms, we’ll have to “drop the ladder.”
MB Yeah, it’s just becomes language games or some other kind of games …
KG It will, but I don’t think we’re there yet. So, I actually think that art is this useful apparatus and, again, structure that can help us to understand what we’re going through and what we’re living through now.
MB So what prevents us from getting there? What retards it?
KG It’s just time. You have to realize this is all so new.
MB It’s crazy, right?
KG And we don’t even notice, it’s so new that we have no idea what’s hitting us. We just assume that email and texting and downloading MP3s have been around forever. It’s amazing how adaptable we are to a brand new environment, however, we adapt to it better, I think, than we can theorize it or understand it. I just think that it’s so profoundly changing on so many levels that art remains a theoretical device for understanding some aspect of what we’re going through today.
MB But sometimes, also, art as a category can be something of a prison … I mean when you think about structuralist theory, structuralist theory is weird because it purports to describe all human societies in terms of structures that repeat themselves and then on the other hand, it’s kind of done with those structures at the moment of describing them and that’s where post-structuralism sort of comes in, right? The question of what you do next opens up when you recognize that everything is determined by a structure.
KG Absolutely. I mean structuralism is a way of trying to understand the world, a very complicated world, at a certain point in time. Just the way that we’re trying to understand our digital world in a certain point of time. It is useful for the moment, the world is much more complicated. There are structures being developed to help us understand a post-structural moment for the digital age, but my goodness it’s happening so quickly! Nobody would think of applying structuralism today to understanding our world today. We know it’s moving in many more directions than we can possibly name. But its just a transitional moment—
MB —You know, if you’re a Marxist you could just say that so much of what happens today is driven by an economic structure and what it allows and what it doesn’t allow. For example, there are laws around intellectual property which serve to allow certain types of commerce to continue and those laws are part of a structure that tries to make its way, historically tries to make its way … and then in the digital environment this thing happens which renders those old structures problematic …it just opens up all these contradictions.
KG It does. It’s full of contradictions. I’m not interested in doing away with those structures. I think those structures, technology and money actually make this environment possible. This is not free culture, there is really not much that is free about it. Technology is not free in any way so if you begin to dismantle those global economic structures that are actually creating these networks, then you lose the network and you lose the entire carrier. I take that all as a given and there are problems with it and there are battles of trying to siphon access, trying to squeeze money, trying to override law but it’s a marvelous battleground. Also, something like Ubu or my own writing practice just shows the loopholes in those economic structures and shows them to be rather shakey and unreliable. They’re not as strong as they seem and I think that the elasticity of that is what I am interested in. I can’t get imagine getting rid of them.
MB I’m not sure how I think about it finally. The shakiness would seem to imply the possibility of the structures not being there but, then there wouldn’t be nothing there … there would be some other framework, presumably.
KG Presumably. Presumably we could live without electricity as well. But this whole game is predicated on electricity! Of course, we would create and do have other types of other interaction that are not uniquely bound up with the digital. I read my kids stories before they go to bed every night, that has nothing to do with the digital other than I do it by light, by electric light; I suppose I could do it by candle light too. We’re not all one way or the other; there are bodies in space, other types of economies that are working. I am not saying that this milieu is everything, but it’s a lot and it’s very exciting. It’s exciting to watch these battles unfold.
MB What surprised you the most about how Ubu has unfolded and then your participation in that digital world?
KG What surprised me the most is that it’s still there. (laughter) Fifteen years down the line I haven’t been sued, never! And it runs on no money, zero money; I have no spent a cent on Ubu all these yerars.
MB It feels like a fair amount of your work is directly concerned with issues of community and of a certain kind of conviviality that opens something up and to some degree, your work is reliant on some kind of ethics of hospitality, a weird one but you’re very involved in networks of people and friendships. Even a piece like Soliloquy which I was just kind of flipping through in the Against Expression book it’s so much about the address to people who, in some way, might not even necessarily regard it as a particularly hospitable act that you’re expressing and yet, some kind of community and friendship seems to open up from that.
KG I think so. It also is predicated upon the idea that books need not be read. That’s a nice thing, so that the conversation about Soliloquy is much more interesting than the book itself, and this goes back to The Wire epiphany that is the concept surrounding these works…the conversation that we’re having about Soliloquy is a more gratifying situation than actually sitting down and reading the damn thing which is very impossible.
MB The conversation wouldn’t be possible without a certain kind of ballsy or courageous act of putting yourself, and other people sometimes, on the line that allows something to open up that’s actually worth talking about, right?
KG I feel like the books are conversation starters and in that way, it is. I actually find my writing, or this type of writing, to be populist. It’s both extremely avant-garde and populist at the same time. For example, when I read at The White House in May I read three short pieces about the Brooklyn Bridge. The first was Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, an excerpt from that; the second one was Hart Crane’s “Brooklyn Bridge” poem; and the third one was my book Traffic, an excerpt where the Brooklyn Bridge is nothing but a bit player in a massive network of traffic jams. Well, the audience at The White House was…you know, they sat through the Whitman, the stuff that they’re supposed to like—and the Crane was treated very reverentially. But when I began reading traffic reports they all got up and started screaming, and yelling, and applauding, and laughing! The whole room lit up when the vernacular and the mundane language entered the space. Now, of course this was the most radical of the three because it was completely appropriated. It has a narrative, but it is a completely oblique and odd narrative; it is more Beckettian than anything. And here, senators and democratic party donors were actually loving it! It got a great round of applause. So I thought to myself, gee-whiz. Suddenly the avant-garde and the populist have met, it’s very strange …
MB Yeah which is something that has been a trace throughout your work, in a way. Including those propaganda or pop texts from the ‘80s too, right?
KG You saw pop art maybe doing something similar. When Warhol screens Chelsea Girls in New York in ’66 the lines are around the block to see it. It’s a blockbuster, nothing happens, split screen, it goes on forever. You have this funny return of a variant strain, a mutant strain of pop art rebounding now in the digital. Very odd. Or you look at Christian Bok’s Eunoia a best-seller; it was on the top ten list in Britain (laughter). Seriously, and that’s a really weird book of avant-garde poetry is a best seller. So that’s another case of populism.
MB That’s what I see with some of my students. For them, avant-garde mostly means unpopular, I guess, or something that doesn’t address itself directly to a mass of people but that just seems like a categorical error.
KG It seems like a very old-fashioned—you’re back to Schoenberg you know? When you actually look at the twelve-tone music and it’s got no legs; you don’t find twelve-tone music anywhere other than horror films. What took off what was minimalism, the tonic, the melodic, the repetitive, the rock-based which is still way out there still producing avant-garde works that are populist and accessible.
MB I was thinking earlier, this quote from Adorno which I used in my book where he says the problem with montage is that it’s not capable of destroying the elements of which the montage is actually made and therefore, it has its limits. I guess he’s thinking of Schoenberg as being an example of someone for whom it’s the elements themselves that get reconfigured. The minimalists found a different way out of that problem, in a sense that it wasn’t just a matter of reprogramming the individual elements out of which culture was made, but that there were radical experiments and the arrangement of elements that are way more complex than a modernist piece of montage could ever be.
KG I think so. I also think another thing that minimalism and music did in the ‘60s was it brought in world music; it brought in trance music, Steve Reich brings in African drumming. Suddenly, you tie into things that are much greater than just the Western tradition which is all Schoenberg cared about really. It’s got this kind of umbrella that’s an inclusive umbrella and it’s challenging because it’s considerably boring. Conceptual writing or the writing that I’m doing takes a lot of these similar elements, it’s unreadable, its boring, but it’s better to talk about than it is to listen to and yet, it’s funny, it’s provocative but not in ways we think of modernist literature being provocative. I think language poetry, finally you end up with the word atomized so far out on the page that the only thing that can possibly happen is a return to wholeness.
MB How do you deal with the problem of specific languages. You work in English and in a sense one of the promises of the internet is of a kind of global language and yet, in a certain way we are stuck with English as something that we understand. And there are these other languages that we don’t understand, not because they are boring but because we just actually don’t understand them.
KG I don’t think I would have the career I have if I didn’t work in English. I meet many, many writers from places say, Finland who are doing remarkable work that I’ll? never be able to read or know but yet, somehow because I write in English they know and have read my work. That’s one side of it, it’s a tremendous cultural hegemony working in the universal language of the moment. Number one. But, number two: I can understand their work because their work is conceptual and their work in Finnish is really never meant to be read anyway. So, here’s a book of every food that I ate last week and it’s all in Finnish but of course, we understand that. Or Leevi Lehto redid Day in Finnish; of course, I can’t read a lick of it. In a way, if you have a movement or type of writing that’s predicated upon not reading you actually set up a way around the problem of primary, secondary, and tertiary languages.
MB And that’s something that, in a way, post-World War II avant-gardes were concerned with in the beginning.
KG Well you look at Pound, its multi-lingual. Well actually, you look at the Cantos and at certain points there’s no English in there! There’s Chinese and Italian and God only knows what else. So Pound was dealing with a very high culture, multi-lingualism and I think some of the most interesting writing today is combinatory languages, Caroline Bergvall, for example, Yoko Tawada [tk], Anne Tarnos [tk}, people that are native speakers to many languages that write in six languages all at once. To me, that’s quite exciting. I want to say that conceptual writing is arguably, in avant-garde poetry, is the first international poetry movement since concrete poetry. Concrete poetry was based on not having to know the language either, it was a visual reading of Japanese and if you have a little key that says ‘rain’ and ‘land’ and a bunch of letters spewed across the page that looks like letters pouring down like Apollinaire’s concrete poems of the rain … you don’t need to know what it says.
MB A direct response.
KG A direct response. So conceptual writing has actually got a huge international writership and anti-readership simply, based on the idea that nobody has to read this stuff.
MB I mean some of the most interesting projects in the class I’m teaching right now were done by students using things with GoogleTranslate and kind of playing with this movement from Mandarin to English and back to Mandarin.
KG Yeah, it’s wonderful. This is just the way that people are natively now writing. Because the tools are there it’d be insane for writers not to exploit these tools. Why would we continue to write … . somebody recently said about Jonathan Franzen that he is the “greatest novelist … of the 1950s.” (laughter) There’s huge sweats of commercial fiction being written, most of it that has no acknowledgment of those tools that your students are natively using. Absolutely nothing! So we’re at this moment of great possibility and great experimentation because of the tools that are sitting on our own desktop yet, we prefer to still act like we’re original geniuses instead of being unoriginal geniuses.
MB I almost feel like bad translation might be more important to a global civilization than good translation.
KG I actually think that translation is not even the issue, I actually think it’s displacement. Something just happens to land on your desktop and you have to deal with it. I feel like the idea of understanding has been disrupted by the flows of alien matter, decontextualized alien matter that arrives without warning and translation, or meaning, or context and suddenly, it’s radical disjunction—going back to ideas of montage.
MB —That reminds me of the shock of WikiLeaks … until last year, it was just unimaginable that we could have an archive that was downloadable with say, the entire security data of a particular nation-state and that could suddenly land on your desk. That’s the problem.
KG People will remix it, but they haven’t because there’s so much of it there.
MB You know what’s striking about it is—
KG —(laughter) You can have it but nobody cares! John Cage was very prophetic, in 1989 he says—or maybe even earlier … yeah it was in 86/87—he goes, “And one day you will actually be able to download a copy of the Bible and remix it.” And now of course, we can download all that stuff and we don’t remix it.
MB Let’s talk about the Against Expression and Uncreative Writing books a little. What kind of reaction do you get to these ideas? You’re teaching them at U. Penn—
KG —and I spoke about it at The White House in front of Michelle Obama.
MB Right, I watched it. Did you get any response from people at that talk, at that reading? Did anyone say anything?
KG No. It’s not really about response there.
MB Billy Collins didn’t lunge at you …?
KG No, Billy Collins … Billy Collins said in the session before me, he said something very similar. He said, “You cant expect to find your own voice. You don’t really have your own voice. You get your voice through deep reading of other people’s work.” I thought it was really brilliant … I agreed with him completely. During The White House thing I was talking about uncreative writing and unoriginality as a way of being and I said, What Billy was saying before actually dovetails from a completely different angle from what I happen to believe.
MB In some ways it feels like that whole language poetry versus the confessionals debate that’s dominated the poetry scene in recent decades has ceased to apply today in a certain way, right?
KG Well … yeah. I think that the thing that’s happened is a paradigm shift that’s called … that is the digital. That then blows away all those other arguments, the pre-digital arguments. I actually believe that this is as much of a break—and I actually say in Uncreative Writing that painting responded to the invention of the camera, in other words, the camera did what the painting is trying to do for so long that its only chance for survival was to go abstract. I actually think that today we’re in a similar situation with writing. We have the technology that does it so much better than what we were trying to do or actually distributes it, that which has already been written, so much of what has already been written much better than we’re able to do. Writing has to then reimagine what it can be in the digital age.
MB But like you say in the book, writing can’t simply mimic painting, movement in time, action. So where does it go?
KG It becomes mimetic, it becomes distributed. This goes back to thatWire epiphany once again, that maybe, it’s not what we’re writing; maybe, it’s how to distribute it; maybe, it’s how we reframe and rejigger other things and get them out into the world that becomes the content of our writing instead of the story of our mother’s cancer operation. We always assume writing to have a certain function even though modernism mildly challenged it. But still, in ways if you saw The White House Reading they had high school students getting up there and reading their poems about their mother’s cancer operation—very traditional forms of expression which will continue, but, you know the idea on another level then becomes … . anyway … end there with that thought.
MB When I look at the phrase ‘against expression’ I feel like we can’t really get rid of expression and at a certain point any linguistic endeavor, whether it’s someone sitting in their bedroom writing something out by hand or whether its some anonymous spam email with a bunch of words just literally throw ntogether at random, finally the experience of language has to do with expressivity. It can’t just be distribution. At a certain point what makes spam interesting would be that the conjunction of those words actually shocks me or has some effect on me.
KG Yeah writing — the smallest morpheme (tk) of language, that’s what modernism taught us—is deeply associative, For example, take the letter A, it could be the top grade; it could be the title of Andy Warhol’s wonderful book A, a novel; it could be the life work of Louis Zukofsky. There are all these kind of associations with all just one, simple letter form. So you see, when Abstract Expressionist painters were trying to actually excise that kind of semantic meaning from the work they went toward geometry and they tried to excise that way. But of course, geometry is not innocent either and if you say that Adolph Gottlieb has a red circle in a painting then it begins to have all sorts of associations with everything from the sun to the Japanese flag. We actually say that expression and content and meaning is all part and parcel of the information that we’re moving. It’s encoded. It’s DNA. You can’t get away with it! So why try so hard to express yourself when the content that you’re working with is full of expression anyway. So, against expression is a funny phrase, it’s against a certain type of expression as we’ve known it to be expression. Just like un-creativity is a reinvestigation actually of creativity in a time when creativity has become so hackneyed and so predictable; suddenly we’ve got to go toward the opposite.
MB Do you think you can get rid of subjectivity? Because in a certain sense the notion of being against expression that you’re talking about is down playing the importance of the intention of the subject, the intentional subject’s relationship to language as an intimate or personal experience. But subjectivity is really interesting right?
KG You can’t avoid it. What I choose to distribute and what I choose to reframe and what I choose to appropriate all expresses my own subjectivity as much as anything I could possibly write, how could it be otherwise? Again, you go back to Duchamp that every object he chose to appropriate expressed his own sensibility, subjectivity, and taste. So those become the overriding things about what is it that you choose.
MB So in a way it’s kind of a kitsch version of subjectivity that gets taught in certain kinds of poetry workshops that you want to get rid of as just wrong. And then there’s another kind of subjectivity which maybe we haven’t actually heard much about so far which has a different relationship to language or to expression that maybes coming to the fore now.
KG Well, it’s the programmers subjectivity. Christian Bok says that in the future no poet will be able to be a poet without knowing Perl, the scripting language. In a way he’s right because all of this is sort of leading to a robo-poetics, a poetics in which, as Christian says, machines write poetry for other machines for lack of any human interest in the genre at large.
MB To me there’s a kind of fear of human subjectivity involved in that kind of expression and I feel it Christian’s work. At the same time, what make Christian’s work work is there’s an incredible amount of pathos to it which there precisely because it denies that it’s there and that pathos comes back even more somehow. Humor as well, maybe that’s another thing … watching the YouTube clip of The White House appearance, it was striking how much people were laughing when you were reading the Traffic excerpts. Actually, a lot of your work is funny in that way it’s involved in humor but … I’m not even sure what the question would be to ask about that … What does humor mean to you? Do you get off on it? Do you like that people get off on your work through laughter?
KG I don’t like comedy. I don’t like that kind of expression, I don’t find it funny, I don’t find it creative. I find it very cloying and very manipulative. But, I always love … say something like Candid Camera or Coyle and Sharpe or Sacha Baron Cohen. To me, I think these are interventions, interventions into daily life. It’s all wrapped around defamiliarizing ourselves, and sensitizing ourselves, to that which we’re surrounded by everyday. Soliloquy was nothing more than just seeing what one person said over the course of a week and seeing what it looked like and seeing what it was. Woah! I never think about I say really, you know? It was a very shocking thing. Or we look at the narrative of traffic reports, they are very beautiful, they are gorgeous. If we take the utilitarian away from traffic and we don’t worry about us being caught in that jam and how we’re gonna get around we can actually enjoy the beauty of the language that surrounds us and of course, that’s the whole idea of Day as well. All the work is simply reframing and making us see the beauty of the language we’re swimming in.
MB Yeah and I think the pathos of all the traces of the materiality found in our lives and this incredible sort of swirl of all those traces that we’re embedded in that we don’t even see as traces … .
KG Absolutely. One of the epigraphs for Soliloquy said, If every word spoke in New York City Daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake each day there would be a blizzard. We’re producing so much language and of course now the web is producing so much language and the air right now is thick with language—you have to remember that the web and all our digital media is all alphanumerically based, even if it’s invisible. So this is language’s moment! You could never peel back a photograph and find alphanumeric language there—actually you talk about this in Praise of Copying —it was a gelatin that went down and that was reproduceable through a certain chemical process, not a linguistic process. You see, the bottom, the root level of all of our media today is language and this is proven when you get a jpeg in the mail that doesn’t come in as a jpeg, it comes in as a mess of code which, in fact, is pretty much the same exact stuff that Shakespeare wrought his sonnets with. So we’re actually dealing with that. All of that stuff could be reconfigured back into sensibility, sensible poetry, or sensible prose, or a sensible photograph; we could actually all put it back together again and have it reconvert as an image. This is quite radical. You began to look at that as writing and interventions into that type of digital media, then you suddenly see that language has a stellar moment right now.
MB The other side of it is … I was thinking about Maurice Blanchot in the ‘50s writing his book The Infinite Conversation. Basically he begins and argues in the book about exhaustion and he’s sort of like, we’re really too tired at this point to produce master words and master works and the production is too tiring for us. On the one hand, yeah, we’re swimming in this sea of abundance and, in another way, there’s something utterly exhausting about it.
KG You know, what one sees as exhausting someone else sees as invigoratiing and thrilling and an endless supply of surplus texts—that the web is nothing but a machine for generating texts to be used as a writer. If you’re a writer you have to acknowledge this change in environment; the material which you’re working is running the entire world. To me, it’s joyous, it’s gluttonous; to Blanchot it’s fearful in the ‘50s and I think a lot of fiction writers don’t even want to deal with that possibility, that tidal wave, that tsunami of languages washing over us everyday because it minimizes the possibility for your own genius impact.
MB Do you still feel an obligation to work? With Day, for example, you talk about the physical labor of transcribing— is it still about the obligation of work somehow or is there something else?
KG Again you look at Christian and his xeno-text experiment, this is all an intense work but it’s all been done by a programming machine crunching millions, maybe even trillions of possibilities to wrought out a giant poem. The work on Christian’s side went in setting up that machine, much more than the actual labor of it, itself. We will be judged in the future by the machines by which we set up more than the product it produces. The poem for the xeno-text of Christian’s is not a remarkable poem, it doesn’t even matter, it’s the process that went into making that poem that’s so much more infinitely fascinating and very very good, and very sturdy—the machine that constructed the text and the actual result of the text. So the writer becomes judged by the machines that they built rather than the product they produce and it’s all predicated upon the sturdiness of that machine or the great concept; the marvelous concept of that becomes much more interesting than the thing the concept is producing—this is conceptual literature.
MB But you know, the onco-mouse or dolly the transgenic sheep are instantiations of a concept as well, right? So … what the machine does will still be a matter of concern, right?
KG Again, maybe or maybe not. Again, in genetics … I think the impact, one has to be concerned with those things. I think in poetry and art one gets a pass, we don’t really have to be concerned with its ethical implications. Again, Ubu is an ethical hive, it’s a bees nest—
MB —a monster!
KG A monster of ethical problems which have no real world impact on anything, it’s theoretical. So when artists are held to the sort of standards, ethical and moral standards of say politicians I think it’s a very dangerous situation for art. Politicians’ actions do have severe consequences on peoples’ lives where, I think distributing structuralist film illegally really hasn’t hurt … no animals were harmed in the making of that movie. (laughter)
MB But art since Romanticism has been concerned in some way with having an impact on the real world and I agree traditional ethics doesn’t make any sense, but …
KG —it’s an a-ethical space which is its beauty. We need to preserve that—the possibility of behaving very badly in art. The possibility of it…because it doesn’t exist anywhere else: you get thrown in jail. I always say, if I raised my kids the way I wrote my books I would’ve been thrown in jail a long time ago. So I do make a distinction between these two things and I love that freedom. I think it’s a very important place to preserve.
MB Do you compartmentalize the freedom? Is it totally separate from everyday life? With the internet, there’s this incredible bleed between the screen and reality too and that’s something that people are playing with increasingly.
KG I think so, I think that these notions give me windows during my day into true freedom in a society that allows me very little. They show me that freedom really is still possible in spite of all the other things that I did. I go back to Cage again … and Cage was [mumble], John Cage! You’re an anarchist but you pay taxes! And John Cage says, “Yes, I’m an anarchist but the only way I can continue to do my work is to pay my taxes.” So there was a sense of compromise and a window of freedom. He says, “Yeah, I’m left alone. In this culture the only thing that I have to do, the obligation I have to meet in order to do my work and actually be left alone … is pay my taxes.” And Cage, of course at that time in the ‘70s and ‘60s in many places around the world, Cage wouldn’t have been permitted to do his work. So we make our compromises.
MB That feels like a cut. I think that’s good.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby