Stefan Sagmeister (1962-) is among today's most important graphic designers. Born in Austria, he now lives and works in New York. His long-standing collaborators include the AIGA and the musicians David Byrne and Lou Reed.
I am writing a review of Kent Johnson’s Day although I haven’t read a word of it. That’s not a problem, since Johnson’s Day is identical to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, which is itself a transcription of an entire issue of The New York Times from left to right, ignoring the divisions between columns, articles and advertisements. In fact, Johnson’s Day is an actual copy of Goldsmith’s Day, with stickers of Johnson’s name covering Goldsmith’s name, as well as some jacket blurbs from Juliana Spahr, Christian Bök, and “Kenny” Goldsmith himself. Not surprisingly, the blurbs from Spahr and Bök were originally for Goldmith’s Day; the blurb attributed to Goldsmith is Johnson’s riff on various comments Goldsmith has made on Flarf and conceptual poetry.
However, I haven’t read Goldsmith’s Day either. Although I consider myself a big fan of his work, I’ve read almost none of it. (I made it through about 50 pages of Soliloquy, his transcription of everything he said over the course of a week, and thought it was brilliant.)
A few years ago Darren Wershler-Henry visited us from Toronto. His book of 2000, The Tapeworm Foundry, was being celebrated by an exhibit in the KWH gallery ("KWH Arts," we called that ongoing project then — now The Brodsky Gallery). Kaegan Sparks commissioned a number of Writers House-affiliated people each to make art from an instruction of the sort that fills Darren's book. I wrote about this at the time of the exhibit.
One artist dipped her long hair into calligraphy ink and dragged it across long rolls of paper (this is actually a classic Fluxus piece). Another person created an inky footprint and then ran it through an OCR (text-recognition) program and printed the “language” that resulted and put the two up on the wall, side by side. Another pair of artists counted all the periods (at ends of sentences) in all the books on a Writers House bookshelf, then printed out the periods on 8.5 x 11" paper and wrapped the bookshelf in the paper.
While Darren was in the house, I gathered him, Kaegan and Kenny Goldsmith in my office, and the four of us talked about Darren's book and the exhibit, and about conceptual poetics/concrete poetry generally. This is the newest in the series of "PennSound podcasts", and please have a listen.
1. Links to works produced for the exhibit. 2. Video recording of the opening program. 3. Photos of the event. 4. Text of Tapeworm available at UbuWeb.
Kenny Goldsmith's The Weather by Charles Bernstein was published on May 6, 2006 as part of the "Unreadable Writing" series of the Institute for the Study of Dysraphic Phenomena (now disbanded). Technical problems delayed the release of the fifth anniversary, second edition until today.
In his Thursday, May 12, 2011, Daily Show, Jon Stewart satirizes the appearance of poets at the White House. Along the way, he takes a shot at the jacket Kenneth Goldsmith wore to the reading. Click here for a video recording of the segment, and scroll forward to 1:02 on the counter in order to get to Goldsmith. And here, as a bonus, is reactionary talk show host, Michael Savage, referring to Goldsmith's presentation as a sign of the downfall of western civilization as precipitated by Barack Obama.
Click here to watch a video recording of a poetry "workshop" held yesterday at the White House. At around 46 minutes, Kenneth Goldsmith explains "uncreative writing." Joining him are Elizabeth Alexander and Allison Knowles.
Below is a statement just now released from the White House. Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW) at the University of Pennsylvania and is a close affiliate of the Kelly Writers House, will be among the poets performing at the May 11 event. And with Michelle Obama, he will lead a poetry workshop for children.
Kenny has been teaching a Creative Writing workshop called “Uncreative Writing” for a number of years at Penn. And every other year (continuing in 2011–12), he teaches an innovative year-long contemporary art/writing seminar that is a collaboration of CPCW and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).
Event Continues Arts Education Series at the White House on May 11th
The President and Mrs. Obama will host a celebration of American poetry and prose by welcoming accomplished poets, musicians and artists as well as students from across the country to the White House next week. Participants include Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann and Jill Scott who will read, sing, and showcase the impact of poetry on American culture. The President will make opening remarks at this event held in the East Room, which will be pooled press and streamed live on www.whitehouse.gov starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.
Kenny Goldsmith responded to my blog entry from a while back, entitled "5-page paper on Stevens, yours for just $59.75." Here's what Kenny writes:
Some time ago, you blogged about the conundrum of finding a paper mill selling an interpretation of Steven's poem "Mozart, 1935," which might have incorporated your own work on this subject into it, a remix of your own words. You say, "Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem?" You then go on to say that "I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No? How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?"
My answer is not desperate at all. In fact, each semester, I force my students to purchase a paper from paper mills and present it as their final project as if they wrote it themselves. Each student must stand up in front of the class and present it with such irrefutable conviction as if they themselves wrote it and truly believe every word of it. Failure to do so convincingly results in group censure from the class, and ultimately in a lower grade.
The kernel of how we must teach today is embedded in your quandary. By reifying the old lines of "this is mine" and "this is not," we perpetuate myths of originality. Was your research sprung completely from your own genius? Most likely not. You sourced it from dozens of places. What is original -- and genius -- is the way you wove those sources together. But isn't that what good research always has been? It's just that the digital makes this process transparent and eminently elastic in ways that were hidden before.
Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) to describe a new tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius -- a romantic isolated figure -- is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.
It's time to let go of notions of propriety and ownership of language, particularly in university situation where there is a subsidized economy. None of us are writing for profit -- we are subsidized by research funds and university positions -- and are thus obliged to take the most theoretically radical and experimental positions possible. Imagine if other research wings of universities such as science labs took the safe and known ways? They certainly would be upbraided for not taking chances. Why can't we do the same?
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Now my reply to Kenny's reply:
I'm sort of hoping that the parents of our students will see the $59 charge on their sons' and daughters' credit-card bill, and a discussion of this purchase will ensue. In such a conversation--I'm imagining it taking place over the Thanksgiving dinner, with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Schloime listening in--Kenny's teaching will spread like waves across the pre-postmodern generations, the tuition-paying traditionalists who thought that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school they were escaping unoriginality rather than venturing to its center.
Anyway, the tone of my blog entry was all wrong, as I can see upon re-reading, and I think threw Kenny off. I find the fact of a $60 five-page paper on Wallace Stevens absurd and I'm not primarily concerned about the fate of my own academic writing in the world of digital copying. Really. I don't disagree with Kenny--as he knows--about remix. I don't fear it and I have very little concern about owning my interpretation of a poem by Wallace Stevens. It was my hook, my start on writing about the topic. Already not a fan of the grade-giving and grade-getting system of higher education (a view to which this blog amply testifies), I'm bemused by the lack of consciousness and laziness of people in that system feeling the need to pay top dollar for a dumbed-down academic remix. A little bit of work of could have produced the same (I mean even a remix) for free. You see, that's where we begin to see differences between Kenny's uncreative writing course and the paper mills he seems to favor (he doesn't really favor them--imagine him and the purveyors of such a venture in the same room!--but his position necessitates that he be annoyed by people annoyed by them). Kenny's students are (to say the least) extremely conscious of the aesthetic or anti-aesthetic (but that's still an aesthetic) of the sampling, and the violation of conventional values--a violation felt as such by the giant middle on the spectrum running from cool anti-authorial stealing to lazy pirating advantage-taking profiteers--is material for his pedagogy and their learning. He "forces" them to engage in such violation and it's the beginning of their venture into the art world. Kenny and his students, brilliant in their creative uncreativity, are doing one thing, which I admire and literally support. And his world is energized by its all being free. A gift economy thriving on the new digital world in which authorship has happily disappeard. I'm there too. But the purveyors of the paper mill have created something that is the opposite of the gift economy, and the result is an uncreative uncreativity that only very very superficially befits the world Kenny enjoys living in.
To me, this is all about pedagogy and the fate of higher education. I adore the energetic, intense, resourceful (that's, by the way, another word for creative) not-lazy students who are self-consciously participating in the lazy buy-your-papers economy. I don't adore students for whom this process is a matter of sheer unselfconscious ease. The former is learning, being part of a community of learners (such as in Kenny's amazing classes), and it is always, always a rigorous uncreativity. The latter are mere corner-cutters, seeking the easy. I have little time for them. What Kenny and his students do is not easy--seems easy, but isn't. Let's make that distinction.
Years ago Jim O'Donnell - a pioneer in internet-age teaching - said that the role of the teacher would change from that of provider of knowledge... to that of "front end to the universe": from be-all/there-all giver in a room full of receivers and final arbiter of what constitutes relevant knowledge to medium or gateway or traffic cop gently guiding but never blocking the learners' pathways outward to a world of information and knowledge and text that made the teacher a speck on the horizon yet still great in importance if she or he would thrive in the role of medium. Not maker or giver of the medium, but medium itself. There are classrooms today (and it has not much to do with computing hardware available, though a minimum is required...namely a good wireless connection for everyone) in which the new role is possible and the teacher loves playing it. From time to time here I have mentioned Kenneth Goldsmith's teaching, in part because I adore what Kenny does and in large part because I happen to have access to it, a close look at its development. Kenny's artwork did all this before he taught regularly, but now the pedagogy is catching up with the rest of the project. Here are a few paragraphs Kenny sent me not long ago about what the hell is happening in his classroom:
During a recent classroom visit of a visual artist, it occurred to me that we've reached a new paradigm in radical pedagogy. The artist entered the room, greeted the class and began his lecture with a PowerPoint presentation about his work. While he was speaking, he noticed that the class -- all of whom had their laptops open and connected to the internet -- were furiously typing away. He flattered himself that, in the traditional manner, the students were taking copious notes on his lecture, devouring every word he spoke. But what he was not aware of was that the students were engaged in a simultaneous electronic dialogue with each other about what the artist was saying, all played out over the class listserv, which they all had instant access to. During the course of the artist's lecture, dozens of emails, links and photos were blazing back and forth to each other; each email elicited yet more commentary and gloss on the prior emails to the point where what the artist was saying was merely a jumping off point to an investigation of such depth and complexity, that the artist -- or any ideal of traditional pedagogy -- would never have achieved. It was an unsurpassed form of student's active and participatory engagement, but went far astray from what the speaker had in mind.
When later told about this, the artist was very disturbed. His ego was mauled and when shown the blizzard of gloss, was more dispirited as he felt much of what had transpired was irrelevant and even irreverent (hastily Photoshopped detournments of images and concepts he brought up). He was flabbergasted that all of this "conversation" was happening and he, the authoritative speaker, was not privy to what was being said.