MoMA: Writing in Time
March 28, 2007
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Co-sponsored by UbuWeb
Download Program Notes (PDF)
Introduction to Writing in Time: Poets and Technology Kenneth Goldsmith
Thank you Laura. I'd like to thank the Museum of Modern Art and the department of Education, in particular Laura Beiles, for having us here tonight. As the founder of UbuWeb (ubu.com) -- the web's largest repository avant-garde, ethnopoetic and outsider arts -- I would like to say that it's a great honor to be able to collaborate with the Museum of Modern Art whose vision and dedication to all things new has served as an inspiration for UbuWeb. We look forward to many more joint ventures in the future.
As we are at The Museum of Modern Art, I thought I'd begin by addressing the relationship between the literary and the fine arts with a statement by the visionary poet and artist Brion Gysin who, in 1959, made the claim that poetry was fifty years behind painting. Gysin's statement, although hyperbolic and perhaps oversimplified, had a lot of truth to it. Surveying the scene at the end of the 1950s, Gysin saw that the New York School of painting had broken loose from the easel, opening the way for the various innovative post-studio practices that we know today; in painting, Gysin saw future.
Poetry, however, was another story. Half a decade earlier, poetry was evolving in tandem with radical innovations in both the visual arts and music. Russian and Italian Futurism, Vorticism, Dadism -- as well as singular individuals unconnected to larger movements such as Gertrude Stein -- forced poetry to break free of the stanza, spilling off the page and on to posters and billboards; visual configurations of nonsensical gargantuan letters were strewn across the pages of newspapers, on to the side of trains, buildings, and factories; they were floated across the airwaves, declaimed in dark cabarets, and hammered into the grooves of wax cylinders. In London, Ezra Pound declaimed "Make It New" and bold forms were invented: new languages, nonsensical languages, noise poems, sound poems, performance poems and industrial poems.
But wartime diasporas as well as political and economic conditions snuffed the avant-garde prematurely. While its faint embers flickered on and off as the century progressed, they were overshadowed by more conservative works which appealed a larger audience. By the 1950s, poetry, long after the great period of experimentation, had for the most part had lapsed back into a genteel practice of subjectivity, introspection, and quiet observation. Recoiling from its assertive place in the world, poetry retreated into the page, reformed back to into stanzas, sequestered itself in academia and the cocooned parlor, so much so that by 1959, when Gysin made his proclamation, it seemed like any radical possibilities for poetry were long dead. It was during this period that giants-to-be such as John Cage were routinely dismissed by the mainstream as "neo Dada."
Little could Gysin have seen what was lurking right around the corner. In the 1960s and 70s came an explosion of experimentation and innovation that equaled or surpassed much of what happened half a decade earlier, bringing poetry up to date with radical innovations in the visual arts. The Beats, the New York School of poetry, Language Poetry, concrete and visual poetry, sound poetry, ethnopoetics, performance poetry, multimedia poetry and its technologically-driven variants -- video poems, holographic poems, computer poems, dial-a-poems -- an explosion of book arts, broadsides, posters, chapbooks, and all strains of ephemeral poetry thrust poetry out of hiding. It returned to the airwaves, video, television and film, back into public spaces, reclaiming its performative roots. Of course in our own time, the explosion of digital poetries is just the latest incarnation of these ongoing trends. Surveying the landscape today, Gysin would've been astonished at the amount of activity, innovation and exploration that's taken place since the dark days of his pronouncement.
But, I don't wish to give you the false impression that the innovative is leading the way. Rather, unlike the American art world where the avant-garde is the mainstream, American innovators in poetry today are seen as outsiders: rarely, for example, are they awarded the high-profile prizes given to mainstream poets. How different it is in the art world. In 2004, Rirkrit Tiravanija won the $50,000 Hugo Boss Award for a dematerialized, relational practice which displays no traditional art-making skills. Tiravanija can't render a face in oil paint; instead, he cooks curry. No one bats an eye. It's shocking that, 100 years after the inception of modernism, two separate streams still exist in the poetry world, with almost no interaction between them. In Gysonian terms, then, there's still much work to be done.
Tonight, we hope to give you a glimpse into the lively present state and the future of poetry: poems that are fueled by technology, language that couldn't have been written without machines; language which takes as its process and subject matter the nature, workings, and meltdowns of technology. With the Futurist Moment as coined by critic Marjorie Perloff -- 1913, to be precise -- is its great grandmother, the poets you'll hear tonight mimic the whirr of a hard drive instead of romanticizing the rat-a-tat-tat of WWI artillery fire. This is a media-based poetry, one that embraces the Koolhausian-based notions of a linguistic junk space. This poetry wraps its lips around the materiality of language, celebrates the sheer surplus of language, often prioritizing quantity over quality and in doing so, strives to hammer out a new definition of what it means to be a contemporary poet: the writer as word processor, the writer as information manager, the writer as intelligent agent.
As Brion Gysin had his moment of hyperbole, I will conclude with one of my own. I used to say to my father that I was envious that in his lifetime he lived through a technological and cultural paradigm shift: the transition from radio to television. I would lament to him that in my lifetime I might never experience anything like it. How wrong I was. Technologically speaking, this is the summer of love. Never before has art and culture been as widely available to so many people for little or no money, accessible to so many people who, due to geography or economic circumstance or a million other reasons, are privileged to be able be in this room. MoMA and UbuWeb understands this situation: tomorrow, every word spoken tonight will be available as a downloadable MP3, free of charge, on both websites. I encourage you to explore MoMA's vast holdings of talks and reading that have occurred in this room and fill up your iPod with the hundreds of hours of materials they offer. MoMA and UbuWeb are dedicating to keeping free and open the radical possibilities of distribution for artworks that the web offers.
A word of caution, though: I fear that with the squandering of access to these materials by certain individuals, institutions, and corporations flagging outdated, draconian notions of copyright, possession, and ownership, my rhetoric will sound as dated in ten years as the florid utopian visions of the summer of '67 or May 68 sound today. If we're not careful, we might find ourselves once again echoing Brion Gysin and this summer of love will quickly turn into the winter of our discontent.