Introduction: The Back Door

There’s a back door to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that few know about. Invisible to the bustling crowds at the main entrance on Fifty-Third Street, it’s desolate except for the occasional noisy school group or quiet academic researcher entering and exiting. There’re no admission fees or snaking queues, only a lonely intern sitting at a desk. If you sign in and take the elevator to the top floor, you’ll find the MoMA Library. It was there in the late 1970s that a librarian named Clive Phillpot created a policy unlike any other in the history of the museum. Without asking permission, he decreed that anybody could mail anything to the MoMA Library, and it would be accepted and become part of the official collection. There was no limit to what could be sent, nor were there specifications of size, medium, or provenance. No judgments were made about quality either. The artist could be world famous or completely unknown—it made no difference. Once something was sent, no questions were ever asked. Whatever was received was accepted.

Phillpot estimates that between 1977 and 1994 he got anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 artists into the MoMA collection this way. Bob Dylan once said, “I had gotten in the door when no one was looking. I was in there now and, there was nothing anybody from then on could do ever about it.” Similarly, Phillpot’s gesture was so under the radar that the front door—the museum administration and curatorial wing—paid no attention to it. And once they did, it was too late; nobody was going to return all those crates and boxes that had piled up over the years, never mind remove hundreds of thousands of artists from the database. While some artifacts from those acquisitions are quite valuable and are often on display in the galleries, most of them languish in MoMA’s remote storage facility out in Queens, stacked up in the boxes they were originally sent in. And they’re all still part of MoMA’s collection.

Sometimes the back door was used to get artworks into the museum. In 1991, Chuck Close was asked to curate an Artist’s Choice exhibition. Close decided to choose a selection of portraits from MoMA’s collection, and he wanted to include Ray Johnson, who at the time was—unbelievably enough—still not actually in the MoMA collection. So to get himself in, Johnson stuffed a funky photocopied cartoon of Willem de Kooning into an envelope and mailed it off to Phillpot, courtesy of the library. Sure enough, the cartoon was entered into the MoMA collection with the credit line “Gift of the artist. The Museum of Modern Art Library, Special Collections”—therefore eligible to be included in Close’s show.FIAC-Tips-UbuWeb

The back door is a powerful tool. While all eyes are elsewhere, magical things can happen in the margins. Andy Warhol once said that if you want to collect something in New York, you have to find out what it is that nobody else wants and collect that. Before long, everyone will want it. He was right—once he began collecting ugly ceramic cookie jars, everyone started collecting them. By the time he died, his cookie jar collection, which he paid pennies for, sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars. Warhol was a back-door collector. Out of the watchful eye of the front door and free to write its own ticket, the back door plays by its own rules. Unburdened by official policy, it can quietly reshuffle the deck according to intuition, whim, and desire. While the front sparkles with glamour and sexy commodities, the back door favors that which is economically worthless but historically priceless. Trading in ephemera and ideas, the back door is unlocked and unguarded, for it’s assumed that there’s not much worth stealing inside that rear door—often a correct hunch. Yet because the back door is always open, its ideas are infinitely democratic, transferrable, and replicable as well as free to all. At once playful—even prankish—and deadly serious, the back door is perverse, embracing contradiction and impurity. It’s also wildly utopian, proposing to make the impossible possible. What begins as a hunch or proposition over time becomes serious.

If you do something wrong for long enough, it eventually becomes right—paradoxically transforming the back door into the new front door.

Marcel Duchamp once made a door hinged between two frames that was always open and always shut. The door closed one entrance when it opened the other, thereby contradicting the French proverb “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée [A door must be either open or closed].” It is both and neither at the same time. Writing to André Breton, Duchamp said, “Pour moi il y a autre chose que oui, non et indifferentC’est par example l’absence d’investigations de ce genre [For me there is something other than yes, no, and indifferent—there is for example the absence of investigations of this kind].” Open and closed, pirate and legitimate, serious and playful, UbuWeb has attempted to model itself on Phillpot’s back door and Duchamp’s pendulous door, resulting in a decades-long investigation into the absence of an investigation.

***

Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted. We’ve never been sued—never even come close.

UbuWeb functions on no money—we don’t take it, we don’t pay it, we don’t touch it; you’ll never find an advertisement, a logo, or a donation box. We’ve never applied for a grant or accepted a sponsorship; we remain happily unaffiliated, keeping us free and clean, allowing us to do what we want to do, the way we want to do it. Most important, UbuWeb has always been and will always be free and open to all: there are no memberships or passwords required. All labor is volunteered; our server space and bandwidth are donated by a likeminded group of intellectual custodians who believe in free access to knowledge. A gift economy of plentitude with a strong emphasis on global education, UbuWeb is visited daily by tens of thousands of people from every continent. We’re on numerous syllabuses, ranging from those for kindergarteners studying pattern poetry to those for postgraduates listening to hours of Jacques Lacan’s Séminaires. When the site goes down from time to time, as most sites do, we’re inundated by emails from panicked faculty wondering how they are going to teach their courses that week.

The site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists better known for other things—the music of Jean Dubuffet, the poetry of Dan Graham, the hip-hop of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the punk rock of Martin Kippenberger, the films of John Lennon, the radio plays of Ulrike Meinhof, the symphonies of Hanne Darboven, the country music of Julian Schnabel—most of which were originally put out in tiny editions, were critically ignored, and quickly vanished. However, the web provides the perfect place to restage these works. With video, sound, and text remaining more faithful to the original experience than, say, painting or sculpture, Ubu proposes a different sort of revisionist art history based on the peripheries of artistic production rather than on the perceived, hyped, or market-based center.

For example, although famous for his megalithic metal sculptures, Richard Serra has made a lot of important video art. The museum narrative enforces this invisibility. In Serra’s retrospective at the MoMA in New York in 2007, there was no sign of his essential videos Television Delivers People (1973) and Boomerang (1974), both frequently visited resources on UbuWeb. Similarly, Salvador Dalí’s obscure psychedelic film Impressions de la Haute Mongoliehommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) is the only film besides Un chien Andalou (1929) that he completed in his lifetime. It’s also the only movie you’ll ever watch about Upper Mongolia, giant hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a urine-soaked pen. Nearly impossible to see in theaters or museums, it’s playing every day and every night on Ubu. And although you won’t find any of Dalí’s paintings on UbuWeb, you will find a recording of an advertisement he made for a bank in 1967. Not everything at the site is offbeat: there are, in all fairness, lots of artists’ works that perfectly port to the web, such as Hollis Frampton’s structuralist films, Kathy Acker’s collaborations with punk bands, Samuel Beckett’s radio plays, Mary Ellen Solt’s concrete poems, Maurice Blanchot’s mystery novels, and Aleister Crowley’s magical wax-cylinder recordings.

Named for Alfred Jarry’s mischievous, foul-mouthed, Dadaist protagonist Ubu Roi, UbuWeb began as a site focusing on visual and concrete poetry. With the advent of the graphical web browser in the mid-1990s, I began scanning old concrete poems and posting them on the web. I was astonished by how fresh those dusty old paperbound pieces looked when backlit by the computer screen. When I emailed the link to a few friends, they seemed to agree; they emailed the link to a few of their friends, and in a short time I found myself surrounded by a group of concrete-poetry fans. Encouraged, I scanned a few more poems before setting out to convert whole important anthologies of the genre to the web. Shortly thereafter, when streaming audio became available, it made sense to extend Ubu’s scope to sound poetry, a historical movement similar to concrete poetry, but instead of words and letters published on the page, words and letters are intoned or spoken. I began transferring old sound-poetry LPs to MP3s and posting them alongside the concrete poems.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, sound poetry—a broad and varied genre that often includes instruments and electronic treatments—posed some challenging questions. For instance, certain of John Cage’s readings of his texts could be termed “sound poetry,” so I included them. But just as often Cage accompanied those readings with an orchestral piece, which I included as well. I soon found myself unable to distinguish the difference between “sound poetry” and “music.” I encountered this dilemma time and again, whether it was with the compositions of Maurico Kagel or of Joan La Barbara or of Henri Chopin, all of whom were as well known as “composers” as they were as “sound poets” or “audio artists.” Finally, after a while I gave up trying to name things; I dropped the term sound poetry and began referring to the section under which they were filed simply as “Sound.”

FIAC TIPS UbuWeb
FIAC TIPS UbuWeb
A similar thing happened with concrete poetry. For many years, I had been collecting outsider writings scrawled on scraps of paper affixed to New York City walls that expressed highly emotional narratives, conspiracy theories, and political sentiments. They often employed beautiful and innovative graphical letter forms that appeared to me to be a sort of handmade concrete poetry but with an entirely different history and agenda. I scanned and uploaded these scraps but began to question where they should be filed. Could they easily fit alongside the classical modernist concrete poems, or should they be in a category of their own? I ultimately decided that although they resembled visual poems, they were something else, so I created a new section simply called “Outsiders”—named after the genre known as “outsider art”—which grew to become a large repository of audio and visual material created by street poets and visionaries.

One of the collections housed in the Outsiders section is The 365 Days Project, which had its inception as a blog where hundreds of people over the course of a year posted one song or album a day of outrageous novelty music, all of which was donated to Ubu when the blog went offline. The range is vast, including a panoply of weird stuff, such as celebrity crooners, offbeat children’s records, amateur song-poems, hammy ventriloquism, and homemade tape recordings. The collection is studded with bizarre gems such as Louis Farrakhan singing calypso and a high school choir’s rendition of the Sweet’s AM radio hit “Fox on the Run.” Buried deep within are rare recordings by the legendary avant-garde conductor-composer Nicolas Slonimsky, inexplicably yowling out copy from old newspaper ads for cod liver oil and toothpaste, accompanied by a detuned piano. Written in 1925, the compositions were a sort of predecessor to pop art, exploring the expressive possibilities of found text. While many listeners to The 365 Days Project might’ve written off these recordings as little more than “weird-old-man-who-can’t-carry-a-tune” novelty records, when these recordings collided with UbuWeb, the backstory became complicated. For several years previously, we had been hosting a series of world-premiere recordings of modernist composers such as Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Edgard Varèse that Slonimsky conducted during the 1930s. Zooming out and viewing Slonimsky’s career in retrospective, we could connect the dots to the two different personas represented, but the initial shock that both of them live together under the same roof, so to speak, was profound. Ultimately, the files were cross-referenced, once in the Outsiders section under The 365 Days Project and once in the Sound section under “Nicolas Slonimsky,” the consummate inside outsider.

Jerome Rothenberg, a scholar, approached Ubu with an idea to build a wing on the site that would focus on sound, visual art, poetry, and essays related to his specialty, ethnopoetics. Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics focused on how the avant-garde dovetailed with the world’s ancient cultures, both those surviving in situ as well as those that had vanished except for transcriptions in books or recordings from earlier decades. It was a perfect match for Ubu. Rothenberg’s sound offerings included everything from the jazz singer Slim Gaillard to Inuit throat singing, each making formal connections to modernist strains of Dada or sound poetry. Examples of ethnopoetic visual poetry ranged from Chippewa song pictures to Guillaume Apollinaire’s graphical arrangements of letters in his Calligrammes. Rothenberg edited a subsection containing dozens of scholarly papers reflecting on ethnopoetics, such as Brent Hayes Edwards’s “Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat” and Kenneth Rexroth’s writings on American Indian song. He also put together a selection of plain-text poetry, including Cecilia Vicuña’s contemporary shamanistic poems, Vietnamese ca dao folk poems, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s proto–sound poem “Song of the Owl” (1856).

FIQC-Tips-UbuWebThere is a precedent for such an eclectic approach to bringing together varied works of art and writing: Aspen magazine, which was published between 1965 and 1971. Though Aspen is long out of print, UbuWeb was fortunate to be given a digitized version of the entire run. Its ten issues attempted to bring together several disciplines under a single curator; any given issue contained poetry, music, film, art criticism, reproductions of paintings, and critical essays. Each issue came in a customized box filled with booklets, flexi-disc phonograph recordings, posters, sketches for sculptures, and postcards; some issues even included spools of Super 8 movie film. The publisher, Phyllis Johnson, claimed that Aspen should be a “time capsule” of a certain period, point of view, or person; hence, whole issues were devoted to subjects such as pop art, conceptual art, swinging mod London, and the psychedelic scene. They were edited by the likes of Andy Warhol and Dan Graham and designed by people such as George Maciunas and Quentin Fiore. Contributors included a who’s who of the period, Lou Reed with notes on rock ’n’ roll; Tony Smith with a make-it-yourself cardboard sculpture kit; Susan Sontag with “The Aesthetics of Silence”; Eva Marie Saint with a statement about painting and film; Roland Barthes with “The Death of the Author”; and Yoko Ono with stark, unaccompanied vocal pieces—in total amounting to several hundred works of art. After absorbing Aspen, UbuWeb was flooded with the work of dozens of artists spanning various genres, timeframes, and practices; the jazzmen Yank Lawson and Peanuts Hucko playing “St. James Infirmary Blues” snuggled up against Richard Hulsenbeck intoning Dada poems. The eclecticism was thrilling and unpredictable. Aspen created an unorthodox environment, one in which a democratic art—an art that functioned outside of galleries and museums—was available to everyone at an affordable price. Its utopian purview was everything UbuWeb strived to be.

The Super 8 films from Aspen formed the basis of UbuWeb’s Film & Video section, where more than 5,000 avant-garde films are both streamable and downloadable, from the gritty black-and-white videos of Vito Acconci to the glittery filmic oeuvre of Jack Smith. There are countless filmed biographies and interviews with authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, J. G. Ballard, Allen Ginsberg, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The scope is international: there are dozens of obscure Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema films (1962–1972), a four-decade survey of German video art (1964–2004), and a number of samizdat Soviet films from the 1980s. Experimental music films—both documentary and performance—are abundant. UbuWeb hosts Robert Ashley’s epic fourteen-hour Music with Roots in the Aether, a series of composer portraits made in the mid-1970s and featuring artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. There’s a lot of contemporary work as well, such as Her Noise (2007), a documentary about women and experimental music; Kara Walker’s difficult-to-see video Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale (2011); as well as the chaotic MTV-gone-wrong videos of Ryan Trecartin. There are also hours of vintage performance-art documentation by artists such as Marina Abramović and Ulay, a bootleg version of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1969), and an astonishing twenty-one-minute clip of Abbie Hoffman making gefilte fish on Christmas Eve of 1973.

***

UbuWeb’s large, boundary-blurring archive of the avant-garde necessarily alters what is meant by avant-garde, a term saddled with the legacies of patriarchy, hegemony, imperialism, colonization, and militarization. Giving voice to these concerns, the poet and critic Dick Higgins wrote, “The very concept of an avant-garde, which relates to the military metaphor of advance troops coming before the main body, is masculine.” The avant-garde theater scholar Kimberly Jannarone concurs: “The term ‘avant-garde’—coming to us from the military and first applied to the arts around World War I—is heavily weighted by historical and political critical baggage. . . . Indeed, the historical avant-garde often relied on sexist, racist, primitivist, and imperialist notions.” And it’s true even today: witness how Italy’s far-right-wing party Casa Pound named itself after Ezra Pound, emblazing images of him across their posters, or how one of Vladimir Putin’s main ideologists, Vladislav Surkov, reputedly took techniques from his days as an avant-garde theater director and used them to sow confusion, discord, and chaos—exactly what the avant-garde excelled at—into rightist political situations.

When you assemble a collection of the avant-garde, you run the risk of replicating everything wrong that is associated with it.

I deployed impurity as a way of muddying, détourning, and playfully reimagining the avant-garde, twisting and warping the rigorous, hard-baked grids of modernism into something more fluid, organic, incorrect, and unpredictable.

Think of the many artists who dissembled received notions of avant-garde as part and parcel of their avant-garde practices, such as Cornelius Cardew, Amiri Baraka, Musica Elettronica Viva, and Henry Flynt, or of others who took the idea of avant-garde in directions previously excluded from the canon. My midcentury avant-garde pantheon and inspiration comprise artists such as Moondog, Marie Mencken, Harry Partch, Daphne Oram, Conlon Nancarrow, Alice B. Toklas, and Sun Ra. Driven by outsiders and visionaries, my avant-garde revels in eccentricity, impurity, and innovative formal experimentation. And at the same time I still love the denizens of the old-school canon, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Pablo Picasso. But most of all I love it when they all get jumbled together on UbuWeb. Sparks fly when Henry Miller collides with Ana Mendieta, Karlheinz Stockhausen with Hito Steyerl, Fatboy Slim with the Situationist International, Weegee with Carrie Mae Weems, or F. T. Marinetti with Trinh T. Minh-ha, each nudging, reflecting, and shading their neighbors in unpredictable and destabilizing ways.

Sometimes the dead patriarch’s works were the basis for new pieces by contemporary artists that critique older notions of the avant-garde. I’m thinking of one artist on UbuWeb who goes down into his Tokyo basement every Wednesday night and screams out Finnegans Wake at the top of his lungs, accompanying himself on drums. He’s taped hundreds of hours of it. Of a poet who took it upon himself to read aloud and record all nine-hundred-plus pages of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which is available on Ubu. He quickly became bored and started howling the book like an alley cat, page after page, until he completed his task. These gestures defuse some of the accusations hurled at the avant-garde, showing how it is playful and funny, fodder for deconstructing and remixing. And all of these things lived happily together on my book and record shelves. UbuWeb reflects this approach, and its avant-garde is vast and inclusive, moving away from the patriarchal, militaristic, racist, and imperialistic model. I liked the idea of taking a discredited or orphaned term such as avant-garde and using it against its own bad history in order to reimagine it, similar to the way AIDS activists in the 1980s détourned the Nazi’s pink triangle into a symbol of liberation.

I’m not entirely certain what the limits of the avant-garde are, but it’s that uncertainty that makes it work for me.

UbuWeb often lacks objectivity, expertise, theoretical justification, and historical accuracy. I could be wrong, but something tells me that those certainties were partially what led parts of the avant-garde astray in the first place.

Reflecting these ideas, UbuWeb is a purposely unstable library, a conflicted curation, an archive assembled by embracing the fragmented, the biased, the subjective, and the incomplete.

We favor the casual mode of accumulation expressed by Andy Warhol’s massive archival project Time Capsules (1974–1987), where the distinctions among collecting, curating, archiving, and hoarding collapsed into an artistic practice. The Time Capsules consisted of 610 cardboard boxes that Warhol filled with stuff, sealed, numbered, signed, and sent off to a storage facility. Beginning in 1974, he kept an open box next to his desk in his studio at 860 Broadway, into which he tossed whatever came his way, from envelopes containing tens of thousands of dollars in cash to nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis to a mummified human foot belonging to an ancient Egyptian to a 45-rpm test-pressing of a Ramones single signed by Joey Ramone to a McDonalds Big Mac wrapper—and that’s just a fraction of the trash and treasures contained within these capsules.

Warhol’s Time Capsules are a kind of folk archiving that takes no real expertise or training to perform but that happens organically through a process of accumulation and desire. As I have previously written, this kind of archiving is a new folk art, something that is widely practiced and has unconsciously become integrated into a great many people’s lives, potentially transforming a necessity into a work of art. There’s something about the Time Capsules that resonates with the digital age, when many of us, like Warhol, have become accidental archivists by accruing artifacts in a voracious yet almost unconscious way. Think of the way vast amount of digital artifacts—voice memos, MP3s, airline tickets, tax certificates, pay stubs, photos, and so forth—accumulate daily in our downloads folders, similar to the way flotsam and jetsam accrued in the Time Capsules. If we so desired, we could easily posit our downloads folder as a work of archival folk art, as Warhol did with his boxes, which in true pop-art style made no distinction between valuable and worthless, high and low, art and trash. Similarly, we could envision our furious sharing of artifacts on the web as a type of collective folk archiving, be it the amassing of photos on Instagram, the aggregation of music on MP3 blogs, or the adding of videos to the already groaning archives of YouTube. Alternative or folk models of gathering things—jumble sales, boot sales, garage sales, flea markets, time capsules—seem a more relevant way to theorize the archive in the digital age because machines still are incapable of addressing artifacts in productively illogical and intuitive ways. In the future, everyone will be a world-famous archivist for fifteen minutes.

***

I often ask myself, regarding UbuWeb: “What have I done here?” Is it a serendipitous collection of artists and works I personally happen to be interested in, or is it a resource for the avant-garde, making available obscure works to anyone in the world with access to the web? Is it an outlaw activity, or has it over time evolved into a textbook example of how fair use can ideally work? Will the weightlessness and freedom of never touching money or asking permission continue indefinitely, or at some point will the proverbial other shoe drop, when finances become a concern? The answer to these questions is both “yes” and “no.” It’s the sense of not knowing—the imbalance—that keeps this project alive for me. Once a project veers too strongly toward either one thing or the other, a deadness and predictability sets in, and it ceases to be dynamic.
FIAC-Tips-UbuWeb

Although there’s a substantial user base around UbuWeb, it’s hard to say exactly who these users are since we don’t keep tabs on them. Once in a while when UbuWeb materializes in a physical space—if, for instance, there’s an exhibition of the site in a gallery or when I give a talk about it—I get to meet some folks. Generally speaking, they don’t skew toward any single demographic; rather, reflecting the site’s eclectic offerings, a variety of musicians, poets, academics, artists, dancers, and theory heads show up. I’ve never done much to encourage an online community. Instead, I preferred the quieter model of the public library, a large repository of cultural artifacts waiting to be browsed, borrowed, and shared. If there is a UbuWeb community, it’s more at the level of our shadow-library peers, a like-minded circle of individuals and institutions across the globe who are dedicated to the free dissemination of cultural artifacts and intellectual materials. The people who use those resources overlap with the people who use UbuWeb.

UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to another, we’re giving to all.

UbuWeb is as much about the legal and social ramifications of its self-created distribution and archiving system as it is about the content it hosts. In a sense, the content takes care of itself, but keeping it there at the site has proved to be a trickier proposition. The sociopolitical maintenance of free server space with unlimited bandwidth is a complicated dance, often involving the dodging of darts thrown by individuals who call foul play on copyright infringement.

Acquisition by a larger entity is impossible: nothing is for sale. You might remember the denouement of the film 24 Hour Party People (2002), where a large record conglomerate swoops in to buy the stubbornly independent Factory Records for millions of pounds. When asked to show evidence of his contracts with his artists, Factory head Tony Wilson can only produce a funky, DIY document signed in blood stating that the bands own the rights to all their material—nothing can be sold. The record execs grin madly as they walk away with the lucrative Factory catalogue for free. Wilson muses in the coda that although Factory Records was financially worthless, it was a great success, a fantastic conceptual-art project, full of integrity, one that never had to make a single compromise. UbuWeb is similar, except what we host, unlike pop music, has never made money.

FIQC-Tips-UbuWebThese days there’s a lot of support for the way we go about things. Many think of UbuWeb as an institution. Artists both well established and lesser known write us asking to be on the site. But it wasn’t always this way; for a long time many people despised UbuWeb, fearing that it was contributing to the erosion of long-standing hierarchies in the avant-garde world, fearing that it was leading to the decimation of certain art forms, fearing that it would tank entire art-based economies. Of course, none of that happened. We just happened to be there at the beginning of the web and had to ride the choppy currents of change as each successive wave washed over. Whereas we once used to receive daily cease-and-desist letters, today we rarely get any. It’s not that we’re doing anything different; it’s just that people’s attitudes toward copyright and distribution have evolved as the web has evolved.

By the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone. Never meant to be a permanent archive, Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our internet service provider (ISP) pulls the plug, we get sued, or I simply grow tired of it. Beggars can’t be choosers, and we gladly take whatever is offered to us. We don’t run on the most stable of servers or on the swiftest of machines; crashes eat into the archive on a periodic basis; sometimes the site as a whole goes down for days; more often than not, the already small group of volunteers dwindles to a team of one. But that’s the beauty of it: UbuWeb is vociferously anti-institutional, eminently fluid, refusing to bow to demands other than what we happen to be moved by at a specific moment, allowing us flexibility and the ability to continually surprise even ourselves.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I designed UbuWeb to make it seem like an official, well-funded enterprise. With its clean design and its vast content, it feels, for lack of better words, “official” or “real.” I figured that if UbuWeb appeared to be a legit entity, then people would be forced to acknowledge the importance of the difficult and obscure materials we championed. This approach seems to have worked; people have told me that they thought that there was a huge team of well-paid people toiling day and night behind screens, building the internet’s largest archive of avant-garde art. Sounds good to me. If only it were true. Sometimes people come over to my apartment and ask to see UbuWeb. They’re disappointed when I show them an old MacBook Pro hooked up to a wheezing four-terabyte hard drive in a drab room overlooking a gray alleyway in midtown Manhattan. Many assume UbuWeb to be a fortress of bricks and mortar, when in reality it’s just a pile of pixels held together by tissue paper and spit.

Throughout this book, the pronouns I and we are interchangeable—because UbuWeb is mostly just me. Over the years, although there have been editors and volunteers, for the past two decades I’ve pretty much been on my own, designing, coding, archiving, and assembling the site. I am completely unqualified for the job. I have a BFA in sculpture that I got from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. I took one art history class in college, and it was on baroque art. As a result, everything about UbuWeb is sort of skewed and idiosyncratic, if not entirely wrong: the taxonomies are vague, the collections are incomplete, and why certain things are there and others aren’t is unclear.

UbuWeb was assembled in the way artists create their works: by following hunches, trusting intuitions, and blindly following them wherever they may lead—even when they lead to dead ends.

This approach is both Ubu’s blessing and its tragic flaw; it’s what makes the site so exciting and dynamic but what makes it a flop when it comes to rigorous academic research. While UbuWeb is a vast and diverse enterprise, it is still riddled with my subjectivity. The fact that I not only built and curated the site but also am writing its history speaks to an obvious bias, one that is replicated time and again through this book and through the site as a whole. I have toiled for the past quarter of a century putting in, as Mike Kelley once said, “more love hours than can ever be repaid,” building a utopia of avant-garde art, mixing the obscure and the canonical, and making the mix purposely invisible to most web denizens. In the end, UbuWeb remains closest to the spirit of its namesake, an elaborate—and at times obnoxious—exhaustive and illogical endeavor, a pataphysical schoolboy prank illuminated and sanctioned by the bright green candle of Pere Ubu himself.

Excerpted from Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb. Copyright (c) 2020 Kenneth Goldsmith.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 

 

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