UbuWeb's Kenneth Goldsmith Writes the Book on Internet Archiving

During the campaign to leave the EU (Brexit) Britain’s then Lord Chancellor delivered a resonant soundbite: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong,” This quotation has been tellingly misremembered as, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts…”

The division of society into circles of shared expertise – and therefore language increasingly inaccessible to others – is not a new phenomenon but has been turbocharged by the internet-era and political responses to it. Academia was, in many ways, the first space where people wrestled with that challenge. Academics possess substantial insight and want to be heard, but some lack the skill to communicate in plain speak, while others simply refuse to do so and attack the idea of ‘dumbing down’.

In both cases the consequence is a retreat into a bubble of fellow experts and a dismissal of the public. These same impulses, in far less elevated speech, have proliferated across the internet with numerous individuals refusing to compromise their right to speak however they wish, then retreating into their bubble of self-reinforcement when ignoring audiences, proves counterproductive.

There is certainly the potential for Kenneth Goldsmith’s book, Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, to perpetuate this tendency, given it combines an extensive overview of avant garde art in numerous media, with what could have been a pooterish dissertation on setting up, running, and maintaining one of the world’s most extensive online archives. Instead, Goldsmith’s skill as a writer makes his book a remarkably fluid and engaging read. He explains in-depth – where required – gives apposite examples that surprise and illuminate, and never resorts to an obscure word when a concise and to-the-point sentence will be more to the reader’s benefit.

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

At points I wonder whether his work as a poet has armed him with a natural awareness of audiences and an ability to carefully select words for their directness. Goldsmith has a no nonsense, at times almost roughshod, approach to communication. This is matched by the actions he describes in the book in relation to UbuWeb. There’s a self-reliance involved in his rejection of more sophisticated web building, site development, hosting solutions – a determination that no company or other organization, no entity with a commercial priority, will compromise the essential mission of the site.

For those who haven’t encountered it, UbuWeb is a non-commercial online repository providing open access to curated artistic content. Given the site’s idiosyncratic construction – essentially a representation of the vagaries of Goldsmith’s tastes and interests over the past two decades – UbuWeb can be daunting, but patient exploration and an openness to chance discoveries will be well rewarded. The same is true of the book. As a sidebar, in later chapters Duchamp Is My Lawyer does a fair job of providing a rough guide to the site’s major categories of contents, a useful manual to have in hand when delving into what UbuWeb has to offer.

The book’s ominously lengthy subtitle may turn some cover-browsers off, but rest assured, just open to first page and start on in. The book justifies its subtitle with a matching three part structure. Polemics tackles the practical realities of UbuWeb as a site, as well as serving as both guidance and a call to arms. In a world increasingly focused on the commercialization and control of data, there’s a brilliance to Goldsmith’s refusal to get bogged down in the topic, he just suggests that one reject sophistry and “Stay simple. Stay free.”

He approaches the matter of copyright with similar directness. His ‘better to ask for forgiveness than permission’ approach, and his visibly good intentions (including an indifference to financial profit) seem to have a talismanic quality for warding off legal aggressiveness. The majority of material on UbuWeb has been dismissed by those who harvest cultural artifacts for financial value, so often there’s no consequence to this fancy-free approach.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Where something is commercially available, Goldsmith refuses to pirate it: there’s a significant distance between this rather utopian realm of shared magic and the gimme-gimme-gimme selfishness of The Pirate Bay. Crucially, where a request is made that content be taken down, he simply does so without wasting time on argument.

Pragmatics is the lengthiest section of the book and unravels what could have been very dry topics: ‘shadow libraries’, copyright matters in the digital age, access to all rather than just an elite, and shared memory. Goldsmith’s approach is to lay out a quotation or story to encapsulate some aspect of the topic, or to provide a starting position for dissection, then to dart back-and-forth between major cases that one might have caught in the media, and comparable situations that have played out with UbuWeb.

That ability to explain a topic on multiple levels is highly engaging and avoids the risk of ploughing down theoretical wormholes of limited interest. It also means Goldsmith’s passion is never dimmed. You can always sense that there’s a battle being fought over who owns culture and whether the gates are closed or open.

“There were times…when I felt that MP3 and film blogs, which are based on the cloud, were doing as good or better a job of archiving the avant-garde than UbuWeb; our site felt out of date, even verging on obsolete. But stick around long enough, and you’ll find that because many of these cloud-based storage platforms are profit-based, they often go out of business. Easily decimated by copyright-infringement lawsuits, federal investigations, and bankruptcies, they almost always get their plug pulled, leaving a site’s content scrambling for a new home.”

The final section, Poetics, begins with a brief one page description of arguments around the font Helvetica. I laughed in delight because I hadn’t even realized there were such arguments, was surprised and made aware of my own ignorance, and appreciated Goldsmith’s ability to pick such an unusual example, then weave it into a wider argument. In the internet-era, magpie’ing – the flinging together of disparate sources in a pretense of wisdom – is ever more common: surface awareness over in-depth knowledge.

Goldsmith’s examples, by contrast, are always brief and the rationale for their presence is clear. This section could have read like a sitemap or glossary, but instead, each one is written as a story of discovery laying out how some significant section of UbuWeb came to be, the history of the artists or artistic schools they represent, and examples of the kind of content retained.

When I finished Duchamp Is My Lawyer, I had the pleasure of sitting in natural silence for a brief while, pondering how much I had learnt, how entertainingly the book had conveyed its message of openness, what a gift it is to have such a light touch…Then I opened up a web browser, tapped in ubu.com, and went exploring. I suspect the journey may take another two decades, and I relish the thought.