Not that Kenny G
What: Lecture ("If We Had To Ask for Permission, We Wouldn't Exist: A Brief History of UbuWeb") and performance ("American Deaths and Disasters: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy") by Kenneth Goldsmith, aka Kenny G.
Where: Art Museum of Cranbrook Academy Art Museum (39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3320) and MOCAD (4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622).
When: At 6 p.m. Friday, March 30, at Cranbrook, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at MOCAD.
Plagiarism will get you expelled from pretty much any creative writing class, if not from school entirely. Being boring and uncreative won't get you high marks. But then there's the University of Pennsylvania's uncreative writing class, taught by Kenneth Goldsmith.
A poet, artist, DJ, curator, educator and all-around cultural provocateur, Goldsmith is in the vanguard of experimental literature, unabashedly appropriating, transcribing, sampling, stealing. His Head Citations is a collection of hundreds of misheard rock lyrics. Fidget accounts for every motion Goldsmith's body made over the course of 13 hours (on James Joyce's Bloomsday, 1997). Soliloquy is a transcription of every word that Goldsmith said for one week. Weather is a transcription of 365 one-minute daily AM radio weather reports. Traffic gathers traffic reports, every 10 minutes, for the entirety of a Labor Day weekend in New York. It makes the excruciating traffic jam scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend seem like the Indy 500.
With echoes of minimalism, concrete poetry, Fluxus and Oulipo, his work is often humorous, but it can be horrifying too, as with the transcribed newscasts in his American Deaths and Disasters series. "It's all modernism," Goldsmith said during a phone chat last week. "All of this kind of writing has always been with us. It's more important now, and makes more sense now, because of the kind of cut-and-paste culture in which we live. ... Literature hasn't really caught on, whereas all of the other fields, like music and visual art, are pretty up-to-date with this stuff. Literature still cares about telling a good story."
He continued, "I just listen to things and I transcribe. It really ends up being kind of personal, how I transcribe something. This is something I do with my students. Everybody transcribes the identical audio clip. What you find is that if you have 10 students, you actually have 10 different transcriptions of the audio clip. Appropriation or transcription is actually a very personal way of writing."
He's also the founder of Ubuweb (ubu.com), an immense and ever-growing repository of avant-garde writing, sound and film that operates far from the grids of commerce and license. Everything at Ubu is accessible for free, and was put up without permission (though blessings from the artists often come after the fact).
For Goldsmith, all of his endeavors lead to the same goal. He explained, "Wherever I go, I try to corrupt young minds, or older minds, like at WFMU [the freeform New Jersey station where he was DJ for 15 years]. ... As a matter of fact, if a mind isn't corrupt, I don't consider it to be open. You know, it's all the same: WFMU, Ubuweb, teaching, poetry — it's all the same stuff."
In the early '80s, Goldsmith studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Sculptural book objects led to conceptual poetry. As he recounted, "I was listening to a lot of hip hop, and I was thinking about rhyming. I had one foot in hip hop and the other foot in John Cage. I was thinking, 'How come modernist writers shunned the rhyme?' I grabbed a rhyming dictionary and I began loving the rhythms of those words. I started taking big passages from rhyming dictionaries and carving them into these books. And it was so much fun that I began to expand on using that form, and that expanded and kind of led me to where I am now."
Goldsmith teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Last year, he co-edited Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, a brick of a book that puts Goldsmith and his contemporaries in the context of Mallarmé, Beckett, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bernstein. Another sign of Goldsmith's current art-world standing: Last year, he was invited to read at the White House as part of a national Evening of Poetry.
Goldsmith reported: " I was able to talk about file-sharing and plagiarism in a positive way in front of the first lady. And I was able to read traffic reports to the president of the United States, and he seemed to really enjoy them."