UbuWeb, founded as a poetry archive in 1996 has developed into probably the most valuable, comprehensive, quite simply: the most amazing source for any- and everything «avant-garde». From John Cage performances to Ryan Trecartin's films, from experimental videos to poetry and academic books: UbuWeb collects and rips and uploads and presents a wealth of artifacts. And everything it offers it offers for free. That's only possible because it doesn't acquire rights itself. I have asked Kenneth Goldsmith (Website), poet and founder of UbuWeb, how it all came to happen, how it can possibly work and what the future might look like. We exchanged emails in July 2009. This is the original version of the interview that was published in German translation in cargo 03 (EK)
What did you have in mind when you founded UbuWeb in 1996? And how would you describe what it has developed into until now?
UbuWeb began in 1996 as a site focusing on visual and concrete poetry. With the advent of the graphical web browser, we began scanning old concrete poems, astonished by how fresh they looked backlit by the computer screen. Shortly thereafter, when streaming audio became available, it made sense to extend our scope to sound poetry, and as bandwidth increased we later added MP3s as well as video. Sound poetry opened up a whole new terrain: certain of John Cage's readings of his mesostic texts could be termed «sound poetry», hence we included them. As often, though, Cage combined his readings with an orchestral piece; we included those as well. But soon, we found ourselves unable to distinguish the difference between «sound poetry» and «music». We encountered this dilemma time and again whether it was with the compositions of Mauricio Kagel, Joan La Barbara, or Henri Chopin, all of whom are as well-known as composers as they are as sound artists. After a while, we gave up trying to name things; we dropped the term «sound poetry» and referred to it thenceforth simply as «Sound».
When we began posting found street poems that used letter forms in fantastically innovative ways, we had to reconsider what «concrete poetry» was. As time went on, we seemed to be outgrowing our original taxonomies until we simply became a repository for the «avant-garde» (whatever that means-our idea of what is «avant-garde» seems to be changing all the time). UbuWeb adheres to no one historical narrative, rather we're more interested in putting several disciplines into the same space and seeing how they interact: poetry, music, film, and literature from all periods encounter and bounce off of each other in unexpected ways.
What future can you envision?
The future is eminently scalable: as long as we have the bandwidth and server space, there is no limit as to how big the site can grow. For the moment, we have no competition, a fact we're not happy about. We're distressed that there is only one UbuWeb: why aren't there dozens like it? Looking at the art world, the problem appears to be a combination of an adherence to an old economy (one that is working very well with a booming market) and sense of trepidation, particularly in academic circles, where work on the internet is often not considered valid for academic credit. As long as the art world continues to prize economies of scarcity over those based on plentitude, the change will be a long time coming. But UbuWeb seeks to offer an alternative by invoking a gift economy of plentitude with a strong emphasis on global education. And it seems to be working: UbuWeb is visited by more than 20,000 individual computers from every continent daily. We're on numerous syllabi, ranging from kindergarteners studying pattern poetry to post graduates listening to hours of Jacques Lacan's Séminaires.
And yet . . . it could vanish any day. 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; occasionally the army 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 our audience . . . and even ourselves.
Where do you see UbuWeb in relation to your other activities, as a poet, as a radio DJ, as a university professor etc?
It's all a part of the same pie, each with the identical ethos. For example, I teach from UbuWeb and I DJ on WFMU from UbuWeb; I host the work of my peers on UbuWeb.
Could you give a few examples of artifacts at UbuWeb that are your favourites, that have been most influential and important for your own work?
Oh, there are so many. I put up all things that I admire so there are thousands upon thousands of incredible artifacts that I wouldn't know where to being. I think the best place to being is to consult the front page of the site, on the far right column, where critics and artists from all different fields highlight ten resources that they feel are worth noting. We have musicians, editors, visual artists, poets and so on choosing and they're able to dig out the best stuff.
UbuWeb is a project driven by the «Utopian» idea of a gift economy. Where do you see this position in relation to contemporary contexts of the highly commercialized copyrights markets, of internet crowdsourcing (wikipedia, open source etc.), of politically Utopian ideas past and present?
UbuWeb operates in an economy where nothing we host has any particular monetary value so we're really on the outside of such frays. We respect legitimate economies and don't host anything that is in print. We would hope that the people who take the time and money to put things in print get reimbursed. We don't want to get in their way.
That said, UbuWeb is not a democracy. Unlike YouTube or archive.org, you can't just put anything up. Everything on Ubu has been vetted for its relevance and importance. It is highly curated, which is why it's so good. We have no "community" functions and we disdain the two-way street of Web 2.0. It doesn't matter if ten or ten thousand people use the site. Since we don't touch money or advertising, we don't care about crowds and crowdsourcing.
In your open letter from 2001 you write: «UbuWeb posts much of its content without permission; we rip full-length CDs into sound files; we scan as many books as we can get our hands on; we post essays as fast as we can OCR them. And not once have we been issued a cease and desist order.» Is this still true in 2009?
Well, we still rip like mad but over the years we've received many takedown notices. We try to dialogue, tell them that we don't take any money and that we're in this for the love of it. We're an overgrown fansite! 9 out of 10 times they'll see that our hearts are pure and allow us to host the works. Often times, when they see we're a trusted ally and friend, they'll give us more to host.
And, somewhat related to that: Do filmmakers and video artists not complain – for example – about the often rather dismal quality of the material (from vhs tapes, with television logos etc.)?
It's the dismal quality of the films that makes this work. If we could deliver high quality streams, then why bother to seek out a better experience, one where the filmmakers themselves could make money? t is important to us that you realize that what you will see is in no way comparable to the experience of seeing these gems as they were intended to be seen: in a dark room, on a large screen, with a good sound system and, most importantly, with a roomful of warm, like-minded bodies.
However, we realize that the real thing isn't very easy to get to. Most of us don't live anywhere near theatres that show this kind of fare and very few of us can afford the hefty rental fees, not to mention the cumbersome equipment, to show these films. Thankfully, there is the internet which allows you to get a whiff of these films regardless of your geographical location.
We realize that the films we are presenting are of poor quality. It's not a bad thing; in fact, the best thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make you want to make a trip to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or other places around the world showing similar fare. Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these works out into the world. Believe me, they're not doing it for the money.
How does it work technically? How many people are involved? Who created and creates the technical infrastructure? Who decides what is accepted?
How does it all work? Most importantly, UbuWeb functions on no money: all work is done by volunteers. Our server space and bandwidth is donated by several universities, who use UbuWeb as an object of study for ideas related to radical distribution and gift economies on the web. In terms of content, each section has an editor who brings to the site their area of expertise. Ubu is constantly being updated but the mission is different from the flotsam and jetsam of a blog; rather, we liken it to a library which is ever-expanding in uncanny-and often uncategorizable-directions. Twelve years into it, UbuWeb hosts over 5,000 artists and several thousand works of art. You'll never find an advertisement, a logo, or a donation box. UbuWeb has always been and will always be free and open to all.
How many files - and film and video files specifically – does ubuweb host at the moment?
We have over a thousand avant-garde videos on the site and another thousand waiting to go up. If only there were more hours in the day!