There’s no better indication that an event or period has been relegated to the past than seeing it become the subject of a volume of oral history. This was the case when Studs Terkel almost single-handedly launched the genre in 1970 with Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; it was similarly true in 1996 with Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. By 1970, the era of FDR and the WPA was fading from many people’s memory, just as the heyday of CBGB was receding by the mid-1990s, permitting these oral historians and their informants some kind of clarifying perspective. Yet oral histories also concern the moment in which they are compiled: Terkel’s book appeared in the wake of a new wave of social unrest and hope of political transformation; Please Kill Me followed the emergence of bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana, which espoused a raw iconoclasm that drew on 1970s punk.
Now it seems to be the turn of the early 2000s to get the oral-history treatment. Take, for instance, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011, Lizzy Goodman’s gossipy, engaging 2017 chronicle of the scene that produced bands such as The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem. About halfway through Meet Me in the Bathroom, record company owner Jonathan Galkin recounts in an interview with Goodman an exchange circa 2002 with LCD Soundsystem’s frontman, James Murphy, about the LP Future Days (1973) by the German band Can. Shortly after listening to Murphy enthuse about Future Days, Galkin, who until that moment had never heard of the album, tells his friend that he has already ordered a copy and that it will arrive in two days. “Jesus Christ,” Murphy exclaims, “it took me 15 years to find that record!” Galkin recounts how he then rubbed salt into the wound: “By the way, now I know everything about the record. Here’s where it was recorded and here’s the gear and here’s the lineup,” which he proceeds to relate by reading, as he recalls to Goodman, from “whatever the version of Wikipedia we had at the time.”
In this minor episode from the annals of popular music, at least two revolutionary transfers of power are at play: the eclipse of an old model of cultural capital (arcane knowledge patiently acquired over an extended period of time by obsessive types) by a new one (even the most obscure information instantly available to everyone) and the overthrow of a traditional distribution system (music stores, record swaps, specialty publications, sheer luck) by another new one (almost every recording ever made available for immediate purchase online). Of course, both these revolutions depend on, and are a consequence of, a single phenomenon, the internet, without which no Wikipedia and no Discogs, the massive music database and marketplace that currently lists 11.6 million releases by more than 6 million artists. If the events of 9/11 caused a radical break in the political realm, the advent of websites like Wikipedia and Discogs and the rapid flow of so much knowledge and commerce into newly created cyberspace in the early 2000s had an equally profound effect in the cultural sphere.
In 1996, several years before the appearance of either Discogs (launched November 2000) or Wikipedia (launched January 2001), New York artist-turned-writer Kenneth Goldsmith created UbuWeb, an online archive of avant-garde art and literature, historic and contemporary, largely focusing on time-based mediums such as film, video, and audio (the last term encompassing lectures and poetry readings as well as music and sound art). Although far smaller than Discogs or Wikipedia, UbuWeb has had an enormous impact on the contemporary art world by making available to artists, scholars, and teachers around the world thousands of works that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to access. The offerings range from legendary avant-garde productions such as Guy Debord’s imageless film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) to obscure artifacts such as Gerhard Richter’s Volker Bradke (1966), a 16mm exercise in blurring that is the famed painter’s sole excursion into cinema, to a wealth of contemporary material. If you are curious about British artist Mark Leckey, UbuWeb features twelve of his films and videos. Wondering about Ryan Trecartin? You can binge on eleven of his videos. Mona Hatoum? There are six of her videos made between 1983 and 1994. The elusive David Hammons? UbuWeb hosts four films by or about him. Before UbuWeb, gaining access to even a single one of these works was time-consuming and expensive, so it’s not surprising to hear that, according to Goldsmith, the site is visited daily by tens of thousands of people from around the globe. For me, and I suspect for many of those thousands of users, UbuWeb has had near Gutenbergian impact.
It may seem hyperbolic to compare UbuWeb to the invention of movable type, but for anyone teaching postwar art history or working with studio majors, UbuWeb has become not only indispensable but determinative. Rather than supplementing syllabi, the instant availability of so much previously hard-to-access avant-garde material and so many contemporary works often directs the class content. In my own experience, I plan seminars based in part on what is available on Ubu, and it’s very rare that a class meeting doesn’t include viewing or listening to at least one UbuWeb post. I can’t imagine teaching what I teach without it. Outside the classroom, studio majors (at least the more ambitious ones) immerse themselves in the site’s myriad texts, its 5,000-plus films and videos, and its even greater number of audio files: not surprisingly, this exposure affects the art they make.
As Goldsmith recounts in his recent book Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of Ubuweb (while not an oral history, the single-voice chronicle frequently evokes a now distant-seeming cultural and technological moment), the site began with the modest project of uploading his collection of concrete poetry in order to make relatively obscure publications more widely available. (The birth of UbuWeb coincided with Goldsmith’s own transition from sculptor to writer, hence, perhaps, his fascination with concrete poetry, which exists between visual art and literature.) As friends and strangers began sharing more files with him, the site grew by 2005 into a multimedia behemoth. This rapid growth was helped by Goldsmith’s practice of never asking for permission from artists or copyright holders before posting their material. As he explains in Duchamp Is My Lawyer, “When you ask for permission, you ask for trouble. What was fun quickly becomes a burden, reeking of official culture. When you ask for permission, you become a business.” Most unwitting contributors to UbuWeb are happy, after the fact, to be included, though if an artist or gallery objects, Goldsmith removes their work, which leads to a certain degree of instability as entries come and go on the site.
While Goldsmith’s anarcho-piratical stance has some similarities with Napster, the pioneering file-sharing music site that launched in 1999 and was temporarily closed down by lawsuits in 2001, the generally noncommercial nature of UbuWeb’s content has allowed it to avoid legal battles. For Goldsmith, UbuWeb belongs, like poetry and experimental film, to the “gift economy.” There’s much to be said for not trying to monetize works of art, and UbuWeb can be seen as a welcome attempt to push back against the commodification of the avant-garde, but UbuWeb’s embrace of the gift economy also needs to be seen within the current media landscape in which users usually expect not to pay for what they consume and content creators must increasingly accept not being paid for their work. One can’t help wondering what the members of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), with their campaign for “fair remuneration” in the nonprofit world, make of Ubu’s stance of not paying, nor even seeking permission from its contributors.
Goldsmith’s argument is that accessibility is preferable to the pittance that an artist might or might not receive for a concrete poem or an experimental film, and that UbuWeb is able to bring attention to artists and works that would otherwise languish in obscurity. He also argues that in the case of film and video, the low resolution of Ubu’s postings insures that they will never be a substitute for the real thing. (“In terms of quality, UbuWeb’s films are truly a disaster,” Goldsmith confesses in Duchamp Is My Lawyer.) A third line of justification—perhaps the most compelling one—is that the nonprofit UbuWeb is in essence an open library, in which access is not dependent on residency in a city or enrollment in a university. He likens UbuWeb to other “shadow libraries” such as Monoskop, a Slovakian-based site with a wealth of scanned exhibition catalogues, and AAARG (Artists, Architects, and Activists Reading Group), which compiles specialized texts.
The first decade of UbuWeb coincided with a growing intellectual and artistic interest in archives. Crucial to this trend was the appearance in 1996 of Archive Fever an English translation of Jacques Derrida’s Mal d’archive (1995). In this widely read text, the theorist asks, among other questions, how recent technological developments—specifically computers and emails, phenomena he calls “archival machines”—might require us to rethink Freudian psychoanalysis. Echoing Marshall McLuhan, Derrida argues that the form of an archive affects its content, that the act of archiving “produces as much as it records the event.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more and more artists began emulating archivists, as the late curator Okwui Enwezor recognized in his 2008 exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art.” In his 2015 book Bad News Days, Hal Foster asserts that “an archival impulse returned with special force in the early 2000s, to the point where it could be considered a distinctive tendency in its own right.”) Foster cites artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, Tacita Dean, and Sam Durant, whose work can be deemed “archival” because it “takes the form of historical probes into people, places, and practices that are lost, outmoded, or otherwise stranded.” (There are currently twelve videos by Hirschhorn available on UbuWeb, though nothing by Sam Durant, and when you click on the Tacita Dean entry, all you find is the notice “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery. For all inquiries, please contact The Marian Goodman Gallery.”)
Since the early 2000s, “archive fever” has only grown more acute as the capacity for digital storage and the accessibility of the material stored has steadily increased. For perhaps the first time in human history, archiving has become the organizing principal of a civilization. In the past, what limited archives, and thus kept the archiving impulse in check, were the limits of physical space and the sheer amount of physical labor involved in processing material. In a digital environment, space is virtually infinite and assimilation of new material incredibly rapid. (Just think, for instance, of how easy it is for governmental agencies to record and store countless hours of CCTV footage.) The danger, of course, is that a rapidly expanding, instantly accessible archive can turn into a cultural monster that smothers its keepers. Soon my students (and I) may spend so much time on UbuWeb, perusing the collected films and videos of Guy Debord or Ryan Trecartin or Cao Fei, sampling forty-plus recordings of John Cage’s performances and lectures, enjoying all twenty-six issues of the 1980s “Audio Cassette Magazine” Tellus, absorbing thirty-six works in various media from the Middle East (selected for Ubu by the editors of Bidoun), listening to a 1974 talk by Joseph Beuys, watching Oscar Muñoz’s 30-minute-long “water drawing,” and undertaking audio walks with Janet Cardiff, that there will be no time left for any new creation. Or perhaps whatever new work gets made will be so shot through with influences and references that it will be a kind of historical anthology. The fact that thousands of works are available assumes far greater importance than the artistic achievement of any single work. In his 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, music writer Simon Reynolds finds that a similar dilemma affected pop music in the early 2000s: “At a certain point the sheer mass of past accumulating behind the music began to exert a kind of gravitational pull. The sensation of movement, of going somewhere, could be satisfied as easily (in fact, more easily) by going backwards within that vast past than by going forwards.” While fear of creativity being suffocated by weighty precedents is hardly new—the history of the arts is rich with struggles against what Harold Bloom called “belatedness”—none of our ancestors faced anything like the vast scale and omnipresence of today’s digital archives.
Although UbuWeb claims Samuel Beckett as its guiding spirit (his photo graces the site’s homepage), Jorge Luis Borges may be a more apposite literary touchstone. Like other mega-archives, UbuWeb effectively combines the protagonist of Borges’s “Funes the Memorious,” the tale of a young man who lies sleepless in a darkened room remembering every detail of every second of his life, with the insidiously infinite collection of books in “The Library of Babel.” Near the end of “Funes the Memorious,” the narrator concludes that for all his prodigious acts of memory—or, more accurately, because of them—Funes is barely capable of thought. “To think,” he observes, “is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.” Faced with the labyrinthine riches of Goldsmith’s archive, in which there is always one more fascinating item to click on, one more gap in your art-knowledge to fill, one more wormhole to lose yourself in, it might be a good idea to remember Borges’s parables about the dangers of limitless memory and archives without end. (In case you wondered, UbuWeb includes two-plus hours of documentary film about Borges.) No one wants to return to a world where you had to spend fifteen years hunting down a krautrock rarity or wait passively for Anthology Film Archives to screen some vintage Rudy Burckhardt films (UbuWeb currently hosts twenty-three of them, a boon to Burckhardt fans even without the sharpness of movie-theater projection), yet the cumulative effect of that “sheer mass of past” on UbuWeb or any of its online brethren can be a kind of mental and creative exhaustion. Derrida, as we saw, calls this condition mal d’archive. “It is,” he writes, “never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it.” Or, we should perhaps add, especially when there is too much of it.
This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue, pp. 67–70.