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Radical Distribution

In a world where writers strike for online royalties and internet radio (temporarily) escapes paying crippling copyright fees, UbuWeb is a rare bird. Founded in 1996 by artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith, it’s an extensive and entirely free online archive for avant-garde poetry, writing, film, and sound compositions. Remarkably, not one of the artists, obscure […]

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In a world where writers strike for online royalties and internet radio (temporarily) escapes paying crippling copyright fees, UbuWeb is a rare bird. Founded in 1996 by artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith, it’s an extensive and entirely free online archive for avant-garde poetry, writing, film, and sound compositions. Remarkably, not one of the artists, obscure or famous, gets any financial remuneration for their work. Although much of the collection is out-of-print, the editors often post first and ask for permission later (or, perhaps, after the cease-and-desist letters start arriving). Their saving grace is that it’s primarily a site for the un-marketable–the aggressively avant-garde has never had much of a place in a goods-and-services economy. UbuWeb emphasizes free access to information, and in the process creates an online utopia for art and poetry.

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[fig. 1 Edgar Varse and Le Corbusier, Peme électronique, 1958]

UbuWeb’s interests are far-reaching, and the site acts as an umbrella for several curated projects. One portion is devoted to Ethnopoetics (where you can see Shaker visual poetry or listen to Inuit throat singing) while another section is called “Outsiders” (former title: “Found + Insane”).

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[fig. 2 An example from Kenneth Goldsmith's collection of Assorted Street Posters.]

Not to be missed is the complete archive of Aspen, a multimedia arts magazine published from 1965 to 1971. Each of the 10 issues, edited and designed by a different artist-designer team, came in a custom box filled with booklets, records, posters, and postcards. (And, in the case of one issue, a super-8 reel.) Contributors included Roland Barthes, Steve Reich, Ed Ruscha, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (One major drawback is that while a lot of the artwork was scanned in most of it remains at thumbnail size. However, someone did spend a lot of time re-typing the text so it could be read online.)

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[fig. 3 Selection of Slides from 'Northeast Passing' by Yvonne Rainer, Aspen no. 8, 1970-71]

Last June, Archinect chief editor John Jourden conducted a great interview with Goldsmith, where they touched on a brief history of concrete poetry, “uncreativity as a creative practice”, and the origins of UbuWeb. A tidbit:

“I still believe what the Web does best is what it does originally, and that is just a way of getting things out and disturbing things. That is what’s new about the Web. Programming, you know, making computers jump through hoops isn’t really very interesting to me. UbuWeb is a flat HTML 1.0 site. There is no programming behind it, absolutely everything is written in BBEdit by hand. You know I want to keep the site very basic, because what really is new is this radical sense of distribution. We are in the business of radical distribution … That is what it’s about! It really is about free and unfettered access for people to materials that were relegated to museums or relegated to a specialist. And now are available to everybody free of charge.”

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[fig. 4 On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972, 1989. View it here.]

Who knows how many would end up seeing a video piece by Richard Serra, hearing the voice of Guilliaume Apollinaire, or reading crazy found street flyers from New York if these weren’t readily available online? There are many, many more artists on the site, both hugely famous and completely unknown, and the list is growing. Be prepared: wandering through UbuWeb is an addicting way to spend a few minutes, a few hours, or a few weeks.