UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers Open Letter: Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics

Stepping out with Kenneth Goldsmith: A New York interview.
Caroline Bergvall

Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary

I cannot dissociate Kenneth Goldsmith's gridded work from the city of New York, nor ignore the autobiographic displacements that lurk in his warholian transcriptive structures. I ask him to take me on a tour of his idea of New York. I buy a small dictaphone. I bring along a set of questions loosely based on the questionaire developed by Proust, which has often been used on writers as an indulgent and pointless identification game. He invites me to meet him on Monday morning at 9.15am. I catch the unreliable F line from East Broadway and remain stranded on the platform. At the Lafayette-Broadway stop, I get out at the wrong exit.

1. Corner Lafayette St and Bleeker St

This is the Noho Star and this is where when we first came to New York after college Cheryl [Donegan] was waitressing in 1985 21 years ago she made great money incredible money $200 a night incredible it was perfect we had a place on Canal St and there used to be all these galleries yes they'd all come in here and that was really our first connection to the art world there was this whole gallery thing migrating from the East Village back to Soho and Cheryl got caught right in the migration it was really fantastic but the thing I love about the Noho Star is that it hasnt changed since 1984 when it was opened look at this Memphis style thing isnt it great look at these columns arent they just like 1984 arent they just so fake

Q. A few things you need to do before you die.

The only thing I need to do before I die is to capture and transcribe all the varieties and amount of available language around the world.

Walk west on Bleeker and one block south on Broadway.

    2. Corner Broadway and Houston St

This is an amazing corner I had an office in this building the Cable Building it was my first post-studio situation I consciously called it an office it was a great transition for me from being a studio artist to a writer I wrote 73 poems there I started off in a largish room that looked right onto Houston St. here and I would be doing these textual wall pieces then I moved into a very cramped room with dropped ceilings and carpeting and that way I knew I couldnt make any more visual art really I wasnt able to and I wanted to do everything on the computer oh and Soliloquy took place here and 111 and ubuweb started here this is all probably 1990 I migrated to a laptop in the Cable building just across the street in 1998 or something I surfed the heights of the dotcom era I had this big important well paid job I nearly lost my life to the corporate world well I got fired for letting everybody play videogames on company time but a lot of the kids I was working with became very famous artists the whole company went bust and I watched my stock options go from million of dollars to a reverse split

Q. Where would you like to live

    New York City

Walk three or four blocks west down Houston.

    3. Corner La Guardia Place and W Houston St

Here we are in front of the Time Landscape this is such a funny piece I adore this basically this guy fenced off this area and is letting it revert to its natural state no no it's a public art piece he researched it and went and bought all the plants and types of plants in 1978 that would have been in the primeval Manhattan forest and as the city gets bigger this evolves or devolves into a primeval Manhattan forest the thing I like the most about it is that it's full of trash and people come in here bums come in here couples come here one of the things when you're a teenager and you're walking around Manhattan with a girl and you're just so horny you try and find a place to go for a fuck and so as this grows in guys and girls you know hop in for a fuck it looks like it's been thinned out but theoretically it should be allowed to grow extremely dense I think they're afraid a lot of people throw food for the rats and the pigeons in here

    Q. Who would you be if you werent yourself

    John Cage.

    Walk up La Guardia Place, north across Washington Square Park to the NW corner.

    4. North West quadrant corner Washington Square Park

Where we are now used to be a dog run where dogs can go and be free I had a dog in the early 90s late 80s when I had an office in the Cable Building and it's in this dog run that I read all the works of Modernism most specifically I remember reading Ulysses in this part of the dog run I completely educated myself to everything Modernist I'd never paid much attention to it before but now I read everything I could get my hands on and also the complete works of Henry James and Washington Square of course I read Making of Americans here I read Cummings here I read the Cantos right in this dog run it was insanely important for my Modernist education I just sat down and read everything

    Q. Who would you be if you werent yourself

    Andy Warhol

Walk through the park southwards to its periphery cross the street to the corner of Thompson and Washington Square South.

5. Corner Thompson St and Washington Square South

Here we are at Judson Church of course when it was in its heyday I was just being born but subsequently over the years I befriended many of them to the point where Alison Knowles asked me to speak at Dick Higgins' memorial service which was held right here in the church and I remember giving this speech at Dick Higgins' memorial which was an obit he had written for himself in the foreword of that book called Foewaomwhnw and I said it word for word and afterwards people came up to me and said that was such a moving tribute to Dick but I didn't write a word of it and it made me realise how unfamiliar everybody in that room were with his own writings it's a book everybody's got on their shelves but of course it's a difficult book to read and no one has ever read it that was such a strange thing but I looked over the audience and saw all my heroes from the 60s out there it was an amazing crowd Meredith Monk all the Conceptual artists great film-makers the whole avant garde world was there

Q. Your favourite art piece

    Vexations by Eric Satie

Walk down Washington Square South turn down on Sullivan St turn west on W 3rd St down Macdougall turn right on Minetta Lane then left to 6th Avenue.

7. Corner Bleeker and 6th avenue South East corner

Here I watched the World Trade Center collapse I'd dropped my son off for his first day of pre-school right over there I heard one of the towers had fallen and the whole thing was being announced this car radio was blasting the local news as thousands of people were watching the second one collapse aesthetically it's one of the most magnificent things in my life I sound like Stockhausen we couldnt comprehend the magnittude of what it was New Collaspsing Buildings EinstŸrzende Neubauten looking right down 6th avenue and turning around and looking at the faces of people after the thing had collapsed it was an amazing communal experience everybody had their hands over their mouths pople were crying in complete shock and this guy narrating the whole thing on radio blasting the day's events out of the boom box

Q. Your favourite artform


Walk west from 6th Ave through the convoluted streets of the West Village to Clarkson between Greenwich and Hudson

8. 39 Clarkson St

This is the loading dock on which I got drunk on the evening of Fidget where I went with my dog and a bottle of Jack Daniels and sat down at about 6pm I began drinking I was wearing dark sunglasses in this decrepit loading dock facing an office block and I recorded every move as I was swigging down the Jack Daniels I must have looked like a crazy bum sitting here and talking to myself for two and half hours I was getting more drunk and I was slurring my words then I walked west down the street to the river kept talking and doing my activity looking over the Hudson River before the tape recorder clicked itself off this is an important site for Fidget on june 16 1997 the loading dock is still as grubby and awful as on that day and the tape recorder just clicked off

    Q. Your favourite dish

    Indian fiesta by Mikaso [???]

Walk down Clarkson cut up Downing make right on Bedford then down Bedford to Houston down Macdougall then left on Prince down to Thompson

9. 32 Thompson St

This is the appartment that Cheryl and I rented for 7 years after we lost all our money on a bum real estate deal here I wrote 111 also Fidget this was our bedroom window this is where Soliloquy took place this was a tiny apartment where I really dedicated myself to writing it's also here that I ran into Language Poetry Geoff Young had solicited some works of mine for a show in Great Barrington so we went up for the Summer and he said I'm a publisher of books of Language poetry I'd never heard of that this was in 1992 and he gave me a stack of books Silliman's Tjanting was one and I thought it was incredible we came back after the Summer and there was a package in the mail from somebody called Bruce Andrews and the mansucript was Stet, Sic & Sp which I would go on doing drawings for I was stupefied I had never seen any work like this I had no idea who Bruce was and it wasn't mechanical like Tjanting I just ignored it but back on a train from Boston I had a few drinks and I thought I'd try and deal with this manuscript and finally by Connecticut I started to ask what it wasn't and by negative definitions I arrived at what it was and that was the only way I managed to understand Language Poetry I also had my first dial-up internet connection here and it fed 111

Q. Your favourite historical figure

I don't care much for history with a capital eitch so I'll have to say that I don't have a favourite historical character.

Walk south down Thompson turn east on Grand right on Mercer to Howard then north on Broadway

    10. Broadway between Howard St and Grand St

Where we're standing was a cafeteria called the Daynton Cafeteria and when I first came to New York there were still old Jewish places that were open all night for garment workers and people packing lofts down here artists would come and sit forever in this place and have a cup of coffee and crummy Jewish food it always used to be full the garment district it's all gone now in the 80s it became a restaurant called Amsterdams they just gutted the Daynton and then that went out because it was pretty horrible and then this clothes store moved in and to save money they just took off the S and called it Amsterdam and I just love the way NY fills up its history they just don't take things down it's just typical in a wonderful way NY keeps on accumulating its history over and over again and look only the AMSTER is still there and the DAM is unlit and this is all falling apart

Q. Most despised historical figure

Not only do I not believe in history with a capital eitch but I don't believe in black and white demarcations nor do I believe in the power of individuals in history, the absolute power of the individual in history, so I don't have a response once again.

    Walk south down Broadway turn East on Howard

11. Dead-end corner Howard St and Cosby St

When I first moved here in the late 70s this whole area was machine shops there are still some on Lafayette St huge monstrous machine shops and this used to be very desolate nothing but sweatshops steam pipes coming up there's still some chinese stuff here but now it's all very fancy like this Tibetan carpet store it used to feel like the end of the world and when my cousin and I were asked to register for the draft in 1979 I had a big qualm whether I should register and we decided that if we were to get drafted or war came or we needed to vanish we'd go under cover for a couple of years as bums down here in the belly of lower Manhattan where nobody knows about you and you're completely anonymous you could wander around the back alleys of Chinatown and the industrial areas how different it is now it's all above ground and fancy but there was a time when you could vanish into it and feel just lost in the labyrinh of industrial decay of course there's no chance of disppearing in Manhattan any more

    Q. What do you hate the most

    (sudden car alarm) I hate car alarms!

    Walk down Howard through a labyrinth of streets to Chinatown down Pell to Doyers

12. Doyers St

Lost in the snaky streets of Chinatown is the Nam Wua tea parlor early in the 80s we were just coming off acid one night and we walked into the Nam Wua tea parlor and there was a big green festering pig on the table and we were all rattly from being up all night so everytime I walk past I'm so happy it still exists in my opinion Chinatown exemplifies what New York is all about crowded streets dense crazy signage people goods new things old things useful things not useful things graffiti dirty streets run-off shit tossed off into these streets old cooking oil acid has just eaten the streets away the ground is greasy and you're really god only knows where it fullfills my definition of a good city which is a city you can never really know San Francisco is a nice city but you can know San Francisco but cities like LA Paris London certainly you'll never know you'll never really know these cities they say New York is overdeveloped and it is but this place just continues to fester and accumulate and get richer and richer with each passing year the Nam Wua nobody goes there it's such a great place I'll be very sad when it goes but it's also part of New York you can't get attached to anything in New York because the minute you get attached something else comes in its place

Q. Your idea of perfect happiness

Standing where we are right in the midst of deep dark chinatown

Walk down Doyers cross the Bowery walk down to Division St

13. Corner Eldridge St and Division St

This is a fantastic corner there's the Manhattan bridge and the train is rumbling over there making a deafening sound we've moved from the belly of Chinatown to the bowels really down and dirty look at the signage on the street and here's the most glorious synagogue the Eldridge St synagogue it used to be the old Jewish quarter down here and now standing here you can look up the street straight up to the Chrysler building that's Midtown business that's rational New York the New York on the grid and this is just a fucking organic mess down here we're on the corner of 6 streets determined by the pre-grid ancient Manhattan landscape there are several layers of subways trains cars above them on the bridge hairsalons everything is thrown on top of one another but it is beautiful and you look up and see the modern New York the Sex and the city New York the professional New York you catch a glimpse of it and all this exists simulatenously

Q. Your main weakness

    Love of substance and love of style, both are weaknesses.

Walk up Eldridge street take a right east on Canal between Orchard and Ludlow.

14. 46 Canal St

This was the first loft we lived in when we first came to New York me and Cheryl it's now been turned into a high speed internet cafŽ let's go in hi hey this was our old loft hey how are you doing we used to live here I used to live here so we had a bed here we slept here and there was a bathroom here this was our bathroom and our toilet the kitchen was in here in this room and this was Cheryl's studio this whole room we painted the floor this was my sculpture studio the big windows used to look out onto a Chinese opera company there was a little closet back here you can see out the window it had beautiful woodwork an artist had lived here for many years I came here as a sculptor this is so great ok let's go

    Q. Your obsessive habits

    My entire practice is one obsessive habit.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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