Excerpted & adapted from Duchamp is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb
Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is questionable; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted. We’ve never been sued—never even come close. UbuWeb functions on no money—we don’t take it, we don’t pay it, we don’t touch it; you’ll never find an advertisement, a logo, or a donation box. We’ve never applied for a grant or accepted a sponsorship; we remain happily unaffiliated, keeping us free and clean, allowing us to do what we want to do, the way we want to do it. Most important, UbuWeb has always been and will always be free and open to all: there are no memberships or passwords required. All labor is volunteered; our server space and bandwidth are donated by a likeminded group of intellectual custodians who believe in free access to knowledge. A gift economy of plentitude with a strong emphasis on global education, UbuWeb is visited daily by tens of thousands of people from every continent. We’re on numerous syllabuses, ranging from those for kindergarteners studying pattern poetry to those for postgraduates listening to hours of Jacques Lacan’s Séminaires. When the site goes down from time to time, as most sites do, we’re inundated by emails from panicked faculty wondering how they are going to teach their courses that week.
The site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists better known for other things—the music of Jean Dubuffet, the poetry of Dan Graham, the hip-hop of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the punk rock of Martin Kippenberger, the films of John Lennon, the radio plays of Ulrike Meinhof, the symphonies of Hanne Darboven, the country music of Julian Schnabel—most of which were originally put out in tiny editions, were critically ignored, and quickly vanished. However, the web provides the perfect place to restage these works. With video, sound, and text remaining more faithful to the original experience than, say, painting or sculpture, Ubu proposes a different sort of revisionist art history based on the peripheries of artistic production rather than on the perceived, hyped, or market-based center.
UbuWeb’s large, boundary-blurring archive of the avant-garde necessarily alters what is meant by avant-garde, a term saddled with the legacies of patriarchy, hegemony, imperialism, colonization, and militarization. Giving voice to these concerns, the poet and critic Dick Higgins wrote, “The very concept of an avant-garde, which relates to the military metaphor of advance troops coming before the main body, is masculine. The avant-garde theater scholar Kimberly Jannarone concurs: The term ‘avant-garde’—coming to us from the military and first applied to the arts around World War I—is heavily weighted by historical and political critical baggage.… Indeed, the historical avant-garde often relied on sexist, racist, primitivist, and imperialist notions.” And it’s true even today: witness how Italy’s far-right-wing party Casa Pound named itself after Ezra Pound, emblazing images of him across their posters, or how one of Vladimir Putin’s main ideologists, Vladislav Surkov, reputedly took techniques from his days as an avant-garde theater director and used them to sow confusion, discord, and chaos—exactly what the avant-garde excelled at—into rightist political situations. When you assemble a collection of the avant-garde, you run the risk of replicating everything wrong that is associated with it. In response, we deployed impurity as a way of muddying, détourning, and playfully reimagining the avant-garde, twisting and warping the rigorous, hard-baked grids of modernism into something more fluid, organic, incorrect, and unpredictable.
Yet think of the many artists who dissembled received notions of avant-garde as part and parcel of their avant-garde practices, such as Cornelius Cardew, Amiri Baraka, Musica Elettronica Viva, and Henry Flynt, or of others who took the idea of avant-garde in directions previously excluded from the canon. Our midcentury avant-garde pantheon and inspiration comprise artists such as Moondog, Marie Menken, Harry Partch, Daphne Oram, Conlon Nancarrow, Alice B. Toklas, and Sun Ra. Driven by outsiders and visionaries, our avant-garde revels in eccentricity, impurity, and innovative formal experimentation. And at the same time we still love the denizens of the old-school canon, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Pablo Picasso. But most of all we love it when they all get jumbled together on UbuWeb. Sparks fly when Henry Miller collides with Ana Mendieta, Karlheinz Stockhausen with Hito Steyerl, Fatboy Slim with the Situationist International, Weegee with Carrie Mae Weems, or F. T. Marinetti with Trinh T. Minh-ha, each nudging, reflecting, and shading their neighbors in unpredictable and destabilizing ways.
UbuWeb reflects this approach, and its avant-garde is vast and inclusive, moving away from the patriarchal, militaristic, racist, and imperialistic model. We like the idea of taking a discredited or orphaned term such as avant-garde and using it against its own bad history in order to reimagine it, similar to the way AIDS activists in the 1980s détourned the Nazi’s pink triangle into a symbol of liberation. I’m not entirely certain what the limits of the avant-garde are, but it’s that uncertainty that makes it work for us. UbuWeb often lacks objectivity, expertise, theoretical justification, and historical accuracy. We could be wrong, but something tells us that those certainties were partially what led parts of the avant-garde astray in the first place.
Reflecting these ideas, UbuWeb is a purposely unstable library, a conflicted curation, an archive assembled by embracing the fragmented, the biased, the subjective, and the incomplete.
Although there’s a substantial user base around UbuWeb, it’s hard to say exactly who these users are since we don’t keep tabs on them. Once in a while when UbuWeb materializes in a physical space—if, for instance, there’s an exhibition of the site in a gallery or when we give a talk about it—we get to meet some folks. Generally speaking, they don’t skew toward any single demographic; rather, reflecting the site’s eclectic offerings, a variety of musicians, poets, academics, artists, dancers, and theory heads show up. We've never done much to encourage an online community. Instead, we preferred the quieter model of the public library, a large repository of cultural artifacts waiting to be browsed, borrowed, and shared. If there is a UbuWeb community, it’s more at the level of our shadow-library peers, a like-minded circle of individuals and institutions across the globe who are dedicated to the free dissemination of cultural artifacts and intellectual materials. The people who use those resources overlap with the people who use UbuWeb.
UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to another, we’re giving to all. UbuWeb is as much about the legal and social ramifications of its self-created distribution and archiving system as it is about the content it hosts. In a sense, the content takes care of itself, but keeping it there at the site has proved to be a trickier proposition. The sociopolitical maintenance of free server space with unlimited bandwidth is a complicated dance, often involving the dodging of darts thrown by individuals who call foul play on copyright infringement.
These days there’s a lot of support for the way we go about things. Many think of UbuWeb as an institution. Artists both well established and lesser known try to contact us asking to be on the site. But it wasn’t always this way; for a long time many people despised UbuWeb, fearing that it was contributing to the erosion of long-standing hierarchies in the avant-garde world, fearing that it was leading to the decimation of certain art forms, fearing that it would tank entire art-based economies. Of course, none of that happened. We just happened to be there at the beginning of the web and had to ride the choppy currents of change as each successive wave washed over. Whereas we once used to receive daily cease-and-desist letters, today we rarely get any. It’s not that we’re doing anything different; it’s just that people’s attitudes toward copyright and distribution have evolved as the web has evolved.
By the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone. Never meant to be a permanent archive, Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our internet service provider (ISP) pulls the plug, we get sued, or we simply grow tired of it. 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; more often than not, the already small group 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 even ourselves.