An Open Letter to the Frameworks Community
October, 18, 2010
(responding to this thread on the Frameworks discussion list)

To the Frameworks Community,

I have been reading your thread on UbuWeb's hacking on the list with great interest. It seems that with a few exceptions, the list is generally positive (with reservations) about Ubu, something that makes me happy. Ubu is a friend, not a foe.

A few things: first of all, Ubu doesn't touch money. We don't make a cent. We don't accept grants or donations. Nor do we -- or shall we ever -- sell anything on the site. No one makes a salary here and the work is all done voluntarily (more love hours than can ever be repaid). Our bandwidth and server space is donated by universities.

We know that UbuWeb is not very good. In terms of films, the selection is random and the quality is often poor. The accompanying text to the films can be crummy, mostly poached from whatever is available around the net. So are the films: they are mostly grabbed from private closed file-sharing communities and made available for the public, hence the often lousy quality of the films. It could be done much better.

Yet, in terms of how we've gone about building the archive, if we had to ask for permission, we wouldn't exist. Because we have no money, we don't ask permission. Asking permission always involves paperwork and negotiations, lawyers, and bank accounts. Yuk. But by doing things the wrong way, we've been able to pretty much overnight build an archive that's made publically accessible for free of charge to anyone. And that in turn has attracted a great number of film and video makers to want to contribute their works to the archive legitimately. The fastest growing part of Ubu's film section is by younger and living artists who want to be a part of Ubu. But if you want your works off Ubu, we never question it and remove it immediately; it's your work after all. We will try to convince you otherwise, but we will never leave anything there that an artist or copyright holder wants removed.

Ubu presents orphaned and out-of-print works. Sometimes we had inadvertently host works that are in print and commercially available for a reasonable price. While this is strictly against our policy, it happens. (With an army of interns and students and myself the only one in charge, it's sometimes hard to keep the whole thing together.) Then someone tells us that we're doing it and we take it down immediately and apologize. Ouch. The last thing Ubu wants to do is to harm those who are trying to legitimately sell works. For this reason, we don't host, for example, any films by Brakhage: they're in print and affordable for anyone who wants them on DVD or through Netflix. Fantastic. [The "wall of shame" was a stupid, juvenile move and we removed a few years ago it when we heard from Joel Bachar that it was hurtful to the community.]

Some of the list members suggested that we work with distributors. That's exactly what's starting to happen. Last winter, Ubu had a meeting with EAI and VDB to explore ways that we could move forward together. We need each other. EAI sent a list of artists who were uncomfortable with their films being represented on Ubu. We responded by removing them. But others, such as Leslie Thornton and Peggy Ahwesh insisted that their oeuvres be on Ubu as well as on EAI. You can see Leslie Thorton's Ubu page here (all permissioned).

Likewise, a younger generation is starting to see that works must take a variety of forms and distributive methods, which happen at the same time without cancelling each other out. The young, prominent video artist Ryan Trecartin has all his work on Ubu, hi-res copies are distributed by EAI, The Elizabeth Dee Gallery represent his work (and sells his videos there), while showing in museums around the world. Clearly Ryan's career hasn't been hurt by this approach. You can see his Ryan Trecartin's Ubu page here (all permissioned).

Older filmmakers and their estates have taken a variety of approaches. Michael Snow contacted Ubu to say that he was pleased to have some of his films on Ubu, while he felt that others should be removed. Of course we accommodated him. Having two permissioned films from Michael Snow beats hosting ten without his blessing. We considered it a victory. In another case, the children of Stan VanDerBeek contacted Ubu requesting that we host their father's films. Re:Voir was upset by this, saying that we were robbing his children of their royalties when they in fact had given the films to us. We put a link to purchase DVDs from Re:Voir, regardless. We think Re:Voir serves a crucial function: Many people prefer their beautiful physical objects and hi-res DVDs to our pile of pixels. The point is that there is much (understandable) suspicion and miscommunication. And I'll be the first to admit that, on a community level, I've remained aloof and distant, and the cause of much of that alienation. For this, I apologize.

In terms of sales and rentals ("Ubu is bad for business"), you'd know better than me. But when Peter Gidal approached Ubu and requested that his films be included in our archive, we were thrilled to host a number of them. I met Peter in NYC a few months ago and asked him what the effect of having his films on Ubu had been. He said, in terms of sales and rentals, it was exactly the same, but in terms of interest, he felt there was a big uptick from students and scholars by virtue of being able to see and study that which was unavailable before. Ubu is used mostly by students and in the classroom. Sadly, as many of you have noted, academic budgets don't generally provide for adequate rental or projection money. I know this firsthand: my wife, the video artist Cheryl Donegan -- who teaches video at two prominent East Coast institutions -- is given approximately $200 per semester (if that) for rentals. Good luck.

This summer, Ubu did a show at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in NYC. I insisted that we show AVIs and MP4s from the site on their giant screen. They looked horrible. But that was the point. I wanted to prove the value of high-resolution DVDs and real film prints. I wanted to validate the existence of distributors who make these types of copies available. Ubu's crummy files are a substitute, a thumbnail for the real thing: sitting in a dark from with like-minded, warm bodies watching an enormous projection in a room with a great sound system. Cinema, as you know too well, is a social experience; Ubu pales by comparison. It will never be a substitute. But sadly, for many -- unable to live near the urban centers where such fare is shown, trapped by economics, geography, career, circumstance, health, family, etc. -- Ubu is the only lifeline to this kind of work. As such, we believe that we do more good in the world than harm.

An ideal situation happened when UbuWeb was asked to participate in a show at the CCA in Montreal. The CCA insisted on showing hi-res films, which they rented from distributors of materials that Ubu hosts. We were thrilled. By having these materials available to be seen on Ubu, it led to rental fees for the artists and income for the distributors. It was a win-win situation. This Ubu working at its best.

Finally, I don't really think it's good for me to join the list. I'm not well-enough versed in your world to keep up with the high level of conversation going on there. Nor do I wish to get into a pissing match. However, I can be contacted here and am happy to respond.

It think that, in the end, Ubu is a provocation to your community to go ahead and do it right, do it better, to render Ubu obsolete. Why should there only be one UbuWeb? You have the tools, the resources, the artwork and the knowledge base to do it so much better than I'm doing it. I fell into this as Ubu has grown organically (we do it because we can) and am clearly not the best person to be representing experimental cinema. Ubu would love you to step in and help make it better. Or, better yet, put us out of business by doing it correctly, the way it should have been done in the first place.

Kenneth Goldsmith