Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb

Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb
by Kenneth Goldsmith

Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 2020
328 pp. Trade, $98.00; paper & eBook, $26.00
ISBN: 9780231186940; ISBN: 9780231186957; ISBN: 978023154691.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
July 2020

At first sight, this book is about UbuWeb, the essential archive (www.ubuweb.com) of twentieth and twenty-first century archive of avant-garde and experimental writing and art. UbuWeb is sometimes but very wrongly called the YouTube of the intellectuals since the portal’s form and function are anything but those of YouTube. Besides, the actual audience of the site is much broader than that of the sole “intellectuals”, although in certain milieus, that of the fine arts gallery world for instance, many participants continue to ignore UbuWeb’s existence. At the same time, however, the book is not just the story behind the story of UbuWeb, it is also and more generally the story of a way of making history in a paradoxical if not schizophrenic environment.

On the one hand, UbuWeb is doing exactly what the internet is supposed to foster and enhance: the sharing of documents and information, more precisely the sharing for free and to as many interested readers (listeners, viewers) as possible. As probably well known, UbuWeb was singlehandedly started, continued and maintained by a teacher and artist, Kenneth Goldsmith (who still devotes three hours a day enriching, updating, maintaining the website), with the administrative, logistical and financial support of many volunteers and sympathizing institutions (starting with the University of Buffalo, hence the name of the site, but currently spread over many countries and partners, all of them united by the spirit of that other Ubu, the carnivalesque character of Alfred Jarry’s famous satire). On the other hand, however, UbuWeb is also actively hindered, pursued, boycotted, and permanently endangered by the way in which the internet is being governed – technologically, legally, financially, contentwise– by large corporations with very different aims than that of free speech (in the twofold sense of “free” as “free of charge” and “not under control”).

Duchamp Is My Lawyer is therefore a book with a double ambition, where the “how” is never separated from the “why” (as a matter of fact, this is always the case in Goldsmith’s scholarly publications, to start with the groundbreaking Uncreative Writing, also published with Columbia UP in 2011). Besides being a material object (the portal site par excellence of all types of avant-garde and experimental art, in English as well as in other languages, easily searchable, neatly structured yet radically dehierarchized), UbuWeb is a spirit, a philosophy, an ethos, and a constant struggle, that of as democratic and open as possible a take on art and creativity, which involves an active reflection on many of the key issues of intellectual and artistic work in the media age, whose relevance cannot be limited to the sole field of digital culture (as usefully reminded by the choice of Duchamp as model and saint patron of the whole enterprise). In that sense, the very existence of UbuWeb is not only a demonstration of what it is possible to do with relatively simple technical means, but also a charge against the logarithmically steered management of internet data by corporate giants. The reference to Duchamp is at the same artistic (Duchamp as pioneer of the readymade, as critic of age-old ideas on the artist as the unique and subjective voice of originality) and legal (Duchamp as the critic of traditional views of copyright and ownership that material and societal changes invite to rethink.

Duchamp Is My Lawyer is divided in three parts. In Part One (“Polemics”), Goldsmith offers the reader a very punchy and funny comment on the UbuWeb manifesto written by a sympathizing group, the “Custodians Online”, at the twentieth anniversary of the site (founded in 1996). I will simply quote here this manifesto:

1. Keep it simple and avoid constant technology updates. Ubu is plain HTML, written in a text-editor.

2. Even a website should function offline. One should be able to take the hard disk and run. Avoid the cloud—computers of people you don’t know and who don’t care about you.

3. Don’t ask for permission. You would have to wait forever, turning yourself into an accountant and a lawyer.

4. Don’t promise anything. Do it the way you like it.

5. You don’t need search engines. Rely on word-of-mouth And direct linking to slowly build your public. You don’t need complicated protocols, digital currencies, or other proxies. You need people who care.

6. Everything is temporary, even after twenty years. Servers crash, disks die, life changes and shit happens. Care and redundancy is [sic] the only path to longevity.

Part Two (“Pragmatics”) is the personal, detailed, hands-on, highly committed, often very funny, but throughout exceptionally relevant discussion of the obstacles, opportunities, general philosophy and international network of UbuWeb. This discussion is much more than a plea pro domo; it is a lived experience as well as a demonstration that another use of the internet is possible, close to the open access and peer-to-peer spirit of the post-hippy pioneers of the personal computer revolution. As such, this book, although written in the first person singular, is an example of collective enunciation, the “I” of Kenneth Goldsmith being a cooperative person representing all those eager to rely on the creative and communicative possibilities of the net to build a collaborative framework that does not dissolve but offers new promises to all individuals as well. In that sense, Duchamp Is My Lawyer perfectly qualifies as what Deleuze and Guattari call “minor literature”, that is not the literature of some “minority” group or language, but the noncanonical use of a “major” system to serve the needs and expectations of those at the margins (Deleuze and Guattari’s example is Kafka, the author of a “minor” form of writing with the “major” language that is German, but UbuWeb would make a good contemporary example of such a “minor” use of the “major” use of corporate-controlled digital media).

The most salient aspect of the discussion touches upon copyright, UbuWeb being a site that never asks for permission to reprint. Let me specify without further delay that Goldsmith neither rejects the twin notions of authorship and ownership nor proposes to abolish copyright. What he defends is the possibility of using the currently available technological means of the Internet in such a way that they serve the interests of both the public and the makers. Or negatively speaking, what he also demonstrates is how certain narrow ways of defining copyright and pursuing copyright infringement prove to be harmful for everybody. As Duchamp Is My Lawyer makes very clear, the reproduction of the works on UbuWeb is not the same thing as the works themselves: In many cases the technical quality is suboptimal (to put it mildly) and rather often the files disclosed on UbuWeb are not the same as the “original” work” (they may be just fragments or instead give more than the original, whereas in many cases they just give a single “version” of works having various forms, etc.). But even more important is the fact that UbuWeb gives access to material that in more than one case simply does not exist, that is: is not available for any user, be it for copyright reasons or for reasons having to do with the fact that nobody knows where the original works actually are. Most fascinating in this regard is that Goldsmith, who repeatedly states that he is happy (sic) to withdraw material from the site if entitled copyright holders refuse him the right to keep it online, gives many examples of copyright claims that are legally speaking not justified (not to use the word of “racket”), and also provides us with countless examples of authors and artists having expressed their gratitude for having their work present on UbuWeb. All of them insist on the fact that this presence is doing what they are actually looking for: sharing their work with an interested audience that is not only that of some happy few as well as making profit of it, in the economic sense of the word (UbuWeb strongly increases the sales of high-quality versions of the work, it generates new commissions, it helps artists secure certain positions, for instance).

Although UbuWeb was and still is made single-handedly, the work is not a solitary business. Duchamp Is My Lawyer thus gives great credit to those (their names are not always disclosed, for… copyright reasons) who actively share their own archives with Goldsmith for further publication on the portal. All these archives are examples of what Abigail De Kosnik would call “rogue archives” (see my Leonardo review here: https://www.leonardo.info/review/2017/01/review-of-rogue-archives-digital-cultural-memory-and-media-fandom), and UbuWeb is the very proof that the distinction between canonical and noncanonical archives is not only blurred but superseded in our current media culture. Corollarily, Goldsmith also pays a warm tribute to all those sympathizing colleagues and institutions that help survive UbuWeb as a sustainable service to the community by building shadow version of the portal on servers all over the world.

Part Three of the book, (“Poetics”), is case-study oriented and discusses new and old(er) examples of what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “blueprints” for UbuWeb, such as the Sackner Archive for Visual and Concrete Poetry (more than 75,000 examples of visual poetry, concrete poetry, and text art) and the performance/reenactment of Schwitters’s Ursonate or Aspen, the multimedia avant-garde magazine in a box. This part also concludes fascinating analyses and examples of anthologies as well as the intellectual and creative work done by anthologies and anthologizers. Logically, the coda of Duchamp Is My Lawyer wraps up the whole book by offering a personal selection of 101 items, personal favorites if you want, which Goldsmith urges us discover -– and the word “urges” is here as important as the word “discover”. As the author observes:  “Oh, by the time you get around to looking these things up, there’s a good chance that some of them might not be there anymore. So my advice to you is to consult this list and download things immediately. In fact, download the entire site—it is possible. Make sure your local library is much richer than anything you can find online. Don’t trust the cloud—even UbuWeb’s cloud” (p. 269).