Monday, March 3, 2014

Seven American Deaths and Disasters (An Interview with Poet Kenneth Goldsmith)

Seven American Deaths
and Disasters
In Seven American Deaths and Disasters, conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith offers transcriptions of genuine, as-it-happened radio and television news coverage of seminal events in recent American history: the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the murder of John Lennon, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the death of "king of pop" Michael Jackson. Additionally, there is a chilling text taken from an FBI file of an emergency call made by a teacher cowering with her students in the Columbine High School library as prowling gunmen approach the library doors.

Goldsmith is a proponent of "uncreative writing" that retextualizes, reframes, and recycles existing material. He has added nothing to the content of Seven American Deaths and Disasters, which was recently published by New York-based powerHouse Books. His contribution is the concept itself plus careful selection and editing.

"What constitutes the act of writing is rapidly changing in the digital age," Goldsmith explained to The Committee Room. "Skills that we used to consider outside of the scope of writing — word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, but to name a few — are now the ways we routinely construct literature."

Kenneth Goldsmith
Goldsmith's earlier works include Fidget (2000), a chronicle of every movement of his body over a thirteen hour period, Day (2003), a transcription of a New York Times issue from an ordinary day in 2000, and Printing Out the Internet (2013), a crowdsourced project that invited the public to print out pages of the internet and send them to a Mexico City art gallery to be added to an installation. Ultimately, ten tons of paper was collected.

The transcriptions in Seven American Deaths and Disasters offer an inadvertent sort of poetry as commentators repeat phrases and add bits of information (some of which we now know was inaccurate) as it comes in. "From the time JFK is shot until the time he dies, about an hour elapses. Over the course of that hour, very little new information becomes available to the broadcasters, so they keep saying the same thing over and over again, just like they do today on CNN, when they keep showing the same video clip on an endless loop. Warhol identified this model early on and it's still the repetitious method we cleave to today," Goldsmith told TCR.

Goldsmith at a White House poetry reading, 2011.
Remarks made by broadcasters while events play out can come across as literary foreshadowing. "It is not a normal flight pattern. I'm a frequent traveler between Atlanta and New York for business and it is...rare you have a jet flying crossing directly over the island of Manhattan," says Sean Murtagh of CNN after the first World Trade Center tower has been hit and it is not yet clear whether the crash was accidental.

The spirit of the times in which the different events occurred is captured in the transcriptions. On Dallas radio station KLIF, a teenage love song by The Chiffons and a cheerful commercial urging listeners to buy a meaty Armour Star turkey for their upcoming Thanksgiving dinner are followed by a vague report that shots were fired on President Kennedy's motorcade. Repeated use of the word "pandemonium" to describe the scene in the hotel kitchen where Robert Kennedy lay dying reflects the social upheaval of the late 1960s. On air personalities losing their slick composure as the World Trade Center towers fall echoes America's shock at finding its comfortable isolation destroyed.

Goldsmith reading in front of Andy
Warhol's "Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times,"
MoMA, 2013 (photo: courtesy
Lawrence Schwartzwald).
Goldsmith selected only events from the mid-twentieth century onward, convinced that older happenings, no matter how important historically, simply don't resonate with contemporary readers. "Since Warhol, all tragedies have assumed a pop flavor, resulting in the fact that people care about them long after the fact," Goldsmith told TCR. "Tragedies and their perpetrators become pop stars — just think of how [Boston Marathon bomber] Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was recast as a dreamy star on the cover of Rolling Stone just months after he maimed and murdered — or [director] Gus Van Sant's sexy portrayal of [Columbine shooters] Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in [the movie] Elephant. I mean, unless you're a historian, would you be interested in reading a transcript of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? There's nothing sexy or iconic in those dry historical episodes."

Goldsmith, who in 2013 was named the Museum of Modern Art's first ever poet laureate, started out as a visual artist. Some readers may wonder whether Seven American Deaths and Disasters, which borrows it name from a series of paintings by Andy Warhol, is text-based art rather than literature.  

"Why is this a work of literature as opposed to, say, an artists' book? The reason is that I have framed it within the intellectual economy of literature rather than within the economy of the art world," Goldsmith told TCR. "After Duchamp, where we place an object in the world determines its relative value and must be judged by the standards of that context. This is a book that is taught in English departments, sold in bookstores, and is reviewed in literary forums like The Committee Room — which signifies it as belonging to literature."

Goldsmith on TV's The Colbert Report, 2013.
Some critics looked upon Goldsmith's counting Michael Jackson's death among the seven events as an effort to be racially inclusive or simply as a joke.

"The evening that Michael Jackson died, I was in Harlem attending a performance at the Studio Museum. The Harlem community was devastated by this loss. So profound was this incident, that prayers and a moment of silence occurred before the performance," Goldsmith told TCR. "So I find the idea that my inclusion of Michael Jackson as a joke to be offensive and racist. And I do wish to be racially inclusive — why is that poised as a negative? Is it only white people who are assassinated in America? Doh. I would've loved to have included Martin Luther King or Malcolm X but there were no media there to capture those events. The only media I could find was reportage after the fact, which was slick and bland."

Goldsmith among Printing Out the Internet pages,
LABOR Gallery, Mexico City,  2013. 
In contrast to the clamor and confusion that surrounds the other events, John Lennon's death on a cold Manhattan night in 1980 comes across as if the former Beatle was calmly keeping an appointment.  

"I love the John Lennon piece," Goldsmith told TCR. "It was transcribed from some guy who was just spinning the radio dial on the night of [Lennon's] murder and taping the whole thing. It's a beautiful, haunting, and very moving audio document of a lost moment in time."

Here's more information --

"Being Dumb." Essay by Kenneth Goldsmith. The Awl. 23 July 2013.

"Conceptualism as Affect: or, a Defense of Both at Once." Essay by Susan M. Schultz. Tinfish Editor's Blog. 27 July 2013.

"Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith." The Colbert Report. Comedy Central TV. 23 July 2013.

"Interview with the First Poet Laureate of MoMA." Hyperallergic. 3 September 2013.

"Plagiarism: Maybe It's Not So Bad." Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith. On the Media. WNYC Radio. March 2013.

"Proudly Fraudulent: An Interview with MoMA's First Poet Laureate, Kenneth Goldsmith." The Awl. 6 February 2013.

The Committee Room.  Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.

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