Twenty years ago, the experimental poet—and author of the recent Wasting Time on the Internet—Kenneth Goldsmith set out to create an online archive of concrete poetry, a partially visual art form that had largely fallen into disfavor by the mid-’90s. Such poems were designed to be seen as well as read. They played with typography and page layout—a poem about a train might be shaped like one, for example. As Goldsmith explains it now, he was primarily interested in then-novel ease of presenting images on the web—and in entertaining “my six friends that happen to be interested in concrete poetry.”
But eventually, Goldsmith’s small website became a massive repository of the forgotten and the unfamiliar. Known as UbuWeb, it now contains everything from contemporary sound art to a 1986 interview with Andy Warhol about his Amiga computer. While a few contemporary artists have submitted their work to the archive, its collections are still largely guided by Goldsmith’s own tastes. You’ll find lectures by the French philosopher critic Roland Barthes, a lengthy dance film by Claire Denis, a digital re-creation of the multimedia magazine Aspen, and much more.
Ubu offers treasure troves of strange material, but part of its pleasure has always been its simplicity: Throughout the years, UbuWeb’s aesthetic has remained doggedly spare—small red-and-black text on a blank white background. Despite its long history, those design choices make the site feel surprisingly timeless.
In late November, UbuWeb turned 20. So I called up Goldsmith to discuss how the site has remained constant, even as the internet has grown and changed around it. He also pointed out some of his favorite items in the archive, the artistic roots of the internet itself, and why he tries to keep the site off major search engines. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
UbuWeb’s visual style and organizational structure has always been extraordinarily simple. What was your thinking there?
Back in ’96 and through the 2000s, the web looked pretty bad. It was pretty cluttered up. I’m an art geek: I wanted to create a space on the web that was free of clutter. I wanted to say, What would a museum look like if it was on the web? The design of UbuWeb hasn’t changed much since then.
Are there particular artifacts that you’ve come back to over and over again throughout the years?
I love the weird stuff: The music of Marcel Duchamp. Salvador Dalí’s films. All of the peripheral, strange stuff. We know these people for one thing, but artists also do other things. If you were to ask any of those artists, they’d tell you those productions were as important as their paintings, the things they were making a lot of money off of.
More specifically, there’s a woman named Vicki Bennett who goes under the name People Like Us, a composer. She’s uploaded 35 of her records to Ubu. And probably an equal number of films. She’s really good.
If I had to come up with one artifact, it would be a contemporary artist named Sean Landers. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he made the most marvelous sound piece, “The Man Within.” It’s probably my favorite thing on the whole site.
In its early days, the web was a jagged, surreal, and almost experimental space. Did that inform your decision to curate a collection of jagged, surreal, and often experimental art on it?
In retrospect, what you’re saying is right. I wasn’t really aware of that at the time. At the time, it was more of a buzz—like self-publishing. I thought, Wow. You can do this for no money! And it’s in color! This is amazing!
The internet is a lot more mannered today than it was back then. Do you think that changes the importance of UbuWeb at all?
It’s hard to say. People say that Facebook and Google have colonized the web and taken it over, but that’s just not true. Those sites haven’t impacted UbuWeb one iota. UbuWeb continues as it always has. I actually think it’s possible still to do something really independent on the web. We’ve just forgotten how to do it.
In Wasting Time on the Internet you talk about the ways that pre-internet artworks—not just high modernism, but also, say, the curatorial practices of Andy Warhol—anticipate the ways that we live online today. Can UbuWeb teach us anything about how to remain independent on the web today?
I actually think that the web has its roots in Modernism—and disjunction and dream spaces and surrealism. An archive of this stuff on a digital platform feels completely contemporary. It makes Modernism alive again and relevant again.
It comes back to what Rick Prelinger said, that archiving is the new folk art. That’s a giant thing about UbuWeb: All my collections, they’re just there! It’s this obsessive kind of hoarding and archiving, but it’s a good kind of hoarding, because it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else—especially when you’re talking about avant-garde artifacts, which have almost no commercial value but great historical importance.
In Duchampian terms, the web is nothing but a bunch of digital readymades. Things are passed around, and fabricated, and slightly altered. A lot of stuff that’s up on UbuWeb isn’t used the way it was intended to be used. Weird DJs from around the world love UbuWeb. I’ve heard dance mixes in São Paulo with Bruce Nauman samples thrown in that they got from UbuWeb.
The other thing is that UbuWeb breaks copyright. The whole fucking site is illegal. To me, that’s as important as what’s on the site itself. I know the content’s good. The content’s great, but the fact that it’s existed for 20 years without legal trouble is the best part about the site.
A lot of these artifacts are outliers to contemporary culture. Has that marginal quality protected the site?
I can put up the audio recordings of Salvador Dalí, but there are no Salvador Dalí paintings on there. The recordings are really interesting. His films are really marvelous, but there’s no commercial value in them. I think most places give us a pass because they couldn’t sell them anyway. Ubu’s found this kind of crazy copyright loophole.
Is it too late to see more spaces like UbuWeb spring up? Is it just its relative antiquity by internet standards that allows it to persist in the way that it does?
A lot of young artists want their work up on Ubu, and I always say, Why don’t you make your own UbuWeb? They can never really answer that. I don’t think they know how to write HTML. The 30 videos that I put up the other night are still the exact same HTML templates I used in 1996.
Isn’t using a HTML template in 2016 a bit like employing an obsolete poetic form?
It works! HTML is backwardly compatible. It just seems to work.
But do you think we’ll get to a point where people look at UbuWeb itself as an artwork, as an artifact of a particular moment?
It’s by far the most important artistic activity I’ve ever done, but I don’t want to claim it as an artwork of mine. Does it sound weird if I say it’s just a community service gesture? I want to make things available for people. It’s a bit utopian.
Maybe that’s what makes it something of the internet—that communal quality.
I’ve said this before, but MoMA can’t give any content on their site because they have legal obligations. I sit down on a Thursday evening for two hours with a glass of whiskey and upload 30 films. It’s really outside.
I try to keep it off of Google. I try to keep it underground. People write books about how to get your search results up on Google. I want to get mine down!
Why is it so important to you to keep it out of the public view in that way?
To avoid copyright trolls. A lot of people would assume that I’m selling this, that I want to make money. There’s no money. But it’s a lot of work for me every time I have to get into those conversations. It’s easier for me not to have them.
Back in 2011, you wrote of UbuWeb, “By the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone.” Why do you think it has stuck around even as the web has changed around it?
It’s about me. I’m the only person there. It runs on no money. And yet, every time I’m on the verge of giving up, I receive some email from somebody somewhere, and I realize it makes the world, the web, a better place. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” as Beckett says.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.