A Textual Vanitas|
Day, by Kenneth Goldsmith
Great Barrington, Mass., The Figures, 2003; 836 pages, $20.
BY RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN
Art in America, November 2004
The challenge that faces every esthetically ambitious artist is not simply to create individually successful works but to develop over time in interesting ways. For some, this means consistency and focus, while for others it means continual innovation. Both approaches have their dangers as well as their potential rewards. Artistic consistency can turn into rote production or self-parody, while trying to achieve a radical break in every new body of work often leads to mere theatrics. When someone creates a powerful new painting or poem, the ante is upped for his or her next effort, which must be at least the equal of its predecessor and, preferably, an advance on it.
Over the last decade, artist-turned-writer Kenneth Goldsmith has published three long books, each of which seemed, by itself, an impossible act to follow. First came No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1996), an intricately arranged 606-page compendium of phrases the author had found coursing through American culture over the three and a half years noted in the title [see A.i.A., Apr. '96]. This was followed by the more economical Fidget (2000), in which he attempted to describe every physical movement he made during a 13-hour period, and Soliloquy (2001), a record of every word he uttered over the course of a single week. Stylistically, the books are quite different from one another: No. 111 is an encyclopedic romp through human discourse; Fidget reads a bit like slowed-down Samuel Beckett; the quotidian, gossipy Soliloquy is Warholian, though with a risky honesty that puts me in mind of French autobiographer Michel Leiris, Despite these differences, the books share an aspect of writing-as-ordeal. It's clear that Goldsmith, who trained as a sculptor and began his career as a text-artist exhibiting in galleries, owes a good deal to conceptually based performance art (early Vito Acconci, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Tehching Hsieh, etc.). But by melding endurance art and experimental writing, Goldsmith has created a compelling new mode. While involving their author in increasingly grueling tasks, his books have found an unexpected way to look at the role of language in everyday life. Each of these projects also seemed to raise the stakes for Goldsmith. Since Soliloquy, I've been wondering what his next move would be.
On the back cover of Goldsmith's latest book, Day, he writes: "I am spending my 39th year practicing uncreativity. On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began retyping the day's New York Times, word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page." It took Goldsmith nearly six months of full-time work to complete his self-imposed task of transcribing that day's edition of the limes. Although Day must have been excruciating to "write," the results, ublished in the form of an 836-page, trade-paper-sized volume, are surprisingly absorbing. I've happily spent longer with it than I normally do with a regular, freshly printed edition of the Times. I'll admit, however, to merely riffling through the 200 or so pages of stock market quotes, but can well imagine some more financially savvy person than I discovering even those deserts of obsolete data intellectually rewarding. Visually, the dense blocks of numerals and initials have a kinship with works by On Kawara and Roman Opalka. Another visual aspect of the book, its blue cover, seems to allude to the cover of the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book that also takes a single 24-hour period as its subject.
After only four years, much of the Sept. 1, 2000, Times has acquired an almost antique aura. The sense one gets of examining an artifact from an irrevocably vanished world has much to do with Day's pre-9/11 content. Often, what originally would have been fairly innocuous items take on a chilling cast. In the B section, for instance, there's a short news story about a halfdozen companies submitting bids to take over the World Trade Center lease. A letter to the editor in response to a previous op-ed piece about fear on airplanes carries this sentence: "I would bet that the naked and very vocal terror inside that cabin is far from uncommon when helpless passengers are surprised by a confrontation with eternity." These are among the most striking presages of the World Trade Center attack, but the entire book can be read as a kind of textual vanitas, a picture of an ordinary day in a city whose inhabitants don't guess what we now know: that New York was one year and 10 days away from the worst morning in its history.
There is also no shortage of stories that look different in light of later events. On the Times's page A22 (page 104 of Day), we can read of Dick Cheney, then merely a candidate for vice president, calling for the withdrawal of American ground troops from Kosovo and Bosnia-sharp contrast with his more recent stance on Afghanistan and Iraq. (Day includes the Times's original pagination, as well as its own; each original newspaper page translates to about six Goldsmith pages.) There are numerous stories (including one on Ralph Nader) that carry the byline of the source-fabricating reporter Jayson Blair, and figuring on the masthead in 2000 was Howell Raines, the editor who lost his job when Blair's misdeeds were discovered.
True to his concept of "non-interventionist" writing, Goldsmith gives us not only news stories but the text of the entire paper, including every advertisement, even those tiny ones squeezed in at the bottom of the page, and all that fine print that no one ever reads. It's interesting to see what happens when newspaper ads are reduced to pure text. Robbed of their graphics, many of them read as laughably crass, though Goldsmith, following the original line breaks, manages to turn a few into skinny found poems. Funny things also happen to the graphs and charts that accompany some stories, as when a chart about drug use is turned into a column of meaningless numbers. Ironically, this all-text version of the Times underscores the importance of images and layout in print publishing. On one level, Day is a reversal of Sarah Charlesworth's Modern History (1977-79), which involved eliminating the text from newspaper front pages, leaving only the captionless, storyless photographs.
Even though his text was wholly appropriated, Goldsmith still had to make a lot of decisions about how he transcribed it. In particular, he had to decide how to sequence the stories and ads on any given page, and when to put in line breaks. Reading the actual paper, we are trained to follow a thread from one page to another and keep several stories half finished in our minds as we scan a page. By eliminating the countless, usually unremarked graphic hints that help this process, Goldsmith makes us aware of the strangely disjunctive nature of a newspaper's contents, much of which reads like the work of an avant-garde poet. For instance, this verbatim passage:
Yet they did, and the history they made is worth atAnother decision regarded the day of the week. I suspect it's no accident that Goldsmith chose a Friday edition, the one in which the Times runs its exhibition reviews, though since it's Sept. 1 and the art season hasn't gotten under way, there aren't a lot of them. Still, one can read about Mice Neel, Barbara Kruger, and an exhibition of figurative painting at Snug Harbor. There's also an ad for Eyestorm, the once high-flying dot,com venture that was going to revolutionize the art business by selling editioned art over the Internet, pitching a Damien Hirst print called Opium. It concludes: "To help kick-start your Hirst habit, order before the 7th Sept 2000 and you will also receive, absolutely free, a limited edition print of Damien's hallmark image With Dead Head (worth over $300)."
While it's nice to be reminded of the Neel, Kruger and Snug Harbor shows, and relish the schadenfreude occasioned by the Eyestorm ad, it's also stimulating to discover "new" information. The theater section has a capsule review of an interesting-sounding play about John Ruskin and his wife, called The Countess, which had previously escaped my notice, and film critic Stephen Holden pens a still timely piece titled "Can Art Cinema Survive Cruder Times?" There's a nice op-ed essay by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa about quitting smoking. This follows another op-ed piece on the debate about military readiness, in which, to today's reader, the word "terrorism" is glaringly absent. In a lighter mood, one can follow the travails of a 17year-old Australian tennis player who, during a match at the U.S. Open, cried as security guards "removed her stocky, bearded father off the grounds." For me, it was frustrating to see notices of events I wish I'd attended, such as a James Blood Ulmer performance at the nowdefunct jazz club Sweet Basil.
There must have been moments, particularly while typing out the stock quotes, when Goldsmith felt overwhelmed with the tedium of his chosen task and wondered whether he'd made some terrible mistake. Surely, he must have recognized his own situation when he copied the lead sentence of an article on Andre Agassi: "There are days when an adult goes to work and just doesn't feel like being there." But it's precisely by his devotion to this demanding project that Goldsmith brings new meaning to his material, something that never would have happened if he'd simply scanned the pages into his computer. Some readers might object that all the instances I've just raised, from the 9/11 connections to the James Ulmer concert, could just as well be discovered in the periodical room of a public library. Perhaps so, but few of us are inclined to spend time browsing through microfilms of four-year-old newspapers in library basements, and even if we were to do so, we would miss Goldsmith's embrace of the heterogeneous discourses that constitute a daily paper, and the way in which Day fits into the evolution of his brilliant oeuvre. Even more important, though, is how awareness of Goldsmith's efforts makes one pay a different kind of attention to these quotidian documents. After all, what is art if not a way of getting people to focus on phenomena they would otherwise ignore? Every time one opens Day, something thought-provoking seems to turn up. Of how many books can that be said?