«I look to theory when I realize that somebody has dedicated their entire life to a question I have only fleetingly considered. I used to be an ...»
John Cage used to say this his audience was perpetually students. He felt that as students, people have the time to engage with and try out ideas that, for a lack of a better word, we would term “countercultural.” But when they “grow up” and enter the “adult” world, such idealism is left behind when one is forced to deal with more practical matters.
I discovered that those who seldom dwell on their emotions know better than anyone else, just what an emotion is.
Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple.
Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.
When he was sought out by a budding aesthetician a few
years later, Duchamp memorably described his artistic goal:
“To grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina.” Creativity is about the most worn-out, abused concept that used to mean something remarkable, something that differentiated someone, something that made them special.
It’s a term that’s been usurped and reduced to a base concept that has come to stand for the opposite of creativity: mediocre, middle-of-the-road, acceptable, unadventurous, and so forth -- so that creativity is no longer creative. What was once creative is now uncreative.
Calling a practice uncreative is to reenergize it, opening creativity up to a whole slew of strategies that are in no way acceptable to creativity as it’s now known. These strategies include theft, plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition. By employing these methods, uncreativity can actually breathe life into the moribund notion of creativity as we know it.
The effectiveness of a work is measured by the number of people who see it.
The beauty of radio is its off-switch. No matter what comes across the airwaves -- no matter how annoying, absurd, or incongruous -- you can always turn it off. The off-switch is a tool of empowerment for both broadcaster and listener.
It allows the broadcaster to take chances; and it allows the listener to opt-out.
Andy Warhol said, when asked how he feels about his reviews: “I don’t read them. I just measure the column inches.” I keep a poor sound system so I can simply hear music, not fidelity. I can’t tell the difference between LPs, CDs, or MP3s.
One afternoon, UbuWeb received an email from the estate of John Cage with a cryptic note saying, “We know what you’re doing.” Wondering if this was a pre-cease and desist, I became perplexed and wondered how UbuWeb might continue to exist without the guiding light of Cage. I opened the Sound page and began scanning the endless lists of artists’ names for his. I couldn’t find it. I ran my eyes up and down and back and forth, still not able to find it. Finally, I did a search on the page and, at last, his name appeared. It was there the entire time, but surrounded by so many other stellar names, his seemed to fade into the texture of the page. It was then that I realized that if Cage’s name was, indeed, removed, nobody would ever notice he was missing.
Later, I got to know the author of the cryptic note. When I asked her about it, she smiled and said, “We were just letting you know we were watching.” When I asked her if she ever had any plans to sue UbuWeb, she shook her head and said, “No. Of course not. We don’t have that kind of money.” One Friday afternoon, we received a proper DMCA takedown notice from a well-known literary agency acting on behalf of the estate of William S. Burroughs. In proper legal parlance, the agency claimed that UbuWeb was breaking copyright on the materials of William S. Burroughs and insisted that we remove the following materials. What followed was a list, pages and pages long, of every place where the name William S. Burroughs appeared on the site. Cited were everything from academic papers, which mentioned his name, to liner notes of a pop artist who claimed that one of his songs was composed using the Burroughs cut-up method. In short, what the agency had done was plug the words “William S.
Burroughs” into the search engine and cut-and-pasted the entire list, claiming every instance as their property. The pièce de résistance was the final line on the takedown notice that, “Under penalty of perjury in a United States court of law, I state that the information contained in this notification is accurate.” As it turns out, all the materials of Burroughs we hosted did not belong to his estate, rather the copyrights were all held by various record companies and presses that published the works.
I replied to the email saying that, while I understood their intentions, they were going about it in the wrong way. I received a meek reply from an intern telling me that she was very sorry, that she was just acting under orders from a higher-up, and that come Monday morning, she would resend a revised list.
On Monday morning the revised list came and it was pretty much the same. I wrote back, saying, please send this note to the Burroughs estate: “William wrote, ‘Tristan Tzara said: ‘Poetry is for everyone.’ And André Breton called him a cop and expelled him from the movement. Say it again: ‘Poetry is for everyone.’’” We never heard from the literary agency nor the estate again. To this day, the works of William S. Burroughs are represented on UbuWeb in their full glory.
Many years ago, we were given a digitized version of the legendary avant-garde magazine from the 1960s, Aspen.
It’s a magnificent collection. In it are represented all the major figures of the 1960s in various forms: films, postcards, broadsides, tabletop sculptures, flexidiscs, and so forth.
The New York Times wrote up Ubu’s acquisition of it glowingly and asked Merce Cunningham how he felt about having his works on the site without his permission. Merce, addressing two MP3s of his on the site -- one interview and another spoken statement -- said that he was delighted. He claimed that the value of having his words available for educational purposes far outweighed any monetary value that the works would ever generate.
Several years later, after his death, I received a terribly nasty note from the Cunningham Foundation telling me that if I didn’t remove those MP3s they would move to take legal action against us. I politely emailed them back, telling them of how Merce publically stated his delight of their inclusion on the site and sending them the press clip as evidence. They wrote back an even angrier note threatening me, this time even more strongly. I then wrote to the fellow who digitized the collection and asked him to check the copyright on the flexidiscs from which the MP3s were ripped. He did, telling me that in no uncertain terms, the copyright was, indeed, held by Aspen, not by Merce Cunningham. I sent the foundation the scans as evidence and never heard from them again.
A few months later, I had a similar complaint from Yoko Ono’s people about her Aspen flexidisc MP3s. Cheekily, I asked my man to check the copyrights on her, figuring I’d have my second victory in a row. He wrote back saying that the copyright was, in fact, held by Yoko Ono and John Lennon and not by Aspen. I wrote back to Ono’s people asking for permission to keep the MP3s up on the site, as they were an important part of an historical collection.
They politely said they would ask Yoko. A day later they wrote back that she was delighted to have her work represented on UbuWeb. A second victory, achieved in a different way.
For many years, we have been collecting the works of Michael Snow -- his audio works, his writings and his films. At one point, we had about six or eight of his films up. One day we received an email from Michael Snow simply asking us to remove two of his films from the site but that it was okay to keep the rest. We saw this as a victory.
Having four films of Michael Snow’s with his permission beats a dozen without.
If we had to ask for permission, we wouldn’t exist.
UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avantgarde, but instead of taking from one and giving to the other, we feel that in the end, we’re giving to all.
UbuWeb is as much about the legal and social ramifications of its self-created distribution and archiving system as it is about the content hosted on the site. In a sense, the content takes care of itself; but keeping it up there has proved to be a trickier proposition. The socio-political maintenance of keeping free server space with unlimited bandwidth is a complicated dance, often interfered with by darts thrown at us by individuals calling foul-play on copyright infringement. Undeterred, we keep on: after nearly two decades years, we’re still going strong.
But by the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone.
Never meant to be a permanent archive, Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our ISP pulls the plug, our university support dries up, or we simply grow tired of it.
Acquisition by a larger entity is impossible: nothing is for sale.
You might remember the climax of the film 24 Hour Party People (2002) where a large record conglomerate swoops in to buy the stubbornly independent Factory Records for millions of pounds. Factory head Tony Wilson produces a document sworn in blood stating that the bands own the rights to all their material; the record execs grin madly as they walk away with the Factory’s catalog for free.
Wilson muses in the coda that, although it was financially worthless, Factory Records was a great success, a fantastic conceptual art project, full of integrity, one that never had to make a single compromise. UbuWeb is similar except unlike pop music, what we host has never made money.
The music of Jean Dubuffet. It’s wonderful stuff: musique brute meets electronic music. Users of UbuWeb love the music of Jean Dubuffet. Later they find out that he’s also a painter.
On UbuWeb, we host Julian Schnabel’s little known country music album. It seems that while casting around for his next move after his brilliant career as a painter and before his even more brilliant career as a film director, he considered becoming a musician. It’s a good thing he thought better of it.
While you won’t find reproductions of Dalí’s paintings on UbuWeb, you will find a 1967 recording of an advertisement he made for a bank.
UbuWeb stumbled into the avant-garde. We began as a repository for visual and concrete poetry. When sound came along, we began hosting files of sound poetry as well.
But once we encoded the works of John Cage, we stumbled.
Cage often read his poetry accompanied by aleatoric orchestral works, making it both sound poetry and 20th century classical. Throwing our hands up in the air, we had no choice but to simply call it “avant-garde,” and we proceeded forward from there.
We really don’t know what the avant-garde is. It changes every day.
When we began using the word “avant-garde,” it was still verboten, having been dropped during the 1970s and 1980s for its patriarchal and militaristic connotations. As time went on, it became an orphaned term, open for reinvestigation and reinterpretation. We picked it up, soiled it, made it impure.
On UbuWeb’s film section we feature the works of Samuel Beckett and Captain Beefheart. It’s hard to imagine any other place where both names appear -- certainly not in the music, literary, or art worlds -- but somehow it makes sense. You can’t imagine Captain Beefheart ever having existed if it weren’t for the influence of Samuel Beckett.
This is the secret history of the avant-garde.
One day in the mail, I received the most wonderful book of visual poems. They were the most intricate and detailed pieces I’d ever seen: dense weavings of words that all added up to striking images. And as if that weren’t enough, all of the poems doubled as autobiography, embedded with strange stories from the author’s life. But perhaps the most incredible thing was that they were all made in an early version of Microsoft Word.
I corresponded with the poet, a man named David Daniels and was later lucky enough to meet him -- by then a craggy old man with a long, white beard -- and hear his story.
In the 1950s, he was an up-and-coming New York School Abstract expressionist painter. Bound for stardom, one night at a party he said the wrong thing to de Kooning -- he wouldn’t tell me any more details -- and was expelled from the group. Shattered, he dutifully obeyed and left New York, landing in Boston.
Lost and miserable, he drifted aimlessly though the streets of Boston, looking for a direction. Unable to find one, he decided to cast his life to the wind by simply saying “yes” to anything that anyone asked him. It turns out at that moment he was walking through Cambridge, when a young panhandler asked him, “Can you spare a dime?” David answered “Yes” and gave him the money. The panhandler looked at him again and asked, “Can you spare a quarter?” to which David responded in kind. This was followed by a request for a dollar and then five -- all which David handed over -- whereupon the fellow asked him if he could spend the night at his house. David acquiesced. Before long, David had a roommate. As word got out among the young panhandlers, dropouts, acid-heads, and hippies, David’s house became a commune and remained one of the largest in Cambridge throughout the 1960s. Whoever needed a place to crash asked David, who always, true to his promise, responded “yes.” The house became a hub of activity, much of it illegal. When a prostitute asked him if she could turn tricks there, David said yes. Later, one of the many prostitutes who became fond of David asked her to marry him, he said yes. He also said yes when she asked him whether she could have his children.
Over the years, David found himself in the position of being a counselor to these young people, many of whom were MIT and Harvard dropouts. He would hold group therapy sessions, giving sage advice. He became a sort of a guru.
And over the years, he simply forgot about his art.
By the late 1970s, the commune was breaking up. Drugs had taken their toll and at the dawn of the 1980s, with the appearance of AIDS, there was further devastation. One day David got a call from one of the earliest members of the commune who, at this time, was residing on the West Coast, and was involved in computers. He suggested that David relocate to the Bay Area.