UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art