by Kathryn Mockler
“…capitalism has a knack for devouring and absorbing everything in its path—including any critique of capitalism.” (from Notes on Conceptualisms)
When I taught an experimental writing course to undergraduates this past winter my students and I were most surprised to discover, through some of the class exercises, the extent to which we are not free to express ourselves. There is a disconnection between our perception of our rights and freedoms and what we are actually allowed to do and say. Unless we are trying to push these boundaries, it is often something that goes unnoticed.
I adapted an assignment from Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing and asked the students to do a non-permanent graffiti project in which they were to put an outdated slogan or old quote in a public place and document it with a photograph. One student tried to put up a sticky note in a lingerie store with the Picasso quote: “What is beauty anyway? There’s no such thing.” She tried to put the note “among all the sparkly bras” but got kicked out of the store. She went to Chapters and tried to put the note beside the beauty magazines but got kicked out. Then she went to a grocery store and tried to put it beside some beauty products and got kicked out again. In a final attempt, before class, she tried to put the note on the mirror in the women’s washroom on campus but “behold,” the student says, “a wild custodian” appeared and threatened to call the campus police. Finally giving up, she says, “I took down my art and left.”
What begins as a simple and, somewhat familiar, criticism of beauty, sexuality, and commercial culture, quickly becomes a project about freedom of expression as the student soon realizes, through the failure of being able to execute her initial idea, that there are limitations to expression and not even the bathroom of the school where she pays tuition is a permissible site of critique.
The knee-jerk reaction my student received reminds me of some of the responses to Kenneth Goldsmith’s project Printing Out the Internet, which he describes as “a crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.” He has asked contributors to mail sections to LABOR art gallery in Mexico. There was even an online petition to try and stop him from doing it because of the potential environmental impact of the project. I’m not entirely unconvinced that Goldsmith didn’t start the petition himself because it fits so nicely into the narrative of his concept and has helped generate a lot of discussion.
But even if Kenneth Goldsmith had extended his deadline 10 times, he would not have been able to print out the entire internet. Sure, some people have printed out some pages—there was even an attempt to print out the entire YouPorn database—but not to the point of environmental catastrophe. (Incidentally, if we are going to talk about the waste of production, let’s talk about the real polluters—the corporations, the frackers, the pipeline pushers, the governments who peg environmentalists as terrorists—not to mention the entire film industry. And what about all those aspiring writers printing out manuscripts that may never get published? Should we bar them from wasting paper too?)
But rather than have a discussion on the environmental ethics of the project. I’m interested in other conversations Printing Out the Internet initiates. Like the conceptual writing tradition in which this work is situated, the “success” of Goldsmith being able to fulfill his objective is a secondary consideration for the artist. In “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing” where he outlines characteristics of the conceptual writing movement, Goldsmith writes:
The idea itself, even if not made apparent, is as much a work of art as any finished product. All intervening steps—sketches, drafts, failed attempts, versions, studies, thoughts, conversations—are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the writer are sometimes more interesting than the final product.
Saying that you’re going to try to print out the entire internet is like saying you are going to try to live forever. It just can’t be done. So why then should we bother to participate in such a futile gesture?
In Notes on Conceptualisms, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman maintain that the aim of appropriated conceptual writing is not to “critique the culture industry from afar, but to mirror it directly. To do so, it uses the materials of the culture industry directly.” Therefore by reframing the internet—by changing its essence from fluid to concrete—and asking us look at it from a different point of view, Goldsmith is holding up a mirror and turning on a light so that we may see ourselves more clearly. The discussion arising from this reflection helps us to analyze and critique the culture.
Printing Out The Internet asks us to look at something right in front of our faces that we don’t talk about in a meaningful way. It asks us to look at how being online plays a role our lives and what it means to make something as intangible and all encompassing as the internet into something tangible (a printed sheet of paper) in an era when everything is digital and many are lamenting the death of the book as physical object?
In 1998 when I first started using the internet and email regularly, I printed out all my significant email correspondence and organized it in binders by the name of each sender. I was writing screenplays at the time and printed out feature-length scripts from Drew’s Script-O-Rama. Once I even printed out the entire Moviebytes screenplay contest database. While this is now laughable, at the time, email accounts had limited space and computer systems felt unstable and impermanent. I had a gut reaction that if someone could put all this good stuff out there then they could also take it away. Paper was concrete while computer data seemed abstract. I carted those binders around for several years and eventually threw them out—recycled them, which is what Goldsmith plans to do with the content he receives at the culmination of his project. But in the meantime, while the documentation is being gathered, let’s think about why Printing Out the Internet might be worth examining after all.
Printing Out the Internet is an ostentatious premise. It’s larger than Goldsmith’s own UbuWeb, larger than Amazon or Google. It includes every email, every tweet, every e-book, every website from every country in the world and much more. It’s no wonder the idea gets under people’s skin. To say you are going to print out all of that data is just…well, kind of…obnoxious.
But Goldsmith doesn’t want us to just print out the internet, he wants us to talk about printing out the internet because for him, the process (the conversation) is just as important as the final goal or product.
We’ve reached a point in the life of the internet where corporations and governments are closing in. Our privacy, the security of our information, and the ability to keep a neutral playing field in terms of how content is delivered by the telecommunications industry are all at risk. I can’t think of a better time to print out the internet and do a close reading of what we have created and what we stand to lose. Perhaps Printing Out the Internet is really just asking us to stop, reflect, and for a moment, get our heads out of the sand—rather than to literally print it out.
In Printing Out the Internet, like much conceptual writing, the subjective or creative act takes place in what the artists or participants choose to include or leave out from this vast and continuously expanding amount of data. If you decided you were going to print out a section of the internet, what would it be? My 1998 “printing out of the internet” consisted of things I wanted to hold on to for nostalgic reasons or information I deemed as useful to me as a dictionary. Each day as I moved from web browsing to email, I felt like I was in a perpetual state of escaping a burning house, always evaluating what I should take with me and what I should leave to the flames. Sometimes YouTube still feels like that, and I often download videos I’m worried will get taken down. If I were to print out a section of the internet today and send it to LABOR gallery, I might go back to the scarcity model motivating me in the late 1990s and print out something I valued and feared losing like the entirety of Archive.org.
What would you choose and what would that choice say about the current social, political, or economic climate or about your perception of the internet and its stability? Think about what the internet looked like in 1994, 1998, 2002 and how our relationship with it has changed. How would this project have been executed when access to the internet was mostly limited to those affiliated with universities or government? Before images? Before the mainstream use of social networks?
Whether we like it or not, the internet is ubiquitous. It is where we conduct much of our trade and participate in many of our social interactions. People live and die online. Earlier this year web activist, Aaron Swartz, tragically took his own life when he was facing a heavy prison sentence for downloading academic articles and disseminating them. Goldsmith has dedicated Printing Out the Internet to the memory of Aaron Swartz, a gesture that suggests this project is more than a joke or publicity stunt.
The recent protests in Turkey demonstrate how those in power see the internet—in its current form—as a threat. A peaceful rally in response to Istanbul’s Gezi Park being demolished for a military complex and shopping mall turns into a violent clash. In trying to protect the land against government and corporate interest, ordinary citizens become enemies of the state. It was reported that social networks had been blocked during the height of the protests. The Turkish government denies this; however, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has since deemed Twitter a “menace” and is now trying to enact laws against internet crimes and pressuring social media companies to comply with requests to release information. Turkish citizens are in a position where they must rely on corporations (Facebook and Twitter) to protect them from their own government. What was once a simple way to connect with friends has become a storehouse of information that governments can use against its citizens. This is a chilling reminder that the internet is not ours and it is not free.
We have willingly fed the Internet’s insatiable appetite for information for about twenty years now. Our ease of access to this information and to our ability to rapidly communicate with each other is something that we’ve not only grown accustomed to, but also something we’ve taken for granted. It has fundamentally changed our lives and, some argue, it is even changing the way we think. It is my guess that in years to come the internet is going to be a very different place and likely much more controlled than it already is. If we’ve so easily consented to handing over our personal information and to constantly being surveilled then likely we will consent to whatever shape or form governments and corporations decide that the internet will take—according to what is in their best interest.
Perhaps we should see Goldsmith’s project not as one of triviality, spectacle, or waste, but rather as a vital (even if temporary) documentation and as a form of protest to keep the internet free, in so much that it is. Why print out the internet? Because we can, for now, and because maybe we should.
The exhibition of Printing Out the Internet runs from July 26, 2013 to August 26, 2013 at LABOR gallery in Mexico City.
Fitterman, Robert and Place, Vanessa, Notes on Conceptualisms. New York: Ugly Ducking Press, 2009. Print.
Goldsmith, Kenneth, “Paragraphs on Conceptualism.” Penn Sound, EPC. Web.