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by Kenneth Goldsmith

UbuWeb: An Accidental Archive

Andy Warhol was a massive hoarder, a voracious collector, and a compulsive shopper. After his death, his six-story Upper East Side townhouse was crammed to the gills with unopened boxes of coats, watches, diamonds, rugs – you name it – piled up in rooms so stuffed you could barely enter them. Many of Warhol’s purchases were still in boxes that he never opened. From the time he moved into the townhouse in 1974 until his death in 1987, he continued to accumulate until only the kitchen and one bedroom functioned as anything other than storerooms.

A year after he died, all of Warhol’s possessions were laid out for all to see on huge tables at Sotheby’s in New York: the whole thing – six thousand items, divided into 2500 lots, from cookie jars to precious gems – generated $25 million, laying the foundation for The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. A Sotheby’s Senior Vice President was charged with cataloguing and inventorying all the objects at Warhol’s home. While the home's front rooms were neat and nattily decorated, the back rooms were stuffed. She recalled that ‘The picking up of the property was a tale all unto itself... There were drawings in one of the bureaus in one of Andy's bedrooms... I just opened the bureau drawer, and there were envelopes. There was a mailing envelope – a manila envelope – that had his address and Cy Twombly's return address. It had been opened, so I took it out. It was a Twombly drawing addressed to Andy, and it was around the time that he had been shot and was recovering... It was a beautiful, beautiful Twombly drawing.…’[1] The cache included everything from thousands of pieces of Russel Wright pottery to valuable artworks by Man Ray, Duchamp, and Rauschenberg.[2]

As in life, so in art. Warhol’s endless recycling of images were based upon things he clipped from newspapers and magazines that were collected, reprocessed, and archived by Warhol himself. These tendencies culminated in his Time Capsules (1974–87), where the distinctions between collecting, curating, archiving, and hoarding collapse into an artistic practice. The Time Capsules consisted of 610 cardboard boxes which Warhol filled with stuff, sealed, signed, numbered and sent off to a New Jersey storage facility.

Beginning in 1974, he kept an open box next to his desk at his 860 Broadway studio, into which he tossed whatever came his way, from envelopes containing tens of thousands of dollars in cash, to nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis, to a mummified human foot belonging to ancient Egyptian, to a 45 rpm test-pressing of a Ramones single signed by Joey Ramone, to a McDonalds Big Mac wrapper – and that’s just a fraction of the trash and treasures contained within.

How exactly were they assembled? In his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1985), he gives us a hint:

What you should do is get a box for a month, and drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up. Then date it and send it over to Jersey. You should try to keep track of it, but if you can't and you lose it, that's fine, because it's one less thing to think about, another load off your mind. Tennessee Williams saves everything up in a trunk and then sends it out to a storage place. I started off myself with trunks and the odd pieces of furniture, but then I went around shopping for something better and now I just drop everything into the same-size brown cardboard boxes that have a color patch on the side for the month of the year.[3]

Unpacking and indexing these boxes for the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where they themselves are archived, was a tremendous amount of work that was usually performed by three persons: one to remove the objects from the box, another to painstakingly describe each object, and a third to enter all the archival information into a database. In the most Warholian manner, each and every item – be it diamonds or Kleenex – was catalogued with the identical care. Some boxes were stuffed with so many things that they took several months to catalogue.

Warhol’s Time Capsules are a kind of folk archiving, one that takes no real expertise or training but grows organically through a mixture of process, accumulation, and desire. As I have written previously, ‘The alt-librarian Rick Prelinger has proclaimed archiving as a new folk art, something that is widely practiced and has unconsciously become integrated into a great many people's lives, potentially transforming a necessity into a work of art.’[4] There’s something about the Time Capsules that resonates with the digital age, when many of us, like Warhol, have become accidental archivists by accruing artifacts in a voracious, yet almost unconscious way. Think of the way that vast amount of digital artifacts – voice memos, airline tickets, tax certificates, PDFs, paystubs, photos, and so forth – accumulate daily in our Downloads folder, similar to the way that flotsam and jetsam accrued in the Time Capsules. If we so desired, we could easily posit our Downloads folder as a work of archival art, as Warhol did his boxes. Similarly, we could envision our furious sharing of artifacts on social media as a type of public folk archiving, be it the amassing of photos on Instagram, the aggregation of LPs on MP3 blogs, or adding to the groaning archives of YouTube. To paraphrase Andy, in the future, everyone will be a world-famous archivist for 15 minutes.


Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 262. Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (warhol.org)

Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 262. Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (warhol.org)


Opening and cataloguing Warhol’s Time Capsules. Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (warhol.org)

Opening and cataloguing Warhol’s Time Capsules. Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (warhol.org)


This was exactly they way that UbuWeb grew. There was never any plan to build an archive, instead it was accidental, perhaps closer to a assembling a cabinet of curiosities or gathering a butterfly collection. When I first flung a few concrete poems onto a server in 1996 (not too different than the way Warhol flung objects into his boxes), I just wanted to see how they looked. It was shortly after the graphical web’s appearance, and the novelty of seeing images on the web was still fresh. I thought the poems looked great so I told a few friends to have a look and let me know what they thought. They liked them, so I scanned a few more.

I had a few paperbound books of concrete poetry anthologies, and grabbed the images from them. Before long, I had scanned and uploaded those books and found myself with a little digital archive of concrete poetry. In this way, UbuWeb began as a compilation of compilations, an anthology of anthologies. My shelves were groaning with books and records that anthologized the avant garde. I took those as a roadmap and folded them into the site. Like unbinding a book into a stack of pages or turning an LP into a series of singles, unboxing those artifacts set them free from their original contexts, making them available to other types of narratives. Sorted alphabetically in sections like Sound, Film & Video, Contemporary, or Historical, they were able to engage in a dialogue with their neighbors in ways that were nearly impossible when locked into their original formats. On UbuWeb, for instance, Weegee’s films are alphabetically snuggled up next Carrie Mae Weems’s; it feels natural – after all, both are renowned photographers – but rarely are those two names mentioned in the same breath.

It wasn’t long before I had a substantial archive of the avant-garde on my hands. But in the mid-90s, there was something still verboten about the term avant garde, reeking of patriarchy, hegemony, and militarization. Giving voice to these concerns, Dick Higgins wrote, ‘It is because of the assumption that this organization was somehow masculine that the question of sexism was raised in the form it was, asking if the very concept of an avant-garde, which relates to the military metaphor of advance troops coming before the main body, is masculine.’[5] Kimberly Jannarone concurred: ‘The term “avant-garde” – coming to us from the military and first applied to the arts around World War I – is heavily weighted by historical and political critical baggage. [....] Indeed, the historical avant-garde often relied on sexist, racist, primitivist, and imperialist notions.’[6] And it’s true even today: witness how Italy’s far right wing party Casa Pound named itself after Ezra Pound, even emblazing images of him across their posters. Or how Putin’s main ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, reputedly took techniques from his days as an avant garde theater producer and used them to sow confusion, discord, and chaos – exactly what the avant garde excelled at – into political situations.

While all of this is undeniably true, my innate sense of the avant garde was muddier and more complicated. I’m thinking of the many artists who dissembled received notions of ‘avant garde’ as part and parcel of their avant garde practices such as Cornelius Cardew, Amiri Baraka, Musica Elettronica Viva, or Henry Flynt. Others took the idea of avant garde in other directions previous excluded from the canon. My mid-century avant garde pantheon includes artists like Moondog, Marie Mencken, Harry Partch, Daphne Oram, Conlon Nancarrow, Alice B. Toklas, and Sun Ra. Driven by outsiders and visionaries, my avant garde reveled in eccentricity, impurity, and innovative formal experimentation. And at the same time, I loved the canon contained within those books I unbound, including James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, or Pablo Picasso. But most of all, I loved it when they all got jumbled together on UbuWeb. Sparks flew when Henry Miller collided with Ana Mendieta, Karlheinz Stockhausen with Hito Steyerl, Fatboy Slim with The Situationist International, or F.T. Marinetti with Trinh T. Minh-ha, each nudging, reflecting, and shading their neighbors in unpredictable and destabilizing ways.

Sometimes the dead patriarchs’ works were the basis for new works by contemporary artists that self-reflexively deconstruct and critique older notions of the avant garde. I’m thinking of one artist, Takayuki Nakano who goes down into his Tokyo basement every Wednesday night and screams out Finnegans Wake at the top of his lungs, accompanying himself on drums. He’s taped hundreds of hours of it. Or a poet who took it upon himself to read aloud and record all 900-plus pages of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans; he quickly became bored and started howling the book like an alley cat, page after page, until he completed his task. These gestures defuse some of the accusations hurled at the avant garde, making it playful and funny, fodder for deconstructing and remixing. And all of these things lived happily together on my book and record shelves. Why wouldn’t they do so on UbuWeb? Our avant garde is vast and inclusive, moving as far as possible from the ‘patriarchal, militaristic, racist, and imperialistic’ model. I liked the idea of taking a discredited or orphaned term like ‘avant garde’ and using it against its bad history in order to reimagine it, similar to the way that AIDS activists in the 1980s détourned the Nazis’ pink triangle into a symbol of liberation.

Each time the site expanded, I tried to keep pushing things in this direction. When we were approached by a bookseller who had digitized the full run of Aspen magazine, our site was flooded with dozens of artists spanning various genres, timeframes, and practices – the jazzmen Yank Lawson and Peanuts Hucko playing ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ snuggled up against Richard Huelsenbeck intoning dada poems. When we partnered with Bidoun, a quarterly publication founded with the intention of filling the gaping hole of arts and culture coverage in the Middle East and its diaspora, we found ourselves awash in the electronic music of Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu, the performance films of Armenian artist Hamlet Hovsepian, the Radio Tehran Sessions of Forough Farrokhzad, and the animations of Iranian illustrator Ali Akbar Sadeghi. And when we built a section dedicated to Ethnopoetics, Chippewa Songs & Song Pictures, Shaker Visual Poetry, and Indonesian Ketjack seeped into the archive.

But while the archive expanded in many directions, there was some places where I refused to let it go. While we host John Lennon’s radio plays, we’d never host an MP3 of the avant-tinged ‘Blue Jay Way’. It’s too pop, too available, and besides, we’d probably get sued out of our brains if we did. Instead, we host two remixed, warped, and looped versions of the song, one by The Big City Orchestra, who did a whole album of Beatles reworkings, and another by John Oswald, the founder of plunderphonics. I’m not certain of what the limits of the avant garde is, but it’s that uncertainty that makes it work. UbuWeb lacks objectivity, expertise, theoretical justification, and historical accuracy. I could be wrong, but something tells me that those certainties were what gave the avant garde a bad rap in the first place.

If there’s any correlative as to how UbuWeb was curated, it would be the model of record collecting. The amateur record collector is driven by curiosity and whim, more than by any specific agenda. One band tends to lead to another, and while a few bands are collected in depth, most of the collecting is scattershot and wide – a record by this band, a record by that band. Sometimes one genre leads to another, pulling the collector into new directions (I remember how Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ opened my ears to Arabic music). While some collectors are sticklers for perfection, most are happy to live with a record marked by a few scratches or a dinged cover; and while there are serious audiophiles, most are content listening to a smartphone connected to a USB speaker. Record collectors tend to pick up their music in odd places, scouring flea markets, garage sales, attics, and thrift shops, as much as they shop in stores. The process of collecting adopts a rhizomatic rhythm; sometimes years will pass before picking up another record by a band that was heavily collected in the past. A record collection resembles a library in that LPs sit on shelves for years between plays, not unlike the way books languish for decades between check-outs. On occasion, the collection grows quickly and in unexpected directions, like when a friend gives you all their discs because they no longer have a player. All these attributes of record collecting translate equally well to downloading MP3s on the web.

This is exactly the way that UbuWeb grew – by curiosity, intuition, and sensibility, rather than by rules, rigor, and dogma. One thing led to another and we simply followed those leads. We never cared much for quality either. A lot of our films are digital ghosts of umpteenth generation VHS rips that someone shot with a camcorder off a TV late one night decades ago. Ubu’s artifacts are flawed, filled with stops, stutters, and glitches.

Sometimes, a film will only contain a portion of its whole; other times, a film that is supposed to have sound doesn't have any at all – or else it’s accompanied by the wrong soundtrack entirely. I don’t want to fetishize bad media – should a better copy come our way, we’ll upgrade it. But sadly, because the materials we deal with are so obscure, what we host is often the only copy that exists. Our materials seem to flow to us from everywhere – off our shelves, from record stores, file-sharing sites, and blogs. Sometimes people gave us enormous collections, like the time we absorbed a two-terabyte collection of hundreds of bootlegged artists’ videos that a collector donated to us, expanding the archive in unpredictable ways.

Like any record collection, there are huge gaps in UbuWeb. Artists that should be here are missing; and even the artists’ whose works we have a lot of are far from complete, consisting of several random videos or albums, simply because that’s what floated up on file-sharing. If an artist gives us some videos, they never give us all their videos – we just get a few. We don’t ask why they decided to share those, instead we gratefully absorb them into the collection. File-sharing is tidal; some days the flow brings in massive hauls, and other times, only a stray artifact or two washes ashore. Like the scavengers we are, we pick them up, shake off the dust, and post them.

Although she’s describing Warhol’s way of assembling, the legal scholar Amy Adler gets at the heart of what I’m trying to do with UbuWeb when she writes:

We used to think of an artist as someone who sat in nature or in his garret, working alone to create something new from the whole cloth. But now that we are bombarded by images, the most important artist may be the one who can sit through other people's art (or trash), the one who functions like a curator, and editor, or even a thief. In a world with a surfeit of images, perhaps the greatest artist is not the one who makes an image but the one who knows which image to take: to sort through the sea of images in which we are now drowning and choose the one that will float. Warhol as usual was among those who saw this first; as a critic explained, Warhol realized that the most critical piece of making art had become ‘choosing the right source image.’[7]

I prefer Adler’s word ‘choosing’ to the overused word ‘curating’. Curating gets us back into the realm of certainty, expertise, exclusivity, and assuredness – the exact things I wished to destabilize with UbuWeb. Same with big words like ‘Library’, or ‘Archive’, Maybe we can swap these out for smaller ones: ‘wunderkammer’, ‘collection’, or ‘assembling’. Or, if we have to use those words, maybe we can add rejoinders: An unstable library. A conflicted curation. An accidental archive. UbuWeb was assembled by embracing the fragmented, the biased, the subjective, and the incomplete. This is not like that. An algorithm isn’t capable of sensibility; it can’t replicate the capriciousness of human taste. When accretion isn’t mandated to proceed by logical order, other narratives become possible. Alternative or folk models of gathering – jumble sales, boot sales, garage sales, flea markets, time capsules – represent a new type of archive for the precise reason that machines still are not capable of gathering artifacts in perversely illogical and intuitive ways.

In the end, we do this to preserve that which we love; in doing so, we write our own histories because nobody is writing them for us. As the assembler and poet Charles Bernstein says, ‘I don’t have faith that mainstream interests will preserve protect and defend any of this work. For me, the activity of archiving allows it to exist. If we didn’t do this, it would be entirely lost. What would be preserved would be mainstream work, official verse culture. That is my work. You can’t separate out my essays from my poetry, editing, and organizing alternative forms of exchange. Can you create spaces for cultural exchange outside of the dominant killing forces?’[8]

Kenneth Goldsmith (USA) is the founder of the online resource of avant garde art and sound, UbuWeb.com. He is the author and editor of over twenty books and teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In May 2011, he was invited to read at President Obama's ‘Celebration of American Poetry’ at the White House, where he also held a poetry workshop with First Lady Michelle Obama. In 2013, he was named as the inaugural Poet Laureate of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. His most recent book is Wasting Time on the Internet, a meditation on digital culture.


[1] http://www.sothebys.com/en/news-video/blogs/all-blogs/21-days-of-andy-warhol/2013/11/andy-warhol-estate-sale.html, November 14, 2018

[2] http://articles.latimes.com/1988-02-21/entertainment/ca-44010_1_andy-warhol-estate, November 14, 2018

[3] Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to and Back Again (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).

[4] Goldsmith, Kenneth. Wasting Time on the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), p. 96.

[5] Dick Higgins: Modernism Since Postmodernism: Essays on Intermedia (San Diego: San Diego State UP, 1997), p. 30.

[6] Kimberly Jannarone: "The Political Fallacy of Vanguard Performance," Vanguard Performance Beyond Left and Right (U Michigan, 2015), p. 6

[7] Adler, Amy. “Fair Use and the Future of Art.” New York University Law Review, Vol. 91, June 2016, p. 572.

[8] Charles Bernstein in conversation with the author, September 24, 2017.

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