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Archives, Access, and the Sounds of New York City: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith

Many Radio Survivor readers are no doubt familiar with Kenneth Goldsmith’s work as the host of “Kenny G’s Hour of Pain” on the freeform radio station WFMU. Goldsmith hosted weekly radio programs at the station for fifteen years, from 1995 until 2010. In 2005 he commented on WFMU and its role as an experimental and freeform medium:

WFMU is an extraordinary place and as long as you don’t violate FCC codes, you are literally free to do what you want. I wanted to take advantage of this freedom to see how far I could take it. I’m still pushing the boundaries and with each passing year, I seem to discover yet more ways that radio can be experimental.”

Goldsmith is also an advocate for pushing the boundaries of knowledge distribution. His  “Uncreative Writing” course at the University of Pennsylvania forces students to “plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own.”

He is the founding editor of UbuWeb, an online archive of avant-garde texts, images, and sounds, crafted in response to various legal and commercial limits to the distribution of intellectual property and creativity. Currently, Goldsmith is completing Capital, his rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade’s Project that is set in New York City (and he shares an excerpt about the sounds of New York City below). As a proponent of freedom in both the fields of broadcasting and archiving, Goldsmith makes a compelling case for open access and the significant role of curators in the digital age.

Radio Survivor: Hi Kenneth. Thank you very much for taking some time to answering some questions about archives and radio. I’ll begin by asking about the Radio Preservation Task Force, for which you are a listed as a participant for an upcoming conference at the Library of Congress (Fall 2015). A central aim of the RPTF is to produce an online and accessible finding aid that points to radio recordings and radio-related archival holdings. As well, a goal is to encourage the development of additional archival efforts such as digitization, online access, and metadata analytics. As a prominent advocate of the internet as a space that defines contemporary language and culture – “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist” – what might you say about the importance of digital archives or online archival finding aids?

Kenneth Goldsmith: If I am researching a subject, I will google it, even if it’s sitting on a shelf five feet away from me. If I can’t index it and if it isn’t portable, it doesn’t exist. Streaming media is not good enough; everything must be downloadable. The cloud is a farce, privatized and corporatized and capitalized, subject to political and capitalistic whims. Free is never free. Control your own servers. If you love something, download it. Use the cloud; abuse the cloud; but don’t trust it.

Radio Survivor: UbuWeb is a fantastic example of an open and online resource and archive of avant-garde poetic and visual art. And you’ve explained before, UbuWeb is not concerned about archiving or about the future but rather it’s about provocation and an invitation for “someone to actually come along and do it right.” What happens to our understanding of an archive when it moves from a physical place to an online space or from a physical document or analog recording to a digital file?

Goldsmith: The web is nothing more than amateurs; the inmates are running the asylum. Institutions, accreditation and the ensuing taxonomies are finished. Passion and whim rule; the best institutions are wunderkammers. All web institutions are false — but in turn are becoming the new institutions. Outside in / upside down.

Radio Survivor: Within higher education there is a lot of discussion and debate about free and open access to scholarly work. In fact, one Radio Survivor reader left a comment on my first post for this series, asking that any papers or work that I link to be open access since many readers do not have access through an academic institution. You’ve been called an archive activist by Dazed magazine (and one of their thirty favorite American curators). What is an archive activist?

Goldsmith: An archive activist is someone who does what they do without asking permission or securing funds. They simple do it — and then let the world deal with the fact that it is done. If we had to ask for permission, we wouldn’t exist.

Radio Survivor: What should be the mandate of archives and of academic research in terms of making research more accessible?

Goldsmith: Put everything online for free.

Radio Survivor: I would love to hear a bit about your contribution to WFMU, to online sound archives, and about your thoughts on the Radio Preservation Task Force. As I’m sure many readers are aware, WFMU hosts archived playlists, lists of artists that DJs such as yourself have played, and the station is a curator for the Free Music Archive. How might the internet continue to transform radio in productive ways?

Goldsmith: I’m not sure as I’m out of the radio game. Radio is still important because even though everything is available, you still need someone to show you what is what, the good from the bad. In other words, abundance means nothing without filtering, taste and aesthetic. UbuWeb is good for this as well. Although these artifacts can be found in numerous places on the web now, what differentiates Ubu or WFMU is the contextualization and passion that knowledgeable people bring to it.

Radio Survivor: You have served as a curator for The American Century Part II at the Whitney Museum of American Art and you’ve compiled a great list of contributions to the history of sound art in “Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art.” In what ways has radio contributed to sound art? Or, could radio play a more active role in sound art?

Goldsmith: Radio is distribution and distribution trumps content. So radio remains vital as such.

Radio Survivor: Finally, you’re working on Capital, a rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project with New York City as the subject. I understand that you’ve been searching through libraries and second hand stores in order to conduct research for this project. Have you discovered any fragments that might tell us something about the role of sound or radio in mapping New York City?

Goldsmith: I have an entire chapter devoted to what NYC sounded like in the 20th century. Every time a sound is mentioned in literature, I grabbed it.

An excerpt:

The whistlings of the ferries. Roche, “Déja-Vu,” in Burning City, p. 404.

Ferry blasts shatter and break on the Wall Street skyscraper fronts. Berger, The Eight Million, p. 84.

From under the bridge tugboats moan in pain. Conrad, Art of the City, p. 239.

There are no steamship blasts but loud now are the hoarse piping of tugs, the yap of ferries with homeward-bound crowds. The WPA Guide to New York City, p. 51.

I heard the Queen Mary blow one midnight, though, and the sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss. White, Here is New York, p. 22.


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