Aug 23, 2008
Kenneth Goldsmith: the New York Trilogy
Kenneth Goldsmith’s “conceptual writing” has been the subject of some debate in recent years, much of it fuelled by Goldsmith’s provocative and quotable quotes. In interviews and theoretical essays, Goldsmith refers to his writing as “boring”, “unreadable”, “uncreative”, and even describes himself as “the most boring writer that has ever lived” (from Goldsmith’s Conceptual Writing Journal. See also the extensive bibliography on his EPC site). While such quotes make “controversial” copy for literary journals and fodder for online debates, it seems that much of the critical material on his writing is actually framed by Goldsmith’s own terms. He has shaped the discussion of his own work so that it focuses almost exclusively on the creative processes he uses and his theories about them. To emphasize this focus on the process rather than the end product, Goldsmith stated recently: “You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.” (Conceptual Writing Journal) Given that the author died some time late last century, why are we still intent on granting authority to his (sic) ghostly voice? In the following reading of Goldsmith’s recently completed Trilogy – comprising the books Weather (2005), Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008) – I want to put aside Goldsmith’s framing of his work as merely conceptual processes and instead attempt to read the unreadable.
The process common to all three books of the Trilogy is transcription: transferring oral language into written language. In Weather, Goldsmith transcribes a year’s worth of daily weather reports from a radio station; in Traffic, he transcribes a twenty-four hour period of traffic reports at ten minute intervals; and in Sports, he transcribes an entire Yankees-Red Sox baseball commentary. This kind of appropriation and reframing has many precedents in twentieth century creative (or uncreative, if you will) practice, and Goldsmith himself has pointed out many of these — Dada, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Pop Art, Language Poetry — in fact, Goldsmith’s remarkable Ubuweb can be seen as an ongoing charting of this territory. While the idea of creativity as simply recontextualizing something already out there in the world seems hardly revolutionary in the visual art world, for some reason poetry, at least in its popular understanding, seems inextricably linked to individual expression. Poetry has remained, for some at least, the last bastion of the personal, the private, the intimate and the profound. If we were to adopt this definition of poetry as profound and personal, Goldsmith’s transcriptions of public voices communicating everyday information would seem boring and trivial. But are Goldsmith’s books any more mundane than, say, Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, comprising photographs of cowboys appropriated from various Marlboro advertisements? Are these books unreadable? Perhaps not for a generation growing up in a culture that is comfortable with “uncreative” musical forms such as mashups, regurgitating past design and fashion styles in various manifestations of retro, and the staged intimacy of MySpace and Big Brother.
Although Goldsmith has referred to this trio of books as his “American Trilogy”, the subject matter is actually more specific than that. Despite the implication of conceptual writing’s universality, these works are the product of a particular American city, New York (although many New Yorkers seem to believe that New York is America). The “New York” Trilogy is also more fitting given the specificity of the material Goldsmith appropriates – New York City weather reports (Weather), New York City traffic reports (Traffic) and the commentary from a New York Yankees baseball game (Sports). On this note, earlier Goldsmith books might also be seen in a New York context. In Soliloquy (2001), for example, he transcribed every word he spoke for a week, and given he lives in Manhattan, New York references abound. In Day (2003), he transcribed every word of the New York Times. Rather than read Goldsmith’s New York Trilogy as simply the end product of conceptual processes, it is also productive to read the Trilogy as the documentation of the specific rhythms and voices of twenty-first century New York.
The first book of the New York Trilogy, The Weather, comprises transcriptions of daily radio weather reports. Each daily report is a paragraph long, and they are arranged into four sections according to the seasons. New York City’s weather is characterized by its dramatic variations – from Summer’s humid, tropical heat, to Winter’s accumulations of snow; from Fall fogs and Spring flood warnings from melted snow, to high winds from off-shore typhoons. While New York City is at the center of The Weather, its weather patterns are not restricted to geographical or political divisions of the city. Cold fronts move across state and county lines, creating a space in which the city is connected to Long Island, New Jersey, the counties of the Hudson River Valley, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Even storms out in the Atlantic Ocean spread moisture or raise winds in midtown Manhattan.
Given New York’s hectic pace and intense pressure, the weather is a significant factor on its circulation systems (traffic, airports, subway and rail systems) and subsequently a cause of much anxiety for its residents. Imagine, for example, a similar project appropriated from, say, Sacramento’s weather reports – not only would there be the absence of dramatic seasonal contrasts, but due to the slower pace of life, there would also be less riding on a particular storm. In New York’s dense urban environment in which nature is tightly controlled (Central Park is a prime example of this), the weather’s elemental forces still affect everyday life, despite our scientific attempts at anticipating them. This sense of unpredictable forces is displayed in the following quote by both the uncertain language and the imprecise means of tracking and measuring these forces:
“Ah, yes, indeedy, and actually it’s a ... uh, you know... fairly tranquil as well, with sunshine getting dimmed by high mid-level clouds, high temperature thirty-four degrees. Clouds easily thicken tonight, low thirty. That’s the easy part of the forecast. The question mark is whether or not the, uh, rain that’s currently over the Delmarva Peninsula will actually come this far north, or will it get to a certain point over central Jersey, then pivot offshore?”
This short excerpt may also belie Goldsmith’s claim about his writing being “boring” – presumably, a truly boring weather report would be the purely “informational” language from a newspaper or internet source (ie. written language). In these radio transcriptions, the human voices are distinct and the language is idiosyncratic. The informational aspect of the language is not the only focus – reading The Weather as literature is very different from listening to today’s forecast in order to find out whether you should be wearing a coat or packing an umbrella. Even supposedly “functional” information often abounds in poetic phrases such as “clouds easily thicken tonight”, a snow system that seems to be “hustling away”, or this evocative imagery to describe the movement of a storm front:
“Feels pretty quiet across the country this evening. We do have a front, uh, draping from Michigan back into the Central Plains, and curling back up into the northern Rockies.”
The tension between a scientific/technological, or “objective”, means of measuring heat, cold and wind, and “subjective” human perception is highlighted in The Weather by the numerous references to the “real feel” temperature. “Real feel” takes us beyond the precision of “scientific” measurements where wind chill can make the air temperature seem colder than measured by instruments (see also Marjorie Perloff’s essay "Moving Information": On Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather). Doubt begins to creep in at various points as this conflict between the objective and subjective appears from time to time, but nowhere more so than on Ground Hog Day, when the official groundhog meteorologists of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio offer differing forecasts:
“Now Staten Island Chuck did not see his shadow, meaning that Spring is, uh, getting reading to spring. But of course, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter. We’ve also heard from, uh, from, uh, Buckeye Chuck out in Ohio, and he agrees with Staten Island Chuck, and they’re against old Punxsutawney Phil. So, uh, we’ve got battling groundhogs here, and I guess time will tell, as it usually does.”
Here, scientific and technological precision is replaced by mythology as the movements of the unwitting groundhogs predict how much longer winter will be. Even comedy enters the forecasts occasionally, as displayed in this irresistible example of meteorological humor:
“It’s going to be beautiful today, high temperature sixty-eight with the sunshine. We do have bad news for one Halloween monster, however, who likes to fly it’s kites in a thunderstorm, the Franklinstein. Anyway, partly cloudy tonight, going down to fifty-eight.” (sic)
The Weather is neither unreadable nor boring, and indeed these terms say more about contemporary expectations of what constitutes literature and how to read it than they do about Goldsmith’s creative processes. The transcription and repetition of daily reports allows us to reflect on the content, language and aims of this everyday language, exposing it as compressed fragments of scientific data, technological measures, poetic imagery and phenomenological experience. In a New York context, the narrative traces the city’s ongoing struggle to measure and predict natural forces that ultimately remain beyond our control.
Goldsmith’s second book of the Trilogy, Traffic, comprises transcriptions of New York City traffic reports taken at ten minute-intervals over a twenty-four hour period. Like The Weather, Traffic charts the rhythms of the city’s circulation system. While constructed and artificial, the city’s traffic patterns seem to have the randomness and unpredictability of the weather. Both weather and traffic reports are commentaries on the present (current conditions of the skies or the roads) as well as predictions about the future – while the weather forecast warns us to take a jacket, the traffic forecast warns us to avoid the George Washington Bridge. As well as auto traffic conditions, the reports also occasionally update information on railroads, ferries and water taxis. At one point during the morning gridlock, a reporter even recommends riding a bike or walking.
For his traffic reports, Goldsmith has chosen not just any day, but a particular day, that is, the beginning of a major holiday weekend in New York, when there is bound to be a lot of traffic, and a corresponding amount of drama. The narrative begins with image of “midnight gridlock” as traffic delays caused by road repairs, accidents, and a stalled bus convey the unpredictability of New York’s traffic:
“Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You're talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that.” (12:01, opening lines)
By two or three in the morning, traffic clears for a few hours before the remarkable morning rush hour begins around 5am, when the situation is like this:
“Well, the weekend getaway morning rush is in full swing and what a doozy it is. It looks like some of the first early delays I'm seeing here on the, uh, Jam Cam is on the westbound side of the Long Island Expressway service road coming up towards the, uh, Grand Central Parkway in Queens as I see it live on the Jam Cam. So it's gonna be, uh, again, the makings of a rough ride.” (5:01am)
While the vocabulary of Traffic is generally not as colorful as that of The Weather, New York traffic reporters often resort to metaphor (“Hudson River horror show”), quirky phrases (“what a doozy”) and sponsored jargon (“Panasonic Jam Cam”). Most notably, they have a particularly extensive range of descriptions for a traffic jam and its effects: stacked up, jammed-up, gridlock, backed-up, bumper to bumper, tie-up, clogged up, slowdown, extra heavy traffic, snail’s pace, absolutely crawling, big backup, a major mess, a total mess. While the reports are generally less “poetic” than those in The Weather, the particular rhythm of Traffic is established during the morning part of the narrative via a refrain at the end of most paragraph-long reports. This appears as a variation on the line, “Alternate side around town suspended, but you do have to pay the meters.” (10:41)
The refrain recurs all day in variations such as:
“Alternate side suspended for today.” (11:31)
“Alternate side remains suspended, you will have to pay the meters, though.” (11:51)
“Alternate side is suspended around town but you do have to feed the meters.” (12:21)
“Remember, alternate side of the street parking is suspended today and for the duration of the weekend.” (3:31)
The Weather featured a similar rhythm established through a repetition of the day’s temperature at the end of many reports (“Repeating the current temperature thirty-five headed up to forty in midtown.”). Such refrains make the book as a whole readable by establishing rhythmic continuity. Traffic’s story is ultimately that of New York City’s remarkable traffic situation – its decrepit, overburdened infrastructure and problematic auto-dependency. Finally, New York traffic delays are measured in time lost or gained by taking this or that route, indicating that space has been eclipsed by time, and time itself is at the mercy of traffic’s uncontrollable circulation patterns.
Sports, a transcription of an entire New York Yankees game, opens with perhaps the most provocative sentences of all Goldsmith’s appropriations: “1 800 LAW CASH reminds you that this copyrighted broadcast is presented by authority of the New York Yankees and may not be reproduced or retransmitted in any form. And the accounts and descriptions of the game may not be disseminated without the express written consent of the New York Yankees.” Despite Sports also being a transcription from a New York radio station, it is immediately marked as a different information type to that of the previous two books. Here, the information is “owned” by the Yankees corporation and supported by corresponding copyright laws. Presumably Goldsmith is breaking the law by appropriating and “reproducing” the broadcast (technically, though he might escape prosecution on “creative” grounds. Note too that “law” and “cash” are intimately linked, and given copyright law generally comes into effect when there is cash involved, Goldsmith is probably pretty safe circulating this text as literature).
As with Traffic, Goldsmith’s choice of material in Sports is not completely random. This particular game is between the New York Yankees and their old rivals, the Boston Red Sox –not just any baseball game, but a competition marked by intense rivalry, tradition, and, as it happens, drama as well. Unlike the anonymous voices featured in the previous two volumes of the New York Trilogy, the voices here are those of well-known Yankees radio commentators, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Less immediately accessible than traffic or weather reports, baseball commentary has a particular vocabulary and its own odd rhythms, as this excerpt describing the end of a Red Sox inning, displays:
“Here’s the 2-2 outside 3 and 2. David Ortiz on deck. Cora leads off second, Youkilis leads off first, two out bottom of the sixth. Myers deals swung on and lined to center. Damon toward right center, makes the catch and ends the inning. No runs, one hit, two left. And now, at the end of six innings of play, it’s 10-7 Boston on the Yanks Radio Network.”
While the informational aspect of language may be lost on baseball-illiterate readers, the game’s narrative unfolds dramatically and the characters and key moments soon become apparent. The characters include the hapless Yankees starting pitcher Sidney Ponson (who the commentators are down on before he’s even pitched a ball); Boston’s unstoppable and in-form players, Manny Ramírez and “Big Papi” David Ortiz (“Is he powerful? Does he have strength?” the commentators ask); and the flamboyant Yankee sluggers Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Key moments include the remarkable outfield catch by Robbie Cano in the bottom of the second innings and Johnny Damon’s two run homer that breaks the game’s stalemate.
Indeed, as the commentators point out late in the game, this is not just any game of baseball, but a particularly long one, and a potentially historic one: “… if this was done in the 30s or 40s or 50s it and you’ve read about it, you’d say, oh I wish I had been there. I can’t believe that it happened. And it’s not over! It’s not even close to being over.” The passion builds until the commentary reaches fever pitch in the seventh inning, with the excitement expressed via exclamation marks and staccato delivery:
“The pitch to Cano lined hard. Base hit! Right center field! Scoring is Abreu! Scoring is A-Rod! Cano holds at first. It’s a two-run base hit for Cano. The Yankees have scored seven runs in the seventh inning and they take a 14-10 lead. Is that amazing? Is that utterly amazing? Timlin has gotten racked.” And this drama continues to build, right to the final lines of the book: “Ball game over! Yankees win! The Yankees win!”
While there were elements of sponsorship that seeped into the commentary in Traffic (notably the “Panasonic Jam Cam”), the baseball commentary of Sports reads as a series of seamless shifts between commentary of the game and advertising material. These juxtapositions of different information types create odd, almost surreal conjunctions such as: “When Bernie Williams grounded out to short to end the top of the third, that was the fifteenth out and GEICO wants to remind you that a fifteen minute call can save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.” Or this section comprising a sponsor’s phrase followed by a game score followed by some commentator humor followed by the real-time game commentary again: “We are coming to you live from the Loews broadcast booth let’s build something together. We’re in the top of the seventh, one out, no one on, the Yankees are trailing 10-7 in the nightcap which is what I need. The pitch is outside.” Such a compressed pastiche of languages (advertising, statistical information, humor and baseball commentary) and space-time shifting might have been considered text-book postmodernism in the 1980s, but here, postmodern pastiche has become part of an everyday language experience.
Datascapes of Grass
Goldsmith’s radio transcriptions translate ephemeral, spoken voices into permanent, material words. What readers might initially regard as “functional” information, when considered in another context, become very different – when written and read as literature, specific vocabularies, rhythms and linguistic idiosyncrasies become apparent. In the New York Trilogy, Goldsmith has framed a sliver from three everyday information flows and frozen it for close scrutiny, or, to adopt the contemporary phrase, “slow reading”. However, the process of transcription is not entirely objective or as mechanical as Goldsmith would have us believe. As other critics have pointed out, the process of transcription itself is subjective – even on a practical level, how do you to record the ums and ahs, pauses (ellipsis or not?) and indicators of tone (include an exclamation mark or not?). Inevitably, subjective expression (how to express a pause, a question, an exclamation) and “mishearing” creep in (Goldsmith’s earlier book Head Citations, a compendium of “misheard” pop song lyrics, is an illustration of the latter).
The focus on speech also places the New York Trilogy in a specifically local tradition extending from Walt Whitman’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of nineteenth century New York to the Beats or New York School’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of post-war New York. Unlike these however, Goldsmith’s language is appropriated directly from the meteorologist, the traffic reporter and the commentator, with minimal mediation by the author. Despite this, Goldsmith still plays the role of the creative genius transcribing readymade material from the everyday, rather than from the turbulent voices within. In this way, both his work and persona continue the avant-garde lineage of artists such as Duchamp, Cage and Warhol. Despite Goldsmith’s emphasis on the conceptual process, or perhaps because of his emphasis on the conceptual process, there remains a lingering attachment to the figure of the author (perhaps reflecting less the 19th century romantic artist and more the contemporary cult of celebrity). In this context, conceptual writing is as much a form of literature as it is performance art, and claims by Goldsmith that his work is boring and unreadable are all part of the act.
While you should buy Goldsmith's books via SPD and read them for yourself, you could also download complete copies of The Weather, Traffic and Sports, as well as plenty of other Goldsmith material from his EPC site. I only have a copy of Traffic and read the other books online, hence the absence of page numbers in the quotations above.
My November 2007 review of Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat.
My July 2007 review of Nada Gordon's Folly.
All photos by D.J. Huppatz, NYC 2007