Thoughts on Kenneth Goldsmith and Michael Brown
On March 13, 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith read his newest work The Body of Michael Brown at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University (for Interrupt 3). Goldsmith remixed Michael Brown’s autopsy report and presented it thusly. For what looks to have been an interesting conference, I have found very little documentation of the event (or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, except for hashtags on twitter — https://twitter.com/search?q=%23interrupt3&src=tyah), but it was certainly noticed all over twitter and social media threads.
As an experimenter with uncreative writing and conceptual work, my first reaction was how did he use the report? I felt this resonated with my thinking at the moment.
However as the stream of reactive media rolled by, the more concerned I got.: https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%40kg_ubu&src=typd
You can read the rest of Beaulieu’s thoughts here: https://twitter.com/BraydonBeaulieu/status/576817754520571904 which are what resonated with me right after.
It is no secret that reading Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing has been a continual influence in my own work in that it’s provoked experimentation. It’s opened up a new way of thinking and produced work that I’m pretty proud of. Goldsmith is also someone I consider a mentor and a friend. He pushes buttons and I support all of his work. He, in turn, has supported mine as well. I’m not a conceptual artist, nor do I consider myself a conceptual poet. I’m a poet that experiments with words, which is what a poet inherently does. Conceptualism is a subject I render, review, and talk about extensively in Canadian literature and it is, ironically, the birth of my lyrical work as well.
I find that the act of reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report extremely problematic. I believe that as a mixed person, even for me parsing the event is extremely problematic. I wrote a small blurb on twitter about it because I felt I should say something. Goldsmith is right. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the context. I don’t know the reaction of the crowd. I don’t know the discussions that came out of the reading. I want to know these things! I want to know the context and why this reading was a step forward for conceptualism or a step forward to something good for Michael Brown.
If he is just collating the data that is freely available to all of us, rendering it to make us think, well, he’s provoked a meaty discussion from the reactions. We can’t let Michael Brown’s death nor the events at Ferguson be forgotten because they are still happening every day. Is this what we are supposed to gather from a reading of Brown’s autopsy?
Scaling back, I have to think about the poet as a vessel of messages. In this case, Goldsmith is the vessel of the data of the autopsy report. We’re talking in a very clinical, conceptual state, where nothing that was read by Goldsmith was authored by Goldsmith. He is a computer capturing a state in time that we wouldn’t even think of placing ourselves in. From the reactions I gathered after the reading, it is clear that people were made uncomfortable by this idea. Maybe this is the reaction Goldsmith was looking for, if any, I can’t be sure.
Now think of Goldsmith again as the vessel of that report. He is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown. Did he speak to the Brown’s relatives? If he didn’t are we to think that Brown’s death, because that of that freely available autopsy report, are we to believe that Brown’s body is now freely available to the public. This is a black body that Goldsmith is rendering in his reading. That alone is the reason that concerned me. As a mixed woman with a black father who has had his rights (and life) questioned because of the colour of his skin, we both grew up subtly being told that our bodies belonged for appropriation. My Colombian dad is called negro in his homeland. I am still called negrita there as well. Negro there isn’t just the name of a colour, but it lives on as a derogatory term in Spanish. Slave labour is still alive and well for the blacks in South America. Black men still face great hardships in Colombia. Black suffering isn’t free and readily available to the public. Until the struggle is fought by those who suffer, we as people on the outside of it, must be allies and not silence black voices or speak over them.
Now I’m not saying 100 percent that this is what Goldsmith did, because, again, I wasn’t there. There has yet to be released a video or a transcript of the reading. If I am to defend a work, I would like to know all the details. But until then, I’d like to stand in solidarity with those concerned that Michael Brown might not have wanted this reading. Yes we are taking data of information and going with it, but that’s exactly what a reading like this incurs. As poets we present our work and some of us drop that mic. Some of us are so concerned with dropping it, we end up throwing it. Then we’re surprised when it gets thrown back.
I still think Kenneth Goldsmith is brilliant and one of the biggest champions of experimentation these days. Death threats against him because of this is ridiculous. We need discussions and get togethers where we duke these things and flesh them out. I like to think of Goldsmith’s reading like Madonna and Andy Warhol thought of Basquiat (http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2015/02/06/basquiat/). Basquiat wasn’t just a person or friend to them, he was a figure that came with the complexities and provocation they desired in their own work. They used him, but Basquiat used them as well.
I want to know what was said in Goldsmith’s reading. I want to know the aftermath in that room. I’m concerned that new divisions will be formed because we don’t know. Isn’t the work made more important by the discussion of it?
These are all questions I still have after posting these up:
Goldsmith messaged me and was shocked at my reaction. I was asked if I passed judgment. I would like to ask some questions because in the end I found the event to be viscerally upsetting. If people that were there weren’t as upset as the people that weren’t, why is that? We want to know more. I’ve been looking for information, essays, or reactive tweets besides, “I hate Goldsmith!” or “I love Goldsmith!” What did listeners get out of the reading? I want to know what his reaction is to the outrage considering that I know he would try his best to handle the subject matter with some form of compassion. At least, I still hope he did.
Until now, all we have is his twitter feed: https://twitter.com/kg_ubu
Edit: Or this facebook statement: https://www.facebook.com/kenneth.goldsmith.739/posts/354492771403205
These are just my two cents to personally parse what upset me, to question the artist, not to attack the person. The irony in all of it, is that both the reactions and the idea of the work, made me think.
I don’t believe that there is a “white supremacy, right wing” conspiracy in conceptual work. I practice it, as do many. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t question what I do with conceptualism or how I practice it. I must consider. I must provoke. I must consider. I must provoke. It means that as a woman, as a person of colour, as a person of privilege and disadvantage, that I must help to turn the tide, make the mark, and own my work fully, but most of all, take responsibility for it.