The idea behind Kenneth Goldsmith's latest installation of "text art" is disarmingly straightforward: record everything spoken by the artist over the course of a week and cover a gallery's walls with the transcription, preserving every syntactic glitch, every conversational cul-de-sac and "um." Confronted with the clutter of "real" speech (not to mention its content, which might prove even more embarrassing than its stammers and mumbles), we realize that we all sound a bit like George Bush. This originating concept may be simple, but the end result is a complex provocation on language and visuality, documentary, autobiography, and the elusive relation between an individual's speech and the linguistic patterns of a particular social milieu. It is also an enormously entertaining piece of writing, inhabited by the crackling, shameless, free-wheeling voice of Kenny Goldsmith, at once the "real" person who is a downtown Manhattan artist, webpage meister, and DJ, and the persona created by the written word. What is striking is that Goldsmith has generated an absorbing piece of prose with no apparent "literary" effort. He has not labored over subordinate clauses or tropes; he has simply spoken the words he always speaks in the course of living. Every writer's guilty fantasy may be to write as effortlessly as one speaks, but few have the chutzpah to actually expose themselves in such an unedited state of undress.
The installation at Bravin Post Lee Gallery, entitled Soliloquy (No. 116 4.15.96 - 4.21.96), was pared down as much as possible to nothing but the text. Using a laser printer, Goldsmith displayed his week of talk on 341 sheets of ordinary white paper that exactly filled the entire wall-space of the gallery. It wasn't quite possible to read the text from beginning to end (even if one had the stamina), since it began just out of eyeshot near the ceiling in the upper left corner of a wall before snaking across and down like any other piece of English prose. But there were no quirky fonts, no fine rag paper, no inventive impediments to distract the viewer from the words themselves.
o Visually, the installation was a model of self-effacement. It would be a mistake, however, to see this "anti-aesthetic" as signaling the unimportance of visuality. Goldsmith could have generated an equally comprehensive snapshot of the language and the cultural moment it embodies with a sound installation, filling our ears with his week-long Soliloquy. The translation from speech into writing was, evidently, pivotal, since it thereby produced something to see. Like the practitioners of concrete poetry, Goldsmith wants us to look at language so as to confront it as abstract visual images that represent utterance. He also wants us to see that language occupies space, and lots of it. Listening to a recorded voice might impress us with its loquaciousness, but we would miss the impression of abundance available in a single glance as we take in the textual landscape. By gathering such a large quantity of language, Goldsmith launches a rather polemical riposte to the commonplace assumption that Postmodern culture is primarily visual. Goldsmith's world of words is so saturated by language that there isn't room for anything else.
Goldsmith's other text pieces are also based on language-gathering systems. His most recent work, No. 111 2.7.93 - 10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997), is a 606-page tome, some of which appeared in No. 109 2.7.93 - 12.15.93, a 1994 installation at Bravin Post Lee. No. 111 gathers words and phrases ending in variations on the "r" sound, such as "ah," "ur," and "ear." These units are organized by syllable count and alphabetical order into chapters that range from strings of monosyllables ("A, a, aar, aas"), to disjunctive phrasal sequences ("I Love You Just The Way You Are, I masturbate in the shower"), and finally to massive acts of appropriation-by-downloading, as in the final chapter, which consists of the entire contents of D. H. Lawrence's story "The Rocking Horse Winner." I have by no means done justice to the immense variety and playfulness of No. 111, but I raise it here principally so as to contrast it with Soliloquy.
Both projects involve totalizing gestures that celebrate our culture's mélange of rhetorical styles, while simultaneously suggesting that we are drowning beneath their wordy tide. Both document this linguistic proliferation, but in Soliloquy the artist who collects is also a hyperactive talker. No. 111 consists almost entirely of language appropriated from other sources. Soliloquy, however, includes only Goldsmith's voice, and thus seems wholly occupied with subjectivity. At one point, Goldsmith recounts his conversation about No. 111 with the literary critic Marjorie Perloff, drawing attention to precisely this contrast between the "I" in Soliloquy and No. 111:
. . . we're talking about like really dreadful confessional work and she's like well, you wouldn't write anything confessional, would you? I said, well, absolutely not, really. But then I started to think, like some of the longer pieces are a little bit confessional but they're mostly appropriated; the I is not me . . . [my ellipses] Yeah I I got a little, you know, like I have to I'm going to have to give her a little disclaimer before I give her the thing [No. 111] that there's very little of the I in there. I'm interested in a subjectivity that's not my own. I'm interested in a confession that has nothing to do with my life. You know, like taking shit from the net.In Soliloquy, the "I" is me--er, I mean, Goldsmith. The piece is also very much a "confession," in the sense that it lays bare everything that occurs in both the public and private life of the artist. Soliloquies are, by convention, speeches delivered to the audience under the guise of being spoken to no one but oneself. Goldsmith's inverted Soliloquy is in fact dialogue exchanged with others masquerading as a speech delivered to the audience. By removing the words of his interlocutors, Goldsmith has generated the illusion of a single voice with the feel of stream of consciousness. Yet because Soliloquy never deviates from external speech to inner thoughts, much less to the unconscious, it accomplishes the curious feat of exposing but not excavating the self. Goldsmith seems to be suggesting that the unconscious is either irrelevant, nonexistent, or, perhaps, something of which we simply cannot speak.
Soliloquy is often amusingly self-reflexive: "I mean what what would your language look like if it was if you collected every piece of shit word you that you said for an entire week." The artist even tells us how to read his work: "It's not meant to be read linearly--none of my work is." Our narrator, however, is not entirely trustworthy. This comment, for instance, doesn't seem applicable to the very work in which it appears, especially in its incarnation as a 281-page book (Editions Bravin Post Lee, 1997). Viewed in the gallery, the text seems to be an undifferentiated block of language, lacking paragraphs and justified on both the left and right margins. Reading the book, we realize that the installation's mass of words is in fact divided into seven "acts" corresponding to the seven days (April 15 - 21, 1996, as specified in the subtitle) during which the "Soliloquy" was recorded. Beginning with Monday morning and ending with Sunday evening, the text is organized around the diurnal rhythms of everyday life: waking ("Just do you want to sleep? Huh? No? It's early. I have to work at nine."); eating breakfast ("Listen, do you want do you want a your toast is ready."); walking the dog ("Make Bets, you make, you make. Make. Make. Good girl!"); going out for dinner ("Wow, it's crowded in here tonight, isn't it?"); and sex later in the evening ("Isn't that a good one? Was that sensuous? Mmmm."). Because readers are more likely than gallery-visitors to linger over large chunks of writing, the sequential flow of this personal narrative comes across more forcefully in book format. By choosing to cast Soliloquy as both installation and book, Goldsmith is drawing attention to the fact that reading and looking are not equivalent activities.
Soliloquy is filled with inconsequential chatter ("Yeah, why don't we why don't we walk down there and have a look? See you next week, babe. Are you guys walking this way?"), but its ubiquitous gossip often makes irresistible reading, especially if we are familiar with the people whom Goldsmith is talking about. In this sense, the work is a kind of roman à clef to which no clef is needed. In addition to the chitchat in which everyone engages ("Well, who's she with now? Now John's with that John's with that ridiculous."), we find a great deal of material on the inner workings of the culture industry. At one point Goldsmith catches himself in the act of advancing his own career, as he eagerly anticipates meeting the "deeply powerful" Marjorie Perloff:
Um, well, I actually have a great meeting, um, I'm having lunch with, uh, one of the most powerful literary critics you know in the in academia in the country. It's her, Marjorie Perloff and, uh, I'm meeting her actually at the MOMA Members Dining Room for lunch today. And she's deeply powerful and I'm going to get her, I hope, to write a blurb for the back of my book and promote it.Not surprisingly, Perloff comes up quite frequently, and the dance between critic and artist is by turns amusing and disturbing. On the one hand, Goldsmith (or, perhaps, "Goldsmith") gushes that Perloff is a "goddess" and his "literary idol." On the other hand, he brags about how skillfully he manipulates her:
I just sat there I started slinging shit the minute I saw her I could read her like a book. I had her, you know I am sorry to say, I had her on the tip of my finger. Really. I just, you know, I really. I was twirling her on the end. I knew how to play her. Completely. Completely, you know?
Gossip promotes social cohesion. It may even be linked to the origins of language, as Robin Dunbar argues in his provocative new book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. It can also get pretty ugly. Part of Goldsmith's point is to "make everybody realize how much garbage they speak." Soliloquy also ends up exposing Goldsmith to himself, and as he told me in conversation, that kind of self-examination is not always a pleasant experience.