The art world is often extravagant. Opening dinners overflow with a cornucopia of earthly delights while paint, temporary walls, and tools get frittered away in the dumpsters outside. Resources like these get squandered all the time, and rarely does anyone raise an eyebrow. It’s surprising, then, to hear about the current trash-related protest against MoMA Poet Laureate and UbuWeb Founder Kenneth Goldsmith for his relatively small, but big-sounding paper-based project “Printing Out the Internet”.
The project itself seems innocuous enough. Goldsmith put out an open call for “Printing Out the Internet” in May. Through July 26th, he’s seeking A5-sized paper print-outs of the world wide web that participants will then mail to the LABOR art gallery in Mexico. The sheets of paper will be shown in an exhibition and then recycled after the show’s run. So far Goldsmith has received submissions from all corners of the Internet, as well as from UbuWeb’s extended network with documents like Paul Soulellis’s “Library of the Printed Web” and Justin Lincoln’s “New Aesthetic Time Capsule”. These projects sound like artworks in their own right.
In the project’s wake, a Change.org petition “Please don’t print the Internet” started in protest of how “Printing Out the Internet” wastes paper. It has only 370 signatures. Outside of that petition, the project’s formed its own dedicated following of trolls. Goldsmith has been reblogging select trolls on Tumblr.
If this protest sound stupid to you, you’re not alone. Alongside the critics, Goldsmith has reblogged words of advice from his project’s fans. He’s also written in defense of his project. One of my favorite Goldsmith-isms cribbed, in part, from Guy Debord:
This seems like a lot of fuss in defense of trash. It makes me wonder if there’s another unspoken aspect of the project that could be producing these mixed-feelings. At heart, Goldsmith’s project is a conceptual one, but you’re only going to “get it” if you buy into his point that “printing the internet is an enactment of capital accumulated to the point that it becomes an image”.
I half-get that point. I get it because amassing quantities of nearly anything can “enact capital accumulation”. I also get that trash is what becomes of most of the Internet eventually; links get broken, Geocities goes kaput, servers change, etcetera.
I’m just not convinced the project needs to be on generic A5 paper, or if paper is even the best way to visualize the Internet’s video, sound, and text. Paper’s simple and generic, but the Internet’s specific, a gabfest of voices. As a mass of paper, the Internet turns into a white-washed image, but art should be specific to differentiate itself as a speck in that mountain of capital.
But maybe that’s where the project’s element of social practice comes in. “Printing Out the Internet” is a submission-based show, created, in large part by the individual decisions of its participants. It’s a tale of what Kenneth Goldsmith and UbuWeb followers find valuable or interesting, at least for the moment. No matter what participants send in, there’s that problem of specificity; the Internet will always be shown as a flat image.
Looking at these issues of community and capital, Goldsmith’s project isn’t so straightforward after all. These are complex points to mull over, and more difficult to parse through than an argument over waste. That’s too bad because it seems those ideas are getting overlooked in favor of an argument that has very little do with the piece at all.