Happy Birthday Ubu

Twenty years of sharing

I'm singing this article's title in my head as if it were the titular line of that famous birthday song, substituted syllable for syllable. My backing track is a distorted recording of Fr. Basil Frison strumming his guitar and crooning beautifully, performed to a home-rigged cassette deck sometime around 1991 and converted to mp3 for streaming on 365 Days archive hosted by UbuWeb. Frison was a Catholic priest with a penchant for composition and publishing who is last known to have served as a reverend in Rancho Dominguez, California – this particular track is on Tape 19. That he shares his day of birth with John Cage would seem to be his only obvious link to the history of the avant-gardes – at least, to the Euro-American canon of avant-gardism.

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Can't Swallow It, Can't Spit It Out, 2005, SD video. Courtesy: © the artists

November 2016 is the 20th anniversary of ubu.com's (aka, UbuWeb's) launch and Fr. Frisson's accompaniment, in my head, seems perfect for reasons that stretch beyond his kindly sentiment. 365 Days is a communally edited archive of a year's worth of obscure audio recordings, compiled by 200 people between 2003–07, ranging from demo tapes to indigenous singing groups to Industrial noise. In 2005 it was acquired by UbuWeb and has been kept freely available online by the site ever since. Like the 'Electronic Music Resources' sub-section or the 'Biduon Presents' strand compiled by the eponymous art magazine, the 365 Days archive is a part of the radically refined but relatively vast network that constitutes UbuWeb's web on the Web, as it were, which has maintained a unique coherence even when growing and changing direction.

UbuWeb was founded by writer and web pioneer Kenneth Goldsmith as an act of fandom to share hard-to-find material documenting the concrete and visual poetry movements and to explore the potential of html 1.0 and the so-called 'gift economy' of sharing in the utopian spirit of the web’s heyday. Having expanded in purview and sheer quantity of data it's now – according to its tagline – 'All avant-garde. All the time' and by far the biggest such collection on the internet. Celebrating strange content like the 365 Days collection or its 'Outsider' sub-section alongside iconic modernist and contemporary music, film, theatre, theory, literature and art is a simple but demonstrative example of the site's purpose. Goldsmith's stated aim has always been to build a revisionist historical tool, one dedicated to open access, which now mis-uses or has rather reclaimed the term 'avant-garde' as an umbrella for anything that moves the editorial team at a particular moment in time. And it's all still free, with no adverts and no funding.

Mark Leckey, Cinema-in-the-Round, 2008, film still. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet, London 

Mark Leckey, Cinema-in-the-Round, 2008, film still. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet, London 

The pros and cons of UbuWeb's core policies, those of never asking for permission to reproduce content and of compressing data to maximize the site's usability, have been argued over extensively. However one feels about his ethics, Goldsmith has been unquestionably consistent: he continues to hand-code the site using the same scripts, preferring easy-to-search plaintext and uncluttered viewing windows. There are no complex databases behind its anti-aesthetic interface, whose red, white and black colour-scheme surely nods to neo-Constructivistism. Those policies and their consistent application mean UbuWeb has been taken up as an active case-study by universities and researchers who donate stable server space and large bandwidths to incubate its role in free culture community-building and open access curatorship. Regardless of nuances in content UbuWeb's value rests on proving the effectiveness of the distribution model it has pioneered within the arts. Rightly or wrongly, Ubuweb uses a gift economy ethos in a way that's premised on the plenitude of clonable data, which bucks directly against the very idea that cultural objects or performances should only have an abstract value based on scarcity.

Goldsmith's radical and unwavering stance is also the root of UbuWeb's vulnerability. It still runs on no money, its server set-up is inefficient and every time a hack or crash happens data gets lost. The whole archive could disappear at any time. UbuWeb is an anti-institution, a fluid archive that's as unstable as the media it depends on. Just like the avant-garde, UbuWeb is both utopian and 'anti-' in a now old-fashioned sense, with all of the complications that stirs up, yet a bloody-minded insistence on continuing anyway. Amongst both the pragmatist and iconoclast camps of the free culture movement UbuWeb has clear kin, particularly other library-style platforms like aaaaarg.fail and MonoSkop that also centre around clear content foci. All three aim to share marginal or out-of-circulation material that has no significant market value in the hope that, by doing so, the material can re-gain relevance without compromising the small earnings of those in the original production chain.

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, All Together Now, 2008, SD video. Courtesy: © the artists

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, All Together Now, 2008, SD video. Courtesy: © the artists

Unlike those other two examples, despite the fact that much of UbuWeb's content comes from membership file-sharing sites and many of its contextual notes are copied-and-pasted from miscellaneous websites, its content is tightly and singularly curated by Goldsmith with a rolling cast of volunteers helping along the way. There's no pretence of objectivity let alone decision-by-committee. It's a one-person curatorial team with relatively independent sub-curated collections, from 'Dance' to 'Visual Poetry', which allows the archive to widen as well as deepen whilst maintaining a clear taxonomy. If we step back from the content and look at the structure of the UbuWeb archive as a tool for potentially universal access to educational material, then the question of how the framework has been composed becomes doubly interesting because the whole thing is DIY in both the literal and politically-inflected senses. At that same, macro view the website's pseudo-institutional anti-aesthetic functions like the generalist equivalent of a brand-jack: continuing the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde traditions of small press and little magazine publishers, UbuWeb's design is a mimetic détournement of our generic idea of what an institutional web archive should look like. Conversely, even ironically, it says a lot about the shortcomings of academic and arts institutions's forays into open access sharing that UbuWeb still looks and works better than most 'real' institutions online. 

The method of lifting whole chunks of extant material then re-contextualizing it in the discourse of another cultural field will sound very familiar to those au fait with Goldsmith's role in the Conceptual Writing movement, but the added authorial gesture of calling the shifted material one's own in the latter instance makes it politically (if not procedurally) very different. What connects Goldsmith’s writing and web-editing practices is more fundamentally signalled by the archive's URL. Alfred Jarry was the proto-avant-garde shooting star par excellence and author of a trilogy of Ubu plays, of which the first, Ubu Roi (1896), served as exemplar of Jarry's absurdist mock-science, 'pataphysics, which had an inestimable influence on the 20th-century's avant-gardes. 'Pataphysics can be roughly described as a science of imaginary answers to imaginary questions. The formal, compositional gesture of both Goldsmith's Conceptual Writing and UbuWeb is pataphysical. His two lines of work just imagine different answers to the same imaginary question: what if copyright didn't exist?

Bon anniversaire, Ubu!   

Nick Thurston teaches at the University of Leeds, UK. His new book, Somebody’s Got to Do It: Selected Writings by Pavel Büchler Since 1987, was published by Ridinghouse, London, in March.

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