‘It Almost Felt Like Meaning’: Hillary Clinton Reads Her Emails at the Venice Biennale

There is a place for evidentiary art – but not for Kenneth Goldsmith’s print-out of 62,000 pages of the former US Secretary of State’s correspondence

In a simpler time, Kenneth Goldsmith was content to publish collections of weather reports or his own contextless utterances and puckishly ‘print out’ the internet. Lately, the self-styled uncreative writer and proud dandy has been casting around for found texts with inbuilt political charge. In 2015, notoriously, he cut up the autopsy report of an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, slain by police, and performed it at Brown University. The response was justly indignant. Context, it turns out, cannot be so easily shed – not least Goldsmith’s own white, male, baby-boomer body. Perhaps that’s why for HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails (2019), the poet retreated to faux-naif appeals to materiality – that a text is a text is a text – and took up a more suitably white and inapt subject. He printed out from Wikileaks 62,000 pages of the former US Secretary of State’s emails – the topic of FBI scrutiny and security-breach allegations that undermined Clinton’s presidential campaign and succoured her opponent Donald Trump. He stacked them on a replica of the Oval Office Resolute Desk. The installation opened on a mezzanine in a Venetian supermarket as part of the 2019 Biennale.

Goldsmith’s version of the emails is meant to be quick and dry – not read like a spy thriller, but ‘thought’ like conceptual art. Still, it did take a second to digest what followed on 11 September, when Clinton herself visited Venice. An aide or a friend took a video, a minute long, of her at the desk in the crude replica Oval Office flipping pages, her entourage waiting in the back of the shot, and posted it online. Goldsmith was ecstatic: his political artwork had enticed a politician! It was almost as if his installation – fleetingly, accidentally – had been completed in a way he hadn’t known it needed; it almost felt like meaning.

Hillary Clinton visiting Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails’, Venice, 2019. Courtesy: ©Gerda Studio; photograph: Giorgio De Vecchi/Giulia Di Lenarda

There is a place for evidentiary art. Some documentary artists, like Forensic Architecture, deploy images more or less effectively in arenas where empiricism still makes a difference. (Art is not often such an arena; Forensic Architecture’s The Killing of Harith Augustus (2019) – now on view in the Chicago Architectural Biennial – presents its investigation of the police murder of an innocent black man to public opinion as well as to the courts.) Others have rebuilt the cabin in which serial killer Ted Kaczynski made his explosives (Richard Barnes’s Unabomber Cabin (1998); James Benning’s Two Cabins (2011)). The 2017 exhibition ‘Whistleblowers and Vigilantes’ at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg included a full set of the Pentagon Papers (credited to Daniel Ellsberg, their leaker), which detailed the US’s build-up to the Vietnam War. These gestures, at least, gave viewers some simulated physical relationships to cultural objects that, while mythic, are also real. 

Manifesting Clinton’s emails, however, sorely misunderstands their importance. The major affect of HILLARY is the futility of printing out emails: this is the act of a person who only conceives of emails in terms of paper letters. It is a paranoid act driven by fear the email will disappear (as if paper is somehow more permanent). That Clinton sat down and played along, and that the work was no more profound for it, proves its redundancy (again). ‘The idea was hard to pitch in the US,’ the curators of the Venice exhibit have said. ‘Nobody wanted to show these documents.’ They seem to suspect a sad, apolitical weariness, if not cowardice – as if an exhibition of Clinton’s emails would be a controversy too far. I have another theory: curators and institutions in the US understand that the goddamn emails were never the point. You don’t need to print them out to see that.

Hillary Clinton visiting Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails’, Venice, 2019. Courtesy: ©Gerda Studio; photograph: Giorgio De Vecchi/Giulia Di Lenarda

But let’s say, like Goldsmith, you do. Well, the emails are boring – an assessment that Clinton herself echoed when she flipped through them, insisting to the Italian press: ‘Anyone can go in, they can look at them, there’s nothing there.’ Goldsmith and Clinton are both obsessed with the there that isn’t – a nothingburger scandal – to the detriment of the there that is – the world passing by. A dynamic, by the way, which Trump and his Republican Party understand perfectly. Of course there’s nothing there, goes their grim pragmatism, but what if we say there is. Goldsmith has teed-up his artwork on Trump’s golfing green; he’s playing on Trump’s course.

This is the same Trump, remember, who offered stacks of folders of blank paper as proof he was divesting his businesses to his sons during his presidency. Empiricism is in crisis, and art about the futility of empiricism is not helping. ‘The ethics of the network are aethical,’ wrote Goldsmith in an article for frieze in 2017. But, until such time as we are the network, real-life ambivalence is not a pass to act ‘aethically’. When Goldsmith hit copy-paste on Clinton’s emails, then sat back to watch all the nothing that would happen, he demonstrated the ethical vacuity of his school of conceptual poetry. We need accumulation, reparative reading, theory and art that collect what we care about, that define what we want to protect. He gives us empty pages. It’s telling that, in Goldsmith’s mind, the Resolute Desk isn’t Clinton’s. It’s Trump’s.

Hillary Clinton visiting Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails’, Venice, 2019. Courtesy: ©Gerda Studio; photograph: Giorgio De Vecchi/Giulia Di Lenarda

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. 

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019

frieze magazine

November - December 2019