Tuesday, May 3, 2011

UbuWeb turns fifteen: "it could vanish any day"

UbuWeb has reached its fifteenth anniversary -- quite an accomplishment for an arts website run by volunteers, with content skirting copyright requirements, and financed on the proverbial shoestring. Here's an excerpt from founder Kenneth Goldsmith's recent post at Harriet, the blog at Poetry magazine. And if you're unfamiliar with the delights available at UbuWeb, it's worth a browse, always challenging, often surprising, and frequently offbeat: while you won’t find reproductions of DalĂ­’s paintings on UbuWeb, you will find a 1967 recording of an advertisement he made for a bank.

It’s amazing to me that UbuWeb, after fifteen years, is still going. Run with no money and put together pretty much without permission, Ubu has succeeded by breaking all the rules, by going about things the wrong way. UbuWeb can be construed as the Robin Hood of the avant-garde, but instead of taking from one and giving to the other, we feel that in the end, we’re giving to all. ...
The socio-political maintenance of keeping free server space with unlimited bandwidth is a complicated dance, often interfered with by darts thrown at us by individuals calling foul-play on copyright infringement. Undeterred, we keep on: after fifteen years, we’re still going strong. We’re lab rats under a microscope: in exchange for the big-ticket bandwidth, we’ve consented to be objects of university research in the ideology and practice of radical distribution.
But by the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone. Cobbled together, operating on no money and an all-volunteer staff, UbuWeb has become the unlikely definitive source for all things avant-garde on the internet. Never meant to be a permanent archive, Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our ISP pulls the plug, our university support dries up, or we simply grow tired of it.
Acquisition by a larger entity is impossible: nothing is for sale. We don’t touch money. In fact, what we host has never made money. Instead, the site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists—the music of Jean Dubuffet, the poetry of Dan Graham, Julian Schnabel’s country music, the punk rock of Martin Kippenberger, the diaries of John Lennon, the rants of Karen Finley, and pop songs by Joseph Beuys—all of which was originally put out in tiny editions and vanished quickly. ...
How does it all work? Most importantly, UbuWeb functions on no money: all work is done by volunteers. Our server space and bandwidth is donated by several universities, who use UbuWeb as an object of study for ideas related to radical distribution and gift economies on the web. In terms of content, each section has an editor who brings to the site their area of expertise.
Ubu is constantly being updated but the mission is different from the flotsam and jetsam of a blog; rather, we liken it to a library which is ever-expanding in uncanny—and often uncategorizable—directions. Fifteen years into it, UbuWeb hosts over 7,500 artists and several thousand works of art. You’ll never find an advertisement, a logo, or a donation box. UbuWeb has always been and will always be free and open to all...

Kenneth Goldsmith

We’re distressed that there is only one UbuWeb: why aren’t there dozens like it? Looking at the art world, the problem appears to be a combination of an adherence to an old economy (one that is working very well with a booming market) and sense of trepidation, particularly in academic circles, where work on the internet is often not considered valid for academic credit. As long as the art world continues to prize economies of scarcity over those based on plentitude, the change will be a long time coming.
And yet . . . it could vanish any day. Beggars can’t be choosers and we gladly take whatever is offered to us. We don’t run on the most stable of servers or on the swiftest of machines; hacks and crashes eat into the archive on a periodic basis; sometimes the site as a whole goes down for days; occasionally the army of volunteers dwindles to a team of one.

But that’s the beauty of it: UbuWeb is vociferously anti-institutional, eminently fluid, refusing to bow to demands other than what we happen to be moved by at a specific moment, allowing us flexibility and the ability to continually surprise our audience . . . and even ourselves.

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