|Uncreativity as a Creative Process
I am spending my 39th year of life practicing
On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began
retyping the day's New York Times, word for word, letter for letter,
from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page
by page. Today, November 10, 2000, I am approximately half way through
the project. I intend to finish by New Year's Day.
The object of the project is to be as
uncreative in the process as possible. It's one of the hardest constraints
an artist can muster, particularly on a project of this scale; with
every keystroke comes the temptation to "fudge," "cut-and-paste,"
and "skew" the mundane language. But to do so would be to
foil the exercise.
I've long been an advocate of extreme
process writingrecording every move my body has made in a day,
recording every word I spoke over the course of a week, recording
every sound I heard ending in the sound of "r" for almost
four yearsbut never have I faced a writing process this dry,
this extreme, this boring.
John Cage said "If something is
boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight.
Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is
not boring at all." When I told Marjorie Perloff about my project,
she said that the project would be dismissed by many as "basketweaving."
She then reconsidered and said, "But perhaps you'll have some
profound thoughts while basketweaving."
I'm interested in a valueless practice.
Nothing has less value than yesterday's news (in this case yesterday's
newspaperwhat could be of less value, say, than stock quotes
from September 1, 2000?). I'm interested in quantifying and concretizing
the vast amount of "nutritionless" language; I'm also interested
in the process itself being equally nutritionless.
Retyping the New York Times is the most
nutritionless act of literary appropriation I could conceive of. Had
I instead, for example, retyped Ulysses, there would have been too
much value, for Ulysses, as we all know, is a very valuable book.
I took inspiration from Warhol's "Empire,"
his "unwatchable" 24-hour film of the Empire State Building.
Similarly, imagine a book that is written with the intention not to
be read. The book as object: conceptual writing; we're happy that
the idea exists without ever having to open the book.
Innovative poetry seems to be a perfect
place to place a valueless practice; as a gift economy, it is one
of the last places in late hyper-capitalism that allows non-function
as an attribute. Both theoretically and politically, the field remains
But in capitalism, labor equals value.
So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an
hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work. But the
truth is that I've subverted this equation by OCR'ing as much of the
newspaper as I can. And it works pretty well since The New York Times
is typeset by computer; hence the OCR program doesn't have too much
trouble recognizing the body text. However, when it comes to the fine
print, particularly in the ads, I've got to input the text by hand.
Almost 100 years ago, the visual arts
came to terms with this issue in Duchamp's "Urinal." Later,
Warhol, then Koons extended this practice. In music we have vast examples
from John Oswald's Plunderphonics to the ubiquitous practice of sampling.
Where has literature been in this dialogue? One hundred years after
Duchamp, why hasn't straight appropriation become a valid, sustained
or even tested literary practice?
John Cage, whose mission it was to accept
all sound as music, failed; his filter was on too high. He permitted
only the sounds that fell into his worldview. Commercial sounds, pop
music, lowbrow culture, sounds of violence and aggression, etc. held
no place in the Cagean pantheon; certainly, nutritionlessness was
not what we would consider a Cagean attribute. Only in a few early
works such as "Imaginary Landscape (for 12 Radios)," "Fontana
Mix," or "Variations IV" did he permit snippets of
these sounds into his work.
However, if John Cage theoretically
claimed that any sound can be music, then we logically must conclude
that, properly framed, any language can be poetry.
When I reach 40, I hope to have cleansed
myself of all creativity.