Re: long live ubuweb!

From: Jonathan Walley (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Jun 09 2008 - 07:14:23 PDT

David (et. al.),

I'm afraid I can't share your enthusiasm for Ubuweb, at least in so far
as avant-garde film is concerned. Though as a scholar of
avant-garde/experimental cinema I have occasionally found myself lost
amidst Ubu's large assortment of films, ultimately I have to object to
Ubu's methods and rhetoric.

You wrote, "Perhaps different artistic disciplines have failed
understand each others ways of working." I think this is absolutely the
case, though I'd say it's a one-sided misunderstanding - Ubu's of the
practices of the avant-garde film world. Setting aside the copyright
question (perhaps not so easy to set aside, but for the sake of
argument...), reading a poem online is no different from reading it in
an "official" published version. Indeed, reading a sixth-generation
photocopy of the poem, so long as I can make out the words, will still
give me the same experience as reading the work in a book. But
obviously this isn't the case with film, as the halting, pebbly,
index-card-sized reproductions of the films on Ubu attest. And these
are primarily taken from low-quality bootleg sources to begin with. To
quote David Lynch: you haven't seen the film if you've seen it "on a
fucking telephone."

In short, "comprehensiveness" isn't the only issue here.

I know that Ubu attempts to address the poor quality of its
reproductions. From the website: "We realize that the films we are
presenting are of poor quality. It's not a bad thing; in fact, the best
thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make
you want to make a trip to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or
the Lux Cinema in London (or other places around the world showing
similar fare). Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed
to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these
works out into the world. Believe me, they're not doing it for the
money." And in a recent interview, Goldsmith reiterates this position:
"There is nothing that will replace sitting in a dark theater on a huge
35mm screen with a group of warm like-minded bodies enjoying a
beautiful film. But unfortunately most of us don't live anywhere near
the place--the three places in the world where those things happen to
be shown regularly. So this is not meant to be the real thing because
it's not the real thing--it's a snapshot--it's a poor substitution. And
we like the idea that the film quality is bad because it's going to
make you want to go out and see the thing for real" (from

[By the way, though there are plenty of other people affiliated with
Ubu's, the consistent similarities between its language and statements
that Goldsmith has made in interviews suggests that he really is "Ubu
Imperator," if you will.]

But this doesn't solve anything, and indeed Ubu's position is
self-contradictory and sometimes downright arrogant. Ignoring the fact
that Goldsmith doesn't seem to be aware of the difference between 35mm
and 16mm, the latter of which is almost exclusively the original medium
of the films on his website, he's talking out of both sides of his
mouth. On the one hand, we should support the wonderful institutions
that bring us avant-garde film; on the other, they make the films
"absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure" by charging "hefty rental
fees" (also from the Ubu site). Most of us can't afford to see "real"
avant-garde films, either because of the expense of rentals and
equipment or because we can't toddle off to NYC or London every week;
but then, seeing these "snapshots" will apparently inspire us to spend
the money we don't have to get to these cities as often as possible to
see the real thing. More contradiction: artists' work on Ubu is "cared
for and displayed in a sympathetic context," and if they don't want it
posted on Ubu, "fair enough: it belongs to them, after all;" but those
artists who, for whatever reason, prefer not to allow their work to
appear on Ubu are placed in the hall of shame. These artists, according
to Ubu, would "be wise to take a page from Cory Doctorow's essay Giving
it Away and to take his advice that 'Being well-enough known to be
pirated is a crowning achievement. I'd rather stake my future on a
literature that people care about enough to steal than devote my life
to a form that has no home in the dominant medium of the century.'" The
all-knowing Ubu concludes, "Wise up, folks. It's later than you think."

Aside from the contradictory nature of these statements (we love these
artists until they ask to have their material removed from our site,
then we pout), Ubu's policy makes no allowance for the possibility that
individual artists may have all sorts of legitimate reasons for denying
Ubu permission to reproduce their work. One very good reason, for
instance, would be the aforementioned terrible quality of the films on
Ubu. Another might be that the artist prefers another venue (such as
the ones Tony has mentioned in his posts - indeed, Tony's own website,, includes images, texts, and full-length
compositions, and the Vasulka site Tony describes is awesome). Ubu's
call to these artists to "wise up" and get with it strikes me as the
height of arrogance, and makes Ubu's praises of independent filmmakers
ring hollow (just as their praises of institutions like FMC ring hollow
in light of Ubu's suggestion that you have to be Rockefeller to afford
renting from them). Goldsmith apparently doesn't consider that his
position on free access is the only one; his statements smack of
hubris, of trying to "out avant-garde" avant-garde artists, a sort of
avant-garde pope who excommunicates those who aren't down with the
right dogma.

As Tony pointed out, there is a lot of mean-spiritedness on Ubu, which
is disheartening. But it is compounded by the ignorance Goldsmith
displays of the culture in which the films he presents were (and are)
made, circulated, and seen. This is my biggest problem with Ubu: its
model may work for poetry, but film - specifically avant-garde film -
represents a very different institution and artistic culture. Preaching
to avant-garde filmmakers who resist Ubu's model as a result of these
differences, especially when you don't appear to understand their
position in the first place, is, well, bad.



Jonathan Walley
Assistant Professor, Cinema Department
Denison University
Granville, Ohio 43023

On Jun 9, 2008, at 6:11 AM, David Berridge wrote:

> UBUWEB is a remarkable, rich resource. It's the one place that offers
> the possibility of a (free) comprehensive experience of a range of
> experimental arts - especially for those without access to college
> libraries, archive or museum collections. To dismiss it is to ignore
> the wonderful gift it represents, and its ripost to decades when
> access to this work was tightly controlled.
> Three points in the context of this list:
> I first encountered ubuweb as an archive of  visual, oral and written
> poetry. The issues with copyright really came to the fore with the
> decision to present large amounts of film work. I wonder what this
> says about the different attitudes amongst poets and film makers to
> their work and how it is made available. A look at the poetry
> selections reveals that key practitioners - such as Jerome Rothenberg
> - have also become involved as section editors. Why are film makers
> not doing this? Perhaps different artistic disciplines have failed
> understand each others ways of working.
> Secondly, the challenge of ubuweb is whether any other form of
> organisation could create something even remotely as comprehensive.
> The evidence at the moment suggests not. Does the economy of this kind
> of work mean ubuweb's "grab and post" attitude is the only way such a
> comprehensive archive could come into existence? 
> Finally, I think it is wrong to overly focus Ubuweb on Kenny
> Goldsmith. Even a cursory look reveals it as a remarkable
> collection of contemporary practictioners, engaged both with their own
> work and in dialogue with that of their predecessors. Again, at a time
> of many 1960's retrospectives - such as Tony Conrad's at Tate Modern
> this coming weekend - the challenge would seem to be whether there is
> another project ( organised along different lines)
> with cross-generational conversations as practical, vibrant and
> energetic.
> Ian White's recent book (as editor) entitled KINOMUSEUM perhaps offers
> some ways forward here, with several contributors (including Stuart
> Comer, one of the curators of Tate's Conrad season) suggesting the
> museum as offering a place to encounter film prints of work originally
> encountered via you tube.
> all best
> David Berridge 
> --
> __________________________________________________________________ For
> info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.