What Would Twitter Do?

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In the final installment of What Would Twitter Do?—where I talk to some of my favorite people on Twitter about their tweeting philosophies and practices—I interview Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny is the creator of the avant-garde encyclopaedic archive project, UbuWeb. He is also the author of a book of essays called Uncreative Writing and many experimental books, including one in which he transcribed every word he said in an entire week, Soliloquy, and another in which he wrote out an entire day’s New York Times. He also created the project  Printing Out the Internet for which he invited people around the world to help him do just that; he collected over 10 tonnes of paper from 20,000 contributors. He is the editor of a collection of interviews with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and is the first poet laureate at MoMA. We spoke this morning over gchat.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: You said that if any artist could make a work of art as great as Twitter… Well, not exactly that, but can you tell me if you think of Twitter as art?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Twitter is not art. But it inspires me in the way that art used to inspire me. Art used to make me see the world differently, think about things in a new way—it rarely does that for me anymore, but technology does that for me on a daily basis. Rather like the feeling when I first saw a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube. It made me rethink the entire world. It’s Twitter’s combination of simplicity and complexity that is astonishing in the same way that minimalist sculpture was inspiring and enlightening.

SH: How do you think of your own work differently since being inspired by Twitter?

KG: I’ve begun writing more compactly. I now favor the slogan and eschew the paragraph. I’ve traced this change during the ten years that I’ve been working on my rewriting of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” When I first began, I was doing a Benjamin-like grabbing of long paragraphs—pages and pages of passages. Now, after five years on Twitter, I’m taking snippets, headlines, slogans, and almost never paragraphs. It’s had a tremendous impact on my writing in general.

SH: Is it because you actually enjoy reading more aphoristic-like things now, or because it feels more current?

KG: Short attention span is the new avant-garde. Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text. I find that a reason to celebrate. It’s something that has deep roots in modernism, stretching from the Futurists’ use of typography to Pound’s use of ideograms to concrete poetry. David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism.

SH: But that makes me think that some artists will soon start writing impossibly long and unfragmented things, because Twitter is a corporate place, and the slogan is a very corporate technique.

KG: Back in the 80s, artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer taught us that the corporate slogan was, by simply moving it from one context to another, ripe for détournement and could easily be used against itself. Twitter lends itself to this sort of misuse. But to answer your question about the return to longer forms, I wonder if Knausgaard would’ve written the same books today had been using Twitter. It wasn’t around when he was writing those books. Those books were written during the age of the blog, with its big verbiage. The landscape has completely changed today.

SH: Were you at all inspired by blogs?

KG: I never wrote one. But as a performer / artist it was great to read long piece about every reading you gave the next day. Now, a performance barely merits a tweet.

SH: You mention the form, the shortness, but what about the interactions on Twitter. Do those seem important to you at all? The retweeting, starring, replying?

KG: For me, Twitter is a public persona. It’s UbuWeb or Kenneth Goldsmith (as opposed to Kenny Goldsmith). I don’t interact. It’s a lousy form for conversation and opinion (what can you really say in 140 characters?), but a wonderful propaganda and sloganeering tool. I use it as a one-way street.

SH: So you don’t favourite tweets you like?

KG: Favoriting tweets has become a form of acknowledging that you’ve read what someone else has written. I think when it first started, I was using starring as a way to bookmark, which I don’t do now.

SH: You tweeted this: “The internet is for everybody who doesn’t live in New York City.”—Nam June Paik. I like this quote for a lot of reasons. Not living in New York, I agree that the internet broadens the art world. Is this what you were getting at? It used to be frustrating for me, not to know what city someone on Twitter lived in, but now it seems nice, like we’re all just “from the internet.”

KG: The Paik quote is the perfect tweet. It’s compact and outrageous. It’s also ambiguous. It’s doing a lot of work. I often don’t endorse what I tweet, rather I want to throw things about to spark conversation or controversy. What I think about something is not particularly important when talking to thousands of unknown strangers.

SH: Do you worry about being misunderstood?

KG: It’s hard to be understood when addressing that many people at once. How can you ever know if you’re being understood? So, I’ve just started being intelligently provocative. And people take the bait.

SH: Have you ever had your feelings hurt on Twitter?

KG: I’ve been trolled lots. But I understand trolls for what they are and I don’t let them get to me. They take my bait, so I’m in charge of the discourse.

SH: A lot of poets are great on Twitter. In fact, poets are the best people on Twitter.

KG: Poets think in short lines. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett, Twitter might be more difficult for novelists.

SH: I find it hard.

KG: You’re complicated. Twitter doesn’t work for complication.

SH: Who do you like to follow?

KG: I just follow pure information feeds. If someone tweets an emotion, I drop them. I just want links. I had to drop you for that reason.

SH: Why don’t you like emotion on Twitter?

KG: The subtleties of emotion are a disaster on Twitter. IRL, I adore you and your emotions. But your feed was way too emotional for me. Up and down. I got sucked in—and I couldn’t handle it.

SH: You’re crazy.

KG: It’s very powerful.

SH: Emotion?

KG: No, social media.

SH: Do you have more power now?

KG: I have the illusion that I have more power now. Don’t we all?

SH: Yes, though you wouldn’t if no one followed you. What do you see coming next, like what would be an evolution on Twitter?

KG: I’m surprised how long this has lasted, to be honest. But its longevity is a testament to its elegance and sophistication. We’re really hooked into it. I hope you’re not upset about that emotion stuff. You are very powerful on Twitter. I had to step back.

SH: I’m not upset at all. I’m surprised to hear I am “powerful on Twitter.” I think I’m a mess on it. I still can’t believe I deleted my account and started over from 0 followers. Like I said, a mess. Maybe a mess is powerful.

KG: The messiness is your power. We’re very different in that way. We are perfect opposites. We fill each other in.

SH: You’re an active part of the New York art world in real life, and now you’re an active part of the social media sphere. Which world makes you happier?

KG: New York City is just one node on the global cultural scene now. Social media reflects the state of the world, so I’ve become more devoted to that. To be a NYC artist today feels local and small. Social media feels now.

SH: You know the Diaries book I’m working on? With all the sentences? As I’m editing it, it seems like one long Twitter stream. I’m having trouble seeing it any other way right now.

KG: I think it’s time to admit that our writing is guided by the technology we use as much as it is by our own subjectivity. So it’s no surprise that your book has been changed by Twitter.

SH: People maybe steer clear of Twitter and social media because they don’t want to be influenced by it. What do you think of these people?

KG: I think they’re idiots.

Week 1: Kimmy Walters

Week 2: Kate Zambreno

Week 3: Teju Cole

Week 4: Mira Gonzales

Week 5: Tao Lin

Week 6: Christian Lorentzen

Week 7: Patricia Lockwood

Week 8: Crylenol/Sadvil

Week 9: Various

Week 9 1/2: Melville House

Week 9 3/4: Roxane Gay