Washington - The world wide web began to show up by snail mail at the end of May. It arrived on sheets of office paper, stacked in white boxes, slipped into bubble-wrapped manila sleeves, folded into a clean, white business envelope with Rosa Parks stamps, stuffed in neon-green packaging. As of this week, 10 tons of pages from the internet have accumulated at a contemporary art gallery in Mexico City, sent by more than 600 people who bothered to print out portions of the web and postmark them.
To give some sense of scope: 10 tons is equivalent to the combined weight of three or four baby blue whales. It’s a lot of paper. Yet it’s not even a sliver of the whole internet.
“There’s very little pornography, and I’m really surprised by that,” says Pamela Echeverría, founder and director of Labor, the art gallery hosting the exhibit. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to receive really nasty pictures’. So far, it hasn’t happened.”
Instead, after the May 22 announcement of its “crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet,” the gallery received printouts of spam folders, bank statements, online diaries, news articles, 20 pages of the letter “A” repeated continuously, 500 pages of poetry created by erasing text extracted from websites, and musical scores to the complete works of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.
The submissions are being read aloud by members of the public at a desk on a small platform in the gallery, where visitors will be able to rifle through them. The exhibit runs until August 26.
This prompts the cosmic question that follows all artwork in all forms from all eras of civilisation: Why?
The answer: to memorialise Aaron Swartz.
Another cosmic question: Who?
The answer: Swartz was the 26-year-old internet prodigy and free-information activist who committed suicide in January while facing federal charges of computer hacking after his alleged theft of millions of documents from the academic database JSTOR.
Another question: How is Swartz honoured by the recitation of lyrics to every song that Prince recorded under the alter ego “Camille”?
The co-ordinator of the exhibit, explicitly titled Printing Out the Internet, isn’t exactly sure if there’s a direct correlation between tribute and tributee.
“My gesture is dedicated to and inspired by him,” says Kenneth Goldsmith, the New York poet whom Echeverría enlisted to create an homage to Swartz. “Mine is a poetic gesture, a ‘pataphysical gesture. His was a political gesture, a gesture of liberation. And I’m not doing this so that everybody can go and steal all the material on the internet. I actually want to use his gesture as a jumping-off point to begin to ponder much larger questions.”
If such larger questions are ‘pataphysical – meaning they, like their answers, are imaginary – are they even worth asking? More important, can this previous question about the larger questions be classified as meta-‘pataphysical? And if we found the answer to that question on the internet, how many pages would it take up when printed?
Goldsmith, the poet laureate of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and founder of the avant-garde clearinghouse UbuWeb, is the kind of artist who doesn’t claim to be an artist, who purports to be an uncreative writer, who says he has a “thinkership”, not a readership. He’s the guy who wore a paisley-patterned suit to a 2011 poetry jam at the White House and read, in front of the president, an excerpt from his book Traffic, a straight transcription of 24 hours of traffic reports from a New York radio station.
After initial discussion with Echeverría, Goldsmith wanted to exhibit a massive compendium of every online photo of actress Natalie Portman. Then he was smitten by an Iraqi American artist’s collection of every news article written about the war in Iraq; they were bound in 80 volumes comprising 2 000 pages each. Then, inspired by the magnitude of Swartz’s download, he asked himself, “Why not just print the whole internet?”
“I downloaded a torrent that was supposed to be some chunk of Swartz’s heist. It was 33 gigabytes, and it was something like 18 000 documents, and I began unzipping those files. And within each one of those were thousands and thousands of pages,” Goldsmith says. “I started thinking about the large data sets that everyone’s dealing with.”
Immense WikiLeaks document dumps, labyrinthine Wikipedia troves, the velocity of page creation fuelled by social media.
“We have no idea what we’re talking about, and I think the way to understand it is to concretise it,” he says. “We’re dealing with abstraction, and we have no idea what this is. We need new metrics for infinity.”
While the web is effectively infinite, an archive of web pages is now seven petabytes, or some 7 000 000 000 000 000 bytes. The Internet Archive, a non-profit attempt to build a web library, has about 350 billion pages in its collection, according to its founder, Brewster Kahle.
The size of these numbers imply that the exhibit’s mission is destined for failure, which Goldsmith recognises and dismisses as irrelevant (this is ‘pataphysics, remember?). His detractors, meanwhile, have taken issue with the mission itself. A small Change.org petition was drafted to needle Goldsmith about the resources required to produce and recycle paper and ink. On the blog of San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, poet Garrett Caples wrote that “nothing is being made available (in the project), only taken and destroyed, and nothing is being risked. Swartz is simply a glib talking point, because there’s no relationship between ‘what he liberated’ and the arbitrary accumulation of printouts Goldsmith seeks to assemble.” E-mails and tweets have excoriated him for being wasteful, for razing rain forests in the name of some pseudo-artistic boondoggle.
Goldsmith has scoffed at this reaction and deflected the argument over waste towards other parts of the industry, notably the outsize, costly artwork of Jeff Koons.
“Nobody hollers about insane excesses in the art world, and its elitist and exclusive nature,” he says. “This is an inclusive project.”
That much is true. Brooklyn resident Logan K Young, a fan of Goldsmith’s, heard about the project and the backlash, printed out 32 pages of Prince lyrics for $6.78 and mailed the 232g of paper to Mexico City for $7.60. For this, he will be included in the list of contributors at the exhibit.
Why Prince? Because looking up lyrics was one of Young’s first online habits after he acquired broadband internet. And what value does he see in contributing?
“My life is on the internet,” says Young, editor of Classicalite, a music website. “I’m behind a screen more than 12 hours a day. This gives a tactile quality to an ethereal, intangible thing.”
Goldsmith and Echeverría have a similar opinion: Printing out the web lends this whirling, fleeting ultra-network a sense (however flimsy) of stillness and permanence, and it allows people to begin to process its inestimable dimensions in a physical space.
Young, despite his enthusiasm for the exhibit, doesn’t see much of a connection to the man who inspired it. Kahle, the Internet Archive founder who knew and worked with Swartz, does.
The web is “such a valuable thing. So how do you protect what’s valuable? Well, you make copies,” Kahle says. “And going and printing it out is kind of an interesting, wacko project. It’s innately crowdsourced, and ‘by us, for us’. And that is the nature of Aaron Swartz.” – Washington Post