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Uncreative Practices

Uncreative Practices

Poet and provocateur Kenneth Goldsmith 84 SC leads a cross-disciplinary discussion about questions of plagiarism and originality in art, design and higher ed.

Kenneth Goldsmith 84 SC with the results of his PRINTING OUT THE INTERNET challenge, shown in 2013 at Mexico City’s Labor Gallery.

What does it mean to be a creative practitioner in the digital age? With 24/7 web access and the accompanying information overload, is it still possible to hatch an original idea? Or does all creative production rely on reexamining and reconfiguring what came before?

Kenneth Goldsmith 84 SC—a poet and author of the influential book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (2011)—visited RISD last week to share his latest thoughts on open culture, appropriation and lack of originality as part of a cross-disciplinary symposium on Uncreative Practices. Organized by Professor of Literary Arts + Studies Mairéad Byrne, Assistant Professor of Digital + Media Shona Kitchen, D+M Lecturer Lisa Z. Morgan and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Clement Valla MFA 09 DM, the symposium was presented as part of the RISD Museum’s ongoing series of forums augmenting the RISD Faculty Biennial.

“Where tech leads, art and culture follow. The boundaries between high and low art have been annihilated.”
Kenneth Goldsmith 84 SC

The well-attended event paired live discussion with a collaborative online exercise in which students, faculty and other audience members reflected on the proceedings in real time by adding words and images to a shared Google document displayed on a large screen behind the speakers. The flurry of on-screen activity both complemented and competed with the panelists’ prepared statements. Much like social media channels, the Google doc provided a platform that allowed even shy members of the audience to participate anonymously.

With popular memes and images of Kenny G., Futurama’s Fry, The Matrix’s Morpheus and (of course) cats flashing behind him, Goldsmith spoke eloquently about the desperate need for academics to reconceive notions of pedagogy, plagiarism and critical inquiry to reflect the mash-up mindset of modern-day reality. “Where tech leads, art and culture follow,” he noted. “The boundaries between high and low art have been annihilated.”

Goldsmith likes to describe the ubiquitous and arguably benign nature of the web through analogy, comparing the online world his students were born into to the TV age in which he and his peers grew up. He related his father’s groundless worries about TV destroying his imagination to current concerns among 40- and 50-somethings about the amount of time their kids “are wasting on the Internet.” Context is the new content, he pointed out, and the process by which we use the web is far more enlightening than any resulting cultural artifacts we create. In the words of Bob Dylan, he added, “only wussies and pussies complain about appropriation.”

Faculty members who have been integrating Goldsmith’s ideas into their teaching followed up by presenting their own thoughts on the subjects of appropriation and “uncreativity” using unusual, sometimes poetic devices. Byrne, for example, shed light on notions of reference and citation in a rhythmic recitation that was part academia, part spoken word poetry. And grad student Jane Long MFA 15 DM reflected on the collaborative spirit of crowd-sourced creation by inviting the audience to recite phrases she projected on the large screen and then responded to herself, creating a call-and-response exercise.

Valla, who shared student work made in his Uncreative Design class, offered perhaps the most concrete take on the topic. The projects he showed are less about appropriation and more about organizing and attempting to understand the world in which we live. In one, for instance, a student parses the lyrics of popular rappers to determine what, exactly, these artists are trying to say. Another presents comical charts classifying the many different types of beards the student discovered in paintings at a Paris museum. “I’ve found that the question ‘why not?’ is far more fruitful in the classroom than ‘why?’” Valla noted.

In the discussion that followed, students and professors remained divided about whether it’s time to start using the web as just another tool—like paint or gesso—or to continue to be awed by its unprecedented power to feed us everything under the sun. Jennifer Liese, director of the RISD Writing Center, came away from the symposium with the sense that remixing is only one of many ways in which we’re responding to “the digital condition.” And Graphic Design Professor Lucinda Hitchcock wondered aloud if the test of true art is its ability to move people.

Goldsmith let late avant-garde composer John Cage have the final word on creativity vs. uncreativity, quoting a comment Cage made in response to whether or not his own work was original. “It’s true that anyone can do what I do,” Cage purportedly said, “but no one did.”

Simone Solondz

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