UbuWeb: The YouTube of the Avant-Garde

By James Norton


If ever there was a website designed to respond to the desires of Vertigo readers, it is to be found at www.ubu.com – UbuWeb, “the YouTube of the avant-garde", a treasure trove of the pantheon of experimental film, including classics by Buñuel, Brakhage, Cocteau, Deren, Genet, Godard, Vertov, and the Situationists; records of performances by Merce Cunningham, Yves Klein, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman; video by artists such as Pipilotti Rist and Bill Viola and documentaries including Peter Greenaway’s Four American Composers series and the legendary South Bank Show on Francis Bacon.

Like YouTube itself, the site also hosts nuggets of stuff you just want to see: Beuys as a pop star, Burroughs buying a parrot, Welles in drag as a London housewife, literally seminal Viennese Actionist gross-outs, Lacan arguing with a lampshade, John’s erection and Yoko’s fly, and Downtown sleazemeisters Cinema of Transgression promising “blood, shame, pain and ecstasy”.

samuel-beckett.jpgSamuel Beckett

UbuWeb was founded in 1996 by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith as a repository for visual, concrete and sound poetry. As inspiration, it “runs off the fumes of Wallace Berman”, the pioneering collage and mail artist who worked with found objects and made a unique film that was only ever seen by individuals projected on a wall at his home.

UbuWeb’s manifesto originated thus: "concrete poetry does not separate languages; it unites them; it combines them. Its ideogrammatic universally accessible content mirrors the utopian pan-linguistic dreams of today's Internet; the PDF and Java programming language each strive for similarly universal comprehension. The pioneers of concrete poetry could only dream of these tools used to make language move and morph, stream and scream, distributed worldwide instantaneously at little cost. Essentially a gift economy, poetry is the perfect space to practice utopian politics. On UbuWeb, we give it away.”

The site has no need of funding, staffed by volunteers and supported by a network of editors and partners who offer server space and bandwith, most of these belonging to American universities, (although “UbuWeb is free from academic bureaucracy and its attendant infighting”) but also including Electra, the London-based art agency, whose video Her Noise, featuring a constellation of women in experimental music, is a recent example of the fascinating items that are being continually added to the site.

joseph-beuys.jpgJoseph Beuys

UbuWeb invite submissions from artists and cultural explorers and is continually proliferating, “a Deleuzian nomadic model: a 4-dimensional space simultaneously expanding and contracting in every direction, growing rhizomatically with ever-increasing unpredictability and uncanniness.” It now includes archives of poetic texts and collages, incantatory ethnopoetics, and a sound section including James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake, Frank Zappa’s Talking Asshole, Italian Futurist noises, minimalist composers’ drones and Polish experimental radio… the thing about desire is that it seeks out the things you didn’t know you need. In addition, the endlessly diverting 365 Day Project offers an annotated year’s worth of demented thrift store record finds including Louis Farrakhan singing a calypso song about a sex change operation; the spoken-word Religion for Retarded “apparently designed to teach Catholic doctrine to the mentally challenged”, a “rare recording by the Dutch royal family”, children screaming for cheese, songs warning against venereal disease and in praise of silicone, and last and very much least, the deeply disturbed Joe Aufricht’s wholly lamentable Kindergarten Orgasm Dance.

UbuWeb insists that it is an educational resource offering free distribution for out of print and hard-to-find works. Addressing the issue of copyright: “If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it.” But they won’t touch commercially available material and deprive avant-garde artists of the rare opportunity of an income, and will remove work from the site if the creator or owner objects. However, those that do may find themselves listed on the site’s Hall of Shame. Their statements mix enlightenment fairness and anarchist defiance: “We give you permission to take what you like even though in many cases, we have not received permission to post it. We went ahead and did it anyway. You should too.”

un-chien-dandalou-luis-bunuel.jpgUn Chien Andalou, 1929

They are careful to qualify the merits of desktop cinephilia: it will always be preferable “to see these gems in a dark room, on a large screen, with a good sound system and, most importantly, with a roomful of warm, like-minded bodies. The best thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make you want to make a trip, for example, to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or the Lux Cinema in London [any such visitors will find this crucial venue closed in 2001, rather supporting UbuWeb’s case (it does continue to screen and distribute of course – see www.lux.org.uk) or 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. We've compiled a list of places where you can see them and buy them.”

“Nothing is for sale on UbuWeb. It's all free. We know it's a hard idea to get used to, but there's no lush gift shop waiting for you at the end of this museum.” UbuWeb refuses to advertise or promote itself, so they may not appreciate their words being appropriated for articles such as this one. Help yourself.

www.ubu.com is open all hours.

James Norton is a researcher and associate producer on The South Bank Show.