January 18, 2011

The readymades of the internet: can cut & paste be considered art?


Eiffel Tower Replica in Tianducheng, Hangzhou, China.

When Duchamp presented his urinal readymade as art in 1917 it was radical that art could be appropriated rather than made. Now, it seems that the majority of artistic impulses are acted out through appropriation. The blogs we read–or write–point to things, link elsewhere, comment on, note. “I made this” has been replaced by “Check this out.” In the glut of the web, curation is considered as valuable as production. The line between artist and critic is very thin. Both are attempting to draw our attention to something of interest, value, or beauty.

In a very odd and disorienting post at HTMLGiant (‘Wikipedia Vs. Literature”) Kyle Minor muses that “It is not difficult to imagine a novel made of Wikipedia entries, lifted out of context and arranged in any order….The text of the novel might begin:” He then posts the Wikipedia entry for the Eiffel Tower.

In a world of a LOLCats, and YouTube remixes, and the endless reiterations of the internet, I was surprised at how strongly I found Minor’s Wiki-readymade “literature” shocking and unsettling. I don’t know about calling it a “novel” but the author-less text and images of The Eiffel Tower Wikipedia entry are mesmerizing, unexpected, funny, and unfold stylishly. I remember an afternoon, years ago, trolling the web for information on Victor Lustig, the infamous con man who sold the Eiffel tower for scrap metal not once but twice–and yes, the experience rivaled the lure-of-the-deep pleasures of literature. Perhaps I am alone in this, but when I came to the end of Minor’s Eiffel Tower readymade and saw the photographs of the towers many replicas (in Vegas, China, Virginia, Russia, etc.) I felt a slight shiver, like in a horror movie with a twist.

In the comments, fiction-writer Tim Horvath makes the mind-bending argument that Wikipedia falls short as literature, but perhaps only because it concerns things that actually exist.

If the Eiffel Tower didn’t exist, I think this entry would be one of my favorite works of literature in recent memory…What Wikipedia–or any good nonfiction–often reminds me of is the staggering degree of imagination that is required to rival or displace or take a cross-section of or impersonate or resonantly rearrange reality. Not that any of these exhausts what literature does or does best…But I tend to think that what engages us most also by definition engages with reality. Maybe it is a shortcoming on my part, but I never seem to be satisfied reading Wikipedia or its ilk as an end. Instead, the most intriguing info-chunks feel like fodder, something to carry around until the imagination can find something to do with them. Then again, like I said, I wish I could treat this as literature; it is irking me tonight that the Eiffel Tower actually exists.

I apologize for blogging about a comment from another blog that re-posted a Wikipedia entry as a potential work of literature. The levels of meta are appalling. But for some reason this all really blew my mind, and I’m feeling that old dorm-room desire for heady debate. Anyone have any thoughts on all this?