Conversations with Marie-Caroline Chaudruc and Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith at Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art.

By LARA PAN, July 2021

Around five years ago, a beautiful renaissance castle in the Loire Valley was transformed into the Museum of Contemporary Art. This private museum, beside the progressive and international program, contains one of the most important collections of Art & Language today. Thanks to a dedicated collector, Phillippe Méaille, and immaculate direction under the talented Marie-Caroline Chaudruc, this museum represents a synthesis of elements in education and programing—a beautiful example of how a cultural institution can absorb and enchant its public. 

At this moment, Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art is featuring an exhibition of Kenneth Goldsmith, the founder of UbuWeb and this year’s laureate for the prestigious Francois Morellet Prize, which he is being awarded in early October 2021. In honor of this special occasion, I am delighted to introduce some excerpts of the interviews and conversations that I had with Marie-Caroline Chaudruc and Kenneth Goldsmith. 

LARA PAN: Marie-Caroline, can you tell me how you and Philippe Méaille met, and about the origins of this remarkable collection of Art & Language?

MARIE-CAROLINE CHAUDRUC: I met Philippe Méaille in 2015 when I took over the direction of the Château de Montsoreau - Museum of Contemporary Art, which was to open its doors a few months later.  

Philippe Méaille owned a unique collection of contemporary art that he had assembled over the previous twenty years. 

He had just found in the Château de Montsoreau a place to share it with the public and he had an ambitious project that I immediately supported. 

The Philippe Méaille collection is a singular collection. Exclusively centered on the works of the Art & Language group, founder of Conceptual Art, it advances the hypothesis that contemporary art is post-conceptual. This is a reading of the History of Art that is not very widespread in Europe, which is why the project seems to me to be of particular importance.

This year we are celebrating the fifth anniversary of the opening of the museum and, even if we are only at the beginning, I can already measure with vertigo how far we have come. 

In situ, three poles of attraction have been created: the museum, which welcomes 52,000 visitors a year, the restaurant, and the bookshop with its publishing house.

Partnerships with universities, art schools and colleges have been created. 

We have also intensified our international loans while maintaining our acquisition policy.

Our team has also carried out extensive work on the building, both in terms of the restoration of the monument and in terms of its image.

In December 2020, the Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art joined the network of the 23 great sites of the Loire Valley. This very selective network gathers the most prestigious castles of the Loire Valley such as Chambord, Chenonceau, Amboise or Cheverny. 

LP: I cannot help but notice an important female presence in your program: ORLAN, Agnès Thurnauer, a great artist with so much to say. What is your take on the growing, but still insufficient presence of women in the art world today?

MCC: I was very honored to work with ORLAN, who was just awarded the François Morellet 2021 prize, and Agnès Thurnauer, who was the very first artist to be exhibited at the Château de Montsoreau, in 2016, a few months after the museum opened. In 2019 we have also dedicated an exhibition to Charlotte Moorman. We are the first French institution to have highlighted this major figure of the 60s-70s avant-garde.

They are artists before being women and that is how I like to work with them. 

Everyone must have their place in the art world. The three of them have earned it through competence and that seems to me a positive and stimulating message for young artists.  

Kenneth Goldsmith at Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art.

LP: I was greatly surprised when I found out about the Kenneth Goldsmith exhibition. He is internationally known as a founding editor of UbuWeb and one of the visionary artists of today's avant-garde. It was something so radical and so new at the time. How did this collaboration happen?

MCC: Kenneth Goldsmith is one if not the major artist of the 21st century. Freeing literature from creativity by creating the movement of uncreative writing, is a founding act to think the literature of today and tomorrow, a literature undeniably influenced by the new language of the web and by its developments.

By creating UbuWeb, Kenneth Goldsmith dared to do what no one else had the courage to do: free works of art from copyright. As in Jean Giono book The Man Who Planted Trees, his initiative, which started as an individual, discreet and unknown, has grown so much and has met with so much support over the years that it is no longer questioned. 

In 2020, the Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art awarded the François Morellet prize to Kenneth Goldsmith for his book Duchamp is my lawyer, a book that recounts the genesis of UbuWeb. Shortly afterwards, the idea was born to present an exhibition on UbuWeb at the Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art, to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The purpose of the exhibition 1996. Kenneth Goldsmith was not to try to show the entire content of UbuWeb, an impossible task, but rather to question the complex and multiple status of UbuWeb, at the same time archiving site, digital library, virtual museum and militant work of art.

LP: What is the mission of Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art? What sorts of future projects do you have in mind?

MCC: The Château de Montsoreau - Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in one of the jewels of French architecture, the very first Renaissance-style château in France. It embodies the birth of a new architectural language, the advent of humanism and the arts in the 15th century. Our museum is part of this heritage of innovation, creation and mutation if we consider that artists are the first vectors of the great cultural revolutions we are going through. 

In the near future we plan to convert a new floor of the building into exhibition space in order to complete the level devoted to temporary exhibitions. Thus we will have taken over four of the five available floors. 

Portrait of Kenneth Goldsmith, 2017. Photo by Jeronimo lvarez. Courtesy of the artist.

LARA PAN: Kenneth, what has been the most significant moment for you during the preparation of this exhibition of yours? I was really struck by the newsletter informing us of the end of UbuWeb on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, the now legendary website founded by Kenneth Goldsmith in 1996 at the Château de Montsoreau—Museum of Contemporary Art. I felt like I’d lost a friend. Please don’t tell me that UbuWeb is no longer with us. As it is part of the web, it will remain for eternity in the clouds, at least. Do you have any thoughts about this? 

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: The rumors of UbuWeb’s death are greatly exaggerated. Ubu is alive and well and should, with any luck, last another 25 years.  

LP: You said once, long ago, I believe, that you don’t have a readership, you have a thinkership. You were also saying that the experience of reading certain books for you cannot have this hypnotic, mesmerizing effect like some people claim it can. Do you still feel the same way today, or would you develop on those observations? 

KG: These observations still apply for my own books; they remain unreadable, still more interesting as concepts. I was saying this about my own books rather than about the books of others. I think I wanted to fuse the modernist idea of unreadability with the rise of shorter forms of writing such as  tweets, and SMS, which I was proposing as more contemporary forms of language. But I was always careful to couch that idea in terms of the past century’s move toward compression in language, which manifested itself in forms like concrete poetry and compound URLs. 

LP: Ironically, I find your book Fidget to be quite hypnotic. Where did the idea for this book come from? Can you explain it in greater detail? 

KG: Fidget was a recording of every move I made on Bloomsday of 1996, now twenty-five years ago. All of my books respond to previous authors’ works so this one was a fusion between Joyce and Beckett, both of whom I was reading at the time. I love Beckett’s micronarratives, those descriptions of a tramp on the side of the road who spends hours turning his body over, from his back to his stomach. But although Beckett famously said, “no symbols where none intended,” most people have burdened his work with heavy symbolism of a type of human agony and struggle, which I’m not entirely sure  was his intention. Fidget, with its pure movement and no chance of interpretation—a type of modernist flatness—was my attempt to reclaim Beckett from what I felt at the time, was a misreading, an unnecessary hysteria.  

LP: I always love to hear your take on technological progress. You’ve said previously that technology leads and art follows. I am curious about how AI could become a contemporary poet and an influence in the creative thinking. What is your take on AI and art? I’ve been wondering why artists who want so badly to make NFT don’t simply let AI make it for them. Any thoughts?

KG: I often tell of recently being invited to Google to meet their AI poetry team and being disappointed that they were trying to train the AI to write like Tennyson rather than to let it find a new form of technological expression. The AI is capable of doing many things but it is only constrained by what it is fed—and in this case, it was fed classical poetry, so that’s what it learned to do—badly, may I add. But then again, Google research is capital-based research and surely they’d lose their jobs if they presented a robot that spewed avant-garde “nonsense” or “gibberish.” I’m sure the bosses were delighted to see a machine that was trained to write “good” poetry, one that reified cohesive and “traditionally beautiful” verse. It’s the same with NFTs: my sense is that from what I’ve seen and read, that these are mostly computer scientists wrapping their innovations in the gilded cultural cloak of “art.” Instead, I wonder what someone like John Baldsessari or David Hammons would’ve done with such innovative technological distributive systems. 

LP: We could say, following N. Katherine Hayles, that your work bypasses conscious reflection and channels the power(s) of the cognitive unconscious – i.e. what usually goes under the radar. Could we, then, characterise your uncreative writing method as a new kind of cultural analysis, albeit on a meta- and/or infra-level?

KG: I’d prefer Duchamp’s “infrathin,” that wavering space between spaces that always goes unnoticed (he famously defined the infrathin as “the heat of a seat just left”). I also loved Cage’s idea that “music is all around us if only we had the ears to hear it” which I substituted “poetry is all around us if only we have the ears to hear it.” It seemed that there was suddenly so much available language on the internet – and all of it could be cut and pasted / captured / resused, that it seemed to me to be a new and perhaps still unexamined poetic resource. But you need to be a bit of a geek, as I am, to care about and obsess about the formal qualities of language in this way... 

LP: Your uncreative approach suggests that today everyone can be a writer, even if the basic intuition behind this statement is deeply conceptual. Indeed, Jean-François Lyotard wrote in the The Postmodern Condition that »In games of perfect information, the best performativity cannot consist in obtaining additional information. [...] [Rather, It's the] capacity to articulate what used to be separate [that] can be called imagination.« Could we then say that the most avant garde artists of our time are the data scientists?  

Kenneth Goldsmith at Château de Montsoreau – Museum of contemporary art.

KG: I think that everyone is a data scientist. I mean, look at how we all handle hoards of information in ways that only professionals used to do. I realized long ago—like the tech giants did—that it’s not really about the information per se but the ways in which it flows where the value accumulates; it’s completely structural – the last thing our Instagram posts are about is the content of the photos. Obviously with surviellance capitalism this has turned out to very problematic but in poetry, as poetic potential, it’s very rich. Just to remember: no animals were harmed in the making of poetry.  

LP: For me, one key aspect of your work tackles the question of the database. By challenging any claims to exclusivity, creative genius, or access to transcendent truths in the information age, you're going against the grain of the hyper individualised etos of 'productivist society'. Have you ever thought about the politically progressive implications of your uncreative approach to creativity? Maybe the focus on productivity unable us to rearrange our practices in accordance with this basic truth? That there’s something deeply conservative with our obsession with the new. 

KG: The poetic metric of today is the database; there’s nothing new or avant-garde about it, it’s simply conditional. And if you don’t somehow engage that metric, you are neither contemporary nor relevant. 

LP: It seems to me that your early conceptual interventions have prepared us for the ever more experimental relationship between AI and literature that we're seeing today. What do you think is the future of writing in an age of GPT-3 language generators? Is writing ready for another conceptual transformation, or is there something else happening with the advent of more sophisticated AIs? Maybe something more symbiotic than we previously thought?

KG: My friend, the poet Christian Bök, has famously proclaimed that handing poetry off to AI would greatly releive humans of the burden of having to write and read it. I mean, nobody reads poetry—and few care about it. But wouldn’t it be great if the AIs wrote and read poetry of each other, thus keeping it alive?

LP: You started with conceptual poetic practice when the internet hadn't really exploded yet. In what way do you think the democratisation and proliferation of amateur art production – most notably in the form of meme(s) – changed the way we do art? Interestingly, Valentina Tanni wrote in Memestetica: Il settembre eterno dell'arte that there has been an unconscious explosion of conceptual art practice by laypeople posting online and mimicking the techniques of the historical avantguards without the 'supposedly necessary' historical awareness. Do you see in this process any similarities with your approach to and understanding of this historical trajectory? 

KG: Valentina is the very smartest and best thinker of this stuff and I agree with everything she says. Long ago, the internet in a folk way, began outdoing, say, 60s or 70s conceptual art without ever having known about it. My dream has always been the democratization of art — Joseph Beuys’s “everyone is an artist” — and now, half a century later, the internet has realized that dream. WM

Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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