In Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, the artist taped a voice-activated recorder to himself during one week in April, 1996, in order to capture every word he spoke. The piece, originally printed in a book appears online organized by day. Initially, the site seems blank. Once the reader/viewer/user (I’m still not sure how to refer to myself in this environment) moves her cursor over the page, text appears. Sometimes a single word or short phrase. Sometimes a longer passage. Given the artists desire to capture the impermanence of spoken word (though it is granted endurance by having been now thrice documented: first on tape, then in print, now online), this ephemeral aesthetic construction makes sense. A narrative is difficult to pin down. An accidental mouse shift causes the reader to lose her place entirely. But I don’t think that is the point of this piece and it seems fitting to discuss it in terms of database construction.
(As a quick editorial aside, this may be the first piece I’ve examined either in this class or for these responses, that legitimately rankles me. I’ve previously studied/encountered this sort of recording as a thing that is done to someone or used against someone, not an experiment one enters into voluntarily. I’m reminded on Gene Hackman in The Conversation, hearing his own voice played back to him over the phone and then tearing apart his entire life to find the bug. This is how I’ve previously experienced “surveillance society.” To willingly submit to that seems utterly foreign.)
Thinking about this piece in terms of Lev Manovich’s essay on database logic, I can make the following observations:
- There is no obvious “narrative” here. The reader may glean a story from this assemblage of transcribed speech, but it isn’t the point of its collection nor is it necessary to experiencing the piece. Say what you will about IF or randomly generation poetry–those mediums still refer back to the narrative as an organizing structure (this isn’t, though it reads like one, a judgment of this piece…it’s just how it functions.) This piece is not pretending to be a story.
- While the piece is not unstructured–it’s organized by day and appears to be presented in the order in which words were spoken–it does not subscribe to any other hierarchy. It’s a fairly simple database. If we take the artist’s statement at face value, this is everything Goldsmith said for one week as it was said. Nothing has been culled or removed or cleaned up. Interesting, this piece was started the same time (within a couple years) Manovich notes a boom in data collection where “everything is being collected” from asteroids to phone conversations (224).
On the one hand, this is a relatively simple endeavor: at least upfront, the heavy-lifting of this project was done by the tiny recorder. At the same time, it seems to signal a fundamental shift in how we recognize and encounter ourselves. Does this amount to an autobiography? The title suggests a performance even as the artist’s statement indicates unfiltered data collection. I wonder if I’m wrong about this piece not containing any discernible story. If I could make the argument that DNA tells a kind of story, can’t I say the same of this piece? Is there, maybe, a way to read it like we’ve read other pieces in this class?