PaperboyJune 4th, 2013
By now, you’ve probably heard that Kenneth Goldsmith wants to print the “entire” internet. He has invited “folks” to contribute by printing anything from the internet, then mailing the printed paper to LABOR Gallery in Mexico City, where Goldsmith will exhibit these “shitloads” of paper. Doesn’t this sound like a colossal misuse of paper and energy? It should. But does that matter?
First, I believe that this concept is ambitious, hilarious, and productive. Why wouldn’t we demand a concrete image of the inconceivable scale of the internet? Why not from an artist who generously consolidates avant-garde materials onto UbuWeb, encourages academics and writers to publish their work for free on the internet, and posits that nothing exists unless it exists on the internet? And we should welcome the ideal of an open-source exhibition in which the participants get credit as contributing artists, while the alpha artist functions as a curator and archivist.
But Goldsmith should stop there because executing this project is wasteful.
How wasteful? Coming up. First, let’s observe a structrual problem. Mark Hachman of TechHive offered some basic calculations that demonstrate the scale of this project. He concludes that the LABOR space is far too small, capacious enough to hold only 10% of the printed internet. If you add email to the equation, as Goldsmith would, then the gallery offers only a laughably microscopic vacuole of the galactic extent required. But just because it’s impossible, doesn’t mean it’s bad.
What makes it bad is the conviction that it’s worth pursuing, even though art audiences usually accept extraordinary consumption as an intrinsic part of art production. For example, to produce Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipse IV” released 109.4 tons of carbon. To relocate a massive boulder for Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” for LACMA, teams had to engineer a gas-guzzling 200-foot long transporter with 176 wheels that would move at five mph, according to Wikipedia. “Numerous trees were cut down, cars towed and traffic lights temporarily removed in order to facilitate the transporter’s movement.”
Moreover, Heizer’s intervention on the LACMA site produced an inhospitable, barren surface:
“Renzo Piano’s minimal landscape for the adjacent Resnick Pavilion, which had obliterated the area’s original mature oaks and sycamores, was now made even more antiseptic with the installation of a decomposed granite surface unblemished by any living thing. In this barren realm, there is nothing to block or reflect the strong sunlight, and it is unpleasantly hot in summer.” -Victoria Dailey, L.A. Review of Books
Whether these projects were “worth it” is a contest of value judgments. But artists are in a bubble, or arrogant, if they don’t pause to consider environmental questions. Has Goldsmith done that? The carbon footprint of carrying out this project outweighs its aesthetic, pedagogical, critical, or even entertainment value. To test that claim, here’s a question: Wouldn’t it equally interesting if Goldsmith invited people to mail parts of the internet that they already had printed?
If my back-of-the-envelope math is correct (and it probably is not), and if the TechHive figures are correct (and they probably are), then Goldsmith’s “shitloads” weigh in at 47,300,000 pounds, or 23,650 tons – not counting the cosmos-trotting email stacks. (Alternatively, Vice highlights Cartridge Saver‘s estimate that the Internet in book form would weigh 1.2 billion pounds.)
Actually, that’s not so heavy. Consider that the U.S. consumes about 71 million tons of paper products every year. That’s 452 pounds a year, per person. Goldsmith alone wants to use almost 105,000 times more paper than that.
I submit that my conservationist view is boring and philistine. Isn’t it unimaginative to restrict art enterprise because of the resources consumed? Outdated and unfair to judge aesthetic questions with ethical conventions? Shouldn’t art be free to explore where necessary, regardless of the consequences? Yes, yes, and yes, hypothetically. But consider this chilling analogy, via Vice:
“How many trees would have to die? Probably 57,600 or so, actually, or about 140 acres of woods. This is either every current tree in Central Park, twice.”
How many New Yorkers would sacrifice Central Park, twice, to see Kenneth Goldsmith make history?
Artists have to use materials, even on a large scale, but most offset that consumption by returning something stimulating, transcendent, disruptive, provocative, or redeeming. That’s not true of this project, in its execution – this project is just for the record, merely custodial, done because someone must do it, eventually.