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This past weekend, at a conference called Interrupt 3 at Brown University, poet Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s St. Louis County autopsy report as a poem. Goldsmith is known for his conceptual, “uncreative writing” practices, which involve working exclusively with preexisting texts — altering them, remixing them, appropriating and repurposing them without credit to the original sources. This was the substance of his performance on Friday night in Providence: he read a remixed and slightly altered version of the official autopsy report for Brown, the teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. Goldsmith called his new poem “The Body of Michael Brown.”
“There were some brief announcements and then Goldsmith got on stage,” artist Faith Holland, who happened to attend the Friday night presentation, told Hyperallergic. “He said [the poem] was something to do with quantified self, but otherwise there were very few introductory remarks. His reading was unemotional and relatively even and his feet moved rhythmically the entire time.”
Goldsmith read for roughly 30 minutes, and Holland said she didn’t realize he’d reordered the report until he reached the end. “It appeared that Goldsmith had just read the autopsy report in its entirety but the last line was, ‘The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable.’ This was striking to me, and another audience member questioned why the performance ended on that,” Holland said.” Later I looked at the autopsy report online and realized that he had rearranged the material; in the original, reports of the Cranial Cavity, Spinal Cord, and Special Studies/Specimens Obtained follow. I remember distinctly that Cranial Cavity was read (particularly because of the line ‘The weight of the unfixed brain is 1350 gm’) as was Special Studies/Specimens Obtained somewhere earlier in the reading.”
According to Holland, the audience at the event was fairly small, perhaps around 75 people, and reactions to the reading were fairly subdued. A scheduled panel followed, but “it was clear that the [speakers] were caught off guard by what had preceded,” she explained. “Then the floor was opened up to the audience, who mostly offered mild criticism but repeatedly thanked Goldsmith for ‘bringing up this discussion.’ There was one woman who made an impassioned comment about how this was a ‘spectacle’ and it needed to be made meaningful in order to justify happening. She too thanked Goldsmith. The audience applauded. But the audience was mostly quiet, panelist Ian Hatcher remarked that he was uncomfortable going forward with what he had planned, and one of the organizers of Interrupt 3 finally suggested ending the event early.”
Despite the relatively small audience size and reaction, word of Goldsmith’s performance soon spread online, where people were much more vocal and angry, condemning Goldsmith for racist exploitation in the name of conceptual poetics (he received at least one death threat). A sample of tweets shows some of the range of reactions:
The last tweet is a reference to Goldsmith’s own response to the furor, which he posted on Facebook yesterday. In the statement, he explains that “The Body of Michael Brown” follows the concept and format of the pieces in his most recent book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters. For that, Goldsmith transcribed news reports of national tragedies (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 9/11, and others) as they were unfolding. “In the tradition of my previous book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand (in this case by the doctor performing the autopsy) and simply read it,” Goldsmith wrote. But he goes on to explain the changes he did make:
I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary. I indeed stated at the beginning of my reading that this was a poem called “The Body of Michael Brown”; I never stated, “I am going to read the autopsy report of Michael Brown.” But then again, this is what I did in Seven Deaths and Disasters. I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature, for that it (sic) what they are when I read them. That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.
The conversation surrounding Goldsmith’s performance ties into a larger one about the racial and ethical realities of conceptual poetry (Interrupt’s subtitle is “A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art”). An anonymous group called the Mongrel Coalition has recently begun questioning the “colonial aesthetics” of conceptual art, and in response to the Goldsmith incident this weekend wrote a missive on its website. It includes this passage:
On Friday night–in what was clearly an attempt to salvage the corpse of “conceptualism”–Goldsmith made explicit a slippage that we (and others) have been bemoaning for years:
The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report is not our poetry, it’s the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA infecting everyone in the world. We refuse to let it be made “literary”
Goldsmith cannot differentiate between White Supremacy and Poetry. In fact, for so many the two are one and the same.
On her own website, writer Jacqueline Valencia, who calls herself a friend and mentee of Goldsmith, offered a more measured but still critical response:
Scaling back, I have to think about the poet as a vessel of messages. In this case, Goldsmith is the vessel of the data of the autopsy report. …
Now think of Goldsmith again as the vessel of that report. He is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown. Did he speak to the Brown’s relatives? If he didn’t are we to think that Brown’s death, because that of that freely available autopsy report, are we to believe that Brown’s body is now freely available to the public? This is a black body that Goldsmith is rendering in his reading. That alone is the reason that concerned me. As a mixed woman with a black father who has had his rights (and life) questioned because of the colour of his skin, we both grew up subtly being told that our bodies belonged for appropriation. My Colombian dad is called negro in his homeland. I am still called negrita there as well. Negro there isn’t just the name of a colour, but it lives on as a derogatory term in Spanish. Slave labour is still alive and well for the blacks in South America. Black men still face great hardships in Colombia. Black suffering isn’t free and readily available to the public. Until the struggle is fought by those who suffer, we as people on the outside of it, must be allies and not silence black voices or speak over them.
Valencia goes on to say that she doesn’t think she can fully judge what happened on Friday night until a video or transcript of the reading is released. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen. After seeing this tweet, Hyperallergic reached out to professor John Cayley in the Department of Literary Arts at Brown and confirmed that the video will not be released, at the behest of Goldsmith, who apparently said: “I am requesting that Brown University not make public the recording of my performance of ‘The Body of Michael Brown.’ There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.”
Cayley said the school would not normally release such video footage publicly without the consent of the guest presenter. He added, “We will document Interrupt 3 to the best of our abilities. As far as Goldsmith’s contribution is concerned, it’s up to him, now, what he does with his work. He read from a text that had been transcribed to paper, but we don’t have a copy.”
Interrupt 3 took place at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University (154 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island) from March 12 to 15.