The NYC artist has aroused controversy with his upcoming show, "Printing Out the Internet."

photo of Kenneth Goldsmith

"Because poetry is about life, and this level of waste speaks only about death and waste. Also its [sic] fucking stupid."

This is one person's reaction to "Printing Out the Internet," artist Kenneth Goldsmith's proposed art installation, which will take place July 26 to August 30 at LABOR in Mexico City. The New York City artist has requested that all interested parties literally print out the Internet, or any part of it that they want to print, "be it one sheet or a truckload" and send it to the gallery. If the printout is of something online, it will be accepted, and all contributors will be listed as participating artists at the show. Not surprisingly, the idea has spawned a hostile reaction among environmentalists. A petition at Change.org asks Goldsmith not to print the Internet, and it's there that many of the 302 signers have commented on the project. "This is a very stupid idea," one Russian signer wrote. "Seriously. Get a job. Or woman. Or man. Or cat."

The controversy is the show's first act for Goldsmith, whose work has always been conceptual and largely examines the mundane in simple, concrete ways that open new ways of thinking about the everyday. His book Fidget documents every body movement in a 13-hour period, and it forces readers to become conscious of just how often they move, and what twitchy people they are. Goldsmith has a background in conceptual art from his days at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he runs the website Ubuweb.com, an online repository for conceptual art documents, whether text, audio or video. The challenge of printing Ubuweb alone illustrates in Goldsmith's mind the impossibility of the project of printing the Internet - "audio is code," he says - which makes the outrage more amusing. "It's an impossibly stupid thing, and people are taking it so literally."

The idea for the installation emerged from "Who Owns the Image?," a panel discussion that Pamela Echeverría, Gallery Director of LABOR in Mexico City held a few years ago to talk about copyright, ownership and the web from an art perspective. Goldsmith participated in the session and, after net activist Aaron Swartz killed himself earlier this year, Echeverría asked him to curate a show in Swartz's memory. "Information is so abstract," he says. "Swartz downloaded 33 gigabytes of information. If 33 gigabytes are printed out, that's tens of thousands of pages that this guy liberated. We don't have any sense of what the Internet weighs."

From the start, Goldsmith envisioned large web-based objects that might contextualize Swartz's act. He planned to include a book by an artist who printed and bound every photo of Natalie Portman online, and a book that compiles every article on the Internet on the Iraq War. Unfortunately, it is 40 feet long and prohibitively expensive to fly from Germany where it's housed to Mexico City, and when Goldsmith suggested fabricating a black market version in Mexico, he says the artist balked. "Wouldn't that be fun?" he argued. "Wouldn't that be in the nature of the Internet? Not make a precious object out of it, but make a stupid object out of it that reflects the reality of the Internet? When that fell out, I wanted to put pedal to the metal and try to crowd-source the entire Internet. We've got a huge space; let's see if we can fill it."

At this point, he has no idea what the show will be like because he has no idea what will show up. "I may get more than the gallery can handle, and I may get one fucking box, which I'll leave in the middle of the gallery and write on it, 'The Internet,'" he says. But as a conceptualist, the idea is the thing; a good show is a fortunate byproduct. "That it's got so many people upset, so many people talking - to me, this is the show. What happens in the end is inevitably bound to be much less interesting than the conversation that is going on right now across the Internet."

But "Printing Out the Internet" is more than just an art prank. Such a simple idea exposes a number of intriguing tensions and questions starting with the nature of the Internet itself. "As if it's even possible to know what the fucking Internet is!" Goldsmith says. "It's a giant conceptual proposition." Even the most imperfect attempt to collect it on paper gives it physical dimensions that makes it more comprehensible. Is the Internet bigger than a house? Than a warehouse? Than the White House? And once it's rendered as something physical, what is the Internet made of? News of the Iraq War, tweets from Kim Kardashian, porn - lots of porn - as well as Napster, Playstation cheat code sites, Facebook, and old Geocities and Angelfire sites.

"If you had to store all your music in your apartment, you couldn't move," Goldsmith says. "Instead, you keep it on hard drives. The whole idea is also a critique of consumption. If you were aware of how much shit you actually have there, maybe you'd think twice. Why are you consuming all of this? It's a concretization of our consumption. The problem with digital culture and our consumption of digital culture is that it's entirely untheorized. This provocation has made you have to theorize something you do every day."

Putting the Internet in conjunction with an art gallery highlights the democratic nature of the web when juxtaposed with the exclusivity of the art world. The web was built one Yelp review, YouTube video of a skateboard wipeout, and family vacation blog at a time, which is at odds with the fine art gallery's focus on the remarkable individual who made a remarkable object. On Goldsmith's tumblr page to document the online life of the show, he draws attention to an aluminum balloon dog sculpture by pop artist Jeff Koons, writing:

In the petition, people are saying the following: “While it is appreciated that Mr Goldsmith plans to recycle the paper used in his art exhibit, reduction of usage is more important than post-usage recycling.” Do you think that your project bring damage to the environment? If the answer is yes, is that something that should be taken in consideration?

All art is spectacle; all spectacle is material; and all material must come from somewhere. Relative to the rest of the art world — the spectacle of the Venice Biennale with its global carbon footprint, hideous yachts and private jets or the $35 million Jeff Koons strip-mined aluminum sculptures, created by one person for one person of the 1% — Printing Out The Internet, with its all-inclusive democratic attitude, nothing for sale, and a recyclable ending looks pretty good by comparison.

"My spectacle is completely open, participatory to all," Goldsmith says, and contributors can put the show on their resumes. 

For now though, "Printing Out the Internet" is as conceptual for Goldsmith as the Internet itself. He can't control it any more than he can control the Internet, nor can he think about the nature of the presentation since he has no idea how much paper he'll have to deal with. "It would be really funny if nothing showed up at the gallery," he says. This would please the protester who wrote, "Seriously, what a waste of resources. A pathetic plan (and yes, I like ART)."