Why even bother being creative?

Published on July 29, 2021

Ok, this is a little awkward. But after writing this, I realized that one of the newsletter readers is a friend of mine still waiting for his birthday present, and this issue of the newsletter may or may not relate to the following content.

On this note: Enno, please don't read any further.
Everyone else, please continue.

After the past issue, I decided that it's maybe a good moment to finish the unplanned and inofficial series of people I find quite inspiring. So far, I wrote about Einstürzende Neubauten, Jacques Derrida and the late Joachim Sauter of Art+Com.

The last one to add is Kenneth Goldsmith.

Yes, I'm more than aware that all of them fall under the category of "old white men explaining the world", but their work had quite a significant impact on my thinking. No, I don't think that there aren't women out there who could have impacted me in the same way, but it's factually these men. I believe, their points of view are unique and shouldn't be dismissed for systemic reasons.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a conceptual poet and professor of uncreative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He also founded UbuWeb, a website that collects and archives conceptual art from different disciplines.

This is an image description. While being in this headspace, I came across Kenneth Goldsmith's idea of Uncreative Writing. He claims that trying to generate original ideas is an arrogant, self-aggrandizing and delusional act.

I came across his body of work in a time of creative struggle. As you may or may not know, it's common practice in creative advertising and communications agencies to develop creative (as in "imaginative") ideas for the sole purpose of winning industry awards. It's part of the business model, and I understand it better today.

But having to fit into this culture in the advertising industry was a massive clash for me. Especially since being a (User) Experience Architect and Strategist, I just want to build products and tools that will be used by as many people as possible every day, not prototyped for a single jury use case. But suddenly, I had to push out ideas in my spare time only to have people telling me that they are not creative enough. That I'm not creative enough. That I didn't do a good enough job in something that I didn't want to participate in, in the first place.

While being in this headspace, I came across Kenneth Goldsmith's idea of Uncreative Writing. He claims that trying to generate original ideas is an arrogant, self-aggrandizing and delusional act. He thinks that the world out there is full of text to be written and stories to be told, and it doesn't need anyone to think they have any better ideas than what's actually happening. For him, the curational act of choosing and transcribing these texts is genuinely creative.

This was emotional punk rock! Shatter the agency system! What a relief in this moment of self-doubt. And you probably won't be surprised now when I tell you about his poetic and artistic work:

Hilary behind a fake oval office desk decorated with nothing #butheremails

It's the perfect, contemporary addition to Jacques Derrida's notion of the "everything is text" concept. Because on your computer, everything actually is text. Everything is made from code, thereby text. You can choose any file, like a png, mov or mp3, and open it with TextEdit / Notebook. You'll see: it's all text that you can edit.

And in this way, Goldsmith's concept of text is truly representative of our digitized world. I thoroughly enjoy his humor, perception of creativity and way of thinking. You should scroll through the anthology "Against Translation" (PDF, 16MB) that he curated with Craig Dworkin. It's full of conceptual texts and poems. One of my favorite pieces in there (not by Goldsmith, but still) is "The Bible (alphabetized)".

Goldsmith also made headlines when his 2015 Uncreative Writing class was announced. It was titled "Wasting Time on the Internet," and the class description promised exactly that: waste time on the internet.

Again, don't have any original ideas. Observe the world around you. And work with what you come across.

After the class, he published a very insightful book of the same name that also included a very positive outlook on digitized culture. Here's one of my favorite quotes where he's describing the alleged detached behavior of a friend's teenage daughter who was glued to her smartphone during a family vacation:

Her daughter wasn't just wasting time on the internet; instead, she was fully engaged, fostering an aesthetic, feeding her imagination, indulging in her creative proclivities, and hanging out with her friends, all from the comfort of a remote hotel room on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Wasting Time on the Internet, Kenneth Goldsmith, 2016

It's just so refreshing to read an alternative to doomsday social media scenarios. But it also describes what they were doing in the class: While wasting time on the internet, they analyzed what we are actually doing. The social, intellectual and interactive aspects of it.

At the end of the book, Goldsmith shares "101 Ways to Waste Time on the Internet" as authored by his students during the class.

I was lucky enough to curate some of these activities for an off-site event with C-level Creative Directors at Jung von Matt (Why should I even try being creative, d'uh?). I wanted to show them that they are digital people, even if they would declare themselves as "not that digital". That being digital and living a digital life doesn't necessarily mean writing code, but just living a life in this day and age.

These are the activities I chose, just as 15mins energizers between keynotes. It was so much fun. And also an unexpectedly good group building experience:

And just for fun, three more that didn't make the cut:

Here you can find an overview and downloads of Kenneth Goldsmith's work. The plagiarist shall be plagiarized.

So, with this, I'm for now finishing up the small series of people who were very influential to my thinking. And now, please enjoy the rest of your day wasting time on the internet.