Open Culture Picks Our 10 Avant-Garde Favorites on Ubuweb: Joyce, Borges, Sontag, Wittgenstein & More


If you know about Open Cul­ture, sure­ly you know about Ubuweb. If you don’t, its slo­gan says almost every­thing you need to know about it: “All Avant-Garde. All the Time.” This vast online repos­i­to­ry of cut­ting-edge cul­tur­al arti­facts from a vari­ety of eras also adheres stead­fast­ly to the prin­ci­ple of keep­ing all of its mate­r­i­al free: free in the sense of charg­ing you noth­ing to read, hear or view it, and free in the sense that you can do what­ev­er you want with it. Need­less to say, the site, found­ed by poet Ken­neth Gold­smith in 1996, has made many fans, and Ubuweb itself has tapped quite a few of the high­er-pro­file ones to curate top ten lists. Assem­bled by peo­ple like New York­er music crit­ic Alex Ross, nov­el­ists Hari Kun­zru and Rick Moodyalter­na-pop star Nick “Momus” Cur­rie, these help the poten­tial­ly (and under­stand­ably) bewil­dered find their way through the trove of Ubuwe­b’s media, which is uni­ver­sal­ly influ­en­tial and van­ish­ing­ly obscure, vis­cer­al­ly trans­gres­sive and ver­tig­i­nous­ly intel­lec­tu­al, eter­nal­ly excit­ing and delib­er­ate­ly bor­ing.

This month, Ubuweb called upon our fear­less edi­tor here at Open Cul­ture for a top ten list. Most of the picks have been pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured on OC. The list runs as fol­lows:

1. Finnegans Wake (1939), Read by Patrick Healy
Open Cul­ture: Hear All of Finnegans Wake Read Aloud: A 35 Hour Read­ing

“The sheer plea­sure one can derive — con­ven­tion­al expec­ta­tions duly set aside — from the almost tac­tile qual­i­ty of Joyce’s prose, its earthy, ancient, elven sounds, seems more to the point of appre­ci­at­ing this odd, frus­trat­ing work. Per­haps, like any well-writ­ten poem, one sim­ply needs to hear it read aloud. Joyce him­self said so, and so you can.”

2. The Craft of Verse: Jorge Luis Borges’ Nor­ton Lec­tures, 1967–68
Open Cul­ture: Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

“Near­ing both 70 years of age and total blind­ness, Borges nonethe­less gives a vir­tu­osi­cal­ly wide-rang­ing series of talks, freely reach­ing across forms, coun­tries, eras, and lan­guages with­out the aid of notes. Enti­tled ‘This Craft of Verse,’ these lec­tures osten­si­bly deal with poet­ry. Alas, like many lit­er­ary geeks, I know too lit­tle of poet­ry, but if Borges can’t moti­vate you to learn more, who can?”

3. Three Rare Films by Susan Son­tag
Open Cul­ture: The Film­mak­ing of Susan Son­tag & Her 50 Favorite Films (1977)

“Son­tag, they say, ‘sought to lib­er­ate art from inter­pre­ta­tion (which is a bit iron­ic, of course, for some­one who was essen­tial­ly an exalt­ed crit­ic). When it came to her own film, she made some­thing that intend­ed to delib­er­ate­ly con­found the notion that there was any sort of under­ly­ing mean­ing beyond exact­ly what the audi­ence was see­ing on the screen direct­ly in front of them.’ ”

4.  M.A. Num­mi­nen Sings Wittgen­stein (1983 / 1989)
Open Cul­ture: Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Gets Adapt­ed Into an Avant-Garde Com­ic Opera

“Giv­en the Trac­ta­tus’s fire­bomb­ing of an entire area of human endeav­or, it’s no sur­prise it hasn’t fared well in many tra­di­tion­al depart­ments, but that hasn’t stopped Wittgenstein’s work from find­ing pur­chase else­where, influ­enc­ing mod­ern artists like Jasper Johns, the Coen Broth­ers, and, not least sure­ly, Finnish avant garde com­pos­er and musi­cian M.A. Num­mi­nen. This odd char­ac­ter, who caused a stir in the 60s by set­ting sex guides to music, took it upon him­self to do the same for many of the Trac­ta­tus’s propo­si­tions, and the results are, well…. Lis­ten for your­self.”

5. Aldous Huxley’s Vision­ary Expe­ri­ence
Open Cul­ture: Aldous Hux­ley, Psy­che­delics Enthu­si­ast, Lec­tures About “the Vision­ary Expe­ri­ence” at MIT (1962)

“Hux­ley had already gained world­wide fame for his views on bet­ter liv­ing, which was some­times achieved, he believed, through psy­che­del­ic drugs. This might have already sound­ed like old hat in, say, the San Fran­cis­co of the late 1960s, let alone the 70s and onward, but in these record­ings Hux­ley says his piece in — I still can’t quite believe it — the MIT of the ear­ly 1960s. But diag­nosed a cou­ple years before with the can­cer that would claim his life the next, he had noth­ing to lose by spread­ing the word of his sub­stance-induced dis­cov­er­ies.”

6. Jacques Derrida’s Inter­view with Ornette Cole­man [PDF]
Open Cul­ture: Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

“Trans­lat­ing Coleman’s tech­nique into ‘a domain that I know bet­ter, that of writ­ten lan­guage,’ Der­ri­da ven­tures to com­pare impro­vi­sa­tion to read­ing, since it ‘doesn’t exclude the pre-writ­ten frame­work that makes it pos­si­ble.’ For him, the exis­tence of a framework—a writ­ten composition—even if only loose­ly ref­er­enced in a jazz per­for­mance, ‘com­pro­mis­es or com­pli­cates the con­cept of impro­vi­sa­tion.’ ”

7. Joey Ramone Sings a Piece by John Cage Adapt­ed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “The Won­der­ful Wid­ow of Eigh­teen Springs,”
Open Cul­ture: Hear Joey Ramone Sing a Piece by John Cage Adapt­ed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

“Ramone’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the piece is enthralling sim­ply as a piece of record­ed music.  But it’s also a fas­ci­nat­ing piece of cul­tur­al his­to­ry, rep­re­sent­ing a con­flu­ence of the fore­most fig­ures in ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture, mid-cen­tu­ry avant-garde music, and late cen­tu­ry punk rock.”

8. The Avant-Garde Project
Open Cul­ture: The Avant-Garde Project: An Archive of Music by 200 Cut­ting-Edge Com­posers, Includ­ing Stravin­sky, Schoen­berg, Cage & More

“Every sphere of record­ed music has its crate-dig­gers, those hap­py to flip through hun­dreds — nay, hun­dreds of thou­sands — of obscure, for­got­ten vinyl albums in search of their subgenre’s even obscur­er, more for­got­ten gems. This holds espe­cial­ly true, if not in num­ber than in avid­i­ty, for enthu­si­asts of the 20th-cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal-exper­i­men­tal-elec­troa­coustic tra­di­tion that The Avant-Garde Project takes as its preser­va­tion man­date.”

9. Alice Tok­las Reads Her Hashish Fudge Recipe
Open Cul­ture: Alice B. Tok­las Reads Her Famous Recipe for Hashish Fudge (1963)

“In this 1963 record­ing from Paci­fi­ca Radio, Tok­las reads her noto­ri­ous recipe. The snack ‘might pro­vide an enter­tain­ing refresh­ment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chap­ter meet­ing of the DAR,’ Tok­las notes in her reedy, dig­ni­fied voice.”

10. Jean Bau­drillard Sings!
Open Cul­ture: Jean Bau­drillard Reads His Poet­ry, Backed By All-Star Arts Band (1996)

“Known to hip aca­d­e­m­ic types and avant-garde-ists, Bau­drillard’s maybe the kind of thinker who gets name-dropped more than read (and he’s no easy read). But in the audio clip above, he reads to us, from his poet­ry no less, while backed by the swirling abstract sounds of The Chance Band. It’s an odd, one-time, assem­blage of artists and thinkers Ubuweb describes as ‘unbe­liev­able but true!’ ”

If you’ve already seen every­thing on it, con­grat­u­la­tions: you can con­sid­er your­self a true, shall we say, OC OG.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Avant-Garde Media: The UbuWeb Col­lec­tion

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the 1913 Exhi­bi­tion That Intro­duced Avant-Garde Art to Amer­i­ca

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Neil Norman says:

    This is a won­der­ful list. I will explore it with great inter­est. My addi­tions would be Cathy Berber­ian singing an extract from Ulysses for which I have on a Luciano Berio LP and some­thing by or about Georges Bataille. The Son­tag films are a real treat. I have a VHS some­where of three Ger­tude Stein plays that I record­ed from the tele­vi­sion many years ago. This has prompt­ed me to dig them out.

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