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Racial controversy over poem ends conference event early

Poem using text of Michael Brown’s autopsy report provokes anger at “Interrupt” conference

Speakers specializing in poetry, fine arts and literary studies gathered at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts this weekend to explore the impact of digital culture at the third “Interrupt” conference. But these conversations were largely displaced by controversy over poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of a poem that uses text from Michael Brown’s autopsy report.

The conference focused in part on “uncreative writing” — the poetic style pioneered by Goldsmith, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, teaches poetics and poetic practice at Penn and was named the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate.

With the unprecedented number of texts available in the digital age, Goldsmith focuses on refashioning preexisting texts instead of creating new ones. During his Friday night performance entitled “The Body of Michael Brown,” Goldsmith used the preexisting text of Michael Brown’s autopsy report.

Goldsmith projected an image of Brown’s high school graduation photo and recited the autopsy report with only slight alterations, changing the order of the text and translating the medical vocabulary into layperson’s terms. He detailed explicit images from the report, notably the entry and exit wounds of the bullets, and ended the piece with the autopsy’s description of Brown’s genitals as “unremarkable.”

Many audience members and other performers felt “profoundly uncomfortable” following Goldsmith’s performance, said co-organizer Francesca Capone GS, who is studying literary arts. Two other scheduled performers expressed reluctance to present, and so organizers decided to end the event early, Capone said.

Many conference attendees criticized Goldsmith, a white male, for appropriating a black body for his poetry, thereby aestheticizing racial violence.

“As much as 20th century art and literature would like to promote the erasure of the author, as Goldsmith does, he is enacting a history of violence and appropriation of marginalized bodies,” said Rachel Ossip ’15, a fifth-year student in the Dual Degree program.

“This is linked to an author’s position and privilege, which cannot be ignored,” Ossip added. “Art should never be an excuse for racial violence.”

Goldsmith chose not to participate in the discussion following his performance, said John Cayley, co-organizer of the conference and professor of literary arts.

One performer began and then stopped her performance, walking off stage while saying “Never mind, I don’t know what I was thinking,” Ossip said. Audience members’ reactions during the discussion ranged from mild critique to anger and condemnation, she said.

Cayley and Capone said they had no prior knowledge of the content of Goldsmith’s performance, as they did not screen the text beforehand. They added that they believed they should place “confidence and trust” in all of the artists attending the conference, including Goldsmith.

Cayley wrote in an email to Goldsmith, “neither ‘Interrupt 3’ nor Brown was in any way responsible for your choice of performance or for the reception of what you chose to perform.”

Criticism of Goldsmith’s performance erupted on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the event. Goldsmith tweeted that he had even received a death threat.

In a March 15 Facebook post defending his piece, Goldsmith wrote, “It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death.”

The absence of “editorializing” allows a document to speak “for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot,” Goldsmith also wrote on Facebook.

As the controversy further ignited online, Goldsmith wrote on Facebook Tuesday that he requests that “Brown University not make public the recording of my performance … There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.”

Saturday’s scheduled events proceeded as planned and included a presentation on “ffabschrifting,” a new artistic movement that brings attention to the form in which texts are presented. The day also included a presentation from Johanna Drucker, professor of bibliographical studies in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The conference concluded Sunday with an open discussion that included prepared responses from attendees. In the wide-ranging conversation, Goldsmith’s performance became a jumping-off point for a discussion of underrepresentation of people of color in poetry, fine arts, higher education and the “Interrupt” conference itself. Despite “tremendous efforts to diversify the program,” organizers’ inability to do so reflects the issues of diversity in the arts, Cayley said.

The previous headline of this article, "Racial controversy over poem ends conference early," incorrectly implied that controversy ended the entire conference, not an event during the conference, early. The Herald regrets the error.



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