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2500 random things

Visual artist & writer Matias Viegener interviewed by Maxi Kim.

3:AM: With the rise of e-book and print-on-demand, it appears that we are at the dusk of the paperback revolution (1932-).  In fact, your new book 2500 Random Things About Me Too was wholly written on Facebook. You recently said on Huffington Post that, “While technology makes it easier than ever to get a book into print, getting it in people’s hands and getting them to sit still to read is harder than ever.” My understanding is that in February 2009 you logged into Facebook and wrote a short list of random things about yourself in response to a friend’s meme, “25 Random Things About Me.” From there things kind of snowballed. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of this project? 

Matias Viegener: I suppose it began like a lot of my work, in resistance. I hated the idea at first. I didn’t like the meme, didn’t ask for it, tried to avoid it, and finally challenged myself to do it. Then I did a few more. Then a few things I liked started to emerge: the quixotic, doomed appeal of randomness, the plodding delight of systematicity or constraint. Vanessa Place says something like: don’t like it, do it again, and then another time; and then do it again, do it over and over until something happens. At least I think she says that. Or if she doesn’t, she could. Vanessa in fact proposed the 100 list mark, one hundred being a nice decimalised number, an honest dollar, so to speak. About a third of the way through I was exhilarated because I found a way to work polyphonically and a way to turn my inability to stick to a topic to my advantage. And not only could I converse with myself, but I had a troupe of faithful readers whose comments resonated and worked their way back into the following lists. Since we couldn’t include the comments without everyone’s permission, we decided not to try. I think the book reflects the dialogic nature of the project but perhaps not its full energy. Of course some comments fell flat or missed the point, but even these had an effect, if only to illustrate the way our misreadings fulfill a hidden purpose. There are no misreadings in that sense, only readings whose reference we can’t apprehend.

3:AM: Your academic criticism has appeared in the queer theory issue of Critical Quarterly, Queer Looks: Lesbian & Gay Experimental Media, and Camp Grounds: Gay & Lesbian Style. Do you have any strong feelings about the state of today’s queer theory? Specifically, I’d be curious to know how you feel about Gaga Feminism author J. Jack Halberstam and Halberstam’s negative stance on gay marriage?

MV: I think it’s tempting to hold on to the idea of the homosexual as an outlaw figure, but for the most part gay people are completely bourgeois. There’s nothing oppositional about them, nothing revolutionary. We hold on to this idealised queer criminal as some form of alterity, and I understand why. Sometimes I’d like to be Jean Genet, but I’m not. That’s why I guess figures like John Cage and Joe Brainard appeal to me. They were gay nerds, ambling between insiderhood and true geekiness. That said, the exception to my tirade is the queer kid. I think it’s hell for a lot of young gay people, probably even more now than when I was a kid. Fags were like elves or ghosts then, not characters on reality-TV shows. I think a lot of the protection I got was because the people around me were too naive to believe it was possible for a kid to be gay. So where the politics and the social focus needs to go is to those kids, not to marriage rights. Oh and queer theory. I love Jack Halberstam but I’d call what he does queer polemics, not queer theory, whose heyday (though not relevance) has passed. It’s the presence of things like gay marriage (and the rise of queer studies and the gay bourgeoisie behind it) that even lay the groundwork for a queer to rant against gay marriage. I myself don’t want marriage, don’t need it (keep the government out of my body please), but could hardly care to make myself the measure of queer politics, much like Cage and Brainard in that respect. Why stand in the way of the (apparent) gay masses cheerfully lined up for their marriage licenses? Each of us deserves the fetishes we choose.

3:AM: What was the thinking behind transforming the original online texts of 2500 Random Things About Me Too into an actual book? What was it like working with Les Figues on transferring the e-lists onto the printed page?

MV: The text is largely the same as the online version, but I’d say a third of the sentences were edited for consistent punctuation. Who knew that consistency (the hobgoblin of little minds) really does matter? What I learned was that stylistic inconsistency distracts the reader, even if subliminally, from the content. Another way of saying this is that I discovered in the editing that what I was saying, the ideas especially, were more important than how they originally came out. I saw certain through-lines that needed to be cleared, and also red herrings in a sense, that needed, I dunno, a little sauce. So ironically in order to make editing disappear, I had to focus on it even more. I tinkered a lot with word order, believe it or not, and also a little with the numeration and order — I decided that in the online version I had made some mistakes. Much of what I wrote on Facebook was in the context of (an extended) conversation, and some of it felt forced as a book manuscript. I had to make a certain set of edits to evoke the quality of the conversation in what is, in its final version, a monologue. A book is monological no matter how dialogical its generation. Many of the edits amped up or undercut this monologue to heighten the animated quality the writing had when posted on Facebook. Also as I was generating the work, I had two constraints of a sort: to be random and to not repeat myself, but also to not re-read what I’d written (because that’s too deliberate, and diminishes the potential of randomness). In editing the book I saw that of course I did repeat myself, not verbatim, but that like everyone I have a repertoire of images, words, memories and ideas. So part of the intention to be random has to accommodate our tendency to fall into ruts. When you read it as a book, rather than as a daily posting, you really understand this. The book is less about randomness than about human nature, about our weakness, and our feeble dependence on narrative. I didn’t want to appear to be expending too much effort in being random. If I exerted myself unduly, the enterprise would be compromised. Randomness and intention are opposites and to make them snuggle together you need some slight of hand.

3:AM: As I was reading your book it dawned on me that Facebook and Twitter have become so nearly naturalised for my students that, to them, social media hardly seem to have been designed or to have a history. They are quite intrigued by your book, they really like the way the book emerged originally as a non-book. However, are there any traps of writing in this “random” style? You’ve said that trying to be random is not easy: “As soon as you’re focused on it, you’re deliberate, not random. John Cage moved from rolling dice to getting programmers to generate random sequences for him.” Your quote reminded me of how Philip K. Dick resorted to using the I Ching to write his novel The Man in the High Castle. Any literary advice or words of wisdom for this generation of emerging writers?

MV: Facebook and Twitter et al haven’t just wrought great social change, but also a transformation in language and social relations. Our visual literacy accelerated first and fastest, but I think now it is text’s turn. People argue that visual literacy has displaced textual literary, but new technologies have opened up a new kind of writing, and certainly a new kind of reading, in some ways a better kind: a whole generation of readers is learning to scrutinise the 140 character tweet, for example. A whole set of close readers who see language more as a veil than a signboard. Add this to the short attention spans and extreme condensation of these forms and you have a cultural shift. Many writers I know react against it, longing for long, discursive styles of the last two centuries. I love these too, but my impulse is to move with this flow, not against it. Part of me feels also feels resistant to what you’d call the bloggish voice, but the other part recognizes not only that others are drawn to it, but that I am too. It’s related to my understanding of gossip, and seeing its social meaning. The content of gossip is filled with ethical (and even aesthetic?) peril, but its role is essential. Gossip is primal, related to the way mammals groom each other’s fur. We’re not just pulling out the nits (which we could do to ourselves), we’re forging primary bonds.

I see gossip as a deep form of grooming in language. Losing your lice is less ethically fraught than gossip, but they’re both forms of exchange in which the benefit of the things exchanged, bugs or trivia, is less important than the effect: the production of intimacy. Part of the internet’s intimate power arises through its cold and depersonalised structure. Social media has cracked something open: a way for writers to speak and be heard outside the usual, policed distributions of the literary. Tweeting and texting may not have led to better writing, but I’d argue that they’ve led to better close readings. Look at the way a cryptic tweet gets scrutinised. For many people today, reading is a kind of code-breaking. I’m fascinated by the powers of condensation, quotation, and metaphor, for which social media has tremendous potential. If an emerging writer wanted a form of realism that reflected our “lived” experiences, it seems to me that working in and through these new modalities has more potential that the narrative novel, essentially a 19th century invention. Vernacular forms always seem depleted and ubiquitous, so they most often get ignored, but it’s both of these qualities that make them appealing. I love bad tweets, for example, especially illiterate celebrity tweets. If you compare them to the slickness of today’s user-generated YouTube videos, you’d see a lot more rawness and immediacy. I see what I’m doing as being in a line from the origin of realism, from when ordinary life was not something that literature could depict, to modernism, when aspects of the unconscious, stream of consciousness, allegory and popular culture, kitsch or mass media started pulling at the fabric of that depiction. On the other hand it’s also a break from realism as a direct discourse. My text, probably in part because of was generated online, is indirect, and often tends to litotes or understatement, if as only be both being indirect and restrained can anything actually be expressed. The written style of narrative realism was modeled as much by speech as literary writing. Speech dominates our everyday world, but the internet, Twitter and SMSs have supplanted speech as the way we communicate. I’m all for textuality.

3:AM: I loved how you intertwined both the political and personal in your lists. Strangely enough, your lists reminded me of artist Ai Weiwei‘s tweets. I’d be curious to know, who do you follow on Twitter? Which bloggers/Facebook friends inspire you?

MV: I don’t follow anyone right now, and in fact I’m trying to escape the internet. I want to live in the world! I feel like I have less and less of an inner life, one based in presence, observation and attentiveness. I’ve spend most of my free time over the last 15 years online in some form, and I notice that even my dreams have a quality like webpages: things move fast, and everything comes in image and text, in pages even. (No doubt some of what we once thought of as a dream-like quality came from cinema, and before that, theater, but still). Lately I feel like I’m dead, or some kind of ghost in the world: I can hear and I can make contact, but can’t really touch anything. In a permissive culture in which all dissent is so easily commodified you need to find a new ways of speaking politically. Breaking formal rules used to be one, but I don’t think is anymore. Also, I’m kind of sorry for Ai Weiwei, but I think he does create his own problems. He’s quite a strategist. What saves him from being another ambitious artist for me is his sense of humor: look at the caption on his self portrait: 草泥马挡中央, whose words, “grass mud horse covering the middle” sound almost the same in Chinese as “fuck your mother, the Communist Party Central Committee.” Talk about the personal and the political!

3:AM: You’ve been published in Artforum, Art Issues, The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, and X-tra, for whom you’ve written regularly on visual art. In 2500 Random Things About Me Too readers gain a sense of the artistic and literary milieu that you move in and out of. What initially attracted you to the art world? What would you like to finally see in a museum that you have yet to see?

MV: I’d like to see writing examined with as much intensity as visual art. I’d like a cultural revolution in which we take writers and artists and put them to work together on farms and make them talk to each other. Once they’ve talked for 10,000 hours (the threshold for expertise, or the transformation from incapacity to mastery), what might happen? Right now there are thick walls between these two fiefdoms. Sometimes I feel like serf, wandering from one gated city to another. The fields are cold and wet, and there’s nothing to eat, but still we whisper about the revolution. What came first for me, the literary or the art world? Like many people I know, I take flight for one mostly to escape the other. Every haven is potentially a hell of its own though, and maybe the suffering is productive. It’s certainly vivid, which is why everyone reads Dante’s Inferno, but not the Paradiso. I’ve been lucky to have a career in both art and writing. For one thing, there’s a carryover, where I escape some modal confines of writing by pulling in ideas from visual art, and vice-versa. What irks me sometimes in art is the tyranny of the visual and the way that so much contemporary art only converses with or comments on other contemporary art — its self-referentiality. A lot of writing I see doesn’t interrogate its textual status at all, and that frustrates me too. Exceptions abound of course, but I try to work between these poles.

3:AM: What struck me, at the time, about your project was the buzz generated by the people who read your daily lists; your friends even came to anticipate the comments generated by your lists. As you point out, “It’s exciting to get daily feedback, but the truly revolutionary thing was that the lists slowly became an extended conversation.” You recently had a book launch event with writer Chris Kraus at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. How has the reception been thus far? How do you think this “extended conversation” will morph and change as your project is now principally in the world as a hard copy?

MV: The reception has been positive, some of it glowing in fact, especially from writers whose opinions I value most. But it yes, it lost the energy it had online. I think that energy had something to do with reader’s responses coming in every day, the quality of conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about what to work on next. The temptation is to repeat myself, with some kind of clever variation. For a while I was working on 2500 Random Things About You, all of the text appropriated from Facebook updates, following a procedure as with the original 2500, but it was terrible, truly banal. To be a true conceptual writer you have to embrace banality, but I can’t put my heart into it. I need a reference point outside a constraint or device, and not just a conceptual goal. Overall things often seem heavy-handed or ham-fisted to me.

Part of my desire to escape social media and the internet is driven by the desire to escape humans. By making everything in the universe about us we’ve made an inhuman world for ourselves. There’s an illusion that conceptual writing somehow removes us from humanism, while I think it’s the most humanistic of all enterprises, rendered fashionable by its nihilistic and clinical veneer. My current work is on plants, animals and objects — the world without us. There’s a great nonfiction book that describes how traces of the human would disappear over time should we all finally destroy ourselves. I read it years ago and it stays with me in a comforting, almost Buddhist way. I’m collaborating with artist Susan Silton on a chapbook related to her whistling women performances; Dodie Bellamy did the first one. My text is about birds and their whistles, especially these two parrots I know, and how their use of sound actually causes us to imitate them. It might not look like it on the surface, but in my head it’s a logical step from 2500 Random Things About Me, Too.

3:AM: For myself, what made your lists especially addictive was all of the French theory-adjacent art school gossip. In particular, I’m thinking about your entries on the historiographer Sande Cohen and the Lacanian Slavoj Zizek. Your book takes it all on: philosophy, identity politics, literary conventions, semiotics, the (non)linearity of time and memory, etc, etc. How right would it be to read your work as an extension of Barthes’? Specifically, 2500 Random Things About Me Too as interrogating ways of reading, like negative habits the modern reader brings into experiencing a text?

MV: Post-stucturalist theory infected me at an early age, and I was lucky to have Sylvère Lotringer as my first nurse-practitioner. It’s fair enough to say that it informs everything I do. There began my Twilight/theory saga. I think that finally what pulled me out was the AIDS crisis, and a sense that these sparkling analytical tools were actually a distraction to taking real political action. I got politicised. Freud entered my life in form of a three year psychoanalysis. Academics like Sande Cohen showed me the dangers of French theory aka continental philosophy as tool of manipulation and control: theory as a blunt object rather than a surgeon’s scalpel. The collapse of my enchantment with theory led to a pretty poisonous fallout. But like religion, or anything you learn when you’re young and credulous, my formation in critical theory comes back in endlessly surprising symptoms. I’ll never be cured.

3:AM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kathy Acker in this interview. As a close friend and literary executor to the writer Kathy Acker, you have written and lectured extensively on her work, you even teach a class on her at the California Institute of the Arts. You write about Kathy in 2500 Random Things About Me Too. What’s your biggest pet peeve concerning readers or fans of Kathy Acker? Can you tell us an anecdote about Kathy Acker that you haven’t written about? Or perhaps expand on one of the Kathy anecdotes that goes beyond the hard tattooed image of her?

MV: I think I put most of my Kathy Acker anecdotes in the book! I was surprised, actually, how much she came into the text, but some kind of triangulation got formed between her death, my mother’s (who died 18 months late) and my dog’s, who was dying as I was writing. I think in the end it became a kind of Trauerarbeit. People often notice that after you experience one significant death, all deaths start to connect to each other in some way. Kathy taught me about death. A great gift, to be there with her while she was dying. I took care of her in a way, but it was’t that hard because she wanted a minimum of fuss. What she craved was a sense of connectedness, someone to tie her to the world. She was weaker and weaker, and for the last weeks we had different conversations: telegraphic, laconic, but every word counted. Kathy never wasted time, and she lived by her principles to the end. Death is bigger than our theoretical or linguistic capacities to contain it. It has a terrible gravity, and swallows up whatever is nearby. I can’t tell you any reason that Kathy Acker, my mother, and my dog Peggy would become linked in a text other than that they all died, and I witnessed it. Any effort I could make to be random would never escape that: it bends my light. There are slight overlaps like gender, and they fact that both women knew and loved my dog, but in the end the book reckons with the unrepresentable, not what is known. So maybe this brings me right back around to Kathy despite myself. Our last conversations were really about the unknown, about death, but they were always in the form of allegories or dreams. She couldn’t say she was dying, so everything happened in fragments or between the lines.

3:AM: Are there any other social media projects in the works? What’s next?

MV: My escape from social media at the moment is into something even more sinister: surveillance technology. I got a consumer-grade drone for an art project and on my first outing, it failed, crashed and was lost, my project a failure, or so I thought. Even the video footage got messed up, and I was completely terrorised by the whole project. It’s haunted my dreams for six weeks: my desire to see and my guilt about it; my fear of being arrested (long story); the looming political reality of this apocalyptic technology I accessed through an adolescent’s toy; my determination to be omniscient, and the way that the all-seeing slides metonymically into the place of all-knowing, the way that visibility dominates and structures us perhaps even more than language. So I’m writing in the frenzy of the visible: seeing-as-knowing, and controlling everything.

This text will be part of a monograph series edited by artist and writer Nicholas Grider, Public Access.

Maxi Kim co-edited Stewart Home’s newest anti-novel Mandy, Charlie & Mary Jane and is now working on a documentary about the cultural worker Norman Klein and his 900-plus page novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 8th, 2013.