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A random number of nonrandom things about Matias Viegener

1.  True fact: I started writing this post on Friday, before Professor Tougaw sent his email about posting in “25 things” format. I had already thought about posting á la Viegener, but had rejected the idea because I thought that every single other person in our blogging group would also do it, and that that might get annoying to read.

2.  Then it occurred to me that I would never again have an excuse to blog without the obligation of connecting consecutive thoughts to one another, and that I should jump at the chance to do so. So I started a post in “25 things” format, promising myself I would stop if I thought it was getting gimmicky.

3.  Then I got Professor Tougaw’s email and realized that all my angst on this point had been rendered meaningless.

4.  Key question: What makes Viegener’s lists of 25 things different from the five trillion other lists of 25 things that people had generated by the time this meme petered out on Facebook? Is it the fact that Viegener’s lists have been published offline in a physical book, a circumstance that historically has carried implications of permanence, legitimacy, merit, etc.?

5.  Would the stereotypical Facebook user (older millennial, raised on digital devices and formats, deficient in all important intellectual and professional skills according to yet another hand-wringing survey released this week) give the slightest bit of a damn about those qualities anyway, if such a person actually existed? It’s pretty clear in any case that this book isn’t aimed back at the audience of other list-generators.

6.  Viegener’s lists exist in book form, firstly, because he undertook them as an art project (though the project takes the form of writing, it’s also an instance of performance art); and secondly, because his friends at an art book press undertook to publish the result.

7.  The reason we’re reading them, however, isn’t primarily because they’re in a book, although that fact does help to isolate them from the distractions of the Internet at large. We’re reading them because they’re compelling. (And, naturally, because they offer another way into the theme of the course.)

8.  Not just anyone could produce 100 lists of 25 things that even sustained a reader’s interest for 255 pages, let alone functioned like a goofy, striking, insightful, record-of-its-time, stream-of-consciousness epic poem.

9.  I mean, can you imagine what a 25-random-things list by Koestenbaum would be like? Oy.

10.  I really hate to admit that it was Koestenbaum who gave me the idea that Viegener was writing a form of poetry. At least “epic poem” is my own phrase. But it’s not a big leap from “it’s a poem” to “it’s this particular type of poem,” is it?

11.  Given that I’m not Viegener either, is the fake 25-things format of this post getting gimmicky already? It is, isn’t it? I’m going to stop now.

There are three things (sorry, hard to stop it once you’ve started) that make Viegener capable of turning Facebook time-wasting exercises into something akin to poetry. One is writing ability: specifically, here, a talent for concision and precision. Another is his broad, well-educated, culturally informed frame of reference: he knows a lot about a lot of things that he can then mine interestingly for his “things.” Places, states of mind and body, art, history, literature, pop culture, famous and subculturally famous people, sex, human relationships, human-animal relationships, and especially, fruit.

But these things in combination still don’t completely account for the Viegener effect, and I think the third key element is his particular sensibility: he is steeped in art, and even in artsiness, without being the slightest bit pretentious. It’s very apropos that he likes Patti Smith, because this book probably would have made me think of her even if he hadn’t mentioned her. Like Smith, Viegener is a bohemian of an open, honest, emotional, nonexclusionary stripe; he’s not concerned with setting himself up as cool and doesn’t require that his audience meet some arbitrary standard of cool either. Furthermore, he and Smith share a certain innocence – I would use this word rather than Koestenbaum’s “adorable,” but I think we’re referring to more or less the same quality. I don’t mean that either Viegener or Smith is literally innocent; from what we know about their lives, they are clearly quite worldly people. I mean, instead, that both of them believe that innocence has aesthetic legitimacy, and both of them have made a conscious choice to retain some semblance of it for use in their work, as opposed to choosing some other persona.

One other observation about Viegener’s title: I don’t believe any of his “things” are fully random; they’re not necessarily sequential or connected, but that’s not the same thing. Viegener has his randomness on a leash; he gives it some room to play, but in the end he has control over how much it contributes to his lists. He’ll often include several related items within a single list (like his pronouncements about his “terrorist” former coworker) or over many lists (his musings on art, sex, or…randomness), and these items in fact tend to be sequentially placed, though interspersed with other kinds of items. The stories of Kathy Acker, Viegener’s mother, and his dog Peggy are woven into the lists from start to finish. And even the apparently isolated, one-appearance-only items are linked by the common criterion that Viegener thought they would offer something in the context of their lists, and that they would flesh out the overall impression and experience that the book creates.

Koestenbaum compares the lists (specifically the items about the men Viegener has had sex with, but he could just as easily be talking about the whole book) to a Netlfix queue, saying “The Birds doesn’t lead to Interiors; Interiors doesn’t lead to Body Double.” But who’s to say that they don’t? As someone who still has a Netflix queue (my TV is very old and very dumb, and my slow laptop doesn’t stream well), I can attest to the fact that seemingly disparate movies on it are in fact joined by hidden themes, such as “Oscar nominees from 2011 that I never got around to seeing” or “Obscure movies from the early filmography of James McAvoy” or “Stuff I will probably never see but don’t want to forget the existence of.” The same is true of Viegener’s lists, but I understand why he went with the word “random” anyway. “2500 Paratactic Things About Me Too” is not the title of any book I’d voluntarily read.

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2 Responses to A random number of nonrandom things about Matias Viegener

  1. Liz Foley says:

    Julia, I kind of love that you had an equal and opposite reaction to Viegener’s artsiness from the one I did. I do see how that’s possible, and your reaction is making me examine why I felt so strongly that Viegener wasn’t being pretentious, especially when I went off on Koestenbaum pretty violently for what I perceived as that very offense. Part of it, I think, is that I actually didn’t recognize the majority of Viegener’s dropped names, though I’m guessing that if I Googled them, many would turn out to be established artists or academics not unlike our own Jason Tougaw, who got his own shout-out toward the end of the book. Since Viegener is also an established artist and academic, it seemed natural to me that his social and professional circle would be made up of such people and that they would come up in his lists, so that was OK by me. If there’s one person he could be accused of working his relationship with a little hard, it’s Kathy Acker, who definitely has a droppable name in radical art/lit circles at least. But Viegener also positions himself as only one of many people in her circle at the end of her life, and probably not the most important one at that, so in the end it didn’t set off my pretentiousness detector.

    About the sex – and I’m so glad you mentioned this – I asked myself several times whether I should be annoyed by all those items about Viegener’s tricks, as Koestenbaum calls them (though clearly some of them were boyfriends and lovers instead, or as well). Was he bragging, trying to floor us with his many conquests? He undercut his descriptions with enough self-questioning and self-deprecation that in the end I concluded he wasn’t. I also saw the amount of sex he’d had as partly a mark of a particular, mostly pre-AIDS historical era – not necessarily “the” gay male norm of the time, but “a” gay male norm, particularly in the cities where he lived during the period. I did shake my head in amazement yet again at the apparent ease and availability of casual sex for gay men in that time, which persists in some degree today and which is so utterly not the way the world is set up for straight women (nor gay women either, I don’t think, although I’m a lot less knowledgeable on that point). How much use I’d have made of it is an open question, but it does piss me off that the opportunity for that kind of no-strings-attached, no-judgment sex has never existed for me in anything like the way Viegener describes. But I don’t blame him personally for that, and I can’t, finally, consider his sex life, or his writing about it, a mark against him.

    The fruit thing, though. You’re so right about that. And Viegener had a whole real-life art collective for a while that did projects about fruit! Fruit is just NOT THAT FREAKING INTERESTING, man.

    P.S. I for one am looking forward to seeing what you cook up for us in your performance piece, whether it’s navel gazing (not necessarily a bad thing!) or not.

  2. I agree with much of what you wrote, Liz, about Viegener and the process of writing such a list on Facebook or in real life. That his list was published — by an art house press, what one might consider the antithesis of FB — in book form makes it totally different from the lists on FB. Being decontextualized and without any biographical information that the lists’ intended audience (ie his FB friends) would know renders the lists more random and less comprehensible. I have to disagree with you about his pretensiousness though — I find his name-dropping, ‘adorable’/innocent fixation with fruit, and blase insertions of sex insufferable. I think one reason I am uncomfortable with this work is because it is the epitome of navel-gazing and I am afraid my work for our class (autobiographical/memoir video art) will be perceived that way as well.

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