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It's So Un-Special, It's Special • A Conversation with the Bill Keaggy on Artfulness, Sloppiness, and Interestingness
St. Louis-based Bill Keaggy is king of “generating content.” A wildly prolific artist and collector, he was an erstwhile magazine designer and photo editor at the St. Louis Dispatch before launching his self-proclaimed purposeless website of “visual indiscretions,” the eponymous www.keaggy.com.
His goal is to make things interesting by helping people appreciate what’s right in front of them—which he more than accomplished with projects such as Milk Eggs Vodka, a tome of anonymous and abandoned grocery lists he first uploaded to his site as a simple photo collection entitled “Grocery Lists,” before piquing a publisher’s interest and organizing them into snarky categories such as “Eating Wrong,” or “Bad Spellrs.”
By compiling such miscellaneous marginalia, Keaggy imbues the ephemeral both with an otherwise lost fixity, and a sort of imaginative narrative history. As he put it, “I considered my work to be ‘art’ in the lowercase form of the term. It’s so un-special, it’s special.” These special un-special projects have been featured in places like the New York Times, The L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, HOW Magazine, and even Jimmy Kimmel Live. Should you want a more concise and chronologically organized autobiography, his documentary impulse has produced a timeline of his entire life, including everything from his first sip of PBR in 1972 to his NY Times Magazine interview in 2004, here: http://keaggy.com/about-me/.
SARAH MADGES: Have you always been a collector, of marginalia or otherwise?
BILL KEAGGY: I think so. Not in a hoarder kind of way, but yes, I think I’ve always had an interest in collections of things. When I was 10 or so I had a pretty big key chain collection, although now I’m not sure why, but I soon realized that it was far more interesting to collect things that were never meant to be collected. Things that other people had lost interest in or saw as useless.
MADGES: This project must have required incredible patience and dedication. At any point did you consider quitting? What convinced you to keep going, and to eventually get the collection published in a book?
KEAGGY: The grocery list collection started small and stayed small for a very long time. But I never approached it in a “Must. Add. Lists. Every. Day!” kind of way. I’m not naturally a patient person, but in this case I just let it grow naturally, adding a list every few weeks or so. Then around 2000 I put it online, and back then being a novelty online actually was novel, so it got linked around a lot and people started to ask how they could contribute. Since then, the collection has been fueled 99% by friends and strangers sending me lists. It sort of has a life of its own now and I update the site a few times a year at most. So, no, I never considered quitting because it was difficult. The collection has grown big in the same way people grow old — suddenly you’re not young anymore and you look back and wonder how the hell that happened.
I’d thought about how I might turn it into a book but never acted on it. The truth is that I had the luxury of the publisher contacting me to see if I wanted to make a book. Of course I did. It was a good way to breathe new life into the project, to think about the collection in a different way and give it depth, and help other people think about the lists in different ways.
MADGES: In an increasingly tech- and text-based world, handwriting has lost some of its former relevance and ubiquity — cursive is no longer even required in U.S. school curricula, and thousands of people have never written or received a letter in their entire life. How important is the handwritten aspect of these grocery lists to you? Do you still write by hand?
KEAGGY: The handwritten lists usually are the best — they have more character, personality, quirks, artfulness, sloppiness, and interestingness to them. Not just because of the handwriting but also because of the writing material — you can’t run weird, repurposed scraps of paper or cardboard or magazine through a printer but you can tear a piece off of something and write on it. And I’m a designer so I have this innate interest in letterforms and layout and organization, and everyone brings their own approach to these things in handwritten lists.
That said, I obviously get more and more typed lists now, but fewer lists overall because so many people do keep their lists on their phones. I do, because like everyone else I always have my phone with me. I only occasionally write a grocery list out by hand but the truth is I don’t feel too nostalgic over this change. I still do a lot of writing, sketching, and designing on paper, so it’s still part of my daily life.
MADGES: Many people, editorial reviewers and regular folks (ie, Amazon.com customers) alike, have commented on Milk Egg Vodka's humor, which comes in part from the original content of the various grocery lists collected, but mostly from your insightful and playfully snarky commentary. There's also the obvious fact that the Library of Congress designated it as a "Humor" book. When you started collecting these lists, were you mostly compelled by the comic opportunities they provided? Or was it more about the voyeuristic element of finding discarded personal notes, the various examples of penmanship and spelling, their value as art objects, something you couldn't quite name? A more concise question: was humor the intended goal, or a natural and happy accident?
KEAGGY: Yes, the funny lists were what made the collection really interesting to me, and I think to most people. Aside from the fact that they’re an anonymous, unguarded peek into other people’s lives, and, truthfully, are mostly normal and boring, it was when you’d find that needle in the haystack — that weird, WTF list with odd combinations of items or really poor spelling or funny notes. It was those moments that made the project worthwhile and I realized early on that I should highlight them for people, so I made Top 10 lists, which became the backbone of the book. Finding funny lists wasn’t the original goal — I just thought it was interesting to pick up something someone else had thrown away — but the humor aspect was a funny bonus that only became apparent after sticking at it for a while. I don’t know which of the lists was the very first one I found, but I do know it wasn’t funny. It was typical.
The funny ones are few and far between, but do make it all worthwhile are are probably the main reason people find the collection weird and interesting.
MADGES: Separate, but related question: how do you characterize your work? What are you hoping people will notice or take away from it?
KEAGGY: I don’t think I have a good answer to this question. I very purposely don’t tell people how to feel or what they should get out of looking at my various projects. I might explain how *I* feel about them, or why I did something, but I just put things out there and hope that they take *anything* away from it. I want their reactions to be legitimate and pure, whether it’s “Wow, I never thought about waste that way” or “This guy is an idiot." Telling people how to feel about these projects and art in general is like saying, “Get it? It’s funny because…” at the end of a joke. In the past I’ve characterized my work as being about “the life behind the things we leave behind,” and I think that’s enough for people to go on.
MADGES: After MEV, you published a similarly-minded book in 2008 called 50 Sad Chairs, which critiqued and poked fun at consumer culture while artfully cataloguing a bunch of forlorn furniture. What have you been up to since then? What projects are driving you right now, and how have your previous works prepared you for or led you to them?
KEAGGY: After “50 SAD CHAIRS” I did a lot of other “collecting with photography” projects. I’d stumble on a theme and make dozens or hundreds or thousands of photos that catalogued a particular idea. Trees growing out of old abandoned buildings. Basketball hoops in alleys. Rust stains. Curse words. Lots of decay porn, which has become a genre unto itself. Recently in my photo collections I’ve been leaning more toward seeing everyday things in other everyday things. In February I challenged myself to find the shapes of all 50 U.S. states in the world around me and in June I collected the letters of the alphabet from dead worms on the sidewalk. People really liked the states project and were really grossed out by the worms. But what I do more and more of now is actually *make* things from other things—working with found and repurposed objects instead of simply collecting them. After so many years of working digitally I really felt the need to go analog. But the idea of appreciating—or at least considering—and/or re-using “junk” and little, broken, forgotten, ugly, ignored things is what ties most of my projects together.