06 May 2007
Stuart Bailey and Ryan Gander on the script for their proposed television series, Appendix Appendix
Appendix Appendix is the script for a 12-episode television series, created by writer and designer Stuart Bailey and artist Ryan Gander. Taking cues from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and Monty Python, each episode uses Bailey and Gander’s individual projects as the starting point for a reflexive and playful exploration of collaboration, what it means to make and think about art, and how those activities square with the messy business of everyday life. As Bailey asks in the first episode, ‘I want to know why we’re always making trailers for films that don’t exist, writing fragments of novels that have no beginning or ending, organizing performances for fictional bands.’
Dan Fox: Appendix Appendix is a sequel to your 2003 book Appendix. What was the impetus behind the original book?
Stuart Bailey: When Ryan and I first met we talked a lot about the similarities and differences in our work. Then when I actually saw what Ryan was making, I couldn’t understand why so much was missing. The stories behind the works were at least as interesting as the pieces themselves. I proposed that we collaborate on a book that would collate these stories but would also be a work in its own right. Then we began messing about with the conventions of the book. The more extreme that got, such as having ten title pages, or an index where the contents would normally be, the more it seemed to approximate the spirit of the work itself. The book was a push and pull between Ryan wanting to be obtuse and me wanting to be clear. After we finished it, we didn’t speak for two years.
DF: Why did you develop Appendix into a script for television?
SB: Since Ryan’s work had become more audio-visual – videos, radio plays, lectures – the variety and fragmentation of television seemed a more suitable medium. Now, however, it’s difficult to tell whether the project is ‘about’ television or Ryan’s work. The answer is that it’s about both at the same time.
Ryan Gander: When you work with someone else, using a device neither of you know anything about, exciting things can often happen. I make better work when I’m just entwined with all the amazing stuff we’re all drenched in every day just by happening to be alive, than when I am aware I’m ‘making art’. It’s that simple. It could just have easily been a house we ended up making, or a new musical instrument.
DF: In episode one, a passage of text is consistently repeated: ‘This TV series, Appendix Appendix, consists of twelve programmes, each to be screened once a week on a Thursday evening at 11.30pm on a secondary-level British TV channel in the Autumn/Winter season of an even-numbered year, with the final installment shown on Boxing Day.’ What is the significance of these highly specific transmission times?
SB: We were living in Amsterdam when we met and, being the first English people either of us had encountered since leaving the UK, we had that bond which isn’t exactly nationalistic, but rather relates to that mysterious sense of having grown up watching the same kids’ television programmes. We were interested in capturing that shared cultural specificity. I think this fascination with a kind of mundane sublime permeates all our work. The project is steeped in in-jokes, but they’re ones that want to be understood, rather than exclude people. Some are immediately comprehensible; others take a week, maybe even a lifetime before they connect. For these reasons, Sherlock Holmes is the patron saint of the series.
RG: We embarked on a project so unlikely to be televised that we could pick the optimum conditions to ensure that shared cultural specificity. This goes back to putting yourself in a position where you know so little about the medium that the only thing that can happen is unexpected. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when a line producer from the BBC came to my studio to cost out the pilot episode, he explained that the script was fundamentally flawed from the outset because BBC ‘hours’ are 56 minutes long. Knowing nothing about what we were doing, we had made each of our hour-long episodes last 60 minutes.
DF: Appendix Appendix references British television shows such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, whilst utilizing approaches familiar from those same ‘thinking-person’s guide to art/science/history’ shows that have now largely disappeared from mainstream terrestrial channels. Are you nostalgic for a certain type of gently pedagogical television?
SB: Yes, Appendix Appendix is nostalgic for that era. It’s difficult not to assume that the myriad vested interests of any organization as large as the BBC would nowadays kill any genuine ideas before they got the chance to crawl. I used to work with Richard Hollis, who was part of the group that developed Berger’s Ways of Seeing for television, and he recalled an atmosphere at the BBC in the early 1970s where you could propose something unusual and it would stand a good chance of being supported. Of course, we could easily produce Appendix Appendix for some contemporary art coterie, but that would be missing the whole point. We genuinely want it made for a wider audience.
RG: Actually, part of me honestly doesn’t want Appendix Appendix made at all. There are so many decisions we have had the liberty not to make, that we would have to make if it reached the production stage that might flatten it. At the moment I can’t get bored of it, because there are so many variables each time I read it, but televising it would make it 12 hours long (or 12, 56-minute hours); the actors’ voices and the edits would be the same forever. I think we should maybe go the other way and put an instruction on the cover for the reader to cut away the binding and shuffle the pages.
DF: In episode six, there’s a sequence where the project is pitched to Hollywood television producer David Hoberman, who doesn’t seem to get it...
SB: It seemed interesting to pitch such an obviously Anglo-centric and generation-specific idea to someone who developed the exact opposite – mainstream, lowest-common-denominator television – to see what would happen.
DF: Appendix Appendix might resist the ‘contemporary art coterie’ but doesn’t it also exclude wider audiences because of its specific generational nostalgia?
SB: Although we harbour a nostalgia for the kind of friendly pedagogical television you mention, Appendix Appendix is far too unhinged to be didactic. It has a hysterical edge that could equally win it mass appeal or define it as a cult art thing, like Monty Python or Brass Eye.
DF: Some of my cultural knowledge came from accidentally stumbling across such programmes whilst surfing the four channels available on British television in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The paucity of channels fostered a kind of ‘ambient learning’. Do you think the moment for this kind of television has passed, not so much because of a change in attitudes, but because of the explosion of choice that digital technology has brought about?
SB: This is maybe analogous to the argument about books versus electronic publishing. It’ll be a while before there’s any kind of resolution, and the tension is probably healthy. I have some faith in the idea that TV can’t just carry on getting blander without a backlash. During the making of the book, I came across a piece by the author Jonathan Coe. Over a period of about 30 years he describes a snowballing obsession with Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a film which echoes throughout his life with various degrees of intensity. His whole romance with the movie was based on stumbling across fragments of culture, and he argues that our 21st century retrievability – access to everything, everywhere, at any time – works precisely against this romance. I liked this concept so much that we ended up using it as the basis of our pilot programme.
RG: That’s the reason I’m not very fond of YouTube. It’s something about the conditions of spectatorship or the approachability of work. If you let the spectator discover something on their own terms it holds more significance than it being handed on a plate. I remember sitting on a cold wooden parquet floor in primary school waiting patiently for the head teacher to thread up a 16mm film projector for the Wednesday film club to begin. It took ages, but the camaraderie between the 15 or so of us child film-buffs made the films infinitely better.
DF: At certain points in the script, you have cast actors to portray yourselves and various other characters. Why did you use stand-ins?
RG: The script is packed with small fictions, exaggerations and clues waiting to be decrypted, as well as blatant lies. This halfway realm between fiction and reality is something that fits solidly with my working methods. Appendix Appendix is a hybrid that can’t really be termed drama, documentary or comedy; it is all of them at once, though closest to documentary. Using actors to play real participants mixes it all up even further.
DF: Appendix Appendix is a bit like a Russian doll. On the one hand it is an anthology of ideas about art, colour, form, architecture, literature, television and so on, yet on the other it is a treatise on the struggles and discussions you have with yourselves in the very act of being interested in or working with these forms. Does it critique the rise of discussion-based, endlessly ‘evolving’ contemporary art works?
SB: It would be misleading to say it’s a conscious attempt to do so, but the critique is relevant: it would be good to have a slower, more manageable culture for a while. Appendix Appendix could only have been made in 2007; the level of reflexivity in it is unhinged, and at points completely irritating. We’re curious as to why we’re so interested in reflexive art, and this is an exploration of that curiosity – a kind of reflexivity squared! The critic Alfred Appel Jr. once described how, while performing a puppet show for his children, he knocked the theatre over. The expressions on his children’s faces changed from total engrossment to shock, surprise and finally hysteria. He wrote: ‘The shrillness of their laughter finally suggested that they recognized the frightening implications of what had happened, and that only laughter could steel them in their new awareness.’ It’s a very beautiful and significant description, and of course it ended up in the script; a confirmation that reflexivity had a broader purpose than simply cleverness for its own sake.
DF: A vast range of references appear in Appendix Appendix. Are you addressing particular notions concerning intellect-ual property – which would take on a different hue if a big television company got involved – or the economics of ideas in this age of infinitely available information?
SB: The only problem I have with copyright is when it is asserted by institutions – the middlemen – rather than artists themselves. I generally think the arguments surrounding intellectual property are misguided, in that they’re far more about money than anyone will admit. Our approach to copyright is to refuse to be self-censored by abstract ideas of what Big Brother says is or isn’t possible; it’s about assuming we’re doing something in the right spirit and that this attitude is going to come across.
RG: In terms of material for art works, I don’t see the difference between Star Wars, or a piece of cardboard. I think you can take what you want – it’s what you do with it that’s important, and if you do something foolish then it will come back and bite you on the arse. I recently made a piece with a Jonathan Monk work called To Tears (2006). It’s a passport photograph of Monk when he’s about 13 years old. Two earrings pin the photograph to the wall through his eyes; dangling jewels, which look like tears. I bought it, took the earrings out of the photograph and sent them to my mother in Wales to have a passport photograph taken of herself wearing them. That photograph has become a work about the idea of taking someone else’s legacy.
DF: I’m intrigued by ‘mitim’ – a brand new word that Ryan is trying to get inserted into common usage, and which is the subject of episode ten, and which means ‘a mythical word newly introduced into history as if it had always been there’. Do you see Appendix Appendix as a kind of ‘mitim’? Can art dissolve into the world unlegitimized by its status as ‘art’?
SB: Absolutely, and it can only be stronger for it. But then again, we’re talking about it in an art magazine…
RG: ‘Mitim’ is interesting because it works on timing, like humour. The idea was to insert a word into usage as if it had always been there. The audience needs to be deceived, and they need to come across the word before they are told it is an art work about the idea of usage. It is devious and manipulative, but I think you can only attempt to pull something like that off – disseminating something into the world unlegitimized by its status as ‘art’ – if you have tailored a situation in which you have complete control of the conditions. With a bit of luck, Appendix Appendix is balanced so well on the brink that it will lose its status as art.
DF: Why do you think artists are endlessly fascinated by other cultural forms – television, film, music, dance, architecture? Do artists suffer a particularly acute ‘grass-is-always-greener’ malady?
RG: Cultural forms other than what? Art? The grass is definitely greener outside the art world, but isn’t it meant to be? Don’t trust artists that enjoy the reality of the art world: it’s a bloody horrible place. And it’s certainly not a place where surprises happen: they only happen when a fence between forms becomes a perch; when you are teetering on the cusp of everything.
Stuart Bailey is the editor of Dot Dot Dot, a biannual arts journal currently approaching its 14th issue. Last year he established Dexter Sinister, a basement workshop and bookstore on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, together with David Reinfurt.
Ryan Gander is an artist based in London. His solo exhibition ‘Short Cut Through the Trees’ is at MUMOK, Vienna, until 10 June. He is currently on a one year sabbatical.
Dan Fox is associate editor of frieze.
Appendix Appendix will be published in June 2007 by JRP Ringier, Zurich
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze and is based in New York. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coffee House Press in the US.
First published in Issue 107