The Pizza: What is THE LIST and how did it come about?
Guy Lochhead: Whenever I hear about something interesting, I write it down to find out more about later (I think everyone does this). In my final year at Dartington College of Arts, I collated all those scraps of paper, napkins etc. into a spreadsheet because I wanted to see all those items alphabetised. I then spent my last project there looking up randomly-selected items off that list, with a view to filling the mise-en-scene of a children’s TV programme with objects referencing the most inspiring things I found out about. Although I no longer have that ambition, the list remains (now 12,573 things long, from 100 Diagrams That Changed The World to Zvi Hirsch Szylis) and I look things up off it on the last Sunday of every month, evaluating whether or not to include them in an imaginary sort of library called the British Whybrary. The knowledge I get from that research informs everything I do, and I also still hope that one day that collection might exist in real life too.
TP: How does your random number generator work, what do you use it for and could you send us a picture of it?
GL: The random number generator was made by my friends Yas Clarke, who designed the algorithm, and Jo Hellier, who built the box. It uses the background noise from unconnected analogue-to-digital converters (ADCs) inside it to generate truly random numbers. I use it to pick the number of the item off the list that I will research next, and to choose films to watch, recipes to cook etc.
TP: Can you send us a picture of your favourite diagram?
GL: This is so tricky. I think probably that the diagrams I come back to most frequently are the structures and building techniques in Lloyd Khan’s ‘Shelter’ books. I find them very encouraging. I really like the implications that they have for making anything – the desperate optimism of meticulously designing something you’re going to inevitably end up bodging. I have them on my bookshelf next to Paul Oliver’s book Dwellings, which has the sort of reverse approach, of painstakingly recording work that was often just done out of necessity.
TP: How does the sorting process work? What makes you decide to put something into The British Whybary?
GL: When I decided that I actually wanted to ask for other people’s help in getting through the list, I realised I’d need to formalise the sorting process so that I could communicate it to others. I ended up with three questions that serve as criteria for inclusion:
1) Does the idea of showing this thing to a child make you feel hopeful?
2) Do you feel that the thing is currently overlooked / misrepresented / undervalued?
3) Would you feel comfortable explaining your decisions to anyone who asked?
Coming up with the questions was a good exercise for me too, helping me get away from the dressed-up “I just don’t like it”s of early articles.
What kind of projects has The British Whybary informed so far? Could you use the random number generator to choose one to tell us about?
I really use the stuff I learn from looking up items on the list in everything I do, but I have made a list of ten projects for which I used information from the Whybrary and I’ll use the random number generator to pick one to write about.
OK, I got number 4: Ernest. I’ve started writing articles for a magazine called Ernest, which is all about slow stuff – cooking, traveling, making things. My first article was about the South West Dementia Brain Bank, where 900 frozen brains are stored for dementia research. I am currently writing articles about a US pilot called William Rankin who fell through a storm cloud, the wildman myth (featuring Enkidu, Buile Shuibhne, Kaspar Hauser etc.), the Tsaatan people of northern Mongolia, Bill Rankin’s radical cartography, JA Baker’s writing about following peregrines in Essex, the Penguin edition of the Domesday Book, the Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, and other subjects that I often first found out about on the list.
TP: What is the most exciting discovery you have made through researching items on the list?
GL: Oh no, this is an impossible question… All of the things that I include in the Whybrary are exciting for me, but every now and again I find out about something really special. This happened most recently when reading about Geronimo. He was an Apache warrior who led a band of Bedonkohe against Spanish and Texan expansions into Apache lands, and murdered hundreds of Mexicans in retaliation for the murder of his wife, mother and three children during a Mexican raid in 1851. He surrendered to the USA in 1885, and was held as a prisoner of war and not allowed to return to his homeland. He later became a celebrity, appearing as a sort of indigenous trinket at pro-US World Fairs, and his name has since been re-purposed into an exclamation of fearlessness in the US army. The bastardisation of Geronimo’s name into a war-cry for his enemy struck me as a particularly neat, particularly horrific example of the colonial process.
TP: How did you come up with the name The British Whybrary?
GL: It’s awful, isn’t it? I have a problem where I think something is funny for a second, attach myself to it permanently, and then love/hate it for the rest of my life – e.g. I have “Livin’ la Vida Lochhead” tattooed on my back.
TP: What it is that appeals to you about spreadsheets?
GL: Initially, I just used one to sort the list alphabetically. Since then, it’s really got out of control. For example, watching a film with my housemates is now an incredibly laborious process of each selecting five films, randomly selecting a number of those, each rating those in order of preference, and then using proportional representation to decide on a title we’re all happy with. A spreadsheet makes that easy!
TP: Making the list then using the random number generator to choose from it seems to me like an interesting contrast between imposing order/leaving things to chance. Could you talk a bit about this?
GL: I think it’s really easy to sort of curate yourself into a corner, following related videos and Amazon product recommendations until you’re surrounded by things that are all sort of similar and all sort of alright. When I first started looking things up and the items were just arranged in whatever order I’d added them to the list, I noticed this happening – I remember working through a glut of female pilots, for example (Pancho Barnes FTW). Using a random number generator avoids this and allows for some really interesting associations to occur. I’ve been fascinated by this since learning about Piaget’s idea of the schema – the webs of interconnected concepts that he thought we formed when learning. Jumping from reading about Scottish folk guitarists to mercantile Edwardian authors to the first European settlement in the Americas to The Clangers to Boston noise bands allows some really fun conceptual bridges to be built, recognising the similarities and differences between things, and appreciating just how richly varied our weirdo species’s history is.
TP: I like the favourites bit of the Whybrary website too, do you own everything on the list? What are the best slippers?
GL: I don’t own everything on the list, no, but wanting to buy something is usually the starting point for bothering to look that stuff up. Trying to find the best slippers brought to attention the main problem with this whole project though – sometimes there just isn’t a single greatest thing. I reckon I would go for some sheepskin slippers from some legit local farm or whatever. I did find out that Totes made the first slipper-socks though, and that a guy called Derek Fan wore his pair of slippers for 23 years straight, so he’d probably be a good person to consult. I also started reading about Japanese uwabaki slippers, which apparently developed from the sandshoes originally manufactured by the Liverpool Rubber Company in the 1830s, so maybe some variation of them would be good? Or you could go for some velvet Prince Albert slippers, monogrammed in gold.
TP: How would you best like the Whybrary to be used? What’s your dream for it?
GL: I think its primary purpose at the moment is just as a sort of symbol of getting stoked on learning. I think people like the idea of it more than they actually use the website as a resource. Ideally I’d like this to change, and even to have the collection exist in real life, but we’ll see.
I find it very useful for myself as a way to not get stuck thinking about the same thing. I was on the ferry the other day and got so upset sitting in the restaurant, looking around at all the couples just sitting there in silence. How can there possibly be nothing to say? There’s so much stuff! I hope that continuing to work through the list might mean that less people sit on ferries in silence. That’s the dream.
TP: Is the list shrinking (getting worked through) or is it growing – are you adding more things than taking them away?
GL: Growing. In 2009, the list had 8,949 items on it. It now has 12,573. I really am committed to chipping away at it though, and I’d appreciate any help. I spend the last Sunday of each month looking things up. If you’d like to be involved, send me an e-mail: email@example.com.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
THE PIZZA (Rosalie Schweiker, Mario D’Agostino, Hannah Clayden, Joanna Waterhouse from London,UK): They are four friends who invite somebody for pizza every month.