Between Lone Rangers and Double Agents

This short essay first appeared in Desert Island: Toby Phips Lloyd (Durham: Institute of Advanced Study, 2013), pp. 30–33. With special thanks to Toby Phips Lloyd, Simon James, and the IAS.

In 1979 Jim Lewis went in search of his twin brother. After six weeks he called at Jim Springer’s home in Dayton, Ohio, and discovered he had been leading a life in parallel. The ‘Jim Twins,’ as they became known, had been separated at birth. Both suffered from heart problems, were compulsive nail-biters, and suffered from insomnia. Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty. One had named his son James Alan and the other James Allen. Both called their dogs Toy. Both had worked as deputy sheriffs, petrol station attendants, and at McDonalds, taken their holidays on the same Florida beach, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drank the same brand of beer.

Whatever we might glean from such tales of twins reunited, the sudden confluence of sibling stories – durations separate yet found to be held in strange parallel with one another – is a generative structure and a place from which to construct new, explanatory narratives. Do the Jim Twins prove the genetic underpinning of complex social behaviours or do they simply demonstrate the cultural homogeneity of Middle America? Moreover, should the polarities of genetic determinism and social constructivism, and the molecular and social scales these imply, act as our only guides when assessing the riddling semantic potential of bifurcating individualism? One response might be to look at how artists have treated the idea of doubling and twinship as entwined processes that are both intrinsic and performed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Toby Phips Lloyd began DJing under the moniker, ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, and seized the dramatic advantage of a proximate persona. Desert Island, among other works that reveal Lloyd’s interests in performance and portraiture, includes a video that explores biographies both large and small, real and imagined. And yet, if the video aspect of Desert Island is a kind of self-portrait it is one viewed, thanks to a sort of pseudo-twinship, through a peculiar hall of mirrors. Replacing the dialogue staged between host and celebrity – the hallmark of the BBC’s popular Radio 4 programme – Lloyd asks questions of another Lloyd who, sat opposite and in different clothing, remembers and muses between musical interludes.

Lloyd interviews himself, curbing the aural illusions of radio to striking visual effect. Paradoxically, the content of these biographical narratives, focussing on his early life and artistic interests, are not located in the interview, the dialogic aperture between interviewer and interviewee, but reverse the sequential progress between question and answer. When two people who are identical meet in the scenario that Lloyd imagines for himself then questions are formed in the knowledge of both the content and structure of the answer. This means that the whirling, analeptic quality of Lloyd’s biographical narratives – which frequently recall a past time – work in distinction to the scripted, forward momentum produced by his dominion over both roles. In a structural sense, Toby Phips Lloyd, an only child, entertains an only twin; ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, the DJ, returns with music and the performativity of entwined remembrance.

While he confesses to childhood shyness, a predilection for solitude, and a passion for crisps, Lloyd’s song selections are both deeply personal and, thanks to the multiplicity of Lloyds implied by the video, self-consciously performed. The BBC’s programme tends to be crafted around delicately and sympathetically-edited moments of autobiographical candour. This intimacy is subtly undone; what value should we give to one person speaking in dialogue with another that is neither the same nor different? It is an arrangement that makes for uncomfortably comic scenes, such as when Lloyd opens the interview by asking why he, an artist of low media exposure, is even appearing on the programme, or when it is suggested that the reason he got a 2:2 in his film degree is because he’s a “terrible filmmaker”. A preoccupation with failure or inadequacy becomes the subject of one of the work’s most poignant moments. When musing on how “people try to hide or change things they don’t like. I think you should celebrate your imperfections because it’s what makes you special”. Lloyd, both giving and receiving, provides this reply: “that’s an interesting point”. Unsure of the sincerity of this statement, and to raise added doubt over the significance of personal, impersonal, and collective pronouns, Lloyd announces that “we should try and take some of your own advice.” Whether “we” includes interviewer, interviewee and audience alike is, in some sense, among the core mysteries of Desert Island.

In dramatising his interaction with a benevolent other, Lloyd’s work forms a contemporary iteration of a two-fold tradition. Since cases like the ‘Jim Twins’ appear in the news media from time to time, the idea of being reunited with an ‘identical’ self, who appears, acts and has had a similar life-history to our own, retains some cultural force as it prowls the borders between the fantasy of science fiction and the reality of chance. In his book, The Culture of the Copy, Hillel Schwartz has argued that imagining that we have another person walking the earth, looking alike and pursuing the alternatives that your own choices preclude, is a recurring symptom of those societies who prize a unique, unitary and authentic self (we might think of the celebrity culture enshrined by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs as being a suitable by-product of such a society).

Advance copies come in twos
Advance copies come in twos

We imagine ourselves to be double agents, argues Schwartz, because we are taught to be obsessed with the idea of being lone rangers. But, as opposed to the nineteenth–century version of ‘the double’ or ‘doppelgänger’, to be feared for its radical compromise to human individuality, Schwartz argues that there is also great comfort to be found in the idea of the double; someone like you, perhaps someone to like you, and certainly someone who has the power to describe your selfhood in a new way. When Toby Lloyd chooses a pool table as his luxury item to take with him to his deserted island – an object that is strongly emblematic of the pub in which he grew up –, he asks who he will play ‘against’. Exploiting the spatial and the combative senses of the word, Lloyd replies, “I can always play against you.”


One thought on “Between Lone Rangers and Double Agents”

  1. Reblogged this on Centre for Medical Humanities Blog and commented:
    CMH’s postdoctoral fellow, William Viney, has contributed to a publication on the work of artist Toby Phips Lloyd. The book, a collection of essays about Lloyd’s enigmatic mixed-media installation ‘Desert Island’ (2013), is printed by Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study.

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