Each August, the SALA South Australian Living Artists Festival celebrates all the talented creatives working in the state. But every year, one artist in particular is singled out and honoured with both a solo show and a monograph. This year Roy Ananda takes the spotlight. His work can be seen until 10 September in Supreme Library at Adelaide Central Gallery, or any time in the eponymous book that delves into the artist’s pop culture inspired practice. In the extract below, Andrew Purvis catalogues Ananda’s fan-boy obsessions and offers an insider’s perspective on what it means to be a fan.
Being a fan: an instruction manual
by Andrew Purvis
To be a fan is to love. Most of us are a fan of something – a football team, a pop star, a comic book character, a film director, a composer, an artist – though not all of us would define ourselves as such. A negative connotation has arisen around the word; too often people play an etymological hopscotch and arrive at the word ‘fanatic’ and spin out from that a narrative of dysfunction. (16) In the popular conception, fans are those who love not wisely, but too well; they are the basement-dwelling, clueless cousin of the connoisseur. (17) So let this be a defence of fandom, a salute. To be a fan is to enjoy something with intent, to invest in it; fans do not absorb culture apathetically. Fandom is positive; fans celebrate and share; they form communities and nourish each other; they take inspiration and generate new ideas. Fandom can provide structure and purpose for a life. (18)
Roy Ananda is a fan.
In fact, Ananda is a pop-culture gourmand, enjoying a menu that is expansive but discerning: he eschews Star Trek in favour of Star Wars; prefers Alan Moore to Grant Morrison and Biggie over Tupac. He is a devotee of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons; the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft; and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. He loves Warner Bros.’ cartoons, BBC comedies and The Simpsons. And don’t get him started on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise, the ghost stories of M.R. James, or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. These pop-culture obsessions animate Ananda’s artistic practice; his adoration for these cultural touchstones fuels his creativity. (19)
In this, Ananda is not alone. Fans are rarely passive consumers; they are autodidacts, devoted to their specialist subjects. (20) They collect and catalogue; they analyse and critique; and, with ever increasing frequency, they create. Fandoms are lively and fecund spaces of creative practice: the early 21st century has seen an explosion in fan art of various forms, from cosplay and replica prop building, to writing fan fiction and producing entire tribute films. The fan leads a double life, as both a consumer and a producer of cultural product. (21) They reciprocate their love in a common language and participate in the development and evolution of shared fictional universes.
Ananda takes inspiration from fan art and utilises many of the same creative strategies in his own practice. But there are important distinctions. While fan art is often made for personal gratification, or for the kudos of relatively small communities of like-minded devotees, Ananda’s work seeks to communicate beyond niche audiences and to meaningfully engage with contemporary visual art discourse. Though the majority of fan art quite unselfconsciously seeks to celebrate its source of inspiration, often honing in on the minutiae, Ananda’s work is suffused with a huge amount of critical self-reflexivity and an awareness of his own fannish tendencies.
Roy Ananda is not just a fan; he is a fan of being a fan. (22)
Other artists have made significant works about fan culture, most notably Candice Breitz’s 2005–2006 series of pop star ‘portraits’ – Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley), King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson), Queen (A Portrait of Madonna), and Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon) – a sequence of multi-channel video installations in which self-identified super-fans, scrupulously vetted by Breitz to ensure an appropriate level of devotion, are invited to perform an entire album by one of their musical idols. The resulting chorus of off-kilter, a cappella renditions is joyously cacophonous, as the fans belt out the hits, from first song to last, all while performing approximate facsimiles of familiar dance moves. These works have the quality of an anthropological study, with Breitz, the researcher, conspicuously absent from the proceedings, fastidiously hands-off in terms of directorial intervention. (23)
By contrast, Ananda’s work has a confessional quality: he exposes his own fandom and willingly implicates himself in the types of fannish traits and behaviours that the work critiques. The artist has no distance from his subjects; he is a fan among fans. In the academic language of qualitative research, his approach is autoethnographic. While the work may absurdly accentuate fannish behaviours in an affectionately parodic and humorous manner, it does not sneer or cast aspersions on passionate enthusiasts. Instead, it reads like a fan letter to fans themselves. It celebrates their idiosyncrasies, and valorises fannish devotion.
Roy Ananda by Andrew Purvis, Bernadette Klavins, Sean Williams and Roy Ananda is published by Wakefield Press.
16. This is the accepted origin of the word ‘fan’ in this context, but of course the word has other meanings, to disperse or to increase being two of them, derived via Old English fann from the Latin vannus, a tool for winnowing grain. One could argue that two critical functions of the modern fan is both to advocate the object of one’s adoration while at the same time weeding out those who aren’t ‘true’ fans. [16a] [16b]
[16a] Various attempts have been made to devise a taxonomy of fandom, with appropriate titles ascribed to its various tiers. Unsurprisingly, a consensus has not been reached and none such titles have been widely adopted. An early example comes from M.J. Fisher’s essay ‘Underground Fandom’ (published in Spectrum issue 24, April 1976), which categorises Star Trek fans according to the schema: armchair fan, Trekkie, neofan/Trekker, contributing/established fan, and big name fan. More recently, Zuleika Beaven and Chantal Laws proposed the ascending echelons of dilettante, dedicated fan, devoted fan, and dysfunctional fan, in ‘“Never Let Me Down Again”: Loyal Customer Attitudes Towards Ticket Distribution Channels for Live Music Events: A Netnographic Exploration of the US Leg of the Depeche Mode 2005–2006 World Tour’, Managing Leisure 12, no. 2–3 (2007).
[16b] The nomenclature of fandom is a perhaps unsurprisingly rich source of rabbit holes, from ‘headcanon’ to ‘fanwank’. Academia itself is not immune to the divisive power of fandom – a term that dates back to 1896, before TV shows, mass-market paperbacks, movies, even radio – so a tour through the pages of even the fustiest of publications can be unintentionally entertaining.
17. A lengthy admonitory essay, entitled ‘On Sneering’, has been rendered mercifully brief and justifiably parenthetical by the editor’s pen. So, in short: please ditch epithets like geek, nerd, and brony, from your lexicon; you won’t need them where we’re going. Fans are often disparaged, not least in the popular culture they adore. Nick Hornby’s novels Fever Pitch (1992) and High Fidelity (1995) have largely defined what it is to love sports and music respectively, but they are also responsible for cementing a narrative of dysfunction, in which all-consuming fandom must be conquered in order to enjoy a complete life, typically signified by romantic attachment. There is even a suggestion that ‘superfans’ are the corrupting influence that curdles otherwise positive cultural products: Superman’s number one fan, Jimmy Olsen, is recast for modern audiences as the embittered fanboy Syndrome, the nemesis of The Incredibles (2004); and The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, once simply an ugly caricature, has become a strawman through which the writers are able to admonish their fans for their pedantry or uninvited critique. A more dedicated Marxist than I might ascribe a classist reading to the disdain for demotic culture and the insistent reinforcement of high art / low culture, kitsch / avant-garde dichotomies. While viewers of TV sitcom Frasier (1993–2004) are invited to sympathise with the cultured radio psychiatrist, despite his pomposity, they are expected to cringe at his colleague, devoted Trekkie Noel Shempsky. I urge readers to abandon whatever prejudices they might hold against pop-culture franchises and their fans – this trained response to passionate devotees only closes you off from sharing in their joy. [17a]
[17a] Parenthetically, one might also add that reverse-sneering by the fan for the academic is similarly discouraged. Objects of affection are only magnified by diversity of gaze, never diminished.
18. The imperative that fans should ‘get’ a life, then, is not just puzzling for those on the receiving end but reveals an undercurrent of tribalistic tension between fandoms.
19. If it is of interest, this author’s pop-culture passions have at various points included G.I. Joe, He-Man, Marvel Comics, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Hergé’s Tintin, the music of Warren Zevon, and the films of Wes Anderson. Ananda and I share a love of M.R. James’ ghost stories, and we often play Dungeons & Dragons together. [19a] [19b]
[19a] There’s a complex Venn diagram to be drawn here, one with Dungeons & Dragons in the middle. (My entirely uncritical love of Gary Numan will likely be exiled to its own distant territory, alas.)
[19b] I was raised by a fan of pop-culture, my father Janis Klavins, who introduced me to my personal fandoms which include Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Carl Barks’ paperbacks, and Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.
20. While autodidacticism and what is sometimes affectionately termed ‘lonely fun’ are indeed characteristics of fandom, so too is the generous sharing of knowledge, through online platforms, panel discussions within the convention scene, and organized play at ‘Friendly Local Game Stores’ around the world.
21. It has always been so: George Lucas’ Star Wars was originally conceived as a tribute to black and white sci-fi film serials like Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938). And while people may turn their nose up when they are told that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) started life as an erotic pastiche of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, it is interesting that we never seem to ask whether every adherent of synthetic cubism was just creating Picasso fan tributes.
22. And, indeed, a fan of fans whose fandom is more ardent than his own.
23. To expand on this point, it’s worth noting the transition from fan to professional creator allowed in part by the longevity of certain fandoms and the properties they venerate. One prominent example of such a paring is Russell T. Davies and Doctor Who. Another is myself and Star Wars. The difference between fan tributes and official creations can be difficult to articulate, beyond authorisation and vetting by copyright holders. [23a]
[23a] Increasingly, it is not uncommon for fan creations to outstrip their professionally produced counterparts, in terms of both quality and faithfulness to the source material. The 2004 Hellraiser fan film No More Souls (directed by Gary Tunnicliffe) is far more beloved than many of the later canonical entries in the franchise. Similarly, the most faithful screen adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work to date are, by any definition, fan films (namely, Andrew Leman’s The Call of Cthulhu (2005) and Sean Branney’s The Whisperer In Darkness (2011)).