Issue 7 Failure Summer 2002

Not Your Name, Mine

Paul Schmelzer

A few years back, I had lunch with an 8-year-old named Spencer and his father, Ron. We were at an outdoor restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of that town’s favorite sons, jazz musician Ben Sidran, sat at a nearby table. Ron urged Spencer—who has Asberger’s Syndrome, a milder variant of autism—to get an autograph, and Sidran, accustomed to such requests, gladly obliged. But when he handed the autograph back to the boy, Spencer retorted, “Not your name, mine!” The musician scribbled out his own name and rewrote the boy’s.

Six months ago, inspired by this inadvertent deconstruction of celebrity, I began writing to artists, writers, actors, and political figures asking them to sign my autograph. A simple enough premise, intended to both examine celebrity—what does it mean that Yoko Ono signed the name of a complete unknown? And what is the value of that signature?—and celebrate those who have shaped my beliefs. I’ve considered what these responses might mean to me—it’s Zen-like, this repetition; it’s egotistical; it’s a way of stealing energy from those I respect; it fits into an art historical context alongside explorations by Richard Prince, Bruce Conner, Alan Berliner, and others. But in the end, as much as I wanted the project to critique one aspect of the “society of the spectacle,” I’m always left with the selfish glow of excitement: someone famous signed my name.

More than 50 celebrities have so far contributed to the project, and another 40 either didn’t understand it and signed their own names (damn you, James Brown!), or left the autograph business to their handlers, who mailed out preprinted 8x10s. (A rare response: Mikhail Baryshnikov, who took the time to write, “Not interested. Thank you”—a full four syllables longer than my name.)

Here is a sampling of those who’ve participated.

1. Edward O. Wilson, 2. Frank Gehry, 3. Ben Sidran, 4. Billy Bragg, 5. Jenny Holzer, 6. Bonnie Blair, 7. Yoko Ono, 8. Annie Sprinkle, 9. Kim Gordon, 10. Laurie Anderson, 11. Spalding Gray, 12. Maya Lin, 13. Doris (GrannyD) Haddock, 14. Pat Buchanan, 15. David Sedaris, 16. Henry Louis Gates, 17. Fats Domino, 18. Sen. Paul Wellstone, 19. Naomi Klein, 20. Merce Cunningham, 21. Winona LaDuke.

Paul Schmelzer lives in Minneapolis and writes on art and activism for publications including Adbusters, the Progressive, and Raw Vision.

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