Paul Schmelzer, as signed by Yoko Ono
Many years ago 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 Asperger’s Syndrome, a milder variant of autism—to get Sidran’s autograph, and Sidran, accustomed to such requests, gladly obliged. But when he handed the autograph back to the boy, Spencer scolded, “Not your name. Mine!” After regaining his composure, the musician scribbled out his own name and rewrote the boy’s.
Four or five years ago, inspired by Spencer’s impromptu deconstruction of celebrity, I began asking artists, writers and political figures to sign my autograph, either in person or through letters. A simple enough premise, my intention was to both critique celebrity (what does it mean that Yoko Ono signed the name of a complete unknown? And what becomes of the value of the signature?) and celebrate those who have shaped my beliefs. I’ve pondered what these responses might mean to me (it’s zenlike, this repetition of my name; it’s egotistical; it’s a transfer of energy from those I respect to me; it fits into an art historical context alongside explorations by Richard Prince, Bruce Conner, Alan Berliner, and others), but always return to this simple belief: the autographs stand alone and don’t need all this intellectual justification.
More than 70 celebrities so far have contributed to the project, and another 40 either didn’t understand it, and signed their own names, or left the autograph business to their handlers, who mail out preprinted 8x10s (a rare response: Mikhail Baryshnikov, took the time to write “Not interested. Thank you”—a full four syllables longer than my name). Recently, I had the chance to meet Chuck Close. When I asked him to sign my name on a poster featuring his 1968 Big Self-Portrait, he gamely agreed, but later in the day, during a signing session, he forgot and signed his own name. Funny to be disappointed to get a famous artist's autograph.
Those who have participated include some who have passed on (Sen. Paul Wellstone, Spalding Gray, Earth Day founder and US Sen. Gaylord Nelson), high-profile artists and architects (Matthew Barney, Frank Gehry, Maya Lin, Laurie Anderson), performers (Thurston Moore, Dave Brubeck, Henry Rollins), filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, Wim Wenders, Errol Morris), a few infamous politicos (Pat Buchanan, Jesse Ventura), and even the voice of Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta). Eventually, the project will be bound, naturally, as an autograph book. Or would that be a biograph book?
Update January 9, 2007: I've been slowly building a blog for this project. Nerdily named Signifier... signed, it'll eventually house most of the signatures, plus some of the ephemera from the project (a post-it note of good luck from Paul Wellstone would be utterly overlookable were he still alive today; ditto James Brown's autograph, scrawled on the sheet where I clearly asked him to sign my name). Check it out here.
Henry Louis Gates
Edward O. Wilson
Abigail Van Buren