Hello, My Name Is...

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.

Merce Cunningham

Noam Chomsky

David Sedaris

Kim Gordon

Studs Terkel

Henry Louis Gates

Edward O. Wilson

Abigail Van Buren

Frank Gehry

Ed Ruscha

Jenny Holzer


jkf said...

this is fantastic!

muse said...

interesting idea!

I don't get the whole autograph collecting thing, myself.

I once went to see a favourite author of mine playing fiddle in an Irish pub, had the chance to meet him and tell him how much I appreciate his books, then he kindly told me that if I'd brought anything to be signed, he'd be happy to oblige, but I think that I surprised him when I said no, that I had simply wanted to tell him thank you for his writing, because it means a lot to me... :)

Anonymous said...

Paul Schmelzer
Paul Schmelzer
Paul Schmelzer
Paul Schmelzer
Paul Schmelzer
Paul Schmelzer

Anonymous said...

When I was a young dancer performing at Wolftrap in Washington D.C., I ran into Baryshnikov out behind the performance building with a few other dancers from my company. He refused to give us even his own name scribbled on paper. Then he drove off in his little red sports car. Jerk.

So nice to see that you've got your autograph from Merce. He is indeed much kinder.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, very interesting idea, but...

I guess these aren't, strictly speaking autographs, since the auto prefix is in the same sense as autobiography.

So I guess it begs the question, what should be the name of such an artifact?

JoAnne said...

I think it would be called a heterograph.

Anonymous said...

wouldn't this be more interesting if some of the people who signed it were actually famous?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous must live under a rock.


Paul Schmelzer said...

Anonymous (1) has a point: nobody who signed has Oprah or Madonna fame, but it's not for a lack of trying. While I got a dozen or so signatures in person, many were obtained by written request. I sent letters to everybody from James Brown (he sent me his autograph, signed on the sheet where I clearly asked him to sign mine) to Oprah to Madonna to Brett Favre to Jack Nicholson. Maybe artists and intellectuals don't have as many handlers as rock stars and Hollywood starlets. Maybe they're just cooler.

A few more who have participated:
-Julian Bond (former chair of the NAACP)
-Billy Bragg
-Noam Chomsky
-Charlie Daniels
-Fats Domino
-Tanya Donnely (of Belly and Throwing Muses)
-Henry Louis Gates (of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Dept.)
-Jenny Holzer
-Julie Mehretu
-Kweisi Mfume (former NAACP prez)
-Meredith Monke
-Filmmaker Errol Morris
-Edward James Olmos
-Isabel Allende
-David Sedaris
-Ed Ruscha
-Jeff Tweedy of Wilco
-The entire Utne family (from the magazine Utne Reader)

Paul Schmelzer said...

Recently added:
Wolfgang Puck

Some lesser-knowns who signed:
Alan Berliner, filmmaker
Craig Baldwin, filmmaker
Bonnie Blair, Olympic speedskater
Michael Feldman, NPR radio personality
Matthew Fox, theologian/author
Julia Butterfly Hill, activist/author
Doris “Granny D” Haddock, campaign-finance activist
Mark Hosler, artist (Negativland)
Wing Young Huie, photographer
Naomi Klein, author (No Logo)
Norbert Kox, visionary artist
Winona LaDuke, VP candidate w/Ralph Nader
Kalle Lasn, Adbusters publisher
Maya Lin, sculptor
Meredith Monk, musician
Errol Morris, documentary filmmaker (Thin Blue Line)
J.Otto Seibold, illustrator (Olive the Other Reindeer)
Annie Sprinkle, porn star/artist
Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist/author
Robert Wilson, theater director (Einstein on the Beach)

Anonymous said...

This is perfect.

When I went to my first book-signing, I got a little bit obsessed with some kind of skewed autograph collecting, but I couldn't quite figure out what I wanted. Authors to sign each other's books? Authors to all write in my book? No wait, that's an autograph book. Then I gave up. But this would have done the job.

Thanks for an obscure bit of closure!

Anonymous said...

When Digg picked up on this awhile back, it only got 14 Diggs. Add some more if you like it.

Tim J.

Anonymous said...

What an unusual, creative, and novel idea! I love the 'shove it in your face' irony! Keep up the good work and by all means keep us posted!

Валентин Дьяконов / Valentin Diaconov said...

A fantastic idea.

Here, please have your name in cyrillics, providing Misha Baryshnikov didn't do this:

Пол Шмельцер

Maybe I'll be famous someday... And you'll treasure this.

Paul Schmelzer said...

Looks like the cyrillic letters didn't make it through comment moderation, Dorfmeister. But I already treasure it. Maybe that'll be phase two: signatures from the not-so-famous (or not-yet-famous).

Karen said...

What a fabulous idea! All from the mouth of a child.