Clandestine operatives in the third person
What drives the fervent use of the alias in contemporary art? Will Bradley investigates the origin of the pseudonym tracing it back to political activism in the 19th century, when the pen name functioned as a means to fight against various forms of injustice. Today the battle has been won, certainly in the arts, but the nom de plume persist. Who is this modern-day third person?
Even an oyster has enemies.1
On April 1st this year, the Whitney Museum in New York hosted a panel discussion. The panel was organised by the curators of the Whitney Biennial, Chrissie Iles, Phillipe Vergne, and Toni Burlap, and included Lower East Side gallerist Reena Spaulings discussing the work of one of the artists she represents, the painter Lee Williams. There’s currently an upsurge of interest in the possibilities that a constructed individual identity offers to artists working collaboratively, but this might well go down as the moment when that particular metaphorical snake prematurely choked on its own tail.Lee Williams’s paintings are made by Jutta Koether and Emily Sundblad. Sundblad is also one half of the fictional character Reena Spaulings in her current incarnation as a gallerist, though Reena was first created by scores of collaborators in the novel published under her name by the Bernadette Corporation, and also exists as an artist whose work is made by a shifting crew of collaborators. And Toni Burlap is the creation of Chrissie Iles and Phillipe Vergne, or at least she was. In a recent Artforum interview, Iles and Vergne talked a little about their imaginary collaborator. Phillipe Vergne: ‘When two people curate a show, they give birth to a third person. Her responsibility is to channel our illusion.’ Chrissie Iles: ‘For artists, using another persona – whether anonymous, fictitious, or both – is a way of creating a space outside the market: a space where things can’t be pinned down so easily and exchanged. Of course, this creative model might also relate to the underlying context of cyberspace – where everybody creates anonymous personae – and a broader cultural shift into a kind of irrational space.’2Recently, though, Toni Burlap has found another voice; she has begun, somehow, independently to publish her thoughts in a blog (at toniburlap.com) and no longer channels exactly the illusion her creators had in mind. Toni Burlap: ‘No time for panel discussions now. I’ve been on a whirlwind tour. Popped up to Antarctica to get political again. It is fun to watch the polar bears swim as those obscenely large icebergs melt. Also, took a tour across country to get a first hand perspective on racial discrimination and poverty from the window of my Mercedes. I know that a biennale can’t save the world but by including two political videos and placing them in the bathroom hallways, perhaps we can raise some awareness.’3
What can other people say about you if you can’t say anything about yourself?
Of course, there’s a big difference between the largely pointless invention of Burlap, a curatorial conceit that Vergne defends as playfulness but whose emptiness is apparent in the ease and swiftness with which it was appropriated, and the far more serious intentions behind Reena Spaulings. Reena Spaulings the novel is the rags-to-hipness story of an artworld ingénue who falls through the glamorama world of models, DJs and dealers into a place where this aimless, diffuse power can be realigned by a new underground. It offers a very Manhattan idea of global justice, a literary love letter to the city, but it also explodes with ideas and images, an overloaded rush of identity, an avalanche of context that matches its decentred process of creation. In one early scene every party-goer is described as a look-alike for some-or-other celebrity from Paris Hilton to W. C. Fields and even the nightclub wall paintings are reminiscent of late Picabia. Everything dissolves into a bubbling pool of semiotic primal soup from which it might be possible to mould anything – even a revolution. This radical, if profoundly un-Marxist, sense of the power of the unconstrained individual, able by stealth and ingenuity to penetrate a corrupt society, is both the fantasy and the hope of the book; a book which is, as much as anything else, about the circumstances of, and reasons for, its own creation. The immediate reference point is Q 5, an Umberto Eco-ish novel by four Italian anarchists (Federico Guglielmi, Luca Di Meo, Giovanni Cattabriga and Fabrizio Belletati, according to the newspaper La Republica) set against the background of the German Reformation and published in 2000 under the name of another multiple identity, Luther Blissett. The Blissett identity began life in Italy in 1994 – taking the name of an English footballer nicknamed Luther Missit after his one disastrous season at AC Milan – as a neo-situationist-inspired project, with Blissett taking responsibility for various art world and media pranks as well as producing the revisionist tracts on Guy Debord that are obligatory in this particular subculture. Blissett’s predecessor, and model, was Monty Cantsin, the ‘open pop star’, conceived by US mail artist, acid head and sometime SF Art Institute professor David Zack in 1977, who hoped that if enough people used the name, Cantsin would become famous. This never happened, but Zack did manage to give new life to the idea that had inspired him – Raoul Hausmann’s proposal to the German Dadaists that they should all take the name Jesus Christ – and the principle of Monty Cantsin has productively outlived the identity itself.
Never fail to observe that it is much easier to leave many people dissatisfied than please them.
Reena Spaulings’ spiritual godfather in the New York art world is another collective identity with a Dadaist inspiration, John Dogg. Reputedly the invention of maverick art dealer Colin de Land of American Fine Arts Co., and the artist Richard Prince, Dogg made a couple of well-received shows at the height of the 1980s Neo-Geo phenomenon, at de Land’s gallery and at 303 Gallery. Using shop-bought ‘found materials’ as was the vogue at the time, by the surviving accounts the shows pushed the style de jour just enough towards the absurd to make the point that it was an empty form, a retread of Duchamp, while at the same time enjoying the way that, on these terms, art was easy.It’s hard not to see the choice of the name John Dogg as a deliberate reference to Duchamp’s most famous pseudonym, Richard Mutt, though in the Richard Mutt case, perhaps, more was at stake. As is well known, having already produced several Ready-Mades – including the Bicycle Wheel (1913) and the Bottle-rack (1914) – Duchamp had planned to introduce one to the wider art world and the public by placing it in the ‘unjuried’ show of the New York Society of Independent Artists in 1917. However, the now-famous urinal, signed and dated R. Mutt, 1917, was rejected on the grounds that it was not art, and Duchamp resigned from the board of the Society soon afterwards. Why Duchamp chose Richard Mutt as a pseudonym is not clear, though as is usual with Duchamp arcana the question has been much discussed. Why Duchamp chose to use a pseudonym at all is a question that is asked less often. Duchamp was a recognised artist who already had a reputation as a Dadaist, well-known in France and a minor sensation in the US after the presentation of Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) at the Armoury Show. He could easily have exhibited the Fountain (1917), and the other earlier Ready-Mades, at a gallery of his choice, but he decided not to. It’s clear that he wanted the object, the urinal-as-artwork, to appear in the public consciousness without prior validation. He wanted the attack on the values of art to have a different, almost metaphysical character, to be considered as having somehow sprung from the society at large. Duchamp’s insight was that, while the work constructs the artist as much as the artist constructs the work, neither an artwork nor an artist is a simple, autonomous, unchanging entity. He’d gone meta, beyond the discourse of art, to engage with the social processes that surround its creation, reception and validation.
Every tailor has his own views on art!
Edgar Allan Poe’s story Manuscript Found in a Bottle (1833) is one of many early modern experiments with unreliable narrators and false attribution for dramatic effect. The invented modernist painter Nat Tate was the central character in a novel by William Boyd, but the novel was presented as a biography, with photographs of paintings by Boyd attributed to Tate, and Boyd claims to have fooled several prominent art world experts with the book when it was launched.6 The aim seems to have been to expose the extent to which art world acceptance relies on context and the confirmation of received ideas; unfortunately, to make this work, Boyd had to create a character that embodied every cliché of the story of Abstract Expressionism. Others, such as the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, have pulled off far more impressive deceptions. Van Meegeren painted and sold six fake Vermeers undetected – including one to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and one to Hermann Göring – and only confessed to avoid a charge of collaboration with the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. His methods were perfectly in tune with his motive; revenge on a modern world that no longer valued his Classical craft. Imaginary pseudonymous authors are often ‘uncontroversially’ created to produce mass-market crime and romance novels, sometimes taking credit for dozens of books written by diverse underpaid hacks, and even giving interviews. For female Victorian writers like George Eliot and George Sands a pseudonym was a socially-acceptable mask that allowed them to publish their writing in a male-dominated culture. For Poly Styrene, Ari Up, Richard Hell and Johnny Rotten, taking a new name, a new identity, was part of an attempt to kill the father-figure outright, to sever the link between the culture they were raised in and the culture they were trying to create. But the current mini-wave of art world fake IDs, epitomised by the Parisian Claire Fontaine who brings a kind of Jean-Luc Godard-inspired political poetry to the forms of minimal and conceptual art, has more in common with Duchamp’s approach. It’s an intentional attack on the ideological construction of artistic identity and its attendant value-systems, and on the ideas of good and bad taste that Duchamp loved to mock. It repudiates the identity politics of the eighties and nineties, the opposition of culturally-defined interest groups, in favour of an attack on the very idea of authenticity, at least in the form that it has been most often deployed.
Everybody believes that what they want is the best
Authenticity is difficult territory. The idea of the authentic has to be constructed and defended, and cultural concepts of authenticity shift and mutate according to the interests at stake: the authenticity of the Gospels, the Christian canon as decided and controlled by the Church, the authenticity of money, or of nationality, or election results, or reports from foreign wars, as controlled by the State. In these situations, universal truth is guaranteed by power.The current Danish government and recently undertook a year-long project to compile its own cultural canon. A panel of experts was scraped together and charged with collecting ‘the greatest, most important works of Denmark’s cultural heritage’, in order to create an ‘awareness of what is special about Danes and Denmark in an ever more globalised world’.7 The project is the brainchild of Denmark’s right-wing Culture Minister Brian Mikkelsen, who told his party conference that he hopes it will combat the rise of a society in which ‘minorities’ hold ‘medieval ideas’.8 Was Mikkelsen was hoping to crack down on the annual Viking-Con convention and re-educate the estimated 30,000 Danish adults and 27,000 children who spend their free time acting out fantasy scenarios from the Middle Ages in live action role-playing games? No, predictably enough he was just pitching a little populist xenophobia. When asked by the newspaper Politiken if he truly believed that Danish culture was more valid than Islamic culture, he replied ‘Yes, it is better. Yes.’
We don’t care for what we have, we deplore what we have lost.
With the rise of mechanised, industrial production, and freed from the historical debt to divine forces, artists were handed the role of gifted visionaries who stood outside culture even as they helped create it. Freud and Jung provided an intellectual framework that situated anything from automatic writing to tribal masks from Africa as the legitimate products of a human creative impulse that transcended modern culture, even language itself. To be an artist was to go through a process of unlearning and then to be reborn with a still deeper wisdom. The appeal of this quasi-spiritual human universalism was boosted further in reaction to the horrors of two World Wars but, unsurprisingly, it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. In painting, Western artists like the COBRA group, or the Abstract Expressionists took theoretical positions towards the authentic rawness of their expression that were contradicted by the nationalistic and ideological nature of their claims. At the same time, a dawning post-colonialism brought an awareness of the strong and complex cultural traditions behind much of what had been categorised as ‘primitive’ art. Though the myth of this pre-cultural universalism faded – now, apparently, even nightingales have their own culture – artists still claimed to be the authentic voice of folk traditions of every kind, from Robert Zimmerman’s creation of the hard-travellin’ Woodie Guthrie disciple Bob Dylan to the white Australian Elizabeth Durack’s invention of the Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup. There is something about this particular kind of authenticity that makes its simulation a particular sin, even when, as was the case with both Zimmerman and Durack, the transgression takes place in the context of a tradition that has already been displaced, reinvented, and commercialised. It’s not just a question of sincerity, though the opposition of sincerity and artfulness has been a cultural battleground at least since the days of Mannerism. It’s also a question of ownership.
The harm or benefit of an act depend on the combination of circumstances.
The image put forward by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash of a virtual world, a metaverse in which people interact as digital avatars disconnected from their ‘meat space’ identities, is now an everyday reality, at least for an affluent, tech-enabled minority, and the link between authentic identity and cultural presence is rapidly weakening as a consequence. The free software movement has established a fantastically effective model for collaborative, not-for-profit production and distribution; there is an incredible profusion of freely available texts, images, sounds generated by anonymous individuals or groups and thrown out into cyberspace, often without any consideration of its purpose or destination. However, the formal art world continues to fetishize authorship, and the work of academic art history resembles a forensic investigation, constructing an artist’s identity, the definitive meaning of a work, from physical clues and circumstantial evidence and reaching a verdict that the institutions of art can enforce. Multiple identities like Reena Spaulings, Luther Blissett or Monty Cantsin have something in common with figures like Ned Ludd, Captain Swing, and Rebecca, phantom leaders of riots and uprisings that hoped to change social conditions for the working class in nineteenth-century Britain. They’re cover for loosely-affiliated bands of activists, shadowy collectives and networks that, at their best, form part of a growing resistance to the kind of authoritarian definitions of authenticity that are used to enforce social divisions, to separate the innocent from the presumed-guilty.
Explanatory sentences clarify obscure thoughts.
But, as Greg Sholette recently asked, ‘if it is group anonymity itself that permitted so many art collectives to boldly challenge the status quo, then perhaps it also provides a mask for the anti-social cynicism of the new and the few?’10 He was writing about a new, apolitical wave of ‘insouciant’ artists’ groups that are currently inhabiting the territory won at some cost by the collectively-organised cultural rebellions of the past three decades. Sholette’s concern is with the way that the availability of previously resistant strategies in tame, marketable forms allows for their safe assimilation into the art world, allowing institutions to present the appearance of radicalism without having to face the attendant conflicts or contradictions. It’s certainly something for Toni Burlap to think about, before she moves on to the next biennial.