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 form 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 is there any value to that signature?) and celebrate those who have shaped my beliefs, by either their positive or negative examples (Studs Terkel versus, say, rightwing politician Michele Bachmann).
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's a bit like the mantra-like repetition of a graffiti writer's tag; 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 (Robert Redford, the late great James Brown), 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).
Last summer, I had the chance to meet the painter 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 (Kim Gordon, 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, I hope to turn the project into, naturally, an autograph book.
Or would that be a biograph book?
Stick around as I chronicle my progress.