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Community's the Thing: Susan Silton Examines the Power of Names

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A screenshot from "Who's in a Name?" Courtesy of Susan Silton.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," opined Shakespeare's Juliet, declaring that what we call ourselves -- whether Montague or Capulet -- should not keep us apart. But as we all know, she found out that names do matter in the end.

Los Angeles artist Susan Silton would probably agree. However reductive and divisive, names are also the primary way in which people are known and remembered. Her latest project, "Who's in a Name?" looks at rituals of history, celebrity, and death by investigating how we acknowledge and commemorate one another.

It began with Silton's hijacking (gently, and with permission) a public art piece by John Baldessari and has since evolved into a book, a painting and a program of performances enacted on May 18 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Silton, a trim woman in her mid-50s with a shock of short, graying hair, is open to additional permutations, although the journey has already been a long and serendipitous one.

Baldessari's contribution to the 2011 Sydney Festival in Sydney, Australia was "Your Name in Lights," an interactive piece that invited anyone, anywhere to submit their name via a Web site. The names then appeared at designated times on an LED sign mounted on the facade of the Australian Museum. Each name was featured for 15 seconds, a condensed, Internet-age homage to Andy Warhol's declaration that "In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

Susan Silton in her studio with the painting "John/Jack/David," 2012. Photo: Sharon Mizota.
Susan Silton in her studio with the painting "John/Jack/David," 2012. Photo: Sharon Mizota.

The work inspired Silton to look more closely at names and how they function. "When I saw John's piece I began to think about the ways in which we identified with this sequence of letters as being ourselves, even if we have the same name as countless other people," she says, "A name becomes the stand-in for the body." Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in the art world. In her essay for Silton's book, art historian Liz Kotz reminds us that an ad for an exhibition may consist of nothing more than a name, and that shows and works are routinely referred to in the same way: "We're doing a show of Richard Prince.' 'We just bought a Sherman.'"

Baldessari's work broadens this fixation on names into a comment on our general obsession with fame. By democratizing the mechanism by which a name appears in lights, it gently deflates the meaning of celebrity. One no longer needs to be "special" to be recognized; one need only sign up. Silton saw within this idea an opportunity to comment specifically on stardom (or the lack thereof) in the art world. She rallied 58 other artists to submit one name each to Baldessari's project. "I put out a call to living artists because so many of the artists I know struggled with recognition issues," she says, "There's no justice in the art world in terms of who really has that kind of a name." However, the project was not just a grab for screen time. In a further twist, the 59 names that the artists and Silton registered were not their own but those of artists who had committed suicide.

The names came from a Wikipedia page Silton had found earlier that left a profound impression. She was moved by the fact that it included not only the names of famous artists (Diane Arbus, Vincent Van Gogh), but those that were relatively obscure or completely unknown. "People who have ended their lives and who haven't had necessarily the recognition that they may have wanted are now in this archive forever," she says, adding that the archive, like her project, represents the efforts of an impromptu online community.

"I also found it moving just because there's such stigma attached to suicide in our culture," she says. Commemorating these people perhaps undoes some of the shame associated with taking one's own life. Silton began to think differently about suicide when she saw footage of people jumping from the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. "I realized in that moment that that was a choice," she says, "It was a forced choice, but it was still a choice." She now sees suicide as the assertion of a certain kind of power. "It's a way of taking control of your death, and I find that absolutely stunning and very proactive," she says. Most people, she adds, regard suicide as a sign of weakness or selfishness, "But living is selfish, isn't it? Because we can only be in our own bodies."

By putting the suicides' names in lights, Silton gives them a bit of the recognition that eluded them in life. She purposely did not select well known names like Arbus or Van Gogh, although a few, such as Ray Johnson and Francesca Woodman will be familiar to art audiences. In Silton's hands, Baldessari's piece became a kind of commemoration-machine: The suicides were remembered and honored, if only for 15 seconds.

A screenshot from "Who's in a Name?" | Courtesy of Susan Silton.
A screenshot from "Who's in a Name?" | Courtesy of Susan Silton.

Now, they are likely to get a little more than that. Silton just published a book, also titled "Who's in a Name?" that features screenshots of each of the names as it appeared on the LED sign. (Baldessari's installation was visible 24 hours a day via Webcast for the three-week duration of the project, and Silton was at her computer at all hours of the day and night to capture all 59 screenshots.) In addition to Kotz's essay, the book also includes 200-word bios of each of the participating artists, living and dead, written by 11 art historians and critics, who also contributed their own bios. The result is a dense, layered meditation, not only on names and suicide, but on the function and limitations of art history.

If names are one way that artists' reputations circulate, the 200-word bio is another. Compact and utilitarian, it appears on press releases, brochures, wall texts, etc. as an efficient, if not terribly informative or representative summary. It's impossible to convey the complexity of a life in such a small space. "If you're lucky," says Silton, "you get more real estate than 200 words. So I feel lucky, naturally. But many people don't, and it's a problematic form that is really standard fare in the art world."

Still, those 200 words might be one's only point of entry into history. In giving little-known artists a bio, however modest, and introducing them into a network of other artists and writers, Silton gives them another shot at posterity.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the performances that filled the MOCA auditorium on a recent Saturday afternoon. In short, casual presentations that ran the gamut from narrative to poetry to music, 28 of the participating artists performed works inspired by the project or by the dead artist with whom they were paired. While some had asked Silton if they could register the names of friends or colleagues, most had received a randomly assigned name. These pairings sometimes led to fortuitous connections between living and dead. Photographer Audrey Mandelbaum wrote a letter to painter Leno Prestini, who, like her, lived in eastern Washington. Sympathetic to the isolation in which he lived and worked, her comments on his rural scenes and one female nude that seemed particularly laced with frustration were both humorous and tender. Eve Luckring, whose video works employ traditional Japanese poetic forms, told the story of Seiki Kayamori, a Japanese American photographer who lived among and documented the Tlingit people in Alaska before World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was severely beaten by soldiers and took his own life, a tragedy that Luckring evoked in a poetic meditation on the line between belonging and exclusion. In this way, the suicides, however obscure in life, live on through Silton's project. "It's sort of stunning to see the kind of relationship that the living artists have to the artist they were paired with randomly," she says, adding that they continue to pass on their own understanding of their dead compatriot's work. (I am also passing it on, in part, right now.)

"Who's in a Name?" then, is about loss and limitation, but it is also about networks and community: the community of artists and writers that Silton assembled to make its various components, the community of people who created the Wikipedia page, the community that convened to witness the performances, and eventually the community that reads the book. Silton has also collaborated on the creation of a painting. "I wanted to bring this back into the world of paint, of media, and remove it a little bit from the digital, which is really how this project was experienced primarily," she says. In a nod to Baldessari, whose early work involved paying sign painters to execute his ideas, Silton hired Srijon Chowdhury, an MFA student at Otis College of Art and Design, to make a large painting of the screenshot she took of Jack Goldstein's name. She selected Goldstein because his name was registered by his friend and fellow conceptual artist, David Lamelas, and because Goldstein and Lamelas both knew Baldessari. The painting is subsequently titled "John/Jack/David" and is actually a portrait, not just of a name or of a single artist, but of a network of relationships.

"Who's in a Name?" then is not a despairing view into the hall of mirrors that is art stardom, but an ever-expanding vista of possibility and connection. "Once you're in that community of making art, I know at least one thing: that that is an outlet of expression that is meaningful to you," says Silton, "Whether you can make that into something bigger, more recognizable, is really anybody's guess, and it's a lot of chance and luck, but it is an expression nonetheless that we all share, which is very powerful."

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Top Image: A screenshot from "Who's in a Name?" Courtesy of Susan Silton.

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