What’s in a Name? An exploration of the use of Pseudonyms

Claire Fontaine, ‘Gather in multiple groups’, 2011, spray paint on canvas, 182.9 x 121.3 cm

Originally published by Frieze on 4 November 2013.

The use of pseudonyms by artists is a complex and contested matter with a long history. To answer the question of why artists choose to use one or multiple pseudonyms is impossible, because both the motives and the outcomes vary for each artist. ‘The Trouble with the Pseudonym’, a recent talk at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, drew similar conclusions, perhaps leaving the audience with more questions than answers.

Recent political and technological developments arguably make the issues surrounding the use of pseudonyms more pertinent than ever. Through the use of social media and Internet forums, it is easier and more common for people to assume multiple identities with myriad monikers. Conversely, the proliferation of state surveillance, epitomised by the recent NSA spying revelations has ensured privacy and secrecy are rare commodities. The false sense of anonymity offered by the web combined with the disconcerting feeling that all of our activities can potentially be monitored creates a desire for privacy precisely at a time when it is hardest to achieve.

In this context, the use of a pseudonym may reflect a desire for secrecy on the part of the artist, however, it is by no means a guarantee of anonymity. Take the case of Banksy, who has become one of the most famous living artists whilst maintaining his identity secret. Using a pseudonym plays a part in this, but in truth his anonymity relies on a close network of trusted advisors, his agent and legal representatives, not to mention meticulous care and caution.

Of course, there are a number of artists who work under pseudonyms without making any attempt to conceal their identity, such as London-based French artist Olivier Castel, who was on the panel at the ICA talk. Castel – whose exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery this summer was presented under both his own name and that of a fictional identity ‘Louise Weiss’ – has produced work under more than 30 different identities since 2001 but always appears as himself for interviews. He explained that the use of multiple names is part of his creative process; in the same way that each exhibition needs a title, so Castel chooses a pseudonym for each body of work. He finds that this enables him to open up a new set of creative horizons each time, shedding previous associations and expectations. The transience and changeability of Castel’s many pseudonyms reflects the ephemeral and temporal nature of his work, which frequently takes the form of projections or audio pieces, or deliberately temporary wall-based installations.

Louise Weiss, ‘Eight Hearts’, 2013, installation view at Hayward Gallery, London

By looking at the function of names in our society, we may discover greater clues as to why artists choose to work under pseudonyms. Naming ascribes a meaning to something. It allows for an individual or a collective to be recognised and addressed; it gives them the power to respond. In an era so preoccupied with the self and the individual a name is a powerful thing.

The San Francisco-based artist Lutz Bacher has been working under that moniker since the 1970s. By choosing to work under a name with masculine overtones Bacher both harnesses the privilege afforded by male artists whilst at the same time poking fun at it. Bacher’s work often engages with notions of gender and identity, playing with the male/female duality in works such as Jim & Sylvia (1990-93), which are to be exhibited side by side. Jim consists of huge childlike scrawled faces, while Sylvia features crumpled pages of diary entries, notebooks and even the will of a (possibly deceased) woman. In Bacher’s own words the latter “provides these macro faces Jim with their micro narrative,” while the simplistic nature of Jim invokes marginal identities such as the so-called ‘primitive’ or mentally ill, rather than heroic male figures. Bacher is notoriously evasive as an artist: the press release for her 2008 exhibition at Ratio 3 in San Francisco consisted of a recipe for butterscotch pudding. Her work is equally hard to pin down, often consisting of strange assemblages of found images and objects. This esotericism has given her a cult status but has also meant it has taken until very recently for her to gain international recognition.

The use of pseudonyms can be understood as an exploration of self-identity, and of how we relate to the names that define us. Artists will sometimes use a pseudonym to escape a certain version or perception of themselves, a process which many find liberating, as it allows them greater creative freedom. During the ICA-hosted talk, panel member Carmela Ciuraru the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms (2011) discussed the case of American science-fiction writer James Tiptree Jr., the pen name assumed by author Alice Sheldon in the late 1960s. The moniker enabled Sheldon to become a science-fiction writer at a time when the genre was hugely male-dominated. Without Tiptree, Sheldon once remarked, her prose was no more imaginative than “Enclosed please find payment”. Once her true identity was revealed she was completely bereft and felt unable to write.

Lutz Bacher, Chess (detail), 2012, installation view

Often, a collective may choose to produce work under a singular pseudonym as with Claire Fontaine, recently nominated for this year’s Prix Marcel Duchamp, whose name is based on a ubiquitous brand of French stationery. Claire Fontaine, whose work often mimics that of other artists thus subverting the idea of intellectual copyright, aim to challenge the notion of singular authorship. They describe themselves as “existential terrorists…[growing] up in the ruins of authorship, experimenting with collective protocols of production, diversion, and development of various devices for the sharing of intellectual property and private property.”

For artists who see themselves as activists a collective identity acts as a shield against a crackdown by authorities but it also asserts the unity of the collective, harnessing the power of the name to establish authorship whilst attacking the claim that authorship must be singular. Collective identities undermine the power of the individual as brand that has become so prevalent in the art world under consumer capitalism, with the market dominated by “big names” like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Identities are increasingly diffuse, fluid, contested and contradictory, as the assumption en masse of online personas demonstrates. This, combined with the creative freedom and concealment (however imperfect) offered by pseudonyms ensures that artists will continue to make use of them. Whatever the reasons for using a pseudonym, there is no such thing as just a name.

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