Many years ago, I had lunch with some friends, an 8-year-old named Spencer and his father, Ron. We were at a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of that town’s favorite sons, pianist, producer, and composer Ben Sidran, was sitting at a nearby table. Ron urged Spencer to get Sidran’s autograph, and Sidran, seemingly 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 gamely scribbled out his own name and rewrote the boy’s.
Years later, Spencer’s impromptu deconstruction of celebrity came to mind again, and, inspired by the memory, I decided to start asking celebrities, either through the mail or in person at concerts, readings, and art openings, to sign my name—Paul Schmelzer: a Germanic, doesn't-roll-off-the-tongue, un-famous-sounding thing, but something that, naturally, has come to mean an awful lot to me. A simple 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, conservative politician Michele Bachmann).
Over the years, I've considered what these responses might mean to me. It’s Zen-like, this repetition of my name. It’s egotism masked as humility. It’s a transfer of energy from those I respect to me. It echoes the mantra-like repetition of a graffiti writer's tag. It resonates with art-historical precedents by Richard Prince, Bruce Conner, Don Celender, Alan Berliner, and others. And, by resulting in a unique written object instead of yet another verified signature sellable on autograph markets, it derails (albeit minimally) the commodity-exchange arrangement of modern American celebrity.
But I always return to this simple notion: maybe the project doesn't need so much intellectual justification. After all, it's simply good fun.
More than 75 celebrities so far have contributed to the project, and another 40 or so either didn’t understand it and signed their own names (Robert Redford, the late great James Brown), or leave the logistics of the fandom economy to handlers who mail out preprinted 8x10s on their behalf. (A rare response: Mikhail Baryshnikov took the time to write, “Not interested. Thank you.”—a full four syllables longer than my name).
Those who have participated include some who have passed on (Sen. Paul Wellstone, Merce Cunningham, Spalding Gray, Julian Bond, Earth Day founder and US Sen. Gaylord Nelson), high-profile artists and architects (Matthew Barney, Frank Gehry, Maya Lin, Laurie Anderson), musicians (Kim Gordon, Jeff Tweedy, Dave Brubeck, Ian MacKaye), filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, Wim Wenders, Errol Morris), a few infamous politicos (Pat Buchanan, Jesse Ventura), and one lovable cartoon oaf (Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson).
What has emerged is a weird kind of self portrait, one in which ego and self-deprecation unite and signifier and signed are muddled, hopefully in a surprising way.