What’s in a Name?

Emma A Jane

My six year old daughter has hit on a great money making scheme. She’s thinking of changing her name to “fuk”. Alice’s logic is that every time her teacher calls the roll at school, she’ll make $2 (the going penalty for dropping the f-bomb in our household). “Plus,” she says, “it’s not rude when it’s written because it’s missing the other ‘k’.”

Alice’s spelling may need work, but her appreciation of the fact that females are now able to mess with their monikers for all sorts of non-marital reasons is developing nicely. Given the power, politics and performance associated with DIY name changing, her blasphemous small business proposal has also got me thinking about the psychology of this phenomenon in the art world.

Australia certainly has its fair share of artists with ‘formerly known as’ status: Nell, Julie Rrap, Vexta, eX de Medici, Wart, GW Bot, Elvis Richardson, What, Cash Brown and Stelarc to name just a few. There are also many members of the creative community with ‘slasher’ identities (consider Luke Roberts/Pope Alice; Chris O’Doherty/Reg Mombassa; David Booth/Ghostpatrol; Mark Whalen/Kill Pixie), as well collectives such as Ms&Mr (wife and husband Stephanie and Richard nova Milne) and Soda_Jerk (siblings Dominique and Dan Angeloro).

So what is it that drives artists to invent and re-invent themselves via pseudonyms, stage names, mononyms, portmanteaux, sobriquets, alter egos, frankentitles, unchristian names, noms de ‘grrrr’ and the like? Does adopting a new name or persona constitute a performance in and of itself? And how does this fit with the more obvious performativity of those artist personas that — by their very character — are fictionalised?

 

Renny Kogers live at the Red Rattler, 2009
Photography James Brown

"Self-appellating is an acknowledgment of the omnipotence of language not just to represent but to shape reality."

So what is it that drives artists to invent and re-invent themselves via pseudonyms, stage names, mononyms, portmanteaux, sobriquets, alter egos, frankentitles, unchristian names, noms de ‘grrrr’ and the like? Does adopting a new name or persona constitute a performance in and of itself? And how does this fit with the more obvious performativity of those artist personas that — by their very character — are fictionalised?

Regardless of the context, the proper noun-ing of people is never a politically neutral act. As children, we have no choice in the capitalised word salad we must answer to at dinner time. This most intimate of word association games is something done to us rather than a process we are invited to explore for ourselves. If we are a female child, this choicelessness is even more insidious. Thanks to the continuing dominance of patrilineal norms, our [sir]names function as symbolic title deeds, suggestive of ownership by fathers, husbands, and the inequitable status quo.

Insisting we be called by something — or some things — of our own preference can be a stunning declaration of independence; an exciting act of feminist defiance, infantile mischief, linguistic burlesque, spiritual spectacle, cathartic drag, opt-in schizophrenia, embodied spoonerism, out-and-out wankerism, or all and none of the above.

Insisting we be called by something — or some things — of our own preference can be a stunning declaration of independence; an exciting act of feminist defiance, infantile mischief, linguistic burlesque, spiritual spectacle, cathartic drag, opt-in schizophrenia, embodied spoonerism, out-and-out wankerism, or all and none of the above.

It’s true that many jokes are made at the expense of celebrities with a surplus of aliases. Consider rapper-preneur Sean John Combs aka Sean John aka Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs aka King Combs aka Puff aka Puffy aka Puff Daddy aka Diddy aka P Diddy aka Poppadiddypop aka (for one week only in 2011) Swag.

But while it’s groovy to mock, there remains something deliciously subversive and fantastically unfixed about our ability to step out in proper — or improper — nouns of our own choosing. The theatrics and impact associated with such acts have particular resonance in the art world.

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Wart, 2012
Photography Ian Hobbs

Obviously there is no single, one-size-fits-all answer to the ‘why do artists change their names?’ question. Motivations are heterogeneous between and also within individuals, often reflecting a kaleidoscopic of personal, political and artistic preoccupations.

Julie Rrap’s decision to change her surname from Parr, for instance, is frequently reported as being an attempt to forge an artistic identity separate to that of her brother Mike Parr. Rrap says however, this “feminist gesture to do with the paternity of naming and a playful reversing of that system” is a far more textured affair, dovetailing with Rrap’s artistic exploration of themes such as tricksterism, doubling, erasure, and inversion. “It acts as a sort of irritation around my work,” she says, “a mask that the work somehow hides behind.”

Artspace

The Buddhist artist Nell legally adopted her first name as a mononym after she married — a move which once resulted in her being detained in a Mumbai airport. While Nell’s decision to go by a single, chiming syllable may seem staunchly individualistic, for her the move is community orientated because, she says “having no last name is like having everyone’s last name, like being in everyone’s family.”

Chrissy Grishin’s decision to adopt the nom de guerre of GW Bot grew from a desire to start her journey as an artist in an unknown place with a blank slate (for want of a more appropriate metaphor for a printmaker). She chose this particular name because wombats have become her totemic animal and “the earliest written reference to a wombat occurs in a French source where it is called ‘le grand Wam Bot’”. “I have been told by my Chinese artist friends that one can change one’s name as many times as one needs to recreate one’s work,” she says. “A pseudonym [also] allows an artist to be as objective about their own work as anybody else — there is no ‘preciousness’… One can discuss and view the work as freely as any other person because in fact you have never actually met the artist!”

For street artists, pseudonyms have the added advantage of helping avoid arrest. “I could have left my work unsigned,” says Yvette Bacina aka ‘Vexta’, “but I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition to sign street works.”

Ms&Mr — the name used by the nova Milnes (itself an entirely new, post-marriage surname) — is designed to make love as well as war. The couple views their collective cognomen as a kind of love declaration, as well as a challenge to art school orthodoxies around the assessment of authorship, and to dominant gender orders: “people still seem to struggle with an impulse to call us Mr&Mrs,” they say.

Mark Shorter meanwhile, performs as Renny Kodgers because he views the namesake of his alter ego (altered ego?) as the ultimate vessel: “a banal shell where I [can] inject my scatology and grotesquery that [reflects] the endless permutations of the American global cultural spread.”

Scatology is also present in Luke Roberts’s ongoing materialisations as ‘Pope Alice’, a white-robed, vesica pisciseyed alien who — after spending at least some of the 1990s engaged in performance sex with Mr Gay Queensland — has since become a Raëlian messenger in sync with Roberts’s own conversion to the extraterrestrial-oriented faith.

Nell
SUMMER 2012 (still)
Digital video, 16:9 min
Videography Tina Havelock Stevens
Sound Ingrid Rowell
Courtesy of the artist & Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Gary Carsley (formerly known as Michael Hohn [it’s a long story]) makes an excellent point about these sorts of stage names and pseudonyms. He sees them as performances within performances, masks which simultaneously say: “LOOK AT ME”, “DON’T LOOK AT ME”.

Self-appellating is an acknowledgment of the omnipotence of language not just to represent but to shape reality. Yet while it waves a white flag at the awesome power of nominative determinism, it also turns the force of discourse back against itself — jujutsu-style — in a triumphant performance of nominative plasticity. A name can be chosen, crafted, capsized, heisted, hijacked and put to all manner of pointed, poetic and perverse uses.

In short: it is no longer simply a given.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE

I changed my name from Emma Jane Tom to Emma Alice Jane in 2010 because I didn’t want the names of any of the men from either side of my family. Actually, I didn’t want the names of any men from anywhere. Changing my name in this way also means I get to move through the world as a living, breathing commutation test. Commutation tests (from semiotics) are thought experiments which involve swapping one part of a text for another to help expose the various social assumptions embedded in language. In my case, it relates to the way that feminine surnames seem strange to many people in a way that masculine options do not.

 

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