Identity and Anonymous Art: Who made that?

By Matt Stangel

Tonight I play the role of the lover.

It’s the only acting I’ll get into during my months-long investigation into anonymous art, and I do so for an audience that includes myself and no one else—as a way of better understanding a musician who has chosen to divorce his name from his work.

The performance requires a North Portland stage, and a series of Trimet transfers gets me there: the westbound 14 and some fresh air on MLK, then the 4 the rest of the way.

The cover of 'To My: Long Lost Love'

To fully get into character, I must pretend I’m unaware of what waits ahead—I must pretend this is just a normal trip to the grocery store. That it’s a city, not a stage.

I’m looking for a place called Cherry Sprout Produce. There I hope to find a vinyl love letter—an LP entitled To My: Long Lost Love.

“I made it just for a certain someone,” writes the man I only know digitally as Miss Vortex. “My only hope with it was that maybe she would find it one day. And she would know that I really love her.”

Due to the personal nature of the album, its author assumed anonymity for its release, and for reasons that remain only speculative, once it was finished and ready to spin under the needle, Miss Vortex didn’t just up and deliver his ten love songs to his estranged dearheart. He posted two sample tracks online, then strapped on his proverbial Cupid wings and proceeded to go around town planting copies in places strategic to his target audience of one — places where Miss Vortex “hoped she might find it.” Here’s one of the tracks.

07 Believe It Or Not

*****

Cherry Sprout Produce is one of those locations.

It glows like a lamp on an otherwise dark street. A colorful mural is painted on its Albina-facing wall. Large bins of apples and cabbage perfume the sidewalk. I’m resolved to indulge in the entirety of the adventure, to see it from the lover’s eyes, to enact the experience as envisioned by our mystery musician.

Cherry Sprout Produce

Inside is a grocery store of modest eclecticisms. To the back of the shop is a well-planned mix of fresh fruits and veggies, dry goods, and select canned, frozen, and otherwise-packaged foods. To the front, a wall dedicated to monthly art shows is partnered with oddball racks of T-shirts and tables colonized by pottery and wood works and trinkets. I decide to buy a juice, which gives me the opportunity to check things out a bit, eventually making my way around the single horseshoe aisle and back to checkout.

Sharing an island with two cash registers is a display of CDs and vinyl. On the top of the stack, I recognize what I’ve come for: To My: Long Lost Love.

The dust jacket is a 3D photograph of toy animals positioned amongst hayscatter and stones, the entirety of the image washed in offset red and blue doubles (with a pair of 3D glasses included, to complete the illusion).

“Her and I made the cover together…once upon a time,” he explains, “for a different project we were working on.”

If you weren’t looking for it, you’d likely never notice it.

“I don’t know if she has?” writes Miss Vortex.

When I leave, there’s one copy left in the bin.

*****

In an age of digitized self-disclosure, both intentional and not, we spend a lot of time thinking about anonymity. Through hacker/security groups like Anonymous, the shrouded identity has been proven a valuable political tool, and as the internet is used by more people for more aspects of everyday life, anonymity’s applications proliferate.

Guy Fawkes=Anonymous

This became no more apparent than when the imagery of internet anonymity—namely, the Guy Fawkes mask—made its way into real space last year during worldwide Occupy Wall Street protests.

It’s no wonder  this new, anonymous world is bleeding into art. It’s a prominent feature of global culture. But when anonymity makes its way into art, is it merely a reflection of current trends, or does it serve a function? And to what degree can we say true anonymity is achievable?

*****

On the ride home from Cherry Sprout, these questions turn over in my head.

A recent show at the Marylhurst University Art Gym comes to mind. Entitled Anonymous, the Micah Malone-curated exhibit was created by six artists working under contractual anonymity. They took on the labels Artist A through E, agreeing not to reveal their identities to anyone. Malone explains further in a public statement: “The artists were urged to create work separate from their typical practices with the intent that the work be a departure, a point of difference, and hence unrecognizable from their otherwise productive careers.”

By Artist D in the Anonymous show at Marylhurst University

Included in the show were string, light, and object-based installations, a bit of Donald Judd worship via wall-affixed rectangles, Occupy-related works, and other projects—digital stills to tangled action figures to paint-coated weed leaves.

I skim over descriptions of individual works because, in walking away from the show, I was less struck with the artistic merit than with how, without biographical information, the gallery, curator, and surrounding blog buzz constructed an identity for the artists of the collected works. I thought to myself on the Marylhurst green, “Surely there must be artistic value here, or else why would these institutions endorse it?”

It then occurred to me: there isn’t value in endorsement, there’s identity in endorsement, and there’s value in identity. Suddenly, instead of courting an absolute anonymity through which to speak, the show seemed to generate Marylhurst-approved anonymity, or Micah Malone-approved anonymity, or Port-approved anonymity, and the speaking, the art, felt secondary. While the artists were nameless, they weren’t without identity and unique connections to the community. Authorlessness showed me the ways in which authors are written.

In the case of Miss Vortex, we also can’t really say To My: Long Lost Love is 100% without signature. Like Malone’s Anonymous, it’s also colored by associated institutions, most notably through a shining endorsement on Sub Pop’s blog, penned by Robin Pecknold of the indie-folk act Fleet Foxes. But it gets more complicated than that, and to better understand the caveats, it’ll help if we take a look at an article by Alisa LaGamma entitled “Authorship in African Artwork,” which debunks misconceptions about anonymity in works of the Yoruba people.

A passage regarding the erroneous view that these African artists consciously rejected authorship is of particular interest:

Lost to us forever is documentation concerning the authorship of most of the extraordinary works of African art created in the last century and now housed in Western museums. Nevertheless it is important that we consider carefully how that absence of identity may be interpreted. Rather than revealing the condition of African art’s creation, it reflects the manner in which the material was gathered by Western collectors… Although the works in question may never have been signed, the fact that they were created by individual artists known to their contemporaries is not in dispute.

To My: Long Lost Love is like that. It’s not that the record was created with the intention of being anonymous to its contemporaries—after all, the lover would immediately recognize the cover art and be able to read it, alongside the corresponding music and location, as a signature. It’s that contemporaries are few (two, in fact), and general audiences aren’t privy to its language of authorship.

But that isn’t to say that Miss Vortex’s public anonymity serves no function. Not only does it allow us to enter into the aforementioned performance—by encouraging audiences to project their own long lost lovers onto the blank, everyman musician—but it also allows Miss Vortex to fully communicate the depth of his loss.

We tacitly understand that by placing the record in Cherry Sprout, he’s illustrating how his loss follows him through everyday life, how basic daily tasks like going to the store are entwined with memories of past love. In necessitating that audiences look past authorship for further information, I’m led to a more complete understanding of artistic intent: that Miss Vortex is attempting to communicate through music, visual cues (cover art), and shared memories tied to real space (Cherry Sprout).

But the question still remains: Does true anonymous art exist? And if so, what does it look like and how does it work?

*****

Craig Wheat never sought anonymity.

When he created the image that would eventually become known as Hipster Kitty—a widely celebrated Internet meme—he was simply a PNCA student riffing on an idea. An idea about cats. A series of collages.

“I got a cat,” explains Wheat, “and I’ve had this cat for a long fuckin’ time, and he travels around with me everywhere, and he’s, um, well, he’s my bro.”

The original hipster kitty

“When I was in grad school there, I was just kinda losin’ it right off the bat. Just, like, everything. I just moved to a new city and… I didn’t know many people. And art. I was getting battered in some critiques and all this.”

“But,” says Wheat, “I always had my cat, just there at the house. And like, some beer. [Laughs]”

Wheat began making portraits of his friends as cats, because, he says, he wanted the people close to him “to be there, and be as good as, like, cats kind of are to you.”

To make the collages, he used found feline photos and traced clothing out of vellum, generating likenesses of friends. “I’ve done tons of ’em,” says Wheat.

The image that became Hipster Kitty was of local artist Allison Halter.

“She just always wore these big fuckin’ hipster glasses—like, old-folk glasses—and this purple American Apparel hoodie. All the time.” And so those defining features made it into the portrait.

Hipster Kitty goes viral...

Along with other friends re-imagined as cats, Wheat posted “Allison” on Flickr. Then, nothing much happened for about a year. That is, until one day the image resurfaced on a social blogging site, Tumblr.

“I don’t know when it was. Maybe 2008 or somethin’,” explains Wheat. “It popped up on Tumblr, but someone had taken it from my Flickr site and put a little thing at the bottom of it, just the words, ‘Hipster Kitty doubts your indie cred.’”

It was a strange moment for the artist: “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a little fucked up; to take someone’s work.’ But I also had this thing where I was like, ‘Well, I took someone’s photo of a cat and did kinda what this person did.’ The weird collage debate. You know what I mean?”

Regardless of Wheat’s feelings on the matter, an overnight sensation was born.

Over the following months, Hipster Kitty gained viral steam, and soon, not only were thousands of renditions of his collage just a Google search away, but people had gotten tattoos of the image, Halloween costumes were made, and our hooded feline could be purchased on mugs, T-shirts, and other forms of memorabilia. Wheat even found paintings of his collage, one of which ended up on an album cover.

While all the attention the image was getting was flattering, Wheat himself wasn’t getting credit for its creation. Money was being made, but not by him, and after a while he realized that he had effectively lost ownership of his work.

“After it became a popular meme… I had to send out a lot of cease and desists.”

Not only that, but sites like MemeGenerator.net—which allow users to add captions to preexisting images and rate those made by others—were unresponsive when Wheat requested that he be credited as the image’s maker.

By no choice of his own, Craig Wheat was the anonymous creator of an Internet meme.

“The internet’s like the Wild West,” says the artist, and if you leave your cat pictures on the porch overnight, there’s no telling they’ll be there in the morning.”

*****

Don’t worry. Things turn out well for Craig Wheat. One day, his roommate sends an email to the Huffington Post after they run an article about Hipster Kitty and internet memes. The email fills them in on Wheat’s predicament, and HuffPo credits him as the artist. From there, the situation starts to look up. He goes on to tell of the experience as a speaker at conventions like I Can Has Cheezburger’s 2010 Field Day celebration of cats and internet, and is now in the process of fully reclaiming his work while exploring options for commercial licensing.

Silver lining aside, it’s hard to say if Wheat’s image would’ve become the sensation it is today without this inadvertent anonymity, which allowed others to bring themselves into the image and to contextualize it within their own communities, large and small. Arguably, anonymity was the foundation by which his work spread, because people didn’t look at adding captions or repurposing the image as defacing the expression of another, just a way of expressing themselves. His image became a vehicle for the identity of anyone who chose to join in.

But anonymity doesn’t always play out so well for artists, and the tools of authorship that work in one case don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Take for example, a group of muralists working out of a Southeast Portland warehouse called the Railyard.

*****

Back in summer of 2011, the Railyard set off on a mission to transform the surrounding neighborhood into a mural district—to bring some visual culture to an otherwise bleak, industrial section of town. To achieve this goal, the warehouse served as a canvas for muralists from the street art community, a hub from which to move outward.

The Railyard

But just as the project got off the ground—after hosting a major, grand opening exhibition featuring works by California and Oregon muralists (including internationally renowned artists such as GATS)— the Railyard was forced to make an emergency landing.

Portland police spokesmen Lt. Robert King explains in a written statement to the Portland Mercury, “Our officers became aware that this warehouse and those that rented it hosted prolific taggers from California to come to Portland. They tagged inside and outside the warehouse and our officers believed tagged at other locations around the City.”

Railyard curator Todd Durham told KATU News that, after connecting the dots, police “harassed” his landlord until he and other tenants were served an eviction on August 23, 2011.

While the cops didn’t have conclusive evidence pinning Railyard artists to vandalism at the time of the eviction, their suspicions weren’t unfounded. Artists like GATS (Graffiti Against the System) work in easily identifiable signature motifs; in this instance, a tiki-esque face with exaggerated eyebrows, long teeth, and the letters “GATS” positioned vertically down the figure’s nose. A GATS is a GATS whether it’s under a bridge or in a warehouse. No question about it, the repeated image is a signature unto itself.

It’s a practical technique for a street artist to seek anonymity’s protective benefits while also working to establish a name. Problem is, once a signature motif is connected to works in a gallery, suddenly there are real names to investigate and people to question and landlords to hold accountable. It becomes harder to avoid criminal investigations.

In the case of the Railyard, through signature imagery—and street art’s logo-driven culture—the entire house of murals came crashing down.

It goes to show, if artists (or protesters, bloggers, etc.) rely on pseudonymity for protection, they must think about how their anonymizing techniques translate across varying applications. What flies in the gallery could sink you in the streets.

Where we saw Craig Wheat use signature imagery to his advantage, the same can’t be said for the Railyard.

*****

In parsing these cases of anonymity, the pocket-watch mechanics of authorial ownership become apparent. Whether it’s Miss Vortex forgoing credit in order to generate a communicative experience deeper than music or the Railyard losing its roof because of a faulty mask, through these anecdotes we can better understand how fingerprints are left, and the lengths we must go in order to distance ourselves from our own name.

The gravity of this problem can be quickly illustrated: right now, reading this article, you might  assume that you’re doing so without volunteering much, if any, personal information. But to the contrary, unless you’re hiding behind a proxy or using some other obfuscating technology, below you’ll see your IP address (a series of numbers unique to your computer that acts like an electronic postal code):

What's my ip address, create your own visitors IP image

Enter that number into a site like ipaddresslocation.org and you’ll see just how much you’re telling the world with every click you make.

The point is not to alarm. Rather, it’s a “the more you know” moment in the Age of Self—in the age of social media and identity maintenance and ever-dividing states of personhood—because it’s everyone’s right to be the person they want to be.

And it’s everyone’s right to act anonymously outside that person, too.  That’s just not as simple as it sounds.

NOTE:

Not to worry: The IP address widget shows the address only to you. It doesn’t “forward” it anywhere else.

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