Susan Silton


Left: Cover of Susan Silton, Who’s in a Name? (2013). Right: A screenshot from Who’s in a Name?

Susan Silton is a Los Angeles–based artist whose multidisciplinary practice engages photography, video, installation, performance, sound, and language. She speaks here about her latest work, Who’s in a Name?, 2013, a multi-platform project that primarily takes the form of a book and engages in the relationship between suicide and celebrity. Following the book's recent publication and performative launch event at LA MoCA in May, an afternoon of talks and readings will take place at LAXART on July 13, 2013.

THIS PROJECT BEGAN AS AN INTERVENTION into a work by John Baldessari titled Your Name in Lights, which was originally displayed on the facade of the Australia Museum in Sydney for three weeks in January 2011 and later, in its second iteration, on the facade of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I discovered it purely by accident online. The work consisted of a large LED marquee designed to reference Hollywood theatrical signage. Viewers were invited in advance to register their name on a dedicated website and would later be informed when their name was going up in lights for a total of fifteen seconds. “Warhol is so yesterday,” said Baldessari about the abbreviated time span. The way in which we culturally exalt and even create celebrities one minute only to then tear them down and revel in their failure the next has always disturbed me.

A couple years prior to seeing Baldessari’s work, I found a Wikipedia site solely devoted to archiving artists who had committed suicide. I was greatly moved by it for many reasons, primarily because of its sheer existence and secondly because there were so many artists on the list that I didn’t recognize. When I stumbled on Baldessari’s project, it was a kind of perfect storm; the Wikipedia archive immediately sprang to mind the subjects his project was addressing—the illusion, promise, and acceleration of fame. Baldessari's platform seemed to me like the ideal venue to give life to the Wikipedia list.

The effect of looking at a sequence of letters flashing from however many miles away, as one would have in Baldessari’s work, is in a sense quite othering. It is a completely disembodied experience to see one’s name in that distanced context and think that is me. I look at suicide similarly, as an othering. It continues to be stigmatized which is so odd because we all die. Suicide is, in my mind, a very proactive decision about how we die.

It was important to me that the project addressed multiple communities of artists, including those living and non-living. I randomly assigned fifty-nine names from the Wikipedia archive to fifty-nine artists (including myself) who agreed to participate. A few people requested to register the name of an artist they had either worked with, been colleagues with, or studied under, but for the most part names were randomly assigned. For the three weeks Baldessari's piece was up in Australia, I was up at all hours of the day and night collecting screen grabs of all the names as they appeared live-streamed online. It was at that point, when I had all of the images physically in front of me, that I realized the project could be a book. Who’s in a Name? now physically exists not just to extend the lives of the suicide victims, but, I hope, as a testament to our community of artists—past, present, and future.

— As told to Natilee Harren