What’s in a name?
A: Who are A, B, D, F and E in Lucy Lippard’s I See/You Mean?
R: They’re the names of characters in the book.
A conversation between Andrea Wiarda and Riet Wijnen around The Registry of Pseudonyms. Riet Wijnen initiated The Registry of Pseudonyms during a residency at Kunsthuis Syb in Beetsterzwaag in 2013. The registry, lists of real names and aliases, was placed on an ad hoc webpage with an accompanying name (registryofpseudonyms.com, designed by Mark Hollenstein). It’s an ongoing project, typical of Wijnen’s methodical approach to making art: ask a question, build up research, and render it a virtually unlimited artistic project. In no hurry to finish.
AW: Upon your suggestion, we agreed to have this conversation via WhatsApp. You like to concentrate on your choice of words, just as you like to formulate your work carefully. Your work evolves over time, over multiple textual and visual layers, and floors. But I'd like to start with a question about the how and why of the Registry. Why are you interested in pseudonyms?
RW: At the very beginning of my artistic practice, I often worked in response to given situations and contexts. During a residency at Kunsthuis Syb in 2013, I became familiar with the life and work of Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, a Dutch poet, novelist, and physician. Although he worked mainly as a ship’s doctor, in 1929 he managed the practice of the local GP in Beetsterzwaag for a few months. The year before, his poetry collection Oost-Azie (East Asia) had been published under the pseudonym John Ravenswood. It is unclear why Slauerhoff would have used a pseudonym—the construction itself was very transparent, particularly as he signed the preface with his own name (J. Slauerhoff). In the preface he explains that he is publishing these poems on behalf of the recently deceased John Ravenswood, a Dutchman of Scottish descent who had withdrawn from Western life and had settled on South Korea’s Jeju Island. It was this story that sparked my interest in the phenomenon of the pseudonym.
I knew this was a big subject for which I wanted to take my time. And I also wanted to break away from that contextual way of working to a more content-oriented approach. This led to The Registry of Pseudonyms, a website with a growing collection of real and adopted or appropriated names. When known, the motivations for using a pseudonym and the reasons for choosing a particular one are also shared; the registry accounts for who is who, and why who is who.
AW: What do you mean by “who is who”? Could you elaborate on the structure of the registry?
RW: “Who is who” as in which fictitious name has been adopted by which person or group of individuals. The fictitious name here differs from the original or “real” name. The Registry of Pseudonyms has a very broad set-up so that it can also explore the frayed edges of the notion of the pseudonym. For example, it also includes nicknames given by third parties.
The answer to “why who is who” are short annotations based on existing sources with information on why the person or group chose a specific fictitious name. Through collecting, organizing, and presenting the individual cases as broadly as possible, I explore the term “pseudonym” and the breadth of the history of the phenomenon.
For example, the Dutch author Antoinette Wind (1897–1971) first published under the name A.H. Nijhoff in 1930. She had married the Dutch poet Marinus Nijhoff in 1915 and adopted his surname. In 1929, she met British Modernist artist Marlow Moss (1889–1958), who, despite being married, became her partner. Moss sometimes called Antoinette Netty, and she in return would call Moss “the bird.” New names that would completely and sometimes even legally replace proper names are also recorded in the Registry. Marlow Moss, for instance went through life as Marjorie Jewell Moss, until her official name change in 1919. American author Ann Weldy (1932), meanwhile, wrote six lesbian pulp fiction novels under the pseudonym Ann Bannon. Her husband knew about the books she wrote and had forbidden her to use her married surname because he did not want to see it on a book cover with “art of questionable taste.”
AW: Are there any other common denominators to be found in the Registry?
RW: The way I go about identifying relevant entries follows some main lines of inquiry, including for example a wide variety of contexts in which pseudonyms were used (often linked to certain professions), or the reasons for using a pseudonym. I also looked at different types of pseudonyms, from aliases based on a person’s “real” name to pseudonyms based on other existing pseudonyms, to multilingual pseudonyms such as **** ****** used by the author John Murray (1778–1843). This is a pseudonym consisting only of symbols and is pronounced: asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk white space asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk. The asterisk is the standard symbol for anonymity.
AW: Your research was directly (and initially) developed as an interactive website. All names, “real” and fictitious, link to information about specific people and their alter-egos. On the homepage the lists are displayed opposite each other in black and white. On the left, black-on-white, are the pseudonyms, on the right, white-on-black, the real names. So we can browse in two directions, from alias to real and back again.
RW: There’s also a third more direct way of “searching” the website. At the bottom of the page of the individual entries there are often links to other related pseudonym users in the Registry. This can simply be the inspiration for a fictitious name, or a person involved in their life and work.
For example, at the bottom of the page of the co-lead singer and bassist of the Beatles, Paul McCartney (1942), who took on the pseudonym of Paul Ramon, one can find a link to Douglas Glenn Colvin (1951–2002) the bass player of the Ramones. All band members of the Ramones adopted an alias ending in the surname “Ramone.” Douglas was the first—he changed his name in 1974 to Dee Dee Ramone.
AW: Jumping back to the thread above, under the header “real names” there are indeed many more women’s names listed than among the pseudonyms. Did Wind and Nijhoff deliberately take the risk that people might think Netty’s books were written by Marinus Nijhoff? With just the initials, A.H., the alias was genderless.
RW: That could have been a risk, and may have been a reason for choosing to use a pseudonym. I don’t know though, and in setting up the Registry I deliberately aimed to stay at a distance from speculation about individual cases. I do think however, that inequality can certainly be a reason for using a pseudonym. It serves to introduce an opacity—a veil or cover—in order to infiltrate unnoticed into a system in which one is normally not taken seriously, or at least less seriously, or not considered equal, often based on gender and/or other aspects that are part of someone’s social and political identity.
AW: Do you see a historical or social tendency here?
RW: Oppression, exclusion, and discrimination are part of a systemic intersectionality. I don’t want to speculate on women’s motives in keeping their birthnames off of the title page, as these are simply not always known. Yet, I can’t blindly assume that they were all too powerless to reveal their true identity.
And so, despite the fact that there are several entries or contributions in which authors have themselves confirmed that the choice of a pseudonym was a way of circumventing the patriarchal publishing world, for example, and whose real names are known publicly (as in the case of Antoinette Wind), I think that the continued circulation of the pseudonym remains important. An omission of the pseudonyms used would de-historicize these original circumstances; we must not forget that these authors, women, were making decisions about how to market their work, and thus indirectly remember the heterosexual patriarchal market as well.
AW: You emphasize also that more activist or radical side to the alter-ego. When do you consider a name a nickname, a collective name, or a pseudonym? How about the dynamic between given and chosen names?
RW: I deliberately did not make any distinction between these in the Registry, because I quickly realized that to understand what a pseudonym entails, I’d have to delve into the strength (or power) of a name. Or of several names.
In line with this, I opted in some cases to consciously record the maiden name in the Registry, for instance in the cases of Antoinette Wind and Alice Hastings Bradley. It is because, in the West at least, women traditionally take on the surname of the man they wed. Surnames tend to be patrilineal here. And if I had wanted to be really rigorous, I should have had to include the maiden names of the maternal grandmothers as well.
AW: Would you be advocating a more matriarchal approach? Or, how would a pluriarchal mentality work?
RW: I have no idea how that would function practically, yet as a starting point for a new system for surnames or family names, I’d definitely want to break with the structure rooted in the idea of the “nuclear family” and therefore the heteronormative and binary principles of the current system. I would nevertheless argue to maintain a ligament, a link, to (grand)parents.
AW: In the spirit of WhatsApp chats, our conversation is beginning to develop across different lines. I’d like to jump back to your objective of examining the strength (or power) of the name. In a way, a pseudonym or alter-ego liberates an author, wouldn’t you agree? The author obtains a form of anonymity in which they can work independently of a fixed identity, nationality, ethnicity, gender, social status, etcetera. Where do you think the power of a name lies?
RW: In personal relations.
AW: Marlow Moss (2013) and Grace Crowley (2019) are titles of two publications you published with Kunstverein Publishing during the time that you have been building the Registry, from 2013 onwards. Both deal with a modernist woman artist and analyze the way they shape their identity—as woman, as artist, as LGBTQ+, as modernists, as lovers, as migrants or travelers, as seekers, and possibly as collectives. Both of them are also included in the registry with their respective real names and pseudonyms.
RW: It’s interesting that you mention Marlow Moss and Grace Crowley. My first reaction is perhaps not directly related to your question. I immediately thought of the role of fiction in all this. You could say that by creating a pseudonym, fiction is introduced into reality. This fiction creates an abstract space that in turn creates an opportunity to speak.
Fiction becomes part of reality in the publication Marlow Moss, but in a different way. As an alternative biography, the publication tells the story of the British constructivist artist. It contains a number of lists of “facts” written by and about Moss from different periods. These lists contain contradictions and gaps, also because some characters in novels by Netty Nijhoff (born Antoinette Wind, and Moss’s partner) were based on Moss. For lack of factual information about Moss’ life and work, over time the monologues of these characters have sometimes been treated as non-fiction. Fiction was thus introduced as fact, and became part of the historiography around Marlow Moss.
In the publication Grace Crowley, the role of fiction is rather more indirect. It is based on letters to the Australian artist and pioneer of modernist painting Grace Crowley (1890–1979) by friends, family, and colleagues. I have transcribed parts of those letters, now stored in the archives of the Art Gallery and the Library of New South Wales in Sidney, and categorized them under headings such as “Marital Status,” “Teaching,” “Hosting,” “Eurasia,” “X,” “Being A Woman,” “War,” “$,” and “Making Work.” The result here is also an alternative biography, but this time constructed through “living” relations; an image of Crowley is sketched between the lines of the book, by a, or rather her own, (social) network. The emphasis on relationships here says a lot about the importance and power of a name. And I think this is also in line with the presence of communities in the Registry.
AW: Did you identify certain genres for which authors more often use a pseudonym? (I’m thinking of lesbian literature in the past, but also about Pauline Réage, who wrote a pornographic bestseller under one pseudonym and led a second life under another pseudonym….)
RW: I haven’t actually dived that deeply into the literary community specifically. But I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental, for example, that many pseudonyms were used in the circles around Naiad Press, founded in 1973 and one of the first publishing houses dedicated to lesbian literature.
AW: Can you tell us a bit more about collective pseudonyms? And in particular about Naiad Press and affiliated authors?
RW: Nicolas Bourbaki is a collective pseudonym under which group of mainly French twentieth-century mathematicians published a series of books elaborating on modern advanced mathematics. It literally brings together a number of people under a shared name.
Naiad Press is not exactly a collective pseudonym, but rather a community in which many aliases are used. In the context of the Registry, I also often use the word “community” to refer to a web or domino-effect of pseudonyms that are directly and indirectly linked to each other; I have occasionally made these ad hoc chains visible in the form of a poster or billboard.
AW: How does that work?
RW: Girls Like Us magazine invited me to make a selection of LGBTQIA+ people working under pseudonyms. The selection was included in the magazine and added to the Registry. While doing this research, I came across Naiad Press.
Barbara Grier, one of the cofounders of Naiad Press, began writing book reviews as a twenty-four-year-old for The Ladder, a magazine of the first lesbian civic and political organization in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis. Grier used several pseudonyms for this, including Gene Damon, Lennox Strong, and Vern Niven. At the age of thirty-five, she became an editor at the magazine, and five years later she and her partner Donna McBride started the publishing company Naiad Press. They were encouraged and supported by Anyda Marchant and Muriel Crawford, the two editors of The Ladder. The first published work was The Latecomer, written by Marchant under the pseudonym Sarah Aldridge; ten more books were to follow under this name.
Writers represented by Naiad Press included Velma Nacella Young (aka Francine Davenport, Nacella Young, Valerie Taylor, or Velma Tate) and Ann Weldy (aka Ann Bannon). By Ann Weldy, or rather Ann Bannon, Naiad Press published a reissue of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles series, originally published by Gold Medal Books. Bannon ended up here after she wrote a fan letter to Marijane Meaker about her book Spring Fire, which was published by Gold Medal Books under the pseudonym Vin Packer. This book is also considered the beginning of the lesbian pulp fiction genre. Meaker in turn had a brief relationship with the writer Patricia Highsmith, who wrote psychological thrillers with homosexual undertones.
AW: In this way you developed new work related to or from the Registry that also subsequently informed and expanded it. You uncovered new, additional tendencies, lines, and constellations, which you then presented on billboards for Kunstvlaai (2014) or as wallpaper posters in exhibitions, such as at Index in Stockholm. Here we’re no longer speaking about real communities with a shared perspective, but rather about “community by association” where you connected pseudonyms and corresponding characters in an associative manner. In one of them, you go from “Dee Dee, Tommy, Marky, Johnny, Joey, Richie, C.J., and Elvis changed their last name to Ramone”... via Lyndon B. Johnson and Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit, to B.I.C.
RW: The billboard you refer to was made upon invitation of P/////AKT in Amsterdam, as a contribution to the alternative art fair Kunstvlaai. This particular edition took place on billboards scattered around the Amstelpark. I selected pseudonyms that relate to the billboard as an object, as well as musicians whose music has earned a place on the Billboard Hot 100 (a well-known music chart in the US). The pseudonyms on the billboard are arranged in such a way as to also reveal relationships.
Music by the Ramones appeared in the Billboard Hot 100, and they wrote a protest song against US President Ronald Reagan (when Reagan was a film actor he pronounced his surname “Reegan,” but when he changed from the screen to politics in 1966 he also changed the pronunciation of his surname to “Raygen,” although the spelling remained the same), who like President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a member of the Democratic Party. Johnson, often called LBJ, was married to Claudia Alta Taylor, better known as Lady Bird Johnson. They had two daughters: Lynda Bird (1944) and Luci Baines (1947). And they had a dog, Little Beagle Johnson. Johnson was in the habit of naming people and animals with his and his wife’s initials: LBJ. Lady Bird Johnson was the mastermind behind the Highway Beautification Act, which limited the number of billboards along the highway, passed during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency.
AW: In this way, new layers and categories have been added to the Registry. Yet it wasn’t often specifically about the art world, was it?
RW: Perhaps it is more about specific “readings” or interpretations, rather than categories. Apart from the billboards, posters, and magazine contributions, a book has come out of the Registry as well. While building up the Registry, it soon became clear to me that there are very few texts that focus on the term “pseudonym” itself without focusing on the individual stories those who use pseudonyms. So the idea of developing a reader emerged. The result was “Inverted Commas,” the thirteenth issue of the typographic journal F.R.David, which I edited with Will Holder in 2017. The reader takes The Registry of Pseudonyms as a starting point, but unlike the Registry, the focus is on the notion of the pseudonym as such, rather than on individual cases.
AW: How did the term pseudonym come about in the reader? In its contributions I found many stories about anonymity, identity, and roleplaying.
RW: We made the reader by bringing together a series of texts that reflect on topics closely related to pseudonyms, such as names, naming, bodies, brains, the self, the author, the other, the reader, and labor. Contributions include the work Steps (1971) by stanley brouwn; an excerpt from the novel I See/You Mean by writer, art critic, activist and curator Lucy R. Lippard; the text “The Hidden Work” in which Silvia Federici analyses issues related to domestic work as a direct consequence of patriarchal capitalism and as women's oppression; and “Why I Write,” in which Joan Didion writes about writing itself—that is, she writes novels to find out who the narrator is in the story and why the narrator is telling her this story.
AW: It is a great source of fascinating and also fun reflections around the notion of the pseudonym. And it still leaves many doors open for interpretation. Just like the Registry itself. Going back to the Registry, by focusing on who uses which name and elaborating on the surrounding motivations and relations, you do actually explore the implications of the term and its history. Simultaneously the Registry reads like a collection of short stories—even when reading through lists of aliases related to one person. You recount the reasons for using pseudonyms in a pithy, concise, and also subjective way. I mean that you make a selective translation of the information you find. It reads like a series of “character sketches,” but also like a collection of stories, like the “Inverted Commas” reader.
RW: The roots for this way of working lie in the publication Marlow Moss, which I made just before The Registry of Pseudonyms. This publication is indirectly about historiography—it exposes how active and subjective that process of writing history is. During the research into Moss’s life and work, this process literally took place before my eyes. Because, as I said above, relatively little has been written by and about Moss, I could read all sources in chronological order, which made it possible to follow the historiographic process, all the additions, interpretations, and so on. A web-like and mobile construction of her life emerged through time, which I tried to capture in lists. It also became clear that relationships played an important role in this, including how surviving relatives keep Moss alive through stories. The transformation that takes place between different accounts of a life is fascinating. So much information lies enclosed between the lines, and that space is very important.
AW: Do you have a favorite entry, or reading, within the register? One that you find really special and have not mentioned yet?
RW: It changes every day! But I would say, as a phenomenon in relation to the notion of pseudonyms: “a common man.”
Riet Wijnen is an artist (Amsterdam). She investigates connections between abstraction, structures, systems, language, relations and perception. This research results in long-term projects or cycles of works such as Sixteen Conversations on Abstraction (2015-) and Registry of Pseudonyms (2013- ). The forms that the works take are diverse, ranging from sculpture to camera-less photography, wood print, texts, websites and recently letter design. Wijnen has exhibited in the Netherlands and abroad, she currently teaches at the Graphic Design Department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy.
Andrea Wiarda (Milan) is an art historian, writer, researcher and curator. She is co-director of Kunstverein Milano | Kunstverein Publishing Milano, and currently teaches Critical Writing at the MA in Curatorial Studies at the Naba Academy in Milan. She was co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of A Prior Magazine between 1999 and 2011. She is currently curating a new installment of Riet Wijnen's cycle Sixteen Conversations on Abstraction, which will take place at Kunstverein (Milano) in autumn 2021.