If you live near the Walker Art Center, your name is now on display as an art object
Alan Berliner, an artist in residence in film and video at the Walker, has created an exhibit called "The Language of Names," using the 18,250 surnames of residents living within roughly three miles of the Walker, 725 Vineland Place.
It is one of three new exhibits to open Feb. 17. The other two are Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960; and Walk Around Time: Selections from the Permanent Collection.
Berliner's exhibit will include a visual poem in the Walker lobby displaying the last names of those living in zip-code areas 55401, 55402, 55403, 55404, 55405, 55407, 55408, 55411, 55415, 55454. They will be listed in alphabetical order.
(People with the same last name only get listed once, says Karen Gysin, Walker's associate director of public relations. "They are not going to do 500 Johnson's.")
An interactive exhibit in the Andersen Window Gallery invites visitors to research the popularity of their name, share personal histories, and discover the community's diversity.
"People can give their own oral histories or write them into the computer while they are here," said Sheryl Mousley, curator for film and video.
The artist-in-residence program is part of a project to connect the Walker to the neighborhood, Mousley said.
When she first began talking to Berliner about becoming an artist in residence, he was working on a film, "The Sweetest Sound," she said. "To him, the sweetest sound was his own name."
Sometimes Berliner would get mistaken for other Alan Berliners, like one who was a celebrity photographer in Los Angeles, Mousley said. He got intrigued with finding other Alan Berliners.
He did research and found like-named people, including a lawyer in Ohio and a social worker in Seattle, Mousley said. He invited a number of Alan Berliners to a dinner party in New York and made it part of the film.
The film goes on to explore people's fascination with names, "like people who go to a different town and while they are there they check to see if anybody has their name in the phonebook," she said.
Berliner even went to the Mormon's Mountain of Names in Utah, she said.
When he was talking to the Walker about being an artist in residence, he asked, "'Who lives in the neighborhood? What are their names?'" That is what started this project," Mousley said.
Berliner will be in town Feb. 9-18 and again in April when his films will be screened: "The Sweetest Sound," "Intimate Stranger" and "Nobody's Business."
In a phone interview from New York, Berliner said the exhibit gives people who otherwise wouldn't think of coming to a museum a reason to come.
"Who usually gets their names on the wall of the museums? The wealthy donors, the benefactors, the patrons. We've just democratized that one," he said.
The presumption is that every name is what they call a "compressed history," Berliner said. "You can learn a lot about people and where they come from, their backgrounds, their races, their religions, their ethnicities, their nationalities, even their social class sometimes.
"This is a way of giving the community a chance to look at itself, to look at one another, and to reflect the incredible diversity contained in cities."
One way or another, every name offers up the promise of a unique story, Berliner said.
Mousley has a ready answer when asked about the origins of her own name -- and a unique story of her own.
"It is an English name," she said.
"My family came from England in 1820, they came first to Canada, then settled in Minnesota in the 1840s.
"Because of leaving at the time we did, the name Mousley still has the 'ou,' which is very British. Most people much later have dropped it, and most Mousleys are spelled 'Mosley.' Our family has retained the old-fashioned spelling."
She said she believed the Mosley branch changed the spelling because of the mispronunciation -- "Mouse-ly." She knows the problem firsthand.
"One of the reasons I now list my phone number under my husband's name and not under mine is that there was a bar called Mousey's Bar," she said.
"My name was right under it in the phonebook. Every night about one in the morning people would start calling Mousey's Bar. They would get my number and call me instead. They would call me and say, "'Is Larry still there?'" or "'Send my husband home.'"
"I thought I better get my name changed -- drop the "u" like everybody else -- or drop my name out of the phonebook."