GENEVA — Daft Punk and J. T. Leroy. Romain Gary and Gorillaz. Elena Ferrante and The Residents. You may have already spotted the element connecting these creators: all conceal their identities behind avatars, aliases or pseudonyms. It is either a way to play with our changing times or intensify public interest; and it can help trigger scandals, question the very concept of what it means to be a celebrity, or even illustrate a whole new mode of existing in the world. It is a new twist on the classic story of the one who wears the mask becomes a legend.

In the Odyssey, Homer recounts how Odysseus deceives the Cyclops by swearing to him, "My name is Nobody," which helps him escape a cruel fate by becoming anonymous, an "incognito: being complex, elusive, multifaceted, mysterious," as the French journalist Yann Perreau writes in his essay “Incognito.”

While practices of anonymity have always existed, their benefits began to multiply during the late 20th century. In our times where mass surveillance and self-promotion coexist with the Internet's power to obliterate individual identity, all areas of both public and private creation are being transformed.

Characters in the shape of a question mark

But a deeper exploration is needed of such strategies of laughingly deceiving the world, mocking the star system or denouncing the failings of public leaders. And it is not about uncovering the identities of those who want to remain anonymous. After all, who really cares about knowing the face behind the French street artist Invaders or the English producer SBTRKT? Rather, we should try to better understand this reinvention of self that both haunts popular culture and mobilizes fans. “What does it matter who the actual person behind the fiction is?” says Yann Perreau. “It’s only the invented characters that are interesting. Characters in the shape of a question mark.”

An author claiming their work through an individual signature: this actually would have seemed quite curious to the earliest creators, for the conception of art was once considered a collective undertaking. But this came to an end in the early Middle Ages. “The Word then bans anonymity, considering it as heresy,” says Perreau. The very notion of authorship began with the invention of the printing press and was reinforced in 1537 when French King Francis I imposed legal deposits on writers for their works, a maneuver that paved the way for state censorship and forced intellectuals to use borrowed names in order to express themselves freely without ending up in jail. François Rabelais published his work Pantagruel in 1532 under the anagram Alcofribas Nasier, Montesquieu attributed his Persian Letters to the mysterious Usbek and Rica in 1721, and later, Arthur Rimbaud wrote satiric articles for the newspaper Le Progrès des Ardennes under the pseudonym Jean Baudry.

We could find a multitude of examples, but let’s fast-forward to 1917 when artist Marcel Duchamp sent a white porcelain urinal signed “R.MUTT” to the Selection Committee of the Society of Independent Artists of New York. Scandalous. Once unmasked, the master claimed, "The art of tomorrow will be clandestine."

"Singular, but without identity."

A steady flow of artists would follow over the next few decades. Romain Gary, who employed the pseudonym Emile Ajar, would become the only author to win the prestigious French literary award Prix Goncourt under two different names; David Bowie took multiple identities on stage and film; Michel Foucault engulfed himself in his study of the "process of subjectivation"; Andy Warhol added production value to emptiness; Banksy makes himself a masked hero on walls around the world.

Banksy's work on display — Photo: Bruce Krasting

If we turn back to the final years of the 20th century, and the dawn of 21st, we see the Mexican anti-globalization activist Subcomandante Marcos, nebulously anonymous hacktivists or whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Fuat Avni. "It was because they were invisible that these actors were able to denounce authoritarian excesses and express a demand for democracy," explains Perreau.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described the phenomenon this way: "The being that comes: neither individual nor universal, but whichever. Singular, but without identity. Defined, but only in the empty space of the example."

What then of this contemporary nothing? Warhol had an answer: "Look, nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy, nothing is not embarrassing. The only time I ever want to be something is outside a party so I can get in."