EssaysWeekend

Following Sophie Calle

Basics Plus, University Place (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In April 1981, a detective followed the French artist Sophie Calle through the streets of Paris for one day. Hired by her mother at the artist’s request, the detective logged her movements and photographed her activities as she, without his knowledge, recorded her experience of being watched. She later exhibited the reports side-by-side in her piece “La Filature” (“The Shadow,” 1981), which highlights Calle’s method of working over three decades. Staging provocations resembling seduction, documenting them with snapshot photography and a forensic first-person point of view, she crosses the thresholds of voyeur and exhibitionist, public and private, conceptual control and chance.

Calle began following strangers in Paris in 1979. The practice served to orient her in her native city after a period spent abroad. “At the end of January 1981, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd,” Calle writes in her first book, Suite Vénitienne (1980). According to Calle, “That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice, I decided to follow him.” Her black and white photos capture dread and boredom, the banality of obsession and waiting – the here and not here of shadowy couplings, empty corridors, the back of a head. “These are not souvenir snapshots of a presence, but rather shots of an absence, the absence of the followed, that of the follower, and that of their reciprocal absence,” writes her friend Jean Baudrillard.

Later that year, Calle returned to Venice as a chambermaid in an upscale hotel. Working undercover, she rifled through suitcases and drawers, read diaries, photographed unmade beds and pairs of shoes and orange peels in the bottom of the wastebasket. Her account in “The Hotel” (1981) suggests both intimacy and alienation – or an intimacy with absence.

In 1983, Calle made one of her most controversial works. She found an address book in the street, and before mailing it back to its owner, she photocopied its contents. Then she began visiting the owner’s acquaintances and friends, asking them to talk about the man, trying to assemble a portrait of the stranger she calls Pierre D. Serialized in the newspaper Libération (and published in its entirety in 2012 following the death of Pierre D), “The Address Book” (1983) merges a private document with a public gesture – a transgression that Calle seems to relish.

I first encountered Sophie Calle on the bookshelves of my friend Alan, a photographer who knew her during this period. His archive includes intimate photographs of her taken in Paris and New York. He has a letter written in 1981 that mentions her recent stint as a hotel maid and her longing to see him in New York – “It looks like distant love,” she writes.

“She’s a remarkable woman,” Alan tells me. “She picks up things that have no reason and she stays with them until she has a reason” (as succinct a description of Calle’s method as any I’ve encountered).

Although Calle’s practice mimics earlier strategies of urban navigation – from Vito Acconci’s 1969 Following Piece to the Situationist practice of the dérive and the Surrealist tactic of errance – her body of work reverses the gendered paradigm of pursuit and claims for herself its structures of power. It has the teeth of menace and the warrant of defense. As Baudrillard suggests: “To follow the other is to take charge of his itinerary; it is to watch over his life without him knowing it. … It is to relieve him of that existential burden, the responsibility for his own life.”

These categories are relevant now, when an invasion of privacy is often legitimized by an appeal to public safety. In the context of contemporary surveillance culture – and the widespread practices of social media, where “following” another offers a powerful medium of exchange for financial and social capital – Calle’s conceptual art anticipates, resists, and adopts the prerogatives of an information economy. The art world appears to have followed Calle. Increasingly, institutions are pursuing questions about social and personal privacy in exhibitions like the Tate Modern’s 2010 Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera; or Astro Noise, the Whitney Museum’s recent exhibit by surveillance chaser Laura Poitras; or this summer’s Public, Private, Secret, exploring the link between public visibility and individual identity at the International Center of Photography.

I’m following Sophie Calle, too. I first tried to contact her in February of this year through the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. In an email, I requested an interview with Calle for a book I’m working on. Her gallery representative asked for more information, which I provided. Sophie Calle didn’t respond. There was still no response when I wrote again in March.

Because she won’t return my emails, I’ve decided to approach Sophie Calle in the spirit of her own work. Here, I turn her methods of surveillance on her.

Sunday, April 3, 4:52 P.M.

I purchase a ticket to a panel discussion at the Rubin Museum, where Sophie C will appear. Should I invite a friend? I select a single ticket from the online store. According to the website, the panel will explore “the role melancholy plays in a well-examined life.”

I won’t second-guess myself, trying to imagine possible outcomes, wondering where this will all lead. I will follow this story to the end.

Tortaria, University Place

Saturday, April 30, 2:51 P.M.

I take the Metro North south from Bronxville to Grand Central Station. The weather is clear, bright. I am wearing a black shirt, black blazer, black trousers and patent leather black-and-white shoes. I carry a leather bag and my phone.

Sunshine Cleaners, University Place

3:28 P.M. At Grand Central, I take the 5 train to Union Square. I walk south on University Place to Washington Square Park. This is the route I used to take to visit a man on Bleecker Street. It pleases me to imagine that I might see him today.

The statue of the anarchist Garibaldi

In the park, I pass the statue of the anarchist Garibaldi. I wait on a bench that has some private significance for me. The park is crowded. Near where I sit, a man is releasing soap bubbles from a large string net. The bubbles drift toward me and pop.

7th Avenue and W. 15th Street

4:17 P.M. I walk west through the park to 6th Avenue, then head north. German doctors used to prescribe walking – spazieren – as a cure for melancholy. Some habits of mind – this flânerie – refuse that sort of physic.

4:46 P.M. Arrive at the Rubin, 150 W. 17th Street. I pick up my ticket from the front desk. “To shadow another is to give him, in fact, a double life, a parallel existence” (Baudrillard again).

The Rubin Museum of Art

4:49 P.M. On the fourth floor, I see Sophie C. She is wearing black-framed glasses, black tights, white shoes, an orange skirt and green cardigan. Our eyes meet. I know so much about her and she knows so little of me. I say hello and introduce myself. She smiles and nods politely. “We have a mutual friend,” I tell her. “Alan K. Do you remember him?”

“Yes,” she says. She is still smiling and nodding as though addressing a child. “He’s told me so much about you,” I say. Should I mention the set of pearls she received from him on her 40th birthday? “I’m here for your event. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Ok,” she says. “See you zhen.” We part.

Am I relieved, disappointed?

On the fourth floor, I see Sophie C.

5:06 P.M. Downstairs theater. In my seat at the end of the row. I hide my recording device under a stack of papers on my knee.

I decide to seduce Sophie C. Puis-je vous écrire une lettre? I try to recall my undergraduate French.

5:08 P.M. A man with a mustache and a British accent introduces a neurologist named Dr. D. She sketches a map of the brain. The hippocampus processes memory, she says. The amygdala, the structure that registers emotions and fear, is linked to the hippocampus. From this, the doctor draws an association between memory and melancholia.

5:19 P.M. The artists arrive onstage: Sophie C and Wayne K and László F, who wrote the book on melancholy. “To get us started,” says the man with the British mustache.

5:20 P.M. Wayne K offers as an image of melancholy a scene from Vertigo. The Kim Novak character is obsessed with her past. Her entire life takes place in a kind of automatism or trance or mesmeric arrest – though, of course, she’s hired to do it. She’s playing the role she’s been given.

5:24 P.M. Sophie C won’t play the role she’s been given. “Actually,” she says, “I don’t know a thing about melancholy because I’m so not melancholic.”

Where is she staying? In which hotel? On which corner does she buy her café au lait?

“But I am curious,” says Wayne K, “whether obsessiveness or persistence of quest – when the quest has to do with the past or something buried – when pursuing the quest produces art, whether that overlaps with the state of melancholy.”

“You want me to answer?” she says.

5:25 P.M. László F relates the plot of a French film: the Marquise of O was raped by a Russian count, whom she later marries. At the end of the film, the woman starts “veeping,” he says, very strongly. Then she suddenly starts laughing. This is the picture of melancholy, for him. Extreme joy and extreme sorrow and extreme helplessness.

5:32 P.M. Wayne K mentions Atget’s photographs of Paris: “It’s looking at something beautiful, knowing that it’s already a ruin.”

Wayne K and László F discuss the “longing toward boundlessness” that characterizes the state of melancholy in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.

“Melancholy is an ancient word,” says László F. “It belongs to the roots of our first civilization. Our ruins.”

They agree that melancholy consists of a relentless quest toward the past.

5:43 P.M. Sophie C sits slumped in her chair, resting her head in her hand. She reminds me of the figure in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving “Melencolia.”

“No, I’m quite satisfied,” she says.

She’d like to talk about something else: “Actually, I did once work with exquisite pain.” She tells a story about her broken heart: she was jilted while traveling in Japan. To purge her pain, she told the story every day for 60 days. “I interviewed people in exchange, asking what was exquisite pain in their own life. Exquisite pain is a medical term. When you break your arm, just where the break is: exquisite pain.”

She’s told this story elsewhere. I begin to think I’ve wasted my time with her. She’s not a good sport. She does not appear to have read the book on melancholy.

Wayne K read the book “very carefully,” he says. Wayne K is a good sport. Intellectually and conversationally GGG. “Can a building be melancholic?” he asks.

“Shoes?” says Sophie C. “Did you say shoes?”

She’s like the class delinquent.

“But buildings – an amphitheater or a theater,” says Wayne K. “I mean, Greek tragedy is about the purgation of melancholy, but – we were talking a little bit about Electra before.”

“There are melancholic buildings from Eastern Europe,” offers László F, “the so-called Socialist Realism – all of these people wanted to build for eternity and that’s how eternity turns out to be. Nothing. Nothing.”

“Apartments are very melancholy,” says Wayne K. “Any movie about apartment life is irradiated by melancholy. I would say that the proof-text of this is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.”

“But to return to the subject of Electra,” says the man with the British mustache. “It goes back to Dr. Devi’s explanation of memory. Electra’s holding onto a memory that’s been discredited.”

5:51 P.M. Wayne K: “This is the only point I came here to say, so it’s the one I’m going to try to make very clearly right now. We all know that there is a possibility of really immersing ourselves in non-lethal melancholy and loving it. We’re nourished by the containment offered by the melancholic state.”

“Yes,” says László F. “Think of Keats: Joy lives in the temple of melancholy.”

Sophie C will not admit to melancholy. “Lose myself? No. I control too much to lose myself completely.”

She offers an example: “I followed a man for months and months. A man I didn’t know, in the streets. I was obsessed with him. I would go everywhere he went. I never met him. I was always behind him. What I liked about it was that by this non-reciprocal relationship, I had the control to say, okay, I will stop being moved by this man or stop being obsessed with him on Monday at five o’clock. I had the possibility to create feelings and emotions by the ritual, the obsession—to be totally obsessed by somebody and to cut it off by a decision. That doesn’t seem very melancholy.”

“I think it implies,” says Wayne K, “a commitment to procedures of delving and a commitment to processes of emotional investigation, including of one’s own melancholy, that are ultimately, if not cheaply cathartic, at least give some sort of structure to life.”

“Yes,” says the man with the British mustache, recalling the definition offered by László F: melancholy is the combination of sadness and deep thinking.

6:04 P.M. Wayne K removes a book from the pile of books stacked near his arm. “Heavy doubled lilacs,” he reads. “I wanted to say something about how the doubling of the lilacs either ameliorates the pain of the heaviness or creates it.”

The poem is addressing a plate of cookies, he tells us.

“Cookies?” says Sophie C. “You like to dress cookies?”

6:11 P.M. Is this woman recalcitrant or does she resist only a direct approach? She was stood up once at Orly airport by a man who called her a year later. “I am at Orly airport, one year late. Would you like to see me?” In her report, she wrote: “This man knew how to talk to me.”

6:13 P.M. She’s stopped going to movies, she tells us, except for Lars Von Trier. This woman likes pain.

6:22 P.M. “I’ve been trying desperately to remember the last time I had a melancholy feeling,” she says. “When I was 20 years old was the last time I was melancholy, when I finished reading Gone With the Wind.”

Was the feeling derived from the forms of abjection in the book – or something else?

6:29 P.M. The discussion is about to end. The man with the British mustache reads a footnote from the book. The passage concerns Rosanette, the kept woman in Flaubert’s novel, who “even before going to bed always exhibited a little melancholy, just as there are cypress trees at the door of a tavern.”

(I recall that police kept strict tabs on the demimonde in 18th century Paris – thick files on women whose lovers were army officers, princes, peers of the realm. Did Rosanette feel their gaze? Maybe this is what it means to be kept.)

6:31 P.M. She’s decided to have her biography written by a ghostwriter in the style of a cheap, sensational novel. “I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” she says.

In this room is a picture of a large hand, raised as if to give some command.

6:33 P.M. While the others go upstairs to buy books, I wait here for the crowd to clear out. Puis-je vous écrire une lettre? In this room is a picture of a large hand on the wall, raised as if to give some command. I’m anxious with anticipation.

6:35 P.M. I pull up a photograph on my phone. It was taken by my friend Alan K in 1983. Sophie C turns to look back toward the camera, her coy look inviting and resisting my gaze.

6:43 P.M. I climb the stairs and go into the bookstore. I feel indecisive, ridiculous. The crowd has cleaned out the stock of her new book, My All.

6:45 P.M. I return to the lobby. I take a seat and pull out my phone. I have to be patient. I think of that phrase by Thoreau: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”

They’ve cleaned out her new book, “My All.”

6:48 P.M. Someone is introducing a young man to Sophie C. I overhear them making plans to meet again. I write down, “Thursday, café, Lafayette lunch.”

I rise from my chair and stand near the display of books. I see someone else waiting for her: an adolescent boy in loose jeans, an oversized jacket, and a knit cap with blonde hair poking out. This person smiles. The sparkling eyes and dimples belong to Laurie A. (I recall reading in the paper last year that she and Sophie C – old friends – staged an impromptu performance of wedding vows in a San Francisco church.)

Laurie A moves across the lobby to speak with a man who looks familiar. I think I’ve seen him before – he’s called the Randomizer by the poet Anne C.

I wait. I’m going catch her arm. Does she sense my pursuit?

6:57 P.M. Her back is turned toward me. I hear her say goodbye to the man with the British mustache. She moves to join Laurie A. Did you see me? she is saying. M’as-tu vue?

Do I lack the powers of seduction? The answer fills me with shame.

7:01 P.M. I decide to go. I thank the man with the British mustache. I thank Wayne K. He holds the door open for me. He’s carrying a tote bag of books. He says, “They told us not to prepare.” We walk a short distance to the corner together. A line of cabs waits at the light, and the intersection is empty. We part.

I stop following Sophie C.

8th Avenue and W. 17th Street
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