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Sophie Calle’s “The Address Book”

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Girl Before a Mirror Pablo Picasso

Girl Before a Mirror
Pablo Picasso

The French photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle has been on my radar for several years. I became intrigued after reading about her project The Shadow, which Wikipedia describes thusly:

Another project, entitled The Shadow (1981) and displayed in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle’s request) by her mother. It was, in Calle’s words, an attempt ‘to provide photographic evidence of my own existence’. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Aware of her follower, she also wrote about in frequent journal entries throughout the day.

Calle’s work focuses on what I take to be one of the central themes of contemporary life: the renegotiation of a sense of personal construction, along with its concordant distinctions between self/other and internal/external, deriving to a large degree from the changing nature of technology, and the increasingly central role of surveillance in all aspects of life.

My own conviction is that any concept of privacy is contingent upon the technology available to the society under discussion. This became clear to me when I was reading the testimony of the Lakota medicine man Black Elk, and found that there was no concept of domestic privacy whatsoever for a people who lived in dwellings made of animal hide.

(For a more contemporary consideration of this topic, see my response to Byung-Chul Han in Digital Humanism).

The importance of surveillance in modernity, I believe, speaks for itself, but a fresh example is on my mind. This morning I learned of a video posted to social media of a fighter jet being shot down by a militia in Libya. The report notes that “It’s clear that the recording and posting had been planned with the militia attacking the plane.”

Calle has been on my watch list for some time – she is one of the authors I check for at any new bookstore. It’s taken me several years to run into one of her works, but I found her small The Address Book at the bookstore at the MOMA on a recent trip to New York.

The project documented in the book is simple. One day, Calle found an address book on the street, and xeroxed it in its entirety before sending it back to its author. In collaboration with the French periodical Libération, she began contacting the people in the address book, asking to meet and discuss the address book’s owner, who would only be named at the meeting.

One of the book’s surprises is how many of his acquaintances, perhaps intrigued by this bizarre request, were willing to meet with a stranger and share details of a varying degree of intimacy about her subject, whom she calls Pierre D. Indeed, the tenor of the various responses is one of the most illuminating aspects of this project. One contact, for example, is a minor celebrity, who immediately seems to suspect that this is all a ruse, and that her actual goal is to make contact with him. So there we learn something.

Details gradually emerge, though key aspects of Pierre’s person are studiously kept out of the center. This simultaneous disclosure and occlusion of her subject is reflected in Calle’s photography, which emphasizes the peripheral elements of the scene, never revealing any identity of importance.

Had she tried, she could not have invented a more perfect subject for her project (assuming that she did indeed stumble upon this book at random, as she maintains – I prefer to agree that she did). Pierre is a solitary intellectual who nonetheless inspires deep affection in his friends and colleagues, despite his sometimes-discordant personality. He is a scholar of film, and is himself fascinated by the construction and preservation of identity through visual recording, comparing, in one friend’s recollection, the role of film in preserving identity with the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

One of her final contacts recollects the following:

I remember one day someone stole his video camera. He was convinced he was the victim of conspiracy. He would not leave his apartment: he surrounded himself with all kinds of burglary devices. And this gets us to the core of his personality – he was in a pathological state of mind, but he played it out and overdid it. This was typical of him. When he acts out like that, you never know how much of it is rea, how much is fantasy, or whether he does it because he enjoys being a bit ridiculous and entertaining an audience.

Issues of identity, privacy, construction, and defense all spill into one another, and clearly, Calle implicates herself in this porous economy of surveillance. There she is, as both subject and object of surveillance within her work, like the rest of us.

The Address Book (publisher’s page)
The Address Book (Amazon)


Written by Mesocosm

September 5, 2014 at 8:03 am

Posted in Art

2 Responses

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  1. I think you would very much enjoy Hannu Rajaniemi’s first novel, The Quantum Thief, which presents a possible transhumanist future where privacy, information, and identity are fluid and controlled and manipulated in various ways, and even memories (personal and exomemory) are communal to certain degrees, either dictated by an individual or agreed upon by larger groups.

    Jordan Lowy

    October 24, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Jordan, that sounds interesting!


      October 24, 2014 at 5:09 pm

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