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Literature : Interview

Sophie Calle, Absent

by Wendy Lotterman

A failed interview with the author of The Address Book, available now for the first time in English.


Sophie Calle. He is a Cloud in Trousers, 1983. From The Address Book. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I thought Sophie Calle was blasting Van Morrison in her studio when I called for an interview. A few minutes later she told me to turn my music down. The hold-songs were a comically misread sign that the third party conference-call site was not in fact recording our conversation. We ultimately forfeited to the mechanical obstacles that foiled our attempts to start over. Had I understood the technology, had we had more time, had "Born to Run" not drowned out our brief interaction, I would have interviewed Sophie about The Address Book—her project from 1980 newly translated into English and published by Siglio Press.

The controversial project has attracted a sizable viewer/readership, but for those who aren’t familiar: it is a compilation of text and images that documents Sophie Calle’s encounters with the acquaintances listed in an address book she found on Rue des Martyrs. Before returning the book to its owner, known to us as Pierre D., Sophie photocopied its contents in order to build a portrait of a missing subject by contacting his contacts. Each documented encounter yields a new impression with a new valence; overlay them all and a figure may start to take shape. Toward the end Calle reflects, “The descriptions merge together. The picture gets more defined and exhausts itself at the same time.” Some examples: Paul B. characterizes Pierre as “a child forgotten in an airport;” Jacques O. remarks on his “well-mastered incongruity;” and Marianne B. describes him as “a cloud in trousers.” Other encounters yield nothing besides Calle’s reconsideration and doubt concerning her work. Pierre’s brother, a psychoanalyst, declined the invitation because the project was “too inquisitive.” The accompanying photos—a chair Pierre liked to sit in, his building’s peeling ceiling, the crotch of an informant—are equally inquisitive, and quietly illustrative.

My brief discussion with Sophie centered on the negative responses from journalists who had both envy and disdain for her willingness to transgress rules they felt ethically obligated to follow. The Address Book originally was published in serial by the French newspaper Libération, and thus was couched within a contrastive setting of texts that aspired to a more factual objectivity. That material has been compiled by Siglio and presented in a clever imitation of Pierre’s original address book.

The following questions were either never asked, or spottily delivered through the pop-rock wall of sound. I’ve expanded on my original list of notes for the interview, which addressed a fraction of the questions this uncommon artwork incites. There may be some advantage to this format. Sophie’s work gestures toward a multitude of curiosities that are often the upshot of chance and not intent. The first question—one I was able to ask—concerns the implications of the italic font style used for all the text within the book. Sophie had no idea that the book was in italics, and credited this choice as a whim. Still, the connotations of font-type remain active for the English reader, and, perhaps, are worth considering.

To be sure: I did not mean this to be a creative analog to Sophie’s work with absentia—my subject was missing merely because I couldn’t properly operate the technology that would record her presence. Here’s what would’ve happened:

Wendy Lotterman Let’s begin with the object itself. I’m curious about the italicization of the whole text. This font style, at least an English, connotes stage direction and captions, both of which are secondary or supplementary some other Main Event. In this case, the main event is absent. Are the italics a conscious suggestion that the material in The Address Book is not the thing itself, but rather what surrounds it? Am I making something out of nothing?

WL Your publisher, Lisa Pearson, claimed that your work “lives in books.” Do you agree, or is the book merely an archival instrument?

WL Not only has your book been translated into a different language, but into a different time period, a different generation. Libération first published all 28 installments of your project in 1983. Has the updated context of your work’s reception influenced the content of the work itself?

WL Let’s address a couple of the more salient changes from then to now. One is the waning popularity of such address books—a list of contacts cannot fall out of an iPhone onto the street—and another: the growing popularity of this kind of snooping. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “facebook stalking” circulate in the past few years. It’s become common practice to find out about a person you don’t know by the people that surround him, to use a roundabout method arguably akin to yours.

WL One more contextual change—the periodical to the trade book. The textual and photographic notes from your encounters were serialized in Libération, which is to say they appeared within a news publication with some aspiration to fact and so-called truth. Now they are all contained within a single book, modeled in the image of the original. Does it become a different project when presented in a different form?

WL This is a recent publication of an old work. In the case of more traditional artists, one can more or less plot any given piece of work on that artist’s particular timeline—whether it’s a painter who moves from the figurative to the abstract, or a writer who moves from lyrical to conceptual poetry, the maturation of a craft effectively indicates a piece’s place in the bigger picture. In what way is this an old work. In what way is it not something you would do today—or is it?

WL While we’re on the subject, I’m curious as to what you consider to be your craft as a conceptual artist, and what it means to refine it.

WL I’m going to invoke the oft-cited “you have to know the rules before you can break them” argument, because I’m curious about its role in conceptual art. Is the tradition too young to have established rules, or is the very tradition itself the breaking of the rules?

WL Your work devoured by critical theorists—does your practice anticipate its own critical reception? Or rather, do you?

WL Back to some broader questions: Estrangement figures into a few of your works—in For The Last and First Time you take pictures of the backs of peoples’ heads as they see the sea for the first time, in Take Care of Yourself you outsource interpretations of your break-up letter from women of disparate disciplines (psychoanalyst, Talmudic exegete, clairvoyant, even a parrot), and in The Address Book you get to know someone by way of those whom he knows. Is distance a way of accessing proximity, of attaining intimacy?


Sophie Calle. Pierre's Peeling Ceiling, 1983. From The Address Book. Photo courtesy of the artist.

WL I want to talk a bit about the way your book has been talked about. I read something that described it as a portrait of a missing figure that traces the perimeter around an absence. I feel like you’re interrogating perimeters more than you are drawing them. Similarly people seem to discuss the public and private domains as if there were an inarguably evident division preserving their quiddity and keeping the one from contaminating the other. In general, what’s your reaction to the discourse surrounding this project?

WL You said once that The Address Book was the only project in which you went too far. Do you still think so? Does the definition of “too far” depend on the work’s reception? Did it have to do with Pierre’s inflammatory reaction?

WL I’m somewhat surprised by this assessment, because to me it seems like one of your more modest works. Few people invite strangers into their bed for a designated period of 8 hours, as you did in The Sleepers, but everybody tries to fill in the blanks of those who elude them. Or maybe all of your works are sort of like this—they are most parts the same and a couple parts different. We are all veterans of the behaviors you somehow render unrecognizable and thus solicit our scrutiny. They are at once familiar and foreign.

WL In addition to threatening to file a lawsuit for invasion of privacy, Pierre also negotiated for a newspaper’s publication of nude photos of you. These retaliatory photos make me think of the line from Baudrillard’s article on your work in which he writes about the tragedy of hiding so well that the seeker gives up and you are forced to come out. He says, “Nothing is sadder than having to beg for existence and returning naked among the others.” It seems like in this situation, the seeker did find you, but upon being found you realized you weren’t hiding where you thought you were. In any case, you did return naked among others.

WL One of Pierre’s contacts, André M., explained that Pierre would always “express things in a roundabout way.” The word “roundabout” holds an uncanny relevance to your project, in fact Monsieur Baaron—or “black actor, good comic”—refused to speak to you on the grounds your method was “too roundabout.” Did you, at this point or at others, identify with your missing subject? Did you ever feel like you were taking his place, especially since he was away in Lapland during the project?

WL It’s interesting that you agreed to delay publishing the collection of encounters until after Pierre’s death. Only after his real final absence were you allowed to circulate your portrait of his absence. What was your reaction to this agreement?

WL I think you described your own work as delivering no revelation. That makes sense. I wouldn’t say that the book contains any major revelation of Pierre’s character. That said, your work gestures toward off-site revelations that, by way of analogy, may happen within the reader/viewer. The Address Book is particularly potent in this way. It has so much to say about things as disparate as gossip, our web-based stalking habits, and marginalia—i.e., would compiling the annotations from a hundred different copies of the same book yield a substantial portrait?

WL About the Paul Auster project—he based a character in his book Leviathan off of this very project. Auster’s Maria is engaged in the same breed of investigation, but possesses several original quirks including a “chromatic diet” in which only foods of a single color may be eaten on any given day—i.e. red Tuesday: tomatoes, steak tartare, and pomegranates. During the week of December 8 – 14, 1997, you ate according to this color-coded regimen, effectively becoming a person based on a character based on that person. I read somewhere that this project established a reciprocity between fact and fiction, but I feel like it actually questions the essential difference on which this reciprocity relies. Can you talk about this?


Sophie Calle. Best Shot, 2011. From For the First and Last Time. Photo courtesy of the artist.

WL You’ve said that your art is separate from your life, but I feel like the flimsy boundary between the two is yet another pair of supposed opposites that your work reveals to be much more fluid than we are accustomed to believe. Perhaps I am pulling that statement out of context. Could you talk a bit about the relationship between your life and your projects?

WL Do you like talking about your work?

Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist whose work employs elements of writing, photography, and performance in its interrogation and transgression of the organizing principles from which we draw comfort. Calle often works within the constricted, Oulipian space of arbitrary rules, tempering the burdensome scope of total creative agency. Her projects typically include participation from strangers, with or without their consent. Though often umbrella-ed under "invasions of privacy," Calle's controversial investigations are as difficult to classify as the categories they put at risk.

Wendy Lotterman is a poet, critic, and translator based in New York, temporarily in Thailand.

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