does it work?

From Suite venitienne

Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist. There’s a good article on Sophie Calle in the winter Cultural Geographies (“Sophie Calle’s art of following and seduction” by Janet Hand).

Here are some of Calle’s pieces:

Hotel, 1981

“On Monday, February 16, 1981 I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6 the job came to an end.”

Hand adds this detail: “The hotel, then, takes the form of a photographic and diaristic series describing her intimate encounters with the business and personal possessions of guests whilst working in the hotel.”

In The sleepers (1979) she photographed sleeping people.

In The address book (1983), “Calle used a ‘found’ address book to follow ‘virtually’ the man to whom the book belonged and whom, we are led to believe, she didn’t ‘know’. She visited people whose details were contained in the book, and photographed objects in some way connected to the man she was profiling and with whom she otherwise had no relation. Calle then published her work as ‘an instalment piece’ in the French national newspaper Liberation. It was in this project that Calle came most closely into conflict
with issues of privacy and rights. The man demanded a right of reply in the newspaper, we are told.”

Finally, in “Suite venitienne … she determined to follow a man she hardly knew (Henri B.) to Venice.” This was connected to a set of following pieces, like Twenty years later (2001), in which she asked a gallery owner, Emmanuel
Perrotin, to hire a detective to follow her. In The Shadow, 1981, she’d done the same piece, asking her mother to hire a detective to follow her.

In S.V., she writes:

“For months I followed strangers on the street _/ for the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took notes of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of the conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice.”

Calle followed the man to Venice in a number of ways – for instance, she called all of the hotels in Venice until she found him. And she does eventually attract his attention. Henri B. probably knows about her reputation:

“When Calle encounters Henri B., when he recognizes her and prohibits her from taking his photograph in Venice, even when she follows him back to Paris by train, we are invited to ask what she wants from him. It is to the dramatized issues of consequence and judgement, and to the relation of judgement to aesthetics, that the chase demands our attention. Calle may conjure and preserve the idea of the work in the narrative of Suite ve´nitienne, but just as significantly, the narrative itself is irreducible to a self-referring statement in distinction from an authoring subject.”

Now, I love the descriptions of these pieces. I have immense respect for artists like Calle and Chris Burden, but I know that there is nothing so alienating and infuriating to even literary people than this kind of art. In fact, the first question (and least important) that is asked about such things is, is it art. This question was important in 1920, but just as certain currencies from the 20s have become mere curiosities (Mussolini’s lire, for instance), so, too, certain questions from that time have no exchange-value left. Much more interesting is: does this work? When Burden did a piece he called (as I recall) asshole, where he cuts his hair and buys a suit to look like an FBI agent, goes to a conference to which he has been invited, and answers all questions asked of him like an asshole, does that work?

The problem with conceptual art is the opening it gives to the critic. The art world suffers from the way in which critics have colonized the art world. Someone like Sophie Calle does her act, and collects the relics of it, and might even tell about it, but it is the critic that really conveys the work.

Art critics sometimes do a strange thing. Imagine going to your local club to listen to some band. Imagine a group of people getting out on the dance floor and announcing that you can only dance to this band in the following way, using the following gestures and steps. While that would not go over at a club, it often happens in the art world. Critics who are quite brilliant, like Rosalind Krauss, are also quite adept at doing this. If you read Art Forum, you will find article after article squeezing the work it talks about to death, as the critic fits himself into the art ‘space.’

I have an idea of the kind of demonic impulse to which Calle responds. One of her works is called The Wardrobe:

“I saw him for the first time in December 1985, at a lecture he was giving. I found him attractive, but one thing bothered me: he was wearing an ugly tie. The next day I anonymously sent him a thin brown tie. Later, I saw him at a restaurant and he was wearing it. Unfortunately, it clashed with his shirt. It was then that I decided to take on the task of dressing him from head to toe: I would send him one article of clothing
every year at Christmas.”

I once, as a joke, purchased several babilicous postcards in Florida, and then, as I was passing through a town in Mississippi, I looked up several names in the phonebook and wrote Missing you so much! heart, Candi, and sent them from New Orleans to those addresses. This might have been a cruel thing to do, I’ll grant you, but as a prank it worked extremely well. I strongly doubt I broke up anybody’s marriage, but surely I started a few dinner table conversations. Or perhaps these postcards never arrived, who knows?

Well, I have been pondering these things since my friend, D., sent me the invite to our mutual friend Thomas Glassford’s opening at the MUCA Campus of UNAM this spring. The opening is called Exquisite Corps, and the invite came with a critical epilogue that expounded in highly theoretical terms about the work without, actually, saying anything about the work whatsoever. The invite mentioned other of Thomas’ pieces, like Valley – “an upended ranch cot slit down the middle by a tin gutter” – the description of which I would bet the critical nabob got from Thomas himself. The shame of this is that the critical colonization of Thomas’ pieces really does nothing to help you see them. Quite the contrary. How many artists do I know who have to suffer being pimped out by a critic in order to be seen at all? It is a sad and inverted situation. And the worst of it is, nobody wants to talk about it. The artists can afford to alienate the critics if they are going to have any success – which depends on the critics. This is the sign of a rentier regime about to fall.

And the ones that do bitch are usually the most conservative -- they don't really give a fuck about colonization, they just want attention for another fatiguing go around about figuration a la Jed Perl.

This is the sign of a rentier regime about to fall. This isn't what Duchamp meant at all, at all...


Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger--some of this is not quite clear, matters of Duchamp, rentier regimes, etc.

Performance artists like Calle actually produce their own critical reactions--and surely deserve them. I disagree that 'is it art?' doesn't matter in this case, not seeing that 'does it work?' is much different. These kinds of pathological behaviours are much more interesting when they have the courage to stay within the realm of crime, which is what they are (in her case, that is: Your postcards are surely a touch devilish, but mostly innocent, and I've done things like that--although not exactly, I don't mean to cancel out your originality here). It doesn't matter to me if something or someone thinks Calle is an artist, but I think she has done nothing of importance and seems merely a self-important menace. At least Stelarc and Orlan mutilate their own bodies, and occasionally Stelarc's work has interested me, as the 'hanging-body' works in which he is suspended over streets or over a mountain precipice held only by tiny blades carefully inserted in his back. Even repulsive Stelarc performances, like swallowing sculpture in 'Distended Stomach', have some real wit to them, because they are profoundly profane, but in a truly artistic sense, not vile annoyance of persons. I hate Orlan's work, but that's just personal.

The performance art that I have found most powerful always has some relation to theatre, and theatre that is not worried about being circumscribed by at least some sort of 'stage;' although not nearly all of this is worth anything, of course. Karen Finley is the best and most creative that I know of; some of hers are works of theatre that are also truly performance art as well (when she does things like that phone thing, I lose interest). The same is true of Tim Miller, although I find him a bore, because he panders to an audience in this peculiarly thin-skinned way.

On the other hand, these very diffuse works of conceptual and performance art were probably inevitable experiments, but I think very little of Christo's enormously successful things, and think there is a lot to be said that all his begging to wrap and install only gets a temporary 'yes' answer. Nobody wants them left up, so people will agree about the 'absence' that the Pont Neuf or the Reichstag temporarily had as long as they are there, then they are very quickly forgotten. I've seen the Pont Neuf since it was wrapped and thought it was quite unchanged from the wrapping, and that I read about the wrapping still later I am convinced did not affect this. I wouldn't have been caught dead seeing his defacing of Central Park last winter-that most difficult of administrative hurdles for him to get past, with his silly offers of 'work for locals,' his ugly wife, and tiresome poet son. This diffuseness in purported artworks all leads to theory anyway, since the so-called artists are following some theory, so naturally the critics just replicate in their judgments what has already been set out in the works themselves. Chris Burden lying on a bookshelf for 3 weeks really only means something to him. In SoHo in 1977, an 'artist' cut off his penis and died. A few years later, an 'artist' had people in to beat him.

I think that it is these works that make me sympathize with art critics in a way I don't bother with them elsewhere, although this doesn't mean I read any art journals anymore; in fact I read none. That they may be even more mediocre than the 'originals' paradoxically makes them improvements on the 'originals' in many cases, even if they are a lot of hot air. This kind of behaviour seems to me to require complete anonymity to be honest, i.e., these 'artists' cannot do their work in any pure way if they want to be known for it. They should remain clandestine if they want to be true to their 'convictions.'

Many of such performances are parallel to exotic life-strategies, but these are unhealthy unless they are kept primarily hidden and art is only proclaimed as such when something that is clearly delimited and circumscribed and disciplined comes into play. These fanciful gestures then can mean something as a kind of by-product of something with a stronger foundation, but when someone stalks people and calls it Art, it is surely something that the 'artist' might as well expect to have to take responsibility for if he is caught in such irresponsible and essentially quite indolent activity. I'm not talking about your friend Thomas or maybe even not about a lot of others, but specifically about Calle's behaviour, with which I obviously have no sympathy. It is neither art nor does it 'work,' except as a pretext for obnoxious, pretentious and unproductive psychosis which does no social service and clearly causes harm.

I may be off the mark on some of this, but do clarify or engage if desired.
roger said…
Patrick, hmm, a lot of stuff here.

a. The "is it art" question. That question, I think, is about art institutions -- it always seems to get back to questioning the museum system, or questioning the gallery, or questioning the site of seeing art. And yes, I think that is not the most interesting thing about performance work -- or any artwork. There was a piece of Burden's that you probably know -- he said he wanted to do a piece on the foundation of the museum. He was given a grant by a museum -- was it in Portland? I forget where. Anyway, he shows up at the museum with a backhoe, and he started digging down to the foundation, until they stopped him. Now, that piece to me is a sort of farewell to the question, is it art.

Does it work, on the other hand, is about a range of other questions. And if the question of identity -- what exactly do you call this you are doing -- comes up, it comes up as a parody question, a funny question.

My own reaction to Calle is obviously different than yours. I'm not going to defend my reaction or attack yours, but I can say this about my reaction: There are certain games I played as a kid that presented, in mythic form, the fascinations I deal with as an adult. There's a notion of Vico's that human history is first written as myth, and then written as law. That is what I think about these games. And, in Calle's case, I think she is operating both within the world of children's games and within the adult world. Now, you are right -- this is purely pathological behavior, on one level. On another level, however, there's some beserk release of energy in, say, Suite venitienne that is of the same order as of a children's game well played.

b. Originally, back in the early seventies when Burden started working, and Vito Acconci did most of his work -- which obviously looms over Calle - I think the notion was something like this: instead of dividing the social whole into activities which are specialized in, so that this person does law and is a lawyer and this person picks up garbage and is a garbage man, why not do anything you decide that you are going to do, without regard to labor specialization. I'm a junkie, or I'm the guy who cuts off his dick, or I'm a geek -- all of these definitions were supposed to gnaw at the social web of identifying positions. Okay, a very sixties thought, inspired by the star crossed crossing of Marx and Swedenburg or Blake or whatever. Interestingly, this impulse has itself been so captured by labor specialization that there is now no career so tediously ritualized as the artist, with the heavy etiquette of the openings and the things you aren't supposed to say at the parties to the fatcats who might be buying a piece, etc., etc. It is much worse than being a lawyer. But I still admire the original project. I still think that there is something in making the term artist into a pure variable, and lighting up the inhumane element in the world of "careers," the world of compulsive, identifying tasks that stretch out and out, twenty, thirty years.

Also -- so you don't like Sophia getting her mother to hire a detective to follow her?
Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger--'I still think that there is something in making the term artist into a pure variable, and lighting up the inhumane element in the world of "careers," the world of compulsive, identifying tasks that stretch out and out, twenty, thirty years. '

I do like this thought very much, and had 'tuned in' again to quickly say I hoped I hadn't been offensive in my long remarks.

I probably think this kind of work meant more when it was novel. There's an exhibitionistic attitude that goes with much of it, but I accept this when, as with Finley, it is backed up by solid genius. I can also just accept its existence without having much ability to get involved with it; so that I didn't mean Burden hadn't done things of value, but I thought more of such things when I was a good bit younger. I liked all of them when I used to get stoned (I still would, but have terrible physical symptoms from it).

Also, I certainly know artists who are good craftsmen but essentially careerists. This is where most of the criticism of the 'art world' and its commerce is best-placed; I am thinking of one friend whose pastels are definitely not worth the money she is getting, not worth 2% of it.

For what it's worth, I am judging Calle purely on what you wrote. I can see why such things may seem to lead to various kinds of dismantlings of archaic institutions, but I have to say I find all of Calle's movements as you describe them contrived when they are not deliberately illegal. As for the mother's participation, I imagine her as particular kind of 'art lady' I've known here down to the probably flaming red hair, although this could well be off. Perhaps the two could bring back mother-and-daughter Ivory commercials.

Bring back Lola Pasholinsky, formerly and flabbily hilarious of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company!

I guess I'd say Calle's things 'work' but that I find them hateful. It is an 'I myself AM so totally art' attitude that gives her the 'right' to do what I consider to be just snooping and pillaging things that are none of her business. I simply cannot get past this with her. The others you mention I may not particularly savour, but hers border on light theft and psychological rape. Of course, 'she IS so art' that even if she gets arrested for going too far at some point, she'll figure out how to turn that into a self-spectacle, won't she? But, loosening things still further, Martha Stewart already did that, didn't she? and temporarily improved nutrition quotient in the jailhouse.

Glad you brought all this up, though.
Patrick J. Mullins said…
Roger--in spite of my Weekend Festival loquaciousness, I wanted to add today that I think Burden's piece 'asshole' totally works, and I would LOVE to see it. I wonder if it's filmed. The whole idea of consciously answering questions like an asshole dressed up in FBI is so supernal. Sometimes I think I am addicted to hilarious things because of the way the world now always feels like it's in a state of nervous emergency--as in your most recent post on Bush. Burden is funny. I guess I just read these things superficially, and am, for example, incapable of going deeper with something like Calle's work.