Sophie Calle's Suite Vénitienne
‘For months I followed strangers in the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note 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, 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.’
Suddenly, the narrator decided to join him. The next morning, armed with a camera and a blonde wig, she took the train to Venice, where she discovered where he was staying, then shadowed him, taking photographs where she could. Published as a book in 1980, the result, Suite Vénitienne, became Sophie Calle’s best known work, presented in diary form with photographs opposite her text. Like most diaries, it shifts constantly between facts - ‘10.00 a.m I leave the Locanda Montin as a brunette and don my wig in a tiny alleyway nearby’ - to thoughts (‘I’ll do it this way every day’). Tracking the man she calls ‘Henri B.’ makes her increasingly confused. (‘I must not forget that I don’t have any amorous feelings toward Henri B.’ she tells herself, though later, when asking help from a stranger she describes the man as her lover, since ‘only love is admissible’ as an excuse to involve others in such a search. When Henri B. is with a woman she follows both of them, when she goes to bed she dreams of Henri B., she becomes ‘careless’ and lets him catch sight of her and finally, inevitably, he recognises her by her eyes (‘That’s what you should have hidden.’) Politely but firmly, he refuses to let her take his photograph and they part in a spirit somewhere between politeness and friendship. Even though it’s over, she still hopes to catch a glimpse of him by frequenting places he has told her he likes. She even tries to rent the room he has vacated in order to sleep in his bed. But instead she guesses the time of his departure, takes the same train and photographs him once more as he leaves the Gare de Lyon then stops following him at last. Thirteen days have been spent on a task she only half understands and which she tries to puzzle out for herself as she goes.
If every artwork has a prototype which it emulates and corrects, Calle’s would be Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, from a phase when simple bodywork concerned with (for example) rolling, walking, hanging or lying had given way to an increased awareness of psychological overtones like danger, secrecy and eroticism. Photographed in the usual po-faced, curtly texted manner of the period, Acconci’s manoeuvres could be regarded as attempts to put himself at risk. (In one work he blindfolded himself and stood on the end of a pier at night, waiting for unseen interlocutors.) In retrospect, however, they constitute miniature acts of aggression, all the easier to execute because he is male. If Acconci’s structures have masculine overtones - including the mock common-sense reports of the activities - Calle’s Suite Vénitienne takes the form of a seduction, or, rather, an attempted or supposed seduction. After all, if she does doesn’t want Henri B. to follow her, why does she follow him to Venice? And as that idea occurs to the reader, whether male or female, hasn’t Calle succeeded in activating traditional, gendered responses? The difference between Acconci and Calle is easily stated: whereas Acconci made a relatively simple point, using his body as medium, in Calle’s work disguise, subterfuge, duplicity of all kinds are involved - ironically, she visits Venice at carnival time - but also in terms of motivation. ‘Nothing was to happen,’ wrote Jean Baudrillard in his essay on Suite Vénitienne, ‘Not one event that might establish any contact or relationship, between them.’ Yet this conclusion is reasonable only if the documentation is ignored and the pursuit is regarded as a performance in its own right. The fact is that the narration, our only access to it, could hardly be more different from the traditional conceptualist presentation: a set of photographs with pared down, pseudo-scientific details of time and place. Calle’s was a narrative with an unreliable narrator, unreliable perhaps because she was not telling the entire truth to herself or her reader or both, perhaps because her sense of direction was changing from one moment to another. The entire documentary premise of Suite Vénitienne is unhinged. (How easy it would have been to find a pile of discarded holiday snapshots, then weave a story around them.) The principle of singular motivation to which we have grown accustomed in traditional narrative does not apply in this case; Calle may be trying to talk herself into a romance or talk her readers out of believing that there ever was one. And if the talk is of fiction, then ‘Calle’ must be regarded as a partly or completely fictional character.
Beginning by parodying the conceptualist approach of ignoring the self, or perhaps presenting the reader with a fictional self about which nothing is learned, Calle’s plan might have been to write a prose poem of a mind constantly in flux, finding inspiration without appropriate vehicle, in the same way that her heroine feels a need for seduction regardless of a seducer. Two comparisons spring to mind: firstly, the Situationist concept of dérive, ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’ (as it was defined in Internationale Situationiste no.l), and secondly a similarity to the writings of Hélène Cixous, with her aqueous similes and insistence on multiplicity, variability, and bisexuality - at least, the bisexuality of women’s writing. Perhaps Cixous deserves the last word on Sophie Calle’s Venetian pursuit and indeed, on her work in general. ‘As soon as the question “What is it?” is posed… we are caught up in masculine interrogation.’
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