The phrase ‘La surveillance depend de l’attention qu’on lui donne’ (‘surveillance depends on the attention one pays to it’) appeared in the poster and press release for Timothée Calame’s solo show at Weiss Falk, soberly titled ‘Spring 2016’. As a result, visitors were mindful of the possibility of being observed before they entered the gallery. Hung in a grid pattern evocative of 1970s design, white paper circles covered the gallery’s main window. On closer inspection, it became clear that they were doilies, some of them bearing round fragments of black-and-white snapshots printed on squared exercise paper (faut-il vraiment sauver L’Allemagne, Must Germany Really Be Saved, 2016) showing street scenes and passersby in detail – almost as if one were spying on them with a telescope.
On the gallery’s façade, a lightbox (Kino Süd, 2016) was carelessly affixed with a paper print marked ‘Süd’ (south) on one side and ‘Kino’ (cinema) on the other. This recalled the kind of alternative cinema you find in the bohemian neighbourhood of any city. What from outside looked like a remnant hanging in the wrong place (Basel’s manicured city centre) was put into action in the gallery’s front room as a fictional cinematic cosmos: on specific days, it hosted screenings, either of videos by Calame himself or by invited friends. Instead of cinema seats, a platform made of worn wooden planks faced the screen (Untitled, 2016), supported by clunky human feet made of concrete that undermined the sculpture’s functionality.
Reclining on this exposed surface, absorbed in the films, one inadvertently ended up in the sight of others. Meanwhile, the walk-through vertical blinds on the other side of the room symbolized the blurring of inside and out, of private and public space (Jalousie Verticale, 2016). At the same time, this curtain acted as a bearer of images: it was made out of an old advertising banner for a shopping mall in Marseille that Calame cut into uniform strips; hanging from them on lengths of fishing line were cute ceramic miniatures of bare buttocks.
Finally, in the back room, alongside a second wooden platform, hung paintings on wood: trolley suitcases rendered in an amateurish figurative style. As in a security check, the inside of the luggage is scanned, revealing knobbly hands and fingers. The titles of the works appear in black letters on the front of the trolleys, including Ventimiglia and Le Havre, pointing to a subjective selection of trouble spots – be it the camps on the refugee route through Calais, or the city of Diyarbakir marked by the Kurdish struggle for independence. On the floor beneath the paintings stood a small, model-like wooden sculpture on wheels, with the northern half of a globe stuck to its outer surface, sprouting a horse’s tail: Professeur Septentrion (jouet psycho-activo-pédo-éducatif) (2016), the ‘professor of the north’, claims to be an antiquated educational toy. The exaggerated caricature mocks a belief in the educational and cultural superiority of the global north.
Be it school, cinema or security check, Calame brings together different forms of publicness that all stand for a specific gaze and for a degree of social control. Instead of a dialectic of watcher and watched, a deeply internalized voyeuristic gaze consciously submits to these control mechanisms. Under the cover of an anti-authoritarian, laissez-faire attitude, this gaze has entered our achievement-oriented minds, linking personal desire, security state and neoliberal ideology.
Calame’s art contains no references to the technologies that make all this possible. There are no flat screens, drone footage or face-recognition algorithms. Instead, in his formal treatment of explosive subject matter, Calame actually seems to be working against the zeitgeist. Ultimately, the sheer number of political conflicts he addresses evokes a feeling of powerlessness and inevitable complicity in the face of today’s global interconnectedness. Moreover, he makes no secret of the difficulty of adopting a clear position. And it is precisely this that gave his exhibition its strength. For Calame’s works acknowledge that in aesthetic terms, they can do justice to the political and social status quo they refer to not by illustrating it, but only by revealing that, as art objects, they remain fundamentally alien to it.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell