A Practice of Relinquishment


There is something equally compelling and unnerving about Sophie Calle’s insistence on maintaining what seems to a partially interrupted practice. Her work has often been heavily indebted to input from others, whether this is in specific instructions given to her, such as those written by Paul Auster in his Gotham Handbook, or an address book found in the street that allows Calle to construct a cumulative portrait of a stranger (and more specifically an artwork out of, or as, that process. Wandering around her current exhibition in the Whitechapel gallery, I was trying to think about this kind of relinquishment at the heart of her work – I wondered if it could be said to belong to an admirable selflessness, a generosity of spirit, or something else. Rather than seeing her practice as being partially interrupted, might we call it simply partial? There is often a reliance on people (including the artist of course) being put in-the-service-of – as if contributing a small component of a larger machine – in order to generate unforeseen circumstances, or to force the project into a certain position, of varying degrees of fixity.

One of the pieces I spent most time with concerned a the documentation of a 15-year struggle to find a way out of a project that had already been committed to – one that had started from a series of beautiful black and white images taken by the security camera in a cash machine. A wall was covered with clusters of these images, and an accompanying film was projected in a nearby corner. Moving through various possible ‘escape routes’ – trying to make the focus of the ongoing work the idea of money, making it about faces, about solitude, creative investment, etc. – the project seemed to speak most loudly about both partiality (in the sense of not being in control of everything, or rather of this not being possible or even permitted as an option. Of course, it could be argued that this is a condition for creative work in general, but here it became something else, something more pronounced and excited – as if there were no possibility of Calle being able to impress herself on the material at hand, as if she could gain no ‘purchase’… so to speak) and exhaustion. One wonders how much of a danger, or perhaps how much a feature of Calle’s work this sense of unwieldiness is – if one is always giving up ownership in some way, this is always to promote the risk of not being allowed back into the work. This could very well be Calle’s intention of course – to not be able to find a way into the work except on others’ terms, or in a way that is not pre-determined, could be precisely the generative input she hopes for from her collaborators. By permitting the interventions of others (in another piece Calle follows directives from her astrologer, a trip organised according to the cards…) and colluding with chance in this way, Calle’s practice is a forced engagement with the conditions of fiction, even when the ‘source material’ is from the so-called real world.

The main piece on show was based on the dissection of a email received by Calle from a lover – a break up letter that is subjected to various processes by a series of women, for the most part according to their professional field. The letter is criticized, measured, refuted, translated, and so on, by fellow artists, dancers, actresses, singers, translators, criminologists, lawyers, sharpshooters, teenagers, designers, historians, etc. which amounts to an obsessive dissection that was absolutely fascinating. The installation (if that is what it could be called…) presents these ‘interpretations’ on the walls and on videos playing in random sequence. For me, the most interesting response to the task Calle had clearly given to her associates was from another writer. Her text announced that, while her first response had been to pick apart the man’s message (identifying its arrogance, its manipulativeness, etc.), she had, on reflection, chosen to warn Calle of the dangers presented by the group of women she had gathered around her – a coven of witnesses that she described as a “choir of death”. This warning seemed fascinating, both in the context of the rest of the exhibition and in relation to the nature of Calle’s working method in general. Aside from the particulars of this piece, such as the failed relationship, the complexities of gender politics, etc., I wondered if this warning about the risks of allowing others into your practice would hold for other instances – for surely what occurs here is not any straightforward collaboration. What would ‘death’ mean here though – the removal of the ‘artwork’ from Calle’s jurisdiction in some sense? The removal of the letter from her proximity, so that it no longer belongs [to anyone]? There is a form of dispersal at the heart of a practice that relinquishes something of itself – it is an approach to a dismissal of subjectivity that is, at the same time, something of a artificial heightening of that subject. Calle gives up something of her influence, her input, by asking for assistance, guidance, specific instructions from others – yet, somehow, especially in this recent piece, this serves to extract another, rarefied experience of Calle’s activity, Calle’s exercise of choice, and Calle’s claims on what emerges from the entire process.

The video that documented the 15-year search for a project’s conclusion, as well as constituting part of the resolution in itself, featured Calle’s eloquent and sonorous voiceover. The voice traced her various frustrations and false starts as the project went on. This retrospective summation, however, seemed to be too precise, too neatly reflective, to really tackle what was mentioned in the last few moments of the film: making the project be about failure, or the success of failure, or the failure of success. If the video served as Calle’s only available opportunity to reestablish the control needed to finish the work (and indeed to find the right way to present it), I wondered why it seemed that the uncertain status she that had run through the whole story – the hesitations, uncertainties, attempts to project the work onto others, to get them to assume some kind of responsibility for it – seemed absent from the final piece. I suppose that in the process of relinquishing responsibility and then reclaiming it can just as often result in staid, unconvincing work as delicately fashioned confabulations of fact and fiction.