Stealing Sophie Calle

Anyone who is capable of writing about complicated people fairly and deftly should be celebrated, it being far more difficult than it appears to step back from our own biases, reveal information piecemeal, and give the audience a chance to glean meaning for themselves. Our author, Alyssa Grossman, shows here that her background in both the science of anthropology as well as visual arts and storytelling have been carefully synthesized over the years. This piece, while holistically about Sophie Callie and her career, is greater than the sum of its parts, reading as a thoughtful presentation on ethics and what it means to be an artist interfacing with the sciences and with the world.

I confess that my knowledge of art history, particularly contemporary and 20th century art history, is somewhat limited, and this is my first run-in with Sophie Calle. The text seems to have been designed for a more educated individual, but managed to stay surprisingly accessible considering the subject matter. Thankfully, Grossman’s careful writing dictated information quite well while coloring my opinion just enough in the process. There’s a celebration of sorts for an artist here, while at the same time Calle’s ethics and motives are called into question wholesale. It’s something of a lepidopterist’s quandry: “We’re very pleased you’ve managed to find and categorize all of thesemarvelous butterflies, but did you have to be so rapturous while killing them?”

The time frame of writing is important as to this overarching question. The late teens of the new millennium appear to have all the growing pains of the average teenager heading into their twenties, full of questions, doubt, anxiety. Fear and loathing of and for our predecessors. I see this as a net positive, especially when considering artists like Calle in their early years. While experimentation is generally good, it can and does harm other people, and we must be careful of exposing others to harm while pursing our art. In addition, while all of us do love to wear the fancy hats that come with being an anthropologist, ethnographer, scientist, engineer, or what-have-you, it’s paramount that we not muddy the waters of discovery with our art. If anything, our art should be used as a sieve for these professionals, a way to simplify and render their information potable for the rest of the world to consume.

These are the kind of scholarly questions posited by Grossman (far more eloquently) in the closing of the text. Yet, it’s preceded by an exploration of Calle’s installation, Take Care of Yourself (2007) that reads as very loving and inspired, and I can’t blame her for feeling this way. Calle’s later work is far more fascinating to me, seeming to be curious investigations into experience, thought and memory, into the little stories we tell ourselves and the constructions we attempt to make our lives and narratives fit, into even the perceptions of beauty by the blind. This kind of work is what makes art valuable to me. Because of that value, the closing paragraph of questions is a strong finish to the text, opening up a conversation artists consistently need to have with each other and ourselves about not only creating, but why, for whom, and how we should do so.

1. What was the reaction of “average people” to Calle’s early, salacious work? How would it be perceived by contemporary youth who are very sensitive to their privacy and ownership of it?

2. What began the turning of the tide on artists moving away from “reductive and dichotomoising ‘self/other’ paradigms”?