In 1983, in Paris, a woman found an address book lying in the street. She picked it up and later photocopied it, then returned it anonymously to the owner whose name and address were indicated inside.
Using the photocopy, the woman began contacting the people listed in the book.
Earlier, the French daily Libération had offered the woman part of its front page to use however she wished for an entire month. The woman told the people she was contacting that she wanted to use what they had to say about the unknown man, the owner of the address book, a man she had never met, to build a portrait of him. Over the period of a month, she told them, she would use what they had to say about him to construct a portrait of that man on the front page of Libération.
This apparently delighted the people she had contacted. They said that if it was anyone else but the man in question, they would never participate in such a thing. But they said since it was this man, they would do it. They said he would love it.
And so the woman went and talked to all the people. One man talked about the leak the unnamed man had once had in his roof. Another, who had not seen the unnamed man for 5 years, talked about the unnamed man's mother. Others had other, presumably less mundane things to say.
And so it developed that for 28 days, back in 1983, Paris was riveted by the portrait of this unnamed man developing daily on the front page of Libération. There were reports that during this time, circulation at rival Le Monde noticeably dropped.
By fortune or misfortune, the unnamed man was not in Paris when all of this was happening. In fact, he did not return until 3 weeks after the portrait's "run" was over. When he found out what had happened, it turned out that the unnamed man's friends and contacts had been wrong. He did not love the idea. He was outraged.
Lawyers were summoned. Suits were filed. Fortunately for the woman, the unnamed man (or, more likely, his lawyers) did not hold her responsible. They blamed Libération.
But then somewhere along the line, more imagination than anyone could have reasonably hoped for was introduced into the process. It turns out that sometime earlier, the woman, in exchange for free photography lessons, had modeled nude for a photographer. The unnamed man (or his agents) discovered a copy of this nude photograph, and so he made his settlement offer.
If Libération would publish the nude photo of the woman on its front page, the unnamed man would drop all legal proceedings. The woman was consulted. The solution seemed to her a far more intriguing and effective way of balancing the scales than anything any court of law might come up with, so she agreed. The picture was published, and for all official purposes, the incident was over.
Readers far more hip than I will have long ago recognized the woman in this story as Sophie Calle, a fascinating and disturbing more-or-less "accidental" artist born in Paris in 1953. The particular piece described above was called "The Address Book".
Now, there is a temptation here based on the above story to think of Sophie Calle as some sort of cheese-eating abuse monkey. What right did she have to make a "piece" out of some unknown stranger's life? She can do this, what, because she is an "artist"?
The truth is, though, it's not entirely clear that Sophie Calle started out actually trying to do the strange and (to me) fascinating stuff she does. The story goes that in the same year of "The Address Book", shortly before it, Ms. Calle was living in Paris and her life wasn't really going anywhere. She was, as they say, lost. She went to a party and met a man. He left for Venice the next day. Unbeknownst to him, she followed. She dressed in a trenchcoat and sunglasses and followed him around at a discreet distance, taking photographs of him, more or less documenting his life without him having any idea it was being documented. These days, of course, this is known as stalking.
In another of her famous pieces, she took a job as a cleaning maid in a hotel. When she entered a guest's room to clean it, she would carefully document the room, taking pictures and noting various items and their placement in the room. Then she would open the guest's luggage and go through it, documenting all of that as well.
In the WNYC story, she talks about what she is working on now. There was a young girl in Paris who had said that she wanted "to be like Sophie Calle". One day, this young girl was going down some stairs and some firemen who happened to be near saw her passing by. That's the last anyone has ever seen of the young girl. The police contacted Sophie Calle on the basis of the statements the girl had earlier made, but of course she had never heard of the girl and knew nothing of her disappearance.
But this got Ms. Calle thinking about missing people in general, which got her thinking about people hanging on to the notion that people missing in their lives must still be alive. And that got her thinking about ghosts of people. And that got her onto a project of trying to trace the collision, literally, of two lives. She wanted to trace back the lives of two people who died in an auto accident, from the moment of the collision back to when they had started the day. Two strangers, getting up in the morning, having nothing whatsoever to do with each other except for the fact that in a few hours they would become the most important people in each other's lives. They would bring each other death.
So she started by talking to a man whose son had been killed not too long before.
The project had to be abandoned almost immediately. In talking to that first man, both the man and Calle were so quickly overcome with grief that neither could go on. She was sitting there asking him what the boy had had for breakfast, what color his sweater had been that day.
The details were too much. The story was too harmful to tell.
And here we get, I think, to what fascinates me about this woman. She seems obsessed by narrative, but she doesn't seem to be able, in a sense, to control herself. She needs details. She needs to know what happened next in someone's life. In many ways she seems cruel and unfeeling and as insensitive as stone, but if you listen to the WNYC piece you find out rather quickly that she is not that way at all. She is still guilt-ridden about what she did to that poor unnamed man in "The Address Book". She seems to know, once she finds herself in a situation like the one with the man whose son had been killed, that what she is trying to do is a terrible mistake. You can't make a "piece", you can't document a "narrative" of what the boy had for breakfast, or what color sweater he was wearing on the day he died horribly. There might be other reasons to document those details, but her constructing a "piece" from them isn't one of them.
She seems, pardon the coinage, a storiopath -- a Nosy Parker quite insensible to the everyday norms and conventions of standard gossipry. It's normal to be curious about our fellow beings. It's normal to seek to satisfy that curiosity. To a point.
She seems almost oppressed by her need for stories. At one point, she asked her mother to hire a private detective to document her (that is, Sophie Calle's) daily routine. She didn't want to be aware that her story was being documented, but of course she could not help but know it was being documented. This is storytelling run amok. Certainly you could make the argument that this was a "piece", but it seems to me that it is more than that.
But then by now the careful reader will have guessed I would think that. By now it should be obvious to the careful reader that this particular post is more about my storiopathy than Sophie Calle's.
I wish I had her nerve, or her lack thereof. While I have always been open-minded and curious about this sort of art, I often feel that I don't quite get it, or that the point of the thing doesn't quite justify the effort that went into creating it. But Calle's work feels unequivocally compelling to me. I think I share her obsessions, but I lack the means to act on them, at least to the degree that she is able to act on hers. I should've grown up to be a detective, or a spy.
Stories feel like my way back into the world.
I did just start a blog, after all. I check my logs. I click through to see who these people are that are visiting the site, and what do I discover? Documents. Stories. Pieces of luggage open on hotel room beds. Rummage, rummage. Snoop, snoop.
You read a document by somebody who seems interesting. You google. You produce the papers. Nosy, nosy, nosy. Need, need, need to know more. Who is this document -- er, I mean -- person?
What document shall I produce today, for the consumption of all those other documents out there? Above all, it has to be interesting.
Document sharing. There's even a name for it now.
One time a guy accused me of being a stalker because I had googled his name which I'd seen in a public document on the web and then written him a pleasant email about something pleasant the google search had produced.
My god. A stalker, he called me. He was out of his mind. There was nothing further I could or even wanted to say to him. My documents had, in his view, violated his documents. There was nothing to be done except to go away.
I was innocent, but I've never repeated the mistake. And I have been careful ever since to conceal my storiopathy. I am not an artist. I am not a detective. I am not a spy. And so I strive to give every appearance of being nothing more than an ordinary, well-socialized gossip. Anyone just looking at me would think my curiosity could actually be sated somehow. I am among the ranks of story-obsessives forced to settle for narratively desperate lives.