by Alex Belsey
Published by Siglio, 2012 | 104 pages
Living in a city, contact with strangers is perpetual and, accordingly, often monotonous. But occasionally a contact will prove surprisingly fruitful.
In June 1983, the artist Sophie Calle finds an address book on the Rue des Martyrs in Paris, and, before returning it to its owner, photocopies its contents. “I will contact the people whose names are noted down. I will tell them, ‘I found an address book on the street by chance. Your number was in it. I’d like to meet you’…Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances. I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him.” So begins The Address Book, Sophie Calle’s piecemeal and peripatetic biography of the man we come to know as “Pierre D.”, who, as chance would have it, turns out to be a documentary filmmaker. Calle’s project was first published in the Paris daily Libération, and comprised 28 photographs paired with short interviews and essays. It now reappears thirty years later in a handsome hardcover edition from Siglio Press, with the same “red cover with a black spine” of the original address book as Calle describes it. With the exception of a limited edition of lithographs, this is the first publication in English of The Address Book—suppressed until after Pierre D.’s death on account of his vociferous objection to the work.
Calle’s work before The Address Book was likewise concerned with the exploration of identity, privacy, and evidence. In Suite Venitienne (1979) she followed a man whom she had met at a party in Paris to Venice, where she surveilled him, ultimately publishing photographs accompanied by commentary. In The Shadow (1981), Calle had her mother hire a private detective to follow her (Sophie) around Paris—Calle paired his photographs and accounts with her own journal entries of the days of being followed. She has remained prolific in the following decades with work appearing recently at the 2007 Venice Biennale; since 2005 she has been a professor at the European Graduate School.
While Calle’s prior work had excited no small amount of controversy, The Address Book caused a remarkable uproar. Pierre D. demanded that Libération publish nude photographs of Calle as a reciprocal invasion of privacy; the newspaper consented (the photo had already appeared in a book of Calle’s own). In Interview magazine, Calle said of The Address Book:
There was a huge discussion because the journalists wanted to know why, as an artist, I was allowed to do something in their newspaper that they were not allowed to do: to intrude into someone’s life. Many people liked it because they thought it was a fiction, but when the guy answered and gave his name, proving that he really existed, it became evident that it was not a fiction, and the same people started to dislike it because of the outrage. Then others, who didn’t like it initially because they thought it wasn’t risky enough, started to like it. It was a complete mess!
Certainly, there are ethical issues involved in this text: Pierre, without giving any consent, becomes the subject of Calle’s work. In one of Calle’s accounts, she describes a friend of Pierre’s who “reacts violently” when first contacted: “ ‘I’ll have no part in this! It’s an outrage! Tell me his name! Tell me his name! I want to warn him!’ He yells. I hang up.” But perhaps what is most striking today is how thin and banal much of what Calle learns about Pierre turns out to be. Some of the people Calle contacts don’t have much to say about Pierre—“He thinks Pierre was an instructor there at the same time,” says a former film department colleague; “I think he’s a filmmaker…if it’s the Pierre D. I’m remembering,” says someone else. Some decide “out of discretion I can’t tell you more about him.” Someone has moved away; another doesn’t know who Pierre D. is.
Certain threads appear. Calle follows up on a story someone tells her of a letter of resignation of Pierre’s from a magazine, and meets the journalist who responded to the letter to get the fuller story (which, it turns out, isn’t particularly scandalous or interesting). One interviewee “remembers falling down the staircase and losing a shoe” in Pierre’s presence; and the next remembers a film that Pierre co-wrote in which “an old lady falls down the stairs and breaks her leg.” Someone mentions “an old love of Pierre’s, a young woman from Paris who was studying Japanese and looked like a wax doll.” The next interviewee, Calle writes, “looked like a wax doll…When I ask her, she says that she has never studied Japanese. She’s not the one.” These kinds of false starts, vague connections, and indistinct images are characteristic of The Address Book.
Ultimately, the banality of The Address Book is what stands out most: while the concept is certainly provocative, the results themselves, at least at this late date, fail to shock. The portrait of Pierre D. is thin, and Calle’s relationship to him is tenuous, and fragile. The book ends: “Pierre, I have ‘followed’ you, ‘searched for’ you, for over a month. If I ran into you on the street, I think I could recognize you, but I would not talk to you. I have met your friends. I have listened to them. I no longer need them.” The search for Pierre has overcome the need to find Pierre; the process and its banality become more significant than the result.
I am reminded of Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel I Love Dick (1997), which describes an infatuation to Dick through (mostly) letters that remained unsent. The love that motivates the process comes to animate the process in ways that give their own meaning, separate from any object. Calle’s text seems more doggedly tied to its object, but that object remains undefined, as much Pierre D. as the day by day journey through Paris following Pierre, circling around Pierre’s apartment in Barbès and even going up to his door. Calle’s infatuation produces what we might call a nonce psychogeography—I Love Dick meets, say, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks (2010). While the moments that emerge may seem journalistic and unexciting, that might simply be an indication of what one can expect from the sort of surveillance operation undertaken here. If dissatisfaction and failure are the most obvious “results” of Calle’s search, that isn’t to say that the project itself is a failure. Instead it can be seen to show the thinness and banality of one’s trace, and of the urban coexistence of strangers.
Daniel Benjamin lives in Berkeley, California, where he is a PhD student in English literature, and a part-time caretaker.