Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2015
Sophie Calle: Unfinished Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: February 13–April 18, 2015
Sophie Calle. In collaboration with Fabio Balducci. Unfinished (2005). 30:14 min., color, sound, English and French with English subtitles. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Sophie Calle’s thirty-minute video Unfinished (2005), on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), narrates the artist’s troubled fifteen-year investigation of money. The video moves chronologically from Calle’s receipt, in 1988, of seven stills from the security cameras of an American bank, to her acquisition of three full tapes of ATM security footage in 1990, through another thirteen years of her frustrated attempts to use this footage to make sense or art out of money. Taken alone, Unfinished is concerned primarily with its paired investigations of artistic process and the function of money as a mediator between individual subjects and anonymous social institutions. UMOCA curator Becca Maksym’s presentation of the video in concert with her project Panopticon: Visibility, Data, and the Monitoring Gaze, a group exhibition on view in the main gallery, invites viewers to reconsider the function and meaning of surveillance in this and other projects by Calle. Money causes Calle creative difficulty because of the ways in which it prefigures contemporary surveillance culture—both reduce the specific and unique to the abstract and calculable. Although the product of an artist known for her extensive use of personal investigation, Unfinished grew out of automated surveillance tapes, and it was completed as the culture of the post-9/11 national security state took shape. In the wake of recent revelations about changes in the programs, capabilities, and reach of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its international counterparts since 2001, Calle’s video speaks of and to a society undergoing radical transformation in the relationships between individual subjects, the state, corporations, and the technologies that negotiate between them all.

In many ways, and in keeping with earlier projects, Unfinished is like an “open book on the wall” (Sophie Calle and Louise Neri, Interview Magazine [March 24, 2009]: It progresses in chapters titled with the year and a descriptive or declarative phrase: “1988. How it all started”; “1990. I come back”; “1994. Help!”; “2002. I am overcome with doubt”; and finally, “2003. Deliverance.” Live footage is accompanied by many still images (the video stills that inspired the work, as well as photographs Calle took or collected in the course of her research), and over both are superimposed the “text” of the artist’s first-person voice-over, as well as subtitles for dialogue in French. Like a novel, and in contradistinction to the video-based works in Panopticon (which are distinguished by their circularity and anonymity, deploying forms such as multi-channel, live surveillance systems; infomercials; and manifestos and user agreements voiced by text-to-speech software), Unfinished follows a standard narrative arc that begins with the delivery of mysterious images, moves on through Calle’s quest, reaches a crisis with the potential failure of the project, and, with the artist’s “deliverance,” finds resolution through the narration of the struggle itself.

The mission that provides the video’s momentum—to make art out of human engagements with money—sets it in sharp contrast to Calle’s better-known works, which tell stories of intimacy and personal relationships rather than the abstractions of finance. The voiceover that acts as a frame and source of continuity for the video, however, is as diaristic and accented by personal insecurities as her accounts of failed love affairs or romantic obsessions. The result, as noted by Yve-Alain Bois, is a work in which “crude voyeurism fuels its dialectical opposite, the subtlest exhibitionism, that which consists of parading one’s failure” (Yve-Alain Bois, “The Paper Tigress,” Sophie Calle: M’as-Tu Vue? Exh. cat. Munich: Prestel, 2003, 31). By making herself the ultimate object of surveillance while observing her surveillance tapes, Calle proposes that the knowing object of surveillance is constantly engaged in the project of producing herself or himself for the camera(s). This reminder is essential in any consideration of the ultimate effects of today’s surveillance culture, which is not only a form of social control and constraint, but also a formative influence on contemporary identities—identities shaped by practices of digital self-display. In contrast to the generic subjects and metadata-terror that are at the core of Panopticon, Unfinished, like so much of Calle’s work, invites viewers to consider the troubled distinction between the violation of being watched and the sweetness of being seen.

Like art, money is both physical and metaphysical; it is an object that has a distinct material quality and an entirely symbolic value. Viewers never see actual cash in Unfinished, but are instead exposed to a variety of monetary experiences and the feelings (both sensory and emotional) that accompany them—a strategy that relies, successfully, on the fact that every viewer of this work has an intimate, life-long familiarity with the physical properties of its unseen subject matter. There is a continued, repetitive insistence on the sensual qualities of cash as stuff that people touch, carry, and exchange with one another every day. ATM images do not show people moving money from one account to another, or engaged in credit card transactions; they document people requesting, reaching out for, and taking cash in hand. This tactility is explored further in photographs of the upturned and empty hands of the bank employees who “touch the money,” with the amount that each handles on a daily basis superimposed over the images. Later, Calle visits a perfumer to commission a perfume called The Scent of Money. He discusses with Calle the smells that evoke the material qualities of cash and the symbolic function of money, its nature as something both repellent and seductive: paper, ink, metal, dampness, filth, and desire.

In two passages in which she queries people in the street, Calle herself adopts the qualities described by the perfumer; she is both repellent and seductive. She demands of people taking money from ATMs, “Parlez-moi d’argent” (“Speak to me of money”). These attempts to engage with mostly dismissive passersby verge on the abject, as the adult Calle adopts a simpering, little-girl vulnerability, pressing herself up against the bank’s outer wall, smiling crookedly toward the camera. Very few people are willing to engage her, and those that do are sure that this is some kind of prank; they laugh nervously, and offer nothing that seems especially true. Their responses, especially to the question, “How much money do you make?” confirm the belief that it is rude to speak of money. Our relationships with these dirty bits of state-guaranteed paper and metal that move from hand to hand to hand are private—as private as sex or family or failure.

If, in the discourse of surveillance, the skulking private detective of the twentieth century has been replaced by the hulking digital shadow of the NSA, the subject who is watched—whether that subject is a French artist who has her hair done to please the detective hired to follow her (as Calle did in her 1981 project The Shadow), or an American with a dangerous name (Hasan Elahi) who has been sending the FBI the products of his exhaustive self-surveillance since his detainment and interrogation in 2002—is still very much a human subject. Neither money nor surveillance technology makes us less ourselves; as Bruno Latour explains, “without technological detours, the properly human cannot exist” (Bruno Latour, “Morality and Technology: The End of Means,” trans. Couze Venn, Theory, Culture and Society 19, nos. 5/6 (2002): 252). Rather than setting out to articulate the ways in which these technologies oppress some mythic natural state, Unfinished explores the points of contact between the anonymous and the specifically individual. In the context of an exhibition that explores the contemporary surveillance apparatus as a machine of absolute abstraction, one that reduces specific people to generic codes, Calle’s video is a reminder of the materiality, the specificity—the fleshiness—of each and every encounter with the technologies and techniques not only of surveillance, but of any form of participation in culture, be that the exchange of funds, of secrets, or of images.

The increasingly urgent (and, arguably, quixotic) call to limit state surveillance, articulated by Edward Snowden in Laura Poitras’s celebrated 2014 documentary Citizenfour, is grounded in the fear that the surveillance apparatus will narrow its focus, select a person out of the metadata, and give that person a name. Even as we reconcile ourselves to the storage of our data in massive national archives, we make small gestures to defend our privacy—turning away from the camera when we notice it watching, as the people questioned by Calle in the street hold up their hands to hide their faces, shake their heads, and laugh their refusal. But in Calle’s world, paying attention to the drama of an individual life is not only an invasion of privacy; such attention has the potential to redeem that life, to rescue it from the abstractions that transform people into statistical or financial data. From today’s perspective, there may appear to be something naive or sentimental in Calle’s use of surveillance in her early career, when she followed a man through the streets of Venice, surreptitiously photographing him and his companion, taking notes on their activities, as she did in Suite Venetienne (1979), or when she had her mother hire a private detective to follow her through the streets of Paris in The Shadow. The futility of these acts of observation when compared to the comprehensive coverage of data collection, their psychological and personal motivations, simultaneously romanticize and demystify surveillance by insisting that it is a human act. Calle’s struggle with her surveillance footage in Unfinished is a product of its anonymity, the lack of biographies for the subjects depicted. In the absence of these stories, she offers her own.

Sarah Hollenberg
Assistant Professor (Lecturer), Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah