I was first introduced to the idea of stalking as an artform the summer following my Junior year. I was at an art summer camp in Cranbrook, a beautiful school with amazing sculptures, lush gardens, and buildings by the renowned architect Eliel Saarinen. Our dorm dad, Chris, liked to tell us about the school’s alumni; artists who had been known for animating dead birds, creating self-contained rain clouds, running semi-illegal bodegas, and, a piece that’s one of my personal favorites, an artist who lived as a squirrel for a year. A squirrel. For a year.
But moving on from squirrel artist (Even though, I mean, come on. A squirrel! He lived as a squirrel for a year! He turned his studio into a squirrel nest and foraged for food outside!) Chris also showed us work by Heather Blackwell, who I believe graduated in 2008. One of her concentrations included taking photographs from teenage girls’ Myspace profiles and painting them, editing them to add bruises, acne, and general indicators of poor health. [I’d also like to add here that I’m not 100% sure about the info I’m posting on Blackwell. This is mainly from memory and it was all hearsay in the first place. I’m also having trouble finding information about her online. If anyone knows concrete facts, please let me know!]
The thing that stuck out to me? She didn’t ask the girls for permission.
At first I was confused. “Is this even legal?” I wondered. “How can she be using their images for a commercial purpose without asking them?”
I think that eventually she did contact them, and no one took offense, but I’m not entirely sure how it played out.
Either way, using others’ images for artwork without permission isn’t particularly unique in the world of art. Just the other day I saw a piece about Willem Popelier, an artist who used images of two fourteen year old girls (Why is it so often teenage girls?) taken from a showroom computer for his artwork. He tracked down information on them based on a name necklace one was wearing. Photographs of them and printouts of their tweets became part of a summer show in Amsterdam’s Foam Museum.
I’m uncomfortable with this. I feel as though we tend to view young women as public property, as something that we are allowed to look at freely and without consequence; the textbook definition of the male gaze. We accept images of young women, taken without their permission, as artwork because that’s what we’re confronted with in everyday life. Young women and teenage girls as models, actresses, singers, socialites, and more, we view these women as almost belonging to us. It’s a possessive relationship. We have some level of control over them through the act of looking at them.
I started this post intending to write about Sophie Calle, but, as you can tell, I’ve become somewhat sidetracked by the idea of stalking as art. Calle herself was a stalking artist, and, in fact, following the article I linked to earlier a commenter mentions her work. Calle is often labeled as a photographer but many argue that she is really more of a performance artist. While her work is finally displayed as two dimensional photographs they are created through a very real, very intense “performance”. Her work isn’t an illusion or some form of staged fantasy, Calle follows real people through the streets and photographs them without their knowledge.I’m actually somewhat of a fan of Calle’s work. I think that it’s intrusive, but I generally enjoy the final product. Calle is most well known for Suite Venitienne, a piece in which she follows a man she met at a party to Venice, at which point she photographs him and records information about his movements and her experience following him for two weeks.
Calle also has a piece in which she called the people listed within an address book she found in the street, interviewing them about the owner of the book. With this information she created a portrait of a man she had never met, publishing information in a newspaper accompanied by photographs of the man’s favorite activities. When the owner found out he was understandably upset and threatened to sue. Less understandably, he located a nude photograph of Calle and demanded the newspaper publish it.
The Suite Venitienne piece doesn’t make me feel as uncomfortable as, say, Popelier’s work (Address Book, however, is worse in my opinion). It’s still a huge invasion of privacy; even more so because Calle is physically trailing someone. She blurs the lines between art and reality. And in this case? The reality is actual stalking. Personally, intruding into the privacy of a fully grown man who’s unlikely to feel physically threatened by Calle is less offensive to me than exploiting the images of young teen girls. The dynamic is different. I would also argue that digging up information about people online is similar to following them in public spaces. I know that many are of the opinion that whatever you put online, whether on a facebook page, a blog, a twitter account, etc, it should all be fair game for those who want to access it. But following that logic, shouldn’t your actions in public spaces to be fair game for observation?
I really can’t say for sure. Honestly, while I find Calle’s work less creepy than other works by stalking artists, I still find a lot of it to be creepy as hell. Overall, I think that using another person as an unwilling subject for your artwork is wrong. The pieces by Calle which I’m able to love fully are those created with the consent of the subject. Calle has created pieces in which we intrude upon her life, and those pieces I find interesting. Pieces in which her friends sleep in her bed for a week, in which she has a room atop the Eiffel tower and visitors can tell her bedtime stories, these are the works I adore without the feeling of… ickiness.
Take a look at some more of her images:
Also interesting is that many professional critics and photographers believe that while Calle’s work is strong in concept, the photography is weak in technical skill. In fact, some of her best photographs are those taken of Calle as a subject with fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino actually manning the camera. This contributes to the idea of Calle, not as a photographer, but as a performance artist.
So what do you think? Is it ever acceptable to use another person’s image in artwork without their consent? Are certain types of stalking for art (Online, non-threatening (If even possible), physical tailing, etc) ever ok? What’s your personal reaction to Calle’s images? Share in the comments!