Editing and the Encounter with the Artwork: A Reading of Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’.

Editing and the Encounter with the Artwork: A Reading of Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’.

‘Editing’, MPhil/PhD symposium, Art Department, Goldsmith College University of London, February 2010

To consider the notion of editing while engaging with the activity of encountering and experiencing Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’, we have to first negotiate what editing means within the context of such an artwork. In this instance, the editing is a layered process, which includes the selection of respondents and the editing on the part of each respondents in terms of the choices they make for their contribution. And then the ‘edit’ by Calle: in selection, organisation and presentation. Continuing from this is editing process activated through and by the viewer’s experience. For, in exhibition form at least, there is little in the way of obvious structure or viewing order, although curatorial choices – either by artist or curator- have obviously been made. In fact in the choices provided for the viewer to experience and negotiate the exhibition in order to create idea of what the art object might be, is left open.
So when viewing Sophie Calle’s project one approach is to consider the nature of the encounter and what the composites are that make up the artwork visually, textually, or in terms of the aural or oral aspects within it. If editing is the cutting out and moving of ideas, of shifting and removing elements of text from other texts to create something understood for an appropriate audience, how do we negotiate the process of editing in the context of such a project?
   Sophie Calle has taken the method of reading a break-up letter, sent by an ex-lover to shift the space of the personal and private, taking the private relationship into the public arena, thus resulting in the denial of a specific place of object – the letter- and therefore, the artwork. Through different readings and varying moments of engaging with Take Care of Yourself, the specific space of the artwork is denied. Furthermore, by attempting to present this project outside of the context in which one finds it, reinforced these issues. For my concern with presenting this project outside the context created by the artist resulted in questions regarding the point at which I am, in fact, presenting an artwork. The examples that I presented prior to this presentation include the break up letter, responses from Catherine Malabou, Mazaine Pingeot, Sandra Laugier, Editor A.F. and Laurie Anderson response in dvd form. This makes up my edit and therefore only one reading. In doing so I have edited an interpretation and therefore built a new object that removes us further from the original.
   This project was made in response to the virtual object of the email, made apparent in the publication that in many ways acts as a unique project in its own right. All responses respond to the words in a letter alone, with no other material providing clues about the relationship or the character of those involved. There is however, one exception. The meeting between Calle and a family mediator that would not have been seen by the participants before the first presentation of this project at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Therefore, responding to the words in the email, participants reflected on language and their ability to activates a response by relating to it in its socialising function. In doing so, Calle turns the letter into a fetishized object. The artwork then, becomes self-generating, and resists closure.
   So does the artwork function as such through its ability to move outside of the remits of the specific? To edit can also be to control, to formulate language into a familiar theme of what language should be within given constraints of where we find it. Here, the editing process produces an almost anarchistic response in the viewer, especially in the space of the gallery as we find ourselves allowed to negotiate the space of our experience. The viewer’s experience of the edit and their own process of editing is shared with the contributors, and through this process the artist and the letter writer becomes further removed from the project as the portrait of the man becomes more built upon. As a viewer I too am an editor and potentially the ‘writer’ of a response. Through seeing the work we read our own experience, as do those that respond. Not only does Calle fade away from the readings, but the man also becomes invisible.
Both speech and writing are forms of re-presentation dependent on a mediating system of language, which points to a materiality of sound or a mark present in writing and speech.1 Derrida’s use of the word différance can be referenced as a way of mediating what it is to read text. Be it in the form of the written or the spoken and the correlation of communication that remains between spoken, written and visual language. When negotiating the word différance, the sign is able to represent “the presence in its absence”, thus we can relate to the experience of presenting a signified through a detour of signs. The sign, therefore, being deferred presence. As Derrida puts it: “The circulation of signs defers the moment in which we can encounter the thing itself, make it ours, consume or expend it, touch it, see it, intuit its presence.”2
Derrida contests that speech is presence, transparency, authenticity, and that writing is in someway, the mark of absence, because both speech and writing are forms of re-presentation, dependent on a mediating system of language. The signified concept is never present in and of itself, a presence that refers only to itself. Instead all concepts are inscribed within a chain of systems, which refers back to the other.3 Responding to words found in a letter results in responses that negotiate a presence and absence in coexistence – thus reflecting on notions of what it is to be present.
The letter represents a performance – to write the letter, G –the letter writer- is “constituting an act.” Mazaine Pingeot, graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, writes: “There are many anaphoric turns of phrase here, and the uninterrupted flow of the sentence again evokes an oral outburst.” How would the responses differ if G were to read his letter out in the space of the gallery? Would his presence with or without a right to reply, change our view? Would his tone of voice, his appearance, and general behaviour change our opinion of him? We don’t know who G is, and we only know of the relationship that Calle had with him through the interpretation of others. Our only knowledge of what led to, and has happened since the break-up is through the meeting with the Family Mediator, so the entirety of the project appears to be revealed with the exhibition space and yet, in fact, completely removed. Ultimately the work becomes a portrait of a (unnamed) man, through the portrait of the (named) women. We can then ask, when an artist makes a portrait, at what point does the portrait become a self-portrait through the presentation of another? And perhaps through this question we return to where the artist remains within the context of Take Care of Yourself. As director and editor.

We must let ourselves refer to an order that resists the opposition, one of the founding oppositions of philosophy, between the sensible and the intelligible. The order which resists this opposition, and resists it because it transports it, is announced in a movement of différance (with an a) between two differences or two letters, a différance which belongs neither to the voice nor to writing in the usual sense, and which is located as a strange space that will keep us together here for an hour, between speech and writing, and beyond the tranquil familiarity which links us to one and the other, occasionally reassuring us in our illusion that they are two.”4

Words fly away, writing remains…. The very measured, distant, and analytic form expresses a distance whereas the content, anxiety, has an unbearable dramatic intensity. In fact, it is in this contrast that the real malaise of the man who cannot love is expressed. Not in the anxiety that he expresses too overtly for it to be deep, but in the lie that is expressed through the difference between the content and the form. This man is supposed to be suffering atrociously cannot do without his fine words, his complex turns of phrase and his circumvolutions.” Rabbis Eliette and Rebecca Abécassis, Take Care of Yourself.

Derrida’s use of the term différance establishes a way of considering the phonetic element of language. As he writes, language has neither ideas nor sounds that exist before the linguistic system, only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The experience of hearing the same words spoken in many voices, in different rhythms, creates a physical, almost sculptural sense of language. Anderson’s response of taking the place of G, by appearing to be typing a letter on a computer, repeating the sounds of the words with an emphasis on the ‘I’ with the screen reflected on her face, identifies the writing of the email as a performance, yet functional administrative act of the everyday. The reverberations of the words spoken suppose an aural quality and an actuality of the words formed in sentences, identifying the performativity and self-editing that takes place when writing an email as opposed to the hand-written letter. The letter is identified by a number of the responses as being characterized by a strong presence of the first person singular, as if the author is desperate to shout out. “ ‘Them’ is the only pronoun used to refer to actual persons – “‘the others’”. How terrible that the only actual persons in the letter are those that he betrays the artist with and again our interpretation becomes affected by our social conditions of language.
Laugier identifies the break-up letter, by its very nature, is made up of excuses. It is an attempt to deny any harm was meant. In the Talmudic Exegesis by Eliette and Rebecca Abécassis, where the letter is broken down into various interpretations, the meaning of the words written as opposed to how they might be interpreted if spoken is discussed in a dialogue that reads like a script or a game of tennis. Questions are raised that refer to very meaning of words and the function of words within a given sentence, withing the context of the letter. For example, one question raised reads: “But is it an incapacity to love her or an incapacity to love?” Abécassis notes the use of the vous form as a “preciousness that is part of their relationship.” However, for her interpretation: “this affectation distances affection. This formality is a distancing which prevents intimacy and makes the tone almost administrative when this is a letter that speaks if things that are so essential and personal.”

I would argue that the dominant concern of this project is the use of language and the possibility of language to move into new directions of experience by our approaching it differently, by considering the way we possess language and how we use language to position ourselves within our physical and mental landscape. The text found in the email becomes the object and through this process, the absence of G’s voice become ever more apparent. Meanwhile the letter extends through various readings and our own; a physical and mental object that becomes lost in its translation. One might consider the letter with reference to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the allegory, a coexistence between the image and the script, the verbal and the visual, a narrative that becomes readable by being translated into the allegorical mode.5 Language, according to Benjamin is a “historical reservoir of meanings”, “a museum of inscriptions where both the great the and the forgotten actors and events of history are displayed.”5. Through our need to identify the character of G and the nature of the relationship, G becomes the artwork, an object to be considered and speculated over positioned into what our own interpretation. The editing of the project becomes like a process of translation rather like Benjamin’s notion, which “ is not only a translation of the silent into the vocal, but it is also a translation of the nameless into the name. It is also the translation of an incomplete language into a more complete one, which is nothing other than knowledge. (2:151)”6 Through the use of language, Calle complexes the notion of the position of imagery in art-making through a process of aporia. The position of truth – if it remains at all – becomes overshadowed by the activity of viewing, of editing, the experience.


1 Malcolm K Richards, Derrida Reframed, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008
2 Jacques Derrida, “Différance” in, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982, p.9
3 Ibid, 10-11
4 Ibid, 5