Sophie's World

For Sophie Calle, obsessive private games - such as stalking a stranger around Venice - become artistic works. She talks to Jane Burton about how she persuaded the novelist Paul Auster to write a story for her to live out
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IF EVER there was a character in search of a novel, it is Sophie Calle. Her extraordinary life, though real enough, is quite literally the stuff of fiction. In Paul Auster's book Leviathan she appears, thinly veiled, as the character Maria. "Maria was an artist," writes Auster, "but the work she did had nothing to do with creating objects commonly defined as art. Some people called her a photographer, others referred to her as a conceptualist, still others considered her a writer, but none of these descriptions was accurate, and in the end I don't think she can be pigeonholed in any way. Her work was too nutty for that ... "

Maria is an American, Sophie is French, but aside from a few novelistic embellishments, the bizarre adventures that make up Maria's story are Sophie's own. As with Maria, trying to pin down Sophie is a slippery task, in which fact and fiction, life and art mingle disconcertingly.

Sophie's mother calls her an "original" - and she means it in the French sense of the word: odd, eccentric, a little touched. From an early age, Sophie had a propensity to create private games and rituals - holding elaborate funerals for her goldfish when they died, for instance. Not so strange in the imaginative world of a child, perhaps, but for Sophie the games and rituals continued into adulthood - to mark her birthday she would invite a number of guests corresponding exactly to her age, plus one. She would lock away their gifts, untouched, in a glass cabinet; the next year she would start all over again. (Her mother, keen to subvert her daughter's troubling behaviour, would regularly present her with large pieces of domestic equipment on her birthday. "I managed to get the vacuum cleaner in, and the TV," says Sophie with a smile; as for the rest, she made do with displaying the manufacturer's guarantees.) Once, with no discernible motive, she followed a stranger to Venice, and, in a blonde wig, tracked him through the streets, taking notes and photographs as she went.

Years later, both these projects, and many more, would end up in the white space of a gallery, canonised as art, but that is not how they began. As Auster writes of Maria: "This activity didn't stem from a desire to make art so much as from a need to indulge her obsessions, to live her life precisely as she wanted to live it."

At the age of 45, and with a slew of international exhibitions to her name, Sophie Calle is still following her idiosyncratic compulsions. A show which opens at Camden Arts Centre in London next month celebrates the latest, a unique two-handed collaboration between Sophie and Auster, soon to be published as a book. The three-part volume, Double Game, is Sophie's answer to Leviathan. As she explains: "I decided to turn Paul Auster's novel into a game and to make my own particular mixture of reality and fiction." In it she presents the episodes from her life which Auster borrowed to shape Maria, and in turn she recreates the additional artistic projects he invented for his portrait. In a final neat twist she invited Auster to become the author of her actions by creating a new fictional character whose story she would proceed to live out. If the text Auster eventually delivered was not quite what she had expected, the journey it takes her on is no less fascinating for that.

Unusually for an art volume, the book is not a thin substitute for the exhibition. In fact, her work, a peculiar poetry of situation, has an equal, perhaps greater power on the printed page. "I think of her as a story-teller - she takes photographs but that's really not what her work is about," says Auster. "Some of the stories she tells are more interesting than others, but the best are quite wonderful. What's also interesting is that her life and her art are the same thing. She does this in order to stay alive in some way, make some reality for herself - it's a very unusual combination."

The reality Sophie makes for herself is uncompromisingly her own. Her home, a glass-fronted modernist apartment in a former steel factory, at the end of a Paris metro line, is testament to that. A row of owls peer alarmingly from a gallery above the entrance, part of her extensive collection of stuffed animals and birds. A fox climbs up a woodpile by the stairs. In the sitting room two bull's head trophies and a mouse sprouting tiny wings jostle for space with numerous statues of the Virgin Mary. The wall outside the kitchen window is plastered with marble votive tablets taken from a disused Catholic church - purely an aesthetic touch, she says; she is not a believer.

She cuts an unlikely figure in this modernist mausoleum, a striking woman dressed in neat blue jeans, shiny patent shoes, and a pretty rose-patterned jumper. But nothing about Sophie is predictable. One minute she is pouring coffee and bossing the gas man who has come to fix the boiler, the next she is cheerfully unwrapping her latest purchase from the flea-market, a small white coffin, a gift for her much loved, and currently animate, cat.

Her oddness seems genuine; there's nothing precious or forced about it. And as her art shows, she has a quirky sense of humour (one of the Virgin Marys in the sitting room is balancing a bottle of pink fizzy pop on her head). She prefers not to build elaborate theories about the meaning of her work - though plenty of others, including the French writer Jean Baudrillard, have obliged. "I never felt it needed an explanation," she says. "I just like to tell my story."

That story began in Paris, where she was born in 1953. She was brought up by her mother, who divorced her father, a doctor and art collector, when Sophie was five years old. From school she went to university to study Spanish and sociology, but dropped out within a year and left to travel the world. She didn't come back for seven years, journeying to the Lebanon "for political reasons - I was interested in the war", then to Mexico, Greece, Canada, America, taking all kinds of jobs to pay her way. "It was a mixture of curiosity and running away," she says, "running away from not knowing what to do." In a sense, this seven-year trip was her first great compulsive act, but it wasn't until she returned to Paris, at the age of 26, that the games that would one day be framed as art first took shape.

She found herself unprepared for life in the city, though her father provided her with a roof over her head and food. "I didn't know what to do with my life, where to go, who to see," she says. "I had no friends, no occupation, no job and no desire." While walking in Pigalle one day, she was offered work as a stripper in one of the clubs that line the boulevard. She took it - more as a perverse personal test, it seems, than anything else. She had turned down a similar job in California on feminist principles, and had been kicking herself for it ever since.

"Why, because I was once a feminist, was there any problem in doing this?" Sophie asks. "I just could not understand why I had been afraid. It started to bother me seriously that I had immediately said no to something which, when I scrutinised it, was not much. So initially I did it to get rid of that stupid reaction, and for the money. After that I kept doing it because I liked it a lot." The pictures, included in Double Game, of Sophie strutting her stuff before a hypnotised gaggle of men leave no doubt as to who is in control.

At the same time, she had also begun to follow strangers in the street, with no other purpose than to give direction to the long empty days: "Since I could not wake up in the morning and decide anything, I thought I would let people decide for me," Sophie says, "and then at least I would learn how to discover Paris - new cafes, new places to go, surprises." She continued her shadowing for a year, savouring the arbitrary thrill of the chase. "I was enjoying in a way being in a relationship with them. A relationship in which I could decide which day it started and when it would end."

It was from one such pursuit that "Suite venitienne" emerged, though again it began, she says, as a skewed form of personal therapy, without a conscious thought for art. She had been trailing a man but lost sight of him in a crowd. By chance, she was introduced to him that very evening, at an opening. When he told her that he was planning a trip to Venice, she decided to follow, and this time to take a camera. The blurred, grainy snaps and diary she made during the two weeks amount to more than a dispassionate record of a man's progress about the city - they are an investigation of her own state of mind, as following becomes seduction: "In emotional relationships generally I don't have the control, so for me it was a way to have control," she says. "I don't know how to cut it into pieces, what was a conscious decision, what was therapy, what was the game." Her daring transgression of normal social codes, her prying eyes, are of course part of the attraction of her work. "I don't know anyone who hasn't wished to follow someone," she says. "The difference is that I did it." She later reversed the process by getting her mother to hire a private detective to track her for a day - the amusing mismatch between her own account, enraptured at the thought of an unseen pursuer, and the plodding banality of the detective's report and photographs, provides the friction that gives the work its edge.

In the month that she went to Venice, she also embarked on a project called "The Sleeper", for which she invited 28 people to sleep in her bed, each for eight hours, one after another, for a period of one week. Hour after hour, in absurd submission to her self-made rules, she photographed them and took notes, filling in as the sleeper herself if anyone failed to turn up. One of the sleepers - a girl she had met at the market - happened to be the wife of an art critic. He asked to see the piece, and was impressed enough to include it in an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum for the Paris Biennale Jeune, in 1979. Sophie Calle, as artist, had arrived. "The first time I ever stepped inside the museum was when I went to install my work," she laughs.

"The Striptease", the tale of Sophie's experiences in Pigalle, "Suite venitienne" and "The Detective" - though not "The Sleeper" - would all become elements of Auster's portrait of Maria. But it was another, altogether more audacious game that first brought Sophie to his attention. In the summer of 1983 a series of articles by Sophie appeared in the French newspaper Liberation, the realisation of a project she calls "The Address Book". A month earlier she had found an address book on the floor. Conscientiously, she put it in the post to its owner, but not before she had photocopied its contents. The scheme she dreamt up has the playful hallmarks of a Georges Perec narrative device, a writer whose works, including Life - A User's Manual, she readily acknowledges as an influence. She would piece together a profile of the owner like a jigsaw, calling the telephone numbers of the names listed in the book, and asking them to describe him. She would try to discover who he was without ever meeting him, to know him through his friends. Each day, for a month, she published the results of her investigations in the paper. Needless to say, when the mysterious owner returned from a business trip abroad to find intimate details of his life rehearsed in the pages of the press - albeit under a pseudonym - he was outraged and threatened to sue. In the end he took his revenge by sending the paper a photograph of Sophie posing nude - he obtained it, appropriately enough, by applying her own methods, making countless phone calls to people who might know her, until he found something.

The book Double Game gives only an outline of this project, lest old wounds (and lawyer's briefs) be reopened. It is the only work about which Sophie admits to a sense of contrition, though she adds mischievously: "I would do it again. The excitement was stronger than the guilt." As for the nude photograph, she was pleased, she says: "First, I have been a stripper, so what do I care to have my photo in the paper. Second, by giving his real name when he sent the picture he gave authentication to the story which many people thought I had invented."

Auster heard of "The Address Book" a few years after it had appeared in Liberation, when the British director Michael Radford suggested it might make the nucleus of an interesting film. The proposal Radford and Auster worked up together came to nothing, but the ideas lingered on, and were eventually incorporated, with Sophie's permission, in Leviathan. When she had read the manuscript Sophie telephoned Auster with the request that, in return, he invent a new character which she could attempt to resemble. She would give up to a year of her life, and would follow his story to the letter.

Knowing Sophie's taste for danger, Auster was not easily persuaded: "Well, I really didn't want to do this," he says, "and I said to her flat out: 'It's a terrible idea. You're too crazy and irresponsible, and I don't want to get you into trouble.' I resisted her for three years, but she kept coming at me - Sophie's very persistent. Finally, just out of a kind of desperation, not wanting to prolong this thing, I sat down one afternoon and wrote what I thought would be the simplest, easiest, most harmless possible project for her to do. Almost as a joke. It's so lighthearted that it's almost invisible, it hardly exists. But I thought, at least if she does this she won't get hurt and I won't walk around feeling guilty about what's happened to her."

The result was "Gotham Handbook", the final element in Double Game, not a novel, but a set of directives: "Personal Instructions for SC on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked ...)"

Defusing all potential for mayhem in advance, Auster made his instructions so innocuous that, as Sophie remarks, they could have been based on a community service order. She was to smile at strangers, start up friendly conversations, and distribute sandwiches and cigarettes to the homeless. Finally, she was to choose a spot in the city - a tree, subway entrance, or street corner perhaps - and beautify it. "Smile at the people who come there," writes Auster. "Whenever possible, talk to them. If you can't think of anything to say, begin by talking about the weather."

Despite Auster's benign intentions, with Sophie at the helm New York never stood a chance. The story of her encounters, foisting food, smiles, and ad lib weather reports on bemused passers- by, like a deranged Mother Teresa on the loose, is by turns touching and hilarious. At the end of the week she proudly lists her achievements: "Results of the operation: 125 smiles given for 72 received. 2 sandwiches accepted for 10 refused. 8 packs of cigarettes accepted for 0 refused. 154 minutes of conversation."

As for the beautification of a public space, she decided to appropriate a telephone box. "To decorate it, I buy: Glass Plus window cleaner, Brasso metal polish, Krylon 'clover green' spray paint, six writing pads, six pencils, one mirror, Devcon Epoxy glue, two twelve- foot chains, two padlocks, one bunch of red roses, one ashtray, two folding chairs and the current issue of Glamour magazine," she reports. The finishing touch - blithely contravening a host of state laws - was to add a tape recorder, so she could follow people's calls: "Paul wrote: 'pick one spot and begin to think of it as yours ... ''', she notes, ingenuously. Her phone- box boudoir was eventually dismantled by horrified workers from AT&T. "I have a fantasy: I am arrested, I stand before the judge. He proposed an alternative punishment: smile, distribute food and talk to people. I say: 'No! I prefer jail!','' is the wry comment in her diary of events.

Having fulfilled the instructions of "Gotham Handbook" all that was required for Sophie to complete her bargain with Auster was that she play out the extra games he had invented for Maria. She started with Maria's "chromatic diet", eating only foods of one colour on any given day - "To be like Maria I ate Orange on Monday, Red on Tuesday, White on Wednesday, and Green on Thursday," she tells us. "Since Paul Auster had given his character the other days off, I made Friday Yellow and Saturday Pink. As for Sunday, I decided to devote it to the full spectrum of colours, setting out for six guests the six menus tested over the week ... Personally, I preferred not to eat; novels are all very well but not necessarily so very delectable if you live them to the letter."

Maria's other whim was to make similar divisions in her week based on the alphabet. Continuing her re-creation, Sophie, like Maria, spent whole days under the spell of single letters. For the letter "B" she took to her bed in the guise of a "Big-time Blonde Bimbo", and had herself photographed lounging, Bardotesquely, amidst a bestiary of stuffed animals. For the letter "C", she went to the cemetery, and composed an account of the visit in words that begin with "C".

Typically, even in this wholly imaginary experiment borrowed from a fictional character, Sophie's real, and far more remarkable, autobiography manages to seep through. The mounted bull's head on the bed of letter "B", for example, is a memento of her long-lasting enthusiasm for bullfighting, a passion only dimmed after a one-time boyfriend, a Spanish matador, was gored to death.

Similarly, the tomb she visits in the Montparnasse cemetery, under the sign of the letter "C", turns out to be her own; bought with her father and in which they plan to be buried together. "We had a heavy discussion because my mother badly wanted to be in Montparnasse, but my father doesn't want that - they divorced 40 years ago," she explains matter-of-factly. "So we reached an agreement. If my father dies first, I can put my mother in it. If she dies first, no."

The stories which unfold in Double Game are just a selection of many curious episodes in a life lived to the hilt. Does it matter whether or not we take them at face value, accept their fantastic chains of coincidence, and improbable turns in the plot? "I don't know if it's important," says Sophie. "But it's always true."

In 1992 she was in love with a boyfriend who wanted to leave her. In order to keep him with her as long as she could, she proposed that they drive across America and make a film, since it had always been one of his ambitions. They took off from New York in his silver Cadillac and ended up getting married at a drive-up wedding window in Las Vegas - later she found out that he had gone through with it only to give a climax to the story. They had each taken a camera and recorded their separate versions of the trip: "Obviously Greg did something that only spoke about his car, and I did something else that only spoke about sex," says Sophie. "We shot 60 hours of the movie, and out of that chose one hour and 50 minutes. We built a fiction. We could have made another movie by picking other moments. It's always a fiction, but the material to start with is life."

Sophie got her man, he got his film. They divorced soon after. For the time being, she lives contentedly with her stuffed menagerie, her cat, and a political journalist she has been seeing for the past three years. She has four solo shows around the world in the next month and, declares that, at last, she feels she has entered her "pink period". Surely happiness will put an end to her neuroses, and with it the obsessive private games that fuel her work? "No," she smiles. "Happiness has not been a disaster. I have many new ideas."

! Sophie Calle's work is at the Site Gallery, Sheffield (0114 281 2077) until 30 January, and at Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 (0171 435 2643), 12 February- 28 March. 'Double Game', by Sophie Calle (with the participation of Paul Auster), will be published by Violette Editions in March, price pounds 38