Monday 21 February 2011

Sophie Calle & Paul Auster - Gotham Handbook

Gotham Handbook first appeared in 1999 as part of Double Game, a bookwork by French artist Sophie Calle. It is a document of a collaboration between the artist and author Paul Auster, who issued Calle with instructions on how to improve life in New York City through a series of artistic interventions.

Divided into 3 sections Double Game begins with an extract from Paul Auster’s novel Leviathon; a novel in which the author based the main character - Maria, a New York-based artist - on Calle. The middle section is Double Game - a document of the artist’s response, in which she lived out the fictive parts of Auster’s novel, performing works that he had invented.

For the final part of the book, Calle asked Auster to ''invent a fictive character which [she] would attempt to resemble.'' What Auster came up with, however, was Personal Instructions for SC on How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked...): a series of instructions for Calle to follow in her day-to-day routine while living in New York City. The resulting document is Gotham Handbook.

The instructions given are for Calle to smile at and talk to strangers, distribute sandwiches and cigarettes to the homeless and to “cultivate a spot.” While this may seem somewhat twee, even to the point of being trite, what Auster was interested in was pushing Calle from the position of passive observer, which she had occupied throughout her earlier work, into the role of active participant engaging with the city and its inhabitants in a new way. For the spot, Calle chose a phone booth (see above), painting it green and providing a chair, fresh flowers, cigarettes, food and drink.

Auster instructed her to record people’s reactions to the cultivated spot. Leaving pens and paper in the phone booth resulted in a range of comments, both positive and negative, for example: ‘This is bullshit and fucked up. Please take this motherfucker down’, annotated by another commentator, indicating with an arrow: ‘Ignorance surrounds us all'.

Gotham Handbook ends when the telephone company takes down Calle’s intervention and tosses it a nearby bin.