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May 2, 2009
Travel is, for a foreign correspondent as essential a tool as pen and paper, as well as these days a recording device and laptop. In order to work, we have to travel to a story and that involves a journey but that journey is rarely a pleasure. More often than not, we are spliced between holidaymakers also surviving economy on the way out, collapsing on the way home, and in between darting in and out of a cheap hotel to meet specific people only to find they may stubbornly refuse to talk.
For many years, the unorthodoxy of work of the writer, Sophie Calle, (b. 1953) has intrigued me especially on the issue of creativity and identity. In formal journalism, however, I have always been unequivocal that the artificial constructs she uses have no place. That is, unless like Calle you work for a open-minded, voyeuristic newspaper with a very progressive readership like 'Liberation' and I probably never will. The hallmark of her work, however, has been to impose an entirely arbitrary set of constraints to produce a work of creative non-fiction, the most famous being her Suite Venitienne (1979), The Hotel (1981, now in The Tate Collection) and Address Book (1983).
In the last of these works, she found a lost address book and constructed a narrative adopting the techniques more usually applied by a private investigator than by a journalist. The work caused enormous controversy for Liberation, and was saved only from a thorough damning because it is considered 'conceptual'. The consensus eventually concluded that the creative emphasis of this piece lies in the artistic idea itself, as opposed to just the finished artefact and its content. Calle is associated with the Oulipo School (Mathews & Brotchie, 1998), the 'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle'. British poet, writer and academic Ian Monk is both an adherent and authority on the school. Classic Oulipo traits are clear in the work produced when Calle persuaded her mother to hire someone who would be invisible to her, yet photograph and note her every movement, she says, just 'to provide photographic evidence of (her) own existence'. .
In my personal opinion, Calle without fail always went too far for me but Intellectually and creatively, there was something worth emulating. The factor that has most influenced me here came from reading the 1988 essay of the late Jean Baudrillard (Leach, 2002, p 52). In this, he describes 'Suite Venitienne' in terms of a reciprocal loss of will on the part of both the pursued and the pursuer. This ruse would perhaps allow me to tease my non-fiction work into greater creativity and so I decided to apply this to a journey I was to take in October of last year. I would interview people entirely at random to produce a piece of creative non-fiction from a 10-day thousand-mile car trip that my husband and I took through the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. (Should you wish to read the full Critical Commentary, it is available at this link)