San Francisco

Sophie Calle, “Cash Machine” (detail), 1991–2003, two gelatin silver prints, each 11 3/4 × 15 3/4".

Sophie Calle, “Cash Machine” (detail), 1991–2003, two gelatin silver prints, each 11 3/4 × 15 3/4".

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle, “Cash Machine” (detail), 1991–2003, two gelatin silver prints, each 11 3/4 × 15 3/4".

In 1988, the French artist Sophie Calle, whose work has long plumbed the vicissitudes of power, purportedly received a promising overture. “An American bank invited me to do a project,” she states. “Their ATMs were equipped with video cameras that filmed clients as they went unsuspectingly about their business.” The surveillance tapes show miens of worry, boredom, and calm as the subjects perform the mundane task of withdrawing or depositing bills. For the past sixteen years, Calle has grappled with this footage in various contexts, trying to give shape to the prodigious quantity of the material (arrested into discrete stills, there are over sixty-two million images) and, in doing so, to overcome its potential banality. Despite their obdurate silence, the images, complete with a time-and-date stamp in a clunky font, continued to transfix the artist, and they formed the conceptual backbone of this tightly conceived show.

An extensive wall label detailing the bank backstory (Calle has in the past mingled fact and fiction, so one might call into question the veracity of this history) included a timeline of her efforts to reckon with the footage. This narrative was additionally described in a thirty-minute video that chronicles various side projects to emerge along the way, including one in which she concocted a custom perfume intended to invoke the smell of money, and another in which the artist documented her unsuccessful attempts to prod strangers on the street to reveal their salaries. A few of these explorations into money and secrecy were on display in the exhibition, such as a cache of mug shots of petty criminals used as target practice, which Calle reprinted with bars of sandblasted glass blocking their eyes (Collateral Damage: Targets, 1990–2003). In the triptych Suicide, 2014, text placed over the middle panel of photographs depicting the dark waters of the Thames compares those who drown themselves from despair over bankruptcy or debt to those driven by failed love. Secrets, 2014, a work comprising two safes accompanied by a wall-mounted legal contract, offers a provocation to the work’s potential collectors: The couple that buys the piece will live with the two safes, each containing a secret that one keeps from the other, forever nearby yet inaccessible.

In the video, Calle muses on the many dead ends, paralyzing doubts, and failed ideas that thwarted her earlier attempts to wrest meaning from the ATM archive, before she decided to present a selection of the stills with no elaborating captions. In the salon-style hang she settled on for this iteration of the resulting series, “Cash Machine,” 1991–2003, fifteen different sequences of images were crowded onto one gallery wall. Some of the faces emerge out of inky fields; in one image, a man with a mysteriously inscrutable expression is turned into a religious icon against the photograph’s uniform background. The artist set up an implied confrontation with her installation, placing a spare, simple diptych of a black man on the opposite wall—the sole set from the surveillance tapes to be exhibited on their own. The viewer was forced to choose which wall to visit first.

Why were these images isolated from the rest of the photographs, which predominantly feature apparently white people? Is it because of the way the man looks directly into the lens of the camera? The subject’s forceful recognition of the recording apparatus is significant given the date registered in the image: September 1991, six months after the eruption of George Holliday’s video footage of four Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King, an unarmed black man. Though the exhibition was framed as an extended meditation on Calle’s own sputtering creative process, this part of the installation opened out beyond the hermetic circuit of creative self-doubt into a comment about the racialization of state surveillance. Given the ongoing monitoring of black bodies in the public sphere, the man’s returned gaze was all the more penetrating.

Julia Bryan-Wilson