Joseph Grigely, Postcards to Sophie Calle

In response to Calle’s work, Grigely wrote a series of ‘postcards’. His work engages fully with Calle’s in a kind of monological analysis of how the work can be perceived in terms of contemporary positions regarding the engendered body, the colonial gaze that cannot be returned, the violence committed against the blind protagonists. After starting out quite subdued and calm, Grigely, who it is later revealed is deaf, begins a vituperative attack on the work, Calle’s position and the assumptions and stereotypes that the work reinforces.

“They do not apologize for the fact that it is the body, the engendered body particularly, that must be touched to be seen. This is the tactile gaze of the blind. It is a gaze unconditioned by whatever feminism and sexual politics have taught us about touching. The terms and conditions by which this tactile gaze exists thus cannot be judged by our own standard, where the actions of the blind become rendered—I use that word advisedly—into our vocabulary of tactile violence. This touching is not about feeling, not about touching even, but about seeing. Touching itself is elided; it is a semantic projection of our own physiology, not that of the blind. If everyone in the world were blind, perhaps touching would be called seeing.”

Grigely accuses Calle of misinterpreting the touch of the blind, what he calls their tactile gaze. He asks us to consider again what we are looking at, which is in a way I think what Calle’s original message through the work is, that the photographed representation of what the blind are ‘seeing’ is exactly that, a representation which cannot stand in for the real object, and certainly does not do so for these subjects who cannot see either the photographed representation or the real objects. Their tactile gaze is how they see, just as bats use sound to locate objects and define their surroundings.

…the most troubling part remains: your photographs of the faces of these blind people: their signatures. I am arrested by the fact that these images do not, because of their visual modality, return themselves to the blind. Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you? An echo from somewhere, but I cannot pin it down.”

This is the violation of the camera (Sontag), and I think it is the appropriation of the person as subject – the oppressive juridical force that Sekula wrote of, and the (neo)colonial/National Geographic gaze of Lutz & Collins; but it is also more than that. Eventually the colonial subject can attain independence, the freedom to return the gaze, but this is something the blind will never be able to do. All photographs ‘look’ the same to the tactile gaze of the blind person’s fingertips. Grigely speaks of feeling that he is part of a social experiment, and that is really what Calle’s body of work is about, experimenting with social situations, watching, voyeurism, taking risks with the identity, with the body, and exploring what those things mean and where their borders lie and merge. This is why her work is highly original and engaging, even outside the ‘world of art’ (criticism, gallery, artefact).

The photographs of the voices, your photographs, your interpretations, are resolutely hermeneutic: they crowd around me, crowd around the texts, impose themselves, and in the end reveal not so much the voices of the blind as the voice of Sophie Calle.” This idea of the projected identity, the recognition of the Other, ideas central to discourses in neo-colonialism (Orientalism), feminism and racism is totally relevant to disability studies. Cultural representations of the disabled are mediated from the outside (Grigley mentions the work of Nixon, Wiseman and Burson) and as such, remain ‘documentary’ in nature:

They are, that is, representations that are at best interpretations, like your own photographs. Looking at this art people remain on the outside looking in, looking in through the camera’s eye, looking in through the double turn of culture and aesthetics—looking in, that is, at the inextricable tangle of truth and fiction, at a tangle that will never, can never, untangle itself. Nor, I suppose, can we.”

This idea that for the vast majority of people the truth somehow needs to be separated from fiction is something that I discussed when I was reading Robert Coles: “All documentation… is put together by a particular mind whose capacities, interests, values, conjectures, suppositions and presuppositions, whose memories and, not least, whose talents will come to bear directly or indirectly on what is, finally presented to the world in the form of words, pictures or even music or artifacts of one kind or another.” In this sense any document is an interpretation, regardless of who created it. As such, even the photographs that Calle included in the exhibition that were taken by the blind subjects themselves are interpretations. How does one remove the interpretive element from a representation? It seems to me that this is an impossible task, which is what Grigely himself concedes.

“By reifying aspects of the colonized other into a western white male ethos, our cultural practices evolved as a mode of “refined” (and hence permissible, even desirable) barbarism. Perhaps unconsciously, this barbarism remains within us, remains—dare I say it?—within your work: the other is not a colonized other living elsewhere, but a native other, a physiological other living in our midst. Why have you transcribed the voices of the blind into a medium to which they do not have access? What difference is there between gazing at the eyes of the blind or the labia of the Hottentot Venus?”

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