Saturday, 6 March 2010

Haphazard paths

The notion of following in the footsteps of another has many precedents in art and literature.  The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Man of the Crowd is idly spending time in a café watching the crowds pass by when he suddenly spots a man whom he feels compelled to follow for miles through the London streets.  'Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view - to know more of him.'  New York performance artist Vito Acconci's famous 1969 work, Following Piece deals with a similar concept.  During the course of a month he selected random passers-by on the streets of Manhattan and shadowed them until they disappeared into a private space where he could no longer follow.  The work was documented in a series of photographs as well as text detailing the subjects' movements, which reads like a private detective's report:

'Oct 6, 10.36am: 14St & 6th Ave, NE corner: Man in red jacket ..he walks N on 6th, W side of street. 10.38am: he stops at 15St, SW corner, and hails cab. 10.44am: he gets into cab'

Vito Acconci - Following Piece

His work demonstrates how the urban public space is defined by these random encounters between strangers.  During the act of following, the artist's subjective will is submitted to the movements of the person being followed and becomes an activity where, as he himself described it, "I am almost not an 'I' anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme."

A decade later, French photographer Sophie Calle embarked on a similar project entitled Suite Vénitienne, when she decided on a whim to follow a stranger she first saw on the street in Paris and later met at a party.  On hearing that the man was about to visit Venice, she elected to go there too, and set about finding out where he was staying.  For two weeks she trailed the man wherever he went, photographing the sights that he photographed, questioning people he came across to discover his plans for the day, adopting the disguise of a blonde wig and sunglasses in the best tradition of the private detective.

Suite Vénitienne - Sophie Calle

At first glance it might appear that these examples of shadowing are merely voyeuristic in nature but in fact retracing another person's steps can be seen as a particular kind of chance tactic, a strategy for getting lost and abandoning one's will rather than any particular interest in the life of the person being followed. It can be viewed as a kind of depaysement - that Situationist tactic where one is 'taken out of one's element and misled'. The act of following can be seen as a game which has its own rules and rituals. It is a kind of mimicry or role-play in which the subject may forget or temporarily shed his personality to take on another. As such it becomes a method of escape from oneself, and also encompasses the make-believe aspect of game-playing, which is accompanied by a special awareness of a different reality as opposed to real, everyday life. It serves to distance you from the familiar and make you scrutinise the mundane, overlooked aspects of your environment as though looking at the world through a stranger's gaze.

It can also be looked upon as a sort of seduction. In his introductory essay to Suite Vénitienne, entitled Please Follow Me, philosopher Jean Baudrillard asserts that the desire to penetrate the secrets of another is a kind of possession which requires a ritual.  He maintains that "people's lives are haphazard paths that have no meaning and lead nowhere and which, for that very reason, are curious."  By following in someone else's tracks you are "distancing yourself from your own self, you exist only in the trace of the other, but without his being aware of it" and that you are in a way following your own tracks without realising it.  In effect it becomes an act of possession which is reciprocal "shadowing implies this surprise, the possibility of reversal is necessary to it" - the idea that the person being followed can suddenly sense that their space has been invaded, turn round and challenge the follower.

There is something very seductive about the idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes and completely abdicating all responsibility for your movements.  As I traversed the parts of the city that I knew well, the fact that my usual itinerary had been subverted by someone else's was a strange experience. Familiar sights took on an unusual aspect and my awareness of my surroundings quickened. After watching my elderly couple disappear down the platform at Charing X, I turned and headed for the Underground where I immediately latched onto a young couple, the man wearing a bright red rucksack on his back.  As they emerged from Bank tube station, it soon became obvious they were tourists and had little idea where they were going, stopping every few moments to consult their map and walking at a snail's pace.  It was all I could do to stop myself going up to them to set them on the right path! 


  1. It is fascinating to follow your words -some new interesting thoughts and references for me- and your photo's, the architectural ones are hightlights! And I like the last one: the look down to the feets and the shadows on the pavement! I suppose that you now could be following the tourist perspective helping the young people to find gthe right way -or there is another "haphazard path"? What a huge word sounding a bit oriental-exotic!
    "Following in the footsteps of another.."- I remember only the ways of Gustav Aschenbach following the beautiful Tadzio in "Death in Venice" - or the famous film by Fritz Lang "M -the looking for the murder"- there is a moving reflection/monologue of the murder about himself and the question "who am I myself"...- I have to think about this subject! Your work is excellent, really!

  2. From the self- confession of the murderer in "M -A town is looking for the murderer" (1931)
    „Immer muss ich durch Straßen gehen, und immer spür ich, es ist einer hinter mir her. Das bin ich selber! (…) Manchmal ist mir, als ob ich selbst hinter mir herliefe! Ich will davon, vor mir selber davonlaufen, aber ich kann nicht! Kann mir nicht entkommen! (…) Wenn ich’s tue, dann weiß ich von nichts mehr… Dann stehe ich vor einem Plakat und lese, was ich getan habe, und lese. Das habe ich getan?“

  3. I will definitely have to read Death in Venice, having only seen the film. I'm not sure if I have seen M, possibly some time in the distant past. Excellent recommendations both.