Stalking for Art: Sophie Calle, Heather Blackwell, and Willem Popelier

I was first introduced to the idea of stalking as an artform the summer following my Junior year. I was at an art summer camp in Cranbrook, a beautiful school with amazing sculptures, lush gardens, and buildings by the renowned architect Eliel Saarinen. Our dorm dad, Chris, liked to tell us about the school’s alumni; artists who had been known for animating dead birds, creating self-contained rain clouds, running semi-illegal bodegas, and, a piece that’s one of my personal favorites, an artist who lived as a squirrel for a year. A squirrel. For a year.

But moving on from squirrel artist (Even though, I mean, come on. A squirrel! He lived as a squirrel for a year! He turned his studio into a squirrel nest and foraged for food outside!) Chris also showed us work by Heather Blackwell, who I believe graduated in 2008. One of her concentrations included taking photographs from teenage girls’ Myspace profiles and painting them, editing them to add bruises, acne, and general indicators of poor health. [I’d also like to add here that I’m not 100% sure about the info I’m posting on Blackwell. This is mainly from memory and it was all hearsay in the first place. I’m also having trouble finding information about her online. If anyone knows concrete facts, please let me know!]

Blackwell's "Images/Emo" (2008)

The thing that stuck out to me? She didn’t ask the girls for permission.

At first I was confused. “Is this even legal?” I wondered. “How can she be using their images for a commercial purpose without asking them?”

I think that eventually she did contact them, and no one took offense, but I’m not entirely sure how it played out.

Either way, using others’ images for artwork without permission isn’t particularly unique in the world of art. Just the other day I saw a piece about Willem Popelier, an artist who used images of two fourteen year old girls (Why is it so often teenage girls?) taken from a showroom computer for his artwork. He tracked down information on them based on a name necklace one was wearing. Photographs of them and printouts of their tweets became part of a summer show in Amsterdam’s Foam Museum.


I’m uncomfortable with this. I feel as though we tend to view young women as public property, as something that we are allowed to look at freely and without consequence; the textbook definition of the male gaze. We accept images of young women, taken without their permission, as artwork because that’s what we’re confronted with in everyday life. Young women and teenage girls as models, actresses, singers, socialites, and more, we view these women as almost belonging to us. It’s a possessive relationship. We have some level of control over them through the act of looking at them.

I started this post intending to write about Sophie Calle, but, as you can tell, I’ve become somewhat sidetracked by the idea of stalking as art. Calle herself was a stalking artist, and, in fact, following the article I linked to earlier a commenter mentions her work. Calle is often labeled as a photographer but many argue that she is really more of a performance artist. While her work is finally displayed as two dimensional photographs they are created through a very real, very intense “performance”. Her work isn’t an illusion or some form of staged fantasy, Calle follows real people through the streets and photographs them without their knowledge.I’m actually somewhat of a fan of Calle’s work. I think that it’s intrusive, but I generally enjoy the final product. Calle is most well known for Suite Venitienne, a piece in which she follows a man she met at a party to Venice, at which point she photographs him and records information about his movements and her experience following him for two weeks.

Suite Venitienne (1970)

Calle also has a piece in which she called the people listed within an address book she found in the street,  interviewing them about the owner of the book. With this information she created a portrait of a man she had never met, publishing information in a newspaper accompanied by photographs of the man’s favorite activities. When the owner found out he was understandably upset and threatened to sue. Less understandably,  he located a nude photograph of Calle and demanded the newspaper publish it.

The Suite Venitienne piece doesn’t make me feel as uncomfortable as, say, Popelier’s work (Address Book, however,  is worse in my opinion). It’s still a huge invasion of privacy; even more so because Calle is physically trailing someone. She blurs the lines between art and reality. And in this case? The reality is actual stalking. Personally, intruding into the privacy of a fully grown man who’s unlikely to feel physically threatened by Calle is less offensive to me than exploiting the images of young teen girls. The dynamic is different. I would also argue that digging up information about people online is similar to following them in public spaces. I know that many are of the opinion that whatever you put online, whether on a facebook page, a blog, a twitter account, etc, it should all be fair game for those who want to access it. But following that logic, shouldn’t your actions in public spaces to be fair game for observation?

I really can’t say for sure. Honestly, while I find Calle’s work less creepy than other works by stalking artists, I still find a lot of it to be creepy as hell. Overall, I think that using another person as an unwilling subject for your artwork is wrong. The pieces by Calle which I’m able to love fully are those created with the consent of the subject. Calle has created pieces in which we intrude upon her life, and those pieces I find interesting. Pieces in which her friends sleep in her bed for a week, in which she has a room atop the Eiffel tower and visitors can tell her bedtime stories, these are the works I adore without the feeling of… ickiness.

Take a look at some more of her images:

Room With a View (2003)

Cash Machine (Series of images from 1991-2003)

Les dormeurs (1979)

Les dormeurs (1979)

Les seins miraculeux (2001)

The Sleepers (1980)

Also interesting is that many professional critics and photographers believe that while Calle’s work is strong in concept, the photography is weak in technical skill. In fact, some of her best photographs are those taken of Calle as a subject with fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino actually manning the camera. This contributes to the idea of Calle, not as a photographer, but as a performance artist.

So what do you think? Is it ever acceptable to use another person’s image in artwork without their consent? Are certain types of stalking for art (Online, non-threatening (If even possible), physical tailing, etc) ever ok? What’s your personal reaction to Calle’s images? Share in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Stalking for Art: Sophie Calle, Heather Blackwell, and Willem Popelier

  1. I was one of the co-curators for the show Man As Object: Reversing the Gaze…and actually I can say that I too am a stalking artist… I have been stalking men and using their images without permission. Mostly of fisherman and hunters ( another kind of stalking ) The Series is entitled “Does This Make My Dick Look Big? Although there are issues of copyright to any image, if you change them enough you can get away with it. I have said that if someone attends a show and recognizes themselves in my work and can prove that it’s them, I will give them the piece.

    I think the references I make in the work would not be taken lightly by most men in the pictures…after all I am turning their hobbies into a big sexual innuendo. But as you say…it seems to be free season on young girls so why not turn the lens or artist’s eye back on the perpetrator? I black out the eyes on the images I hijack, from the social networking sites and sometimes reverse the images and pixelate any tattoos or name tags and distinguishing characteristics. It is right?? Hell if I know…but it makes some fun art.

    Stalking is a big part of today’s culture…with online communities and blogs and vlogs…people are putting themselves out there more and more ( your really don’t need to do much stalking persay…people seem to be throwing themselves at you ), I think the artists like myself who use social networking sites as inspiration are making work that speaks about our culture, the problems and the benefits.

    Look I have quite the collection of cock pictures that have been sent to me over the years…most of these people knew I was an artist when they sent them…if they think those images are not going to get worked into my art at some time in my career they are out of their minds. If you put it out there don’t expect it not to be used. Just hope you get someone as respectful as myself who will do their best to hide your identity.

    • First of all, I laughed out loud when I heard the title of your series. Very appropriate for the subject! I have a friend who recently created a few similar works; in which she played up the portrayal of hunters as hypermasculine and likened their love of the hunt to their desire for sexual conquest. The project had a voyeuristic quality, and I believe she found the photographs she worked with online. I hadn’t really thought of it in regards to privacy before, though.

      Online privacy is a confusing subject. I’ve been trying to puzzle out my feelings on it for a while, but it’s been a toss up. I feel as though we should expect for others to see information we put online; it’s ridiculous to expect people to not be able to read or see what we put on, say, our facebook profile or a blog. It’s a different game when others take that information and use it in a potentially offensive context. I’m fine with having strangers see things that I write, draw, whatever, but using a photograph of myself to create images I’m uncomfortable with, I’m not so sure. Do you know a lot about copyright law? I’m curious as to how much a person’s image has to be altered to be used for art (and monetary gain?).

      I feel as though pictures that are sent to you are fair game. And if your audience can identify the subjects by cock shots I would be very, very impressed! I also respect the fact that you conceal the identity of your subjects. So long as no one knows who it is (And your “stalking” is nonintrusive, you’re not making anyone feel unsafe or threatened for the sake of your art) I really have no problem with it.

      Thanks for posting such a thought out response! I hope your show went smoothly, it really looked amazing!

  2. Miriam says:

    I think stalking is absolutely wrong whether the subjects are young girls or adult men, and whether the artist is a man or a woman. I’m honestly kind of shocked that people would consider it okay in some of these circumstances but not in others.

    • I think that for many people it’s not a matter of it being either right or wrong, but varying shades of wrong.

      I take more issue with someone using the images of a young woman without her consent partially because I feel the physical act of following a woman is more threatening than the act of following a man. I also feel there’s something almost subversive in creating work in which men are the unwilling subjects, whereas works where women are nonconsensual subjects are almost the norm (I get tired of seeing fashion mags with creepily voyeuristic spreads depicting unwitting or surprised women).

      I wouldn’t stalk anyone for art. I find it highly problematic. But I can see how in the context of the 1970’s the work would have been viewed differently than it is now.

      Thanks for sharing!


    thought you would be interested in this article as it deals directly with a current lawsuit about the use of appropriated images in art. Very scary stuff as you will see.

  4. I think this is a really fascinating topic with lots of shades of grey to be explored. While I agree that stalking and the use of others images without permission as described above does seem creepy, indeed I’m sure the power of many of these images come from the sense of unwholemsomeness that lies beneath the surface, I think it’s interesting that I’ve never thought of Vito Acconci’s work as creepy! Perhaps the first artist-stalker, I think his focus on the conceptual component, the written instruction and the following of the instruction removes any sense of intrusion or innappropriateness. It’s as though he succeeds in Lewitt’s proposal, he is the machine, and like a surveillance camera he merely performas a function rather than intrudes on the privacy of an individual.

    On another note I would be horrified if private pictures I sent to a lover later were used in artworks, or in any other public fashion, to me this is an intense violation of trust regardless of whether or not I could be identified.

    • Acconci’s Following Piece strikes me as less personal than Calle or Popelier’s work. Acconci is only following people in public places, he selected them randomly, and it’s just much less… intense.

      I think it’s really intriguing how a lot of his piece is about giving up control to a stranger. Acconci is the one who is being overpowered. Whereas, with Calle’s work a lot of it seems to be about the power she gains from observation.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • FCS…in regards to making art using images of body parts sent to me by men…not lovers…But as harsh as it may they put it out there. I think that is why this is so interesting in today’s culture we are all over exposed to the point perhaps of Adam and Eve after eating that apple. We have no idea what we do when we put ourselves out there…telling every one on twitter what we ate for dinner, or who we are meeting for drinks. The art that is made in these methods talk about how we are living now.

      In the future these pieces will act as historic documents about issues of privacy, and cultural norms. If we are afraid of being exposed we should not be exposing ourselves…even to lovers in that way. We hear and see this all the time from people who live in the public sphere, having their dirty laundry aired all over the news, and web ect. And the argument is also … but they are public figures and so everything they do is public domain…really? That seems to validate my work…if you put your image out in public domain for one or four…or all your friends on facebook…are you not also a public figure? Perhaps less interesting, and less exposed, with fewer followers but public all the same.

      We have given up our rights to privacy. At least it appears that way to me.

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