‘Exquisite Pain’ Programme Note by Tim Etchells
In London sometime in December 2004 I read the published version of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain on a long underground train journey.
I loved the project’s form of repeated exchange. Its “I’ll tell you my sad story if you tell me yours”. It’s the kind of simple transaction that most of us have taken part in informally – in bars, cars or bedrooms – but in Calle’s hands, as she repeatedly exchanges her own story of failed romance for the stories of friends, acquaintances and strangers, the process is reduced to its mathematical and psychological essence; a ticking tit-for-tat of death, lost love, existential despair and bad dentistry. I enjoyed the absurd juxtapositions of stories – commonplace tragedies next to almost-comical melodramas and stupid or unbearable accidents – and I liked the way that different contributors seemed to trump, doubt or even refuse Calle’s invitation to describe “the time that they suffered the most”. Most of all perhaps I enjoyed the simple eloquence of the different micro-narratives and their periodic excursions towards self-analysis, self-aggrandisement, self-understanding or self-mockery.
Sitting on the train I looked up from the book from time to time and imagined the stories that my fellow passengers might have contributed, had Sophie asked them. At other moments, and with less distance, I tried to decide which story of suffering from my own life I might have added to her catalogue. A romantic disappointment? A medical nightmare? There were several candidates. I liked the way that, like all catalogues or lists, Sophie’s Exquisite Pain somehow invites at least the thought-experiment of adding things to it.
I loved the audacious repetition in the writing too; Calle’s obsessive circling of the topic of her own sadness, re-telling and re-remembering her story, getting closer and closer to it and at the same time further and further away from it. It seemed to me that, as well as wearing out her own pain, Calle was also making a very precise exploration of how telling something can change it, of how time and language enable distance.
Later the same week we held the first informal ‘rehearsal’ for what would become our staging of Exquisite Pain. Sitting on sofas in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying, Cathy Naden and Claire Marshall read the book to me as other guests rushed or drifted past, oblivious. It was clear soon enough that – having spent twenty years devising, improvising and otherwise creating our own performances – we now felt compelled, for the first time, to ‘do’ a text. And it was clear too that most of what we would need to ‘do’ would consist of exercising restraint. There is something so perfect about the declension of the Exquisite Pain text that our strongest desire was, and remains, to let it be there as simply as possible; unfolding, taking both its time and its toll in what may be the least theatrical but most effective way we can muster.
Two people sit in front of you and make their way through a collection of sad stories that belong to other people. A kind of bearing witness, a trip through the archive that Sophie Calle has collected, and a journey through her journey of remembering and trying to forget.
Sheffield, April 2005