Spy game: From Williams St. with love

Espionage in the name of art

Friday, October 3, 2008

Brenna Carmody ’09 leans over a tall iced coffee and uses detailed hand gestures to explain a fundraising idea to her professor across the table. She fumbles with her pen and sits cross-legged, adjusting her chair as she transitions from one idea to the next. She wears flip-flops.

At a corner table on the raised platform a few feet to Carmody’s left, Claire Russo’s ’09 hands move in short bursts, but her eyes stay focused on Carmody.

“Poor posture,” Russo writes in a worn, unlined notebook. “Gesticulatey.”

Today, Russo is not at Starbucks to sip the Earl Grey tea by her side or to study in the cushioned armchair she eyed when she walked in. She’s here for Carmody. She has studied Carmody’s daily schedule, staked out a proper lookout point and brought supplies to document Carmody’s every move.

Russo is a spy. Carmody is her target.

The twist? Carmody asked for it.

‘The Shadow’Russo’s handler is Geddes Levenson ’09, half of the brains behind the operation. In collusion with her housemate-cum-accomplice Annie Blazejack ’09, Levenson has arranged for nine members of her Williams Street house to spy on each other through surrogate agents for hire like Russo.

Though each resident knows who is after whom, none of the housemates know the identities of the spies enlisted to follow, document and photograph them.

Levenson and Blazejack – both visual arts concentrators – plan to display the fruits of the elaborate game in the second-floor gallery of the List Art Center later this month.

Levenson says the project was inspired by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who once had her mother hire a private detective to follow her around Paris for a piece called “La Filature,” or “The Shadow.” Though she knew she would be followed, Calle did not know where or when.

“She was a different person because she knew someone was following her,” Levenson says. “The art piece is her life, but is it really her?”

In modifying Calle’s project, Levenson and Blazejack have created a web of espionage in which each participant is both predator and prey.

“You can live with people and still not know very much about them outside of the house,” Levenson says.

The one caveat to the game is that spies can only survey their targets outside of the house. Though sleep and meals are off-limits, classes and Starbucks meetings are kosher – the game begins the second you step out the door.

The ChaseRusso received her assignment from Levenson by e-mail along with Carmody’s schedule for the week, which Carmody had surrendered for the project. She zeroed in on Monday’s 1 p.m. meeting at Starbucks and brought a notebook and a camera to conduct her surveillance.

Carmody was sitting in the northwest corner of the cafe near the sugar and cream stand, so Russo picked a table on the raised platform in the southeast corner to observe her target from afar. But when Carmody’s company arrived and the group needed a bigger table, they moved to a ground-level table directly beside Russo.

“1:09 – relocate to sit near front windows,” she wrote. “This is too easy!”

Five pages and one photograph later, Russo had carefully documented Carmody’s mannerisms, the content of her meeting – planning a dance-themed fundraiser for New Works, a Malian dance troupe – and even the skill with which Carmody presented her ideas – “Brenna clearly has her shit together.”

“It was thrilling,” Russo says. “It definitely felt as though I was doing something illegal.”

Russo says she doesn’t know much about how the project will look, but added that being kept mostly in the dark about Levenson’s and Blazejack’s plans might be intentional.

“Geddes has been very vague in her e-mails,” Russo says, adding that not knowing the final plans could keep her focused on the task of accurately documenting Carmody’s activities.

But Monday at Starbucks, Russo may have been too focused on Carmody and not enough on her own stealth.

“After a while, I could tell she was watching me,” Carmody says. “Nobody takes pictures in Starbucks.”

The ShowLevenson and Blazejack say the project aims to get people thinking about the concept of identity, which is supposedly captured by the spies but may actually be more elusive.

“It poses questions about identity, but also about psychology,” Levenson says. “Are they really the people the notes and photos say they are?”

Carmody says she hasn’t changed her behavior since the game began last week, but has learned more about herself and the way the other people see her.

“I haven’t altered what I do, but it does make you think when you go about your day, ‘Is this something that looks odd?'” Carmody says. “‘Is someone going to comment on the fact that I spend five hours a day at Au Bon Pain studying and drinking coffee?'”

Blazejack agrees that being followed hasn’t changed the way she lives her life – for the most part.

“It’s impossible to think about being followed all the time,” she says. “But every now and then I remember that someone could be following me and I tuck my hair back, sit up straight.”

Levenson and Blazejack say the exhibit will feature a portrait chosen by each resident – “like Facebook,” Blazejack says. Each resident will record themselves reading the notes taken about them, which will be played at stations around the room.

The image of each resident as presented by the notes will likely contrast with each resident’s perceived self-image, Levenson says. Not only do people often have skewed images of themselves, Levenson says, but the character of the spies often seeps into their notes.

“People sensationalize their descriptions,” Levenson says, mimicking: “‘And she touched her hair as though to communicate the meaning of life!'”

Whether the project will accomplish its goal remains to be seen, but in the meantime the residents agree the experience has at least taught them about themselves.

“It’s interesting to see how you project yourself to the world,” Carmody says. “I didn’t realize I had such poor posture.”

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