Published  22/02/2016

Julien Prévieux: ‘Humour is a good fighting trick’

Julien Prévieux: ‘Humour is a good fighting trick’

From ‘hacking’ Google to responding to ads to tell employers why he doesn’t want their job, the French artist employs humour to explore, among other things, technology and copyright. Here, he explains the concepts behind his art, while Rachel Cook, curator of the current group show What Shall We Do Next, which includes Prévieux’s work, explains what drew her to his output


The French artist Julien Prévieux, who was born in Grenoble in 1974, has a penchant for juxtaposing conceptually engaging ideas with an intriguing range of formats and strategies. His projects offer fresh ways of considering the current paradigm as it relates to the past and the future. Prévieux’s interests span politics, economics, technology and the culture of the workplace. He frequently approaches these areas by incorporating the established spoken or physical languages and ways of operating for each to provide at times witty, yet always prescient, critiques. Prévieux’s project What Shall We Do Next? (2014) is being presented at DiverseWorks in Houston, Texas, in a group exhibition of the same title, curated by associate curator Rachel Cook. This interview took place as Prévieux and Cook were preparing for the exhibition.

A Will Brown: Julien and Rachel, let’s begin by talking about the project you are working on for DiverseWorks. What will be in the exhibition?

Julien Prévieux: For this exhibition,I plan to show several works, including the results of a drawing workshop with police officers from Houston, and I will create a new performance with local dancers in the continuity of the performances and choreographies I created with performers in Los Angeles and Paris. I am using patents and scientific results as a score basis to create new dances and demonstrations. We will try to respond to these fundamental questions: Why do we move the way we do? Who owns our gestures? How will we move in one, 10 or 100 years? I will also present a series of drawings I did in 2014. I was doing a residency in Los Angeles and I used a telephoto lens to photograph Google’s offices in the Venice area. The whiteboard in the corridor on the second floor of Frank Gehry’s Binoculars Building caught my attention. On it were notes left by Google staff: their latest ideas, fragments of algorithms, diagrams, humorous sketches. I produced a series of Indian ink drawings from details in the photograph. It was a question of role-reversal using low-tech hacking techniques. If the giants of the web capture our data, it is up to us to retake control of it; indeed, to track the trackers. I was also interested in the early stages of thoughts of Google employees when the first uncertain glimmers of an idea sometimes take strange forms.

Rachel Cook: The exhibition brings together a group of artists who examine how technology and advertising have shifted our relationships to our physical bodies, the shaping of subjectivity, and notions of the real. The exhibition comprises a variety of works across mediums – including drawings, paintings, sculpture, video animations and performance – all of which acknowledge and incorporate the effects of technology, commerce and advertising. I am interested in a multitude of ideas with this project, including ideas of the real in relation to physical materials, technology and advertising, as well as how the body can act as both material and ideological subject.

In addition, Julien’s contribution to the project extends beyond the exhibition walls and into the theatre. He is working with a group of four dancers/performers/choreographers to create a longer theatrical work, continuing his project What Shall We Do Next? I am really enjoying watching this work take shape, and thinking through these questions of ownership, intuitive movements, and how choreographers consider their legal rights to owning their ephemeral work.

AWB: Julien, what interests you about DiverseWorks?

JP: DiverseWorks has very interesting programming, with a particularly strong interest in performance. It is a multidisciplinary venue that allows the development of projects at the junction between the visual and performing arts. It corresponds perfectly with the works I develop right now. We will show a series of performances augmenting a film that will be projected. I am also very interested to work in the context of Houston. In particular, we are organising a drawing workshop with police officers. The cops are asked to draw crime maps, cartographic tools visualising the distribution of crime. The diagrams and maps are important police tools – they help to detect crime patterns and indicate where forces should be deployed. But they also measure the officers’ own activity in the field, which creates an atmosphere of competition and intense pressure.

Normally, they are generated instantaneously by computers to optimise police interventions. The diagrams drawn during this workshop are done by hand. Voronoi diagrams look like geometric, irregular spiderwebs, and the heat maps are colourful biomorphic shapes. The police officers learn to visually render each step of these algorithms. This is a slow and laborious process, requiring great precision, so the visual tool loses its primary purpose. But loss at one level brought gains at others: the development of the cops’ drawing skills, an opportunity to think about changes in policing and new methods of management, the production of very nice abstract drawings and the poetic sabotage of these tools. By collaborating with people who use these diagrams and maps vocationally, I wanted to explore the efficacy of these tools and find new meaning in the resulting images. Over the course of many sessions, the officers learned new drawing techniques and new ways of looking.

The workshop is a perfect context in which to discuss how these visualisation tools change reality: instead of having discrete points of crimes on a map, you see gradients of crimes, continuous zones that are just interpolation of data and no more facts. As you see, this project is a commentary on how technology changes police work and public services: it oscillates between drawing techniques and social depiction considerations.

AWB: Rachel, when were you introduced to Julien’s work, and how does it fit within the programmes and exhibitions you are working on at DiverseWorks?

RC: I was first introduced to Julien’s work when he presented What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) as both a video and short performance for the Marcel Duchamp prize at FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain; International Contemporary Art Fair) in 2014. The minute I saw it, I knew the work had the potential to be expanded and developed for a theatrical stage. At that time, I had just finished a series of projects at DiverseWorks that were all considering gestures in one form or another, from Liz Magic Laser’s project with politicians and newscasters, to Wu Tsang’s project with performance artist boychild, to Chelsea Knight and Mark Tribe’s Posse Comitatus project working with militia and a choreographer’s gestures. All these projects were presented at DiverseWorks, and some were developed in the context of Houston. In some ways, I see these projects as informing my understanding of performative and gestural language and expanding my interpretation of the language visual artists use in their collaborations on various levels of delegated performances.

AWB: Julien, Rachel sent me your video What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) from 2014. I think it’s a great work. What was the initial impetus for it?

JP: In 2006,I started to collect patented gestures: when you invent a new device or a tool, you describe in a patent what your invention will do and how the user will interact with it. The gestures activating the various functions are a full part of the invention and they have an owner, just like the device itself. It led to the well-known controversy concerning the “slide-to-unlock” movement Apple patented several years ago. This gesture was one of the proofs during the recent trial that Samsung/Android copied Apple. At first, I was aghast by the idea you can own such things and I started to collect these specific movements. The assumption was that these gestures patented today are the movements we may have to do in the future: patents as an archive of gestures to come. They were then performed by dancers to show our future behaviours.

AWB: Rachel, how do you interpret What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2)? What about it draws you in?

RC: I was drawn to this work for some of the reasons I explained previously, but also because of Julien’s way of posing these questions. His works have a distinct tone and subtlety that I very much respond to, while, simultaneously, he is able to crack open larger questions about how we are experiencing our bodies and the world at the moment. I had been thinking a lot about how connected and unconnected I feel through the handheld devices we use to communicate, and What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) was able to create a visual and performative frame to describe some of my questions about this lived experience. In addition, there have been multiple articles written about how these technological advancements are transforming not only our reception of art, but also how art is distributed and produced. I am always interested in works that manage to occupy a hybrid state of questioning while still being able to create an aesthetic and intellectual experience, and Julien’s work does exactly this.

AWB: Julien, from what I understand, What Shall We Do Next? is a series of works. Can you detail the series and how the works build on one another?

JP: The first step in making this series of works was the creation of the archive of gestures and a 3D animated short film showing movements of hands and their corresponding patent numbers. The viewer is the witness of a strange sign language or an abstract massage. Then I made this 15-minute film with six performers using all these gestures as performance notations, considering patents as dance scores. Furthermore, we used demonstration videos of several devices, some prototypes that never existed and their stillborn gestures. The texts of the patents were performed, too. Some are truly amazing, such as Sony’s SmartWig patent: “During a presentation the user may, for example, move forward or backward through presentation slides by simply pushing the sideburns, ie by pushing the one or more buttons. Thus, the user can control the presentation slides simply by natural behaviour like touching sideburns.”

The film has a voiceover to change the focal length on these questions. The text is a collage of different sources: for example, a text from a designer on human computer interactions, or a citation of [Italian philosopher] Giorgio Agamben’s Notes on Gesture. Agamben writes, that after being diagnosed thousands of times in the 19th century, some illnesses involving body compulsions ceased to be identified. For him, ataxia, tic disorders and dystonia have gradually become the norm, which explains why we no longer notice them.

The last step was the preparation of performances highlighting other parts of the problem. I worked with facts coming from copyright history and, most notably, the Martha Graham case. In 2002, a judge ruled that the rights to the choregrapher’s dances belonged to the Martha Graham Dance Company, as Graham was, in effect, an employee of her own company. As such, she did not retain the rights herself. We made a performance with it. This legal case becomes a new metadance performance.

AWB: Julien, your works take so many forms, and address a myriad of subjects and ideas. What are some of your key methods of working? What forms were central to you early on?

JP: I started to do performances: I threw myself against walls, cars, people, or I rolled on the ground the whole day. These were proto-jackass performances inspired by Chris Burden, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and Mark Gonzales. I used to skate a lot and really liked the very specific ways skateboarding can change the way you use the city and street furniture. From the beginning, I worked with lists, diagrams and collections; tools and processes to classify, archive and visualise the reality. I really like to investigate and to try to reveal what is going on in the “back office”. It then became a research methodology that can produce many different forms or situations, or situations that end in forms – such as the police officers’ drawing workshop.

AWB: Rachel, from your perspective, what is central and what is unique about the forms Julien works in?

RC: Julien works the way many contemporary artists do. He moves through a series of questions, and tries various mediums and collaborations as a way to understand them and be able to experiment with them. I enjoy how Julien’s works can operate in these different modes and move around through various processes or through different collaborations.

One thing I have noticed recently is how the visual art audience always wants to categorise someone’s practice, and create specific language around how they use or expand a certain medium, especially when it comes to performance and dance. You would think that some visual art institutions discovered the relevance of this performance discipline only five or seven years ago, when, in fact, dance as a medium, practice and discipline has been infiltrating visual art for decades. Additionally, many choreographers working today consider their practice in a very similar vein to visual conceptual artists – performative, collaborative, multidisciplinary – but they are always presented on a theatrical stage and, for some reason, the museum and institutional world reads that differently than when dance is presented in the atrium of a museum.

AWB: Julien, your 2011 project Forget the Money, which displays books from Bernie Madoff’s personal library, has a few component parts, can you explain the installation and the idea?

JP: In 2010 and 2011, the FBI sold the personal effects of Bernard Madoff in auctions in New York and Miami. I was looking for what might be called “relics of crisis”: iconic residues of recent financial scandals and of the recent crisis that could give insight into our economic environment, not through approved speeches, but through their asides and offhand comments. I was particularly interested in some of the books Madoff owned, which had very intriguing titles. I missed the first auction, but immediately got in touch with the auction house, which redirected me to the actual buyers. One of the buyers sold me some books he had bought and I asked him to go to the second auction in Miami to buy other books for me. Among these books we find financial guides describing the rules of the markets, bestsellers, biographies of historical figures, books on art, on luxury watches or deep-sea fishing, dedications left by writer-friends who lost everything in the story, recipes and relaxation exercises used as bookmarks, as well as inscriptions that could act as police evidence. I exhibited these books as readymades and I also made diagrams and a sound piece with the content of the books. I only kept the phrases of the books with the word “Money” making a long cut-up read by an actor, which sounds like financial spoken works. A French collector acquired the collection recently and found an interesting metaphor. These books are like the sheet metal around a jet engine. They are surrounding an overheating capitalistic engine.

AWB: For you as an artist, Julien, what makes an exhibition successful? What do you hope it can, and will, do for your work?

JP: It is a mix of many parameters and it can be very context specific but, for me, an exhibition works when it strongly stimulates thought and brings on social vertigo when you are back home. I hope the exhibition amplifies the artworks and sometimes in a way that was not totally planned. If it is a group show, it happens when the curator creates links between works you were not totally aware of. In a solo show, it can be the same – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I like to work on the meanings or nonsense that can be revealed by the juxtaposition of my works.

AWB: Rachel, as a curator, what is your foremost goal for an exhibition or project?

RC: It is funny how we interchange the word exhibition with project. Lately, I have been using project more than exhibition. I am not sure that I want my practice as a curator to be only defined by exhibitions. I am much more interested in these projects, for lack of a better word at the moment, that allow multiple ways to enter in and experience artists’ ideas. I also am very interested in continuing to really expand who we invite into an exhibition and how we think of the format of an exhibition. As Julien said, there are certain things a group show can do that are different from a solo show. I am much more interested in creating a project that has the form or structure of group exhibition on the one hand, but is able to have multiple solo projects embedded within it. What I like about this project is how Julien’s work, as well as that of some of the other artists in the exhibition, will be presented as multiple static works in a gallery-exhibition format, and then, a month and half later, we will present a theatrical dance performance work. I enjoy using the durational aspect of an exhibition to unfold a series of ideas. Additionally, I believe this way of working allows for greater flexibility within a project and hopefully can create links to ideas within each of the individual artist’s work, but also to the questions of how technology and advertising have shifted our relationships to our physical bodies, our shaping of subjectivity, and our notions of the real.

AWB: Rachel, what exhibitions have you either curated or been a part of that have been important for you and how so? How have exhibitions changed your thinking?

RC: As I said before, I think of exhibition-making as one aspect of my curatorial practice. Being part of an organisation that is multidisciplinary gives me the opportunity to be part of both exhibition and performance projects, which have completely changed my thinking about what constitutes an exhibition and how we think of the boundary line between an exhibition and performance.

AWB: What interesting exhibitions or projects have you seen recently?

JP: I have seen this very nice and interesting show entitled Alfred Jarry Archipelago at La Ferme du Buisson, an art space close to Paris. It gathers installations, drawings and films by Paul Chan, Julien Bismuth, Naotaka Hiro, Nathaniel Mellors, William Anastasi and more in the wake of the play King Ubu. It brings together different ways to look at the legacy of the inventor of the “pataphysical” Jarry.

RC: Recently, I have been seeing more theatrical stage performance works. I had the opportunity to go to Portland in autumn 2015 to attend the Time-Based Art festival, which was a great experience. I saw multiple works that had an impact on my thinking. One of them was Alessandro Sciarroni’s work Folk-s, Will you still love me tomorrow?, which presented a group of dancers performing a Bavarian folk dance on stage over and over again. I was struck after hearing Sciarroni speak about this “dance work” as a contemporary conceptual art piece. He thinks about his works often as ritual anthropology and involves distinctly different collaborators with each one. This piece is part of a trilogy in which one work has professional jugglers and another work a troupe of blind athletes. In Folk-s, the performers come out on stage and demonstrate this dance for you a few times, then they stop and one of the performers approaches a microphone and tells you that they will continue to do this until the last performer leaves the stage. He then goes on to tell you that we, the audience, can leave at any point, but if we leave the theatre, we can’t re-enter. In this way, Sciarroni set up an agreement with the audience. Later, I discovered that he had developed a manifesto contract for the piece, something that each of the performers signs when they agree to participate in the work. I really enjoy thinking about this work’s relationship to duration and audience expectation.

AWB: Julien, collections of objects, or archives, seem to recur throughout your work. Tell me about your interest in readymade materials and objects or graphic information. There are ways that your work verges on curatorial at times. Have you done much curatorial work?

JP: in 2015, I curated a show called The Museum of Bugs during Le Nouveau Festival at Centre Pompidou. Errors and bugs in video games are generated by the system itself. Sometimes they prove useful, not only providing gamers with a decisive advantage, but also serving as sources of new poetic forms and creative accidents. This was a Harald Szeemann’s Museum of Obsession of its kind, mixing glitch art, art made by video gamers or artist projects. I had on a wall recent tweets from Peter Molydeux, an imaginary and ironic game programmer who tweets new, absurd, crazy gameplays every day: imagine a first-person shooter game in which your hair can overgrow and obstruct your view; have you ever played a racing game and wanted to play as the road rather than the cars? Imagine a game where you live in fridges and can teleport to others, rearranging food to keep nice people healthy and dangerous people unhealthy … Or this projection of the Miltos Manetas video Miracle,showing a fighter jet falling on to an ocean and then taxiing on the surface of the water for ever. Gamers produce forms and behaviours that go way beyond simply playing games. They involve screen captures, all sort of commentaries, new ways of playing, video compilations, modifications of existing games, making independent games, and so on. I tried to show the richness of this particular cultural space. Bugs are an ideal filter to highlight the “extended” activities produced by players and video games. They have the unique quality of making simultaneously visible the technological limits, the fooling around with the rules and a multitude of appropriations and creative loopholes.

AWB: Julien, I was first made familiar with your projectLetters of Non-Motivation 2007. It’s a brilliant work, humorous yet deeply critical. Can you explain the work and how your thinking has changed about it in the past years? How has the project changed over time, as it is re-exhibited and contextualised?

JP: This was a long-term project started in 2000. For seven years I said no to job offers that I found in newspapers. I sent more than 1,000 letters to different companies explaining why I do not want to work for them. Restated day after day, this absence of motivation became a full-time job, with each letter an excuse for a different stylistic exercise attacking the inherent absurdity of this kind of ritual. I assumed many roles – Bartleby, a pensioner, a paranoiac, a workaholic and so on – allowing for endlessly vehement reasons for turning down the job in question. The replies sent back by the companies – sometimes automatic, sometimes personal – fuel a dialogue of the deaf, a verbal delirium. It was a social experiment such as those that [the American sociologist] Harold Garfinkel could have imagined. It was showing how the employment process does not work, le rapport de force (the balance of power), the roles everyone has to play, the things we think natural, but which are only fragile social constructions. It started as a student joke and I continued writing these letters for several years, even when I had a fulltime day job. It was a performance and a therapy against some aspects of these jobs and the economic situation.

A selection of the letters was published by Zones in 2007, and the book had great success in France. I received a lot of feedback, not only from the art world but also from the economic press and human resources managers. It was revealing how things are going wrong with humour. Recently, the book has been adapted as a theatre piece, which is in the continuity of the work. Five actors are playing the different roles, adding theatrical variations, and viewers laugh at it, even if it is the moment of an economic crisis in France. It has been presented all around the world, even in countries that do not use covering letters, but this work says something more general about employment.

AWB: Humour also seems key to your practice. What is it about subtle or wry humour that conveys your ideas so succinctly?

JP: it is a good wayto evaluate the things surrounding us, a good fighting trick.

AWB: When and why did the idea come to you for Post-Post-Production, 2004, a remake of the James Bond film The World is not Enough, in which you added special effects to every scene? What is the critique specifically?

JP: I reworked this Bond film in its entirety, supplementing each shot with additional special effects that include explosions, fires, giant waves and avalanches. It was a long process, something like eight months, using after-effects software such as Combustion. Boosted in this way, the film becomes a kind of surface, a smokescreen from which emerge random scraps of action. The accumulation of visual effects creates a new rhythm, which supplants that of the narrative. It expands the production process with spontaneously suggested “improvements” that destroy the film from the interior. Every shot can become material for an “action scene”, and the film is in a state of constant eruption. The plot slowly retreats behind the ad nauseam accumulation of the effects revealing its stereotyped character. But maybe this is not the most important thing. The deluge of effects provokes a shift in the viewer’s perceptual capacity, with overkill and saturation gradually inducing a lightly hypnotic state. The constantly onscreen and visible special effects reduce the filmic image to pure light variations. It becomes literally a firework you can enjoy as such.

• The group exhibition What Shall We do Next?, which includes work by Julien Prévieux and is curated by Rachel Cook, is at DiverseWorks, Houston, Texas until 19 March 2016. 

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