BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 19 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

In Focus: Julien Prévieux

Working for the man, or machine

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 19 MAR 15

What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence No.2), 2014, HD video still. All images courtesy: the artist and Jousse Entreprise Gallery, Paris

In 2012, the French artist Julien Prévieux was working an average of eleven hours, 29 minutes and 15 seconds per day. We know this because his fellow artist, Martin Le Chevallier, conducted a month-long experiment in which he asked Prévieux to record his ‘non-artistic time’, his ‘low-intensity artistic time’, his ‘creative time’ and his ‘creative peaks’ in a specially designed, fold-out notebook. Le Chevallier then displayed Prévieux’s four-colour Bic pen (used to tick the boxes) and the charted results on a trestle-table installation as 11h29’15”, mesure du temps de travail d’un artiste (11h29’15” Measure of an Artist’s Working Hours, 2012).

While it might seem strange to begin a text about Prévieux by mentioning another artist, there’s too much sweet irony in Le Chevallier’s work to ignore. Prévieux, who deservedly won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2014, is probably best known for one of his earliest projects, Lettres de non-motivation (Letters of Non-Application, 2000–07). This archive, which was published as a book in 2007, contains scores of covering letters Prévieux wrote in response to listings for management, manufacturing, sales and other jobs for which he had no, or dubious, qualifications and no real interest. In some of the Lettres de non-motivation, he outright refuses a job offer before it has even been made; in others, he explicitly critiques everything from the tone of the advert to company policy. In one of my favourites, and one that sets the tongue firmly in the cheek, Prévieux reproaches a company for seeking to hire a ‘glass cutter’: ‘Times have changed, Sir! You must absolutely update yourselves and propose jobs that correspond to the present […] We live in a post-industrial society, sawing can wait, but financial and leisure products or semi-conductors can’t […] You are impeding innovation so I must refuse this retrograde job your company is offering.’

Some companies took the time to reply to Prévieux’s letters, while others sent out standard rejections. But the artist was not sitting idly by. Instead, he chan­nelled his interest in labour and language into a conceptually coherent, yet formally multifarious, body of work that includes painting, sculpture, architecture, installation and performance.

La totalité des propositions vraies (avant) (The Totality of True Propositions [Before]), 2008, books, oak, plywood, metal, 1.5 × 3.8 m

Prévieux’s materials and media vary from project to project, but it’s fair to say that, along with text, design features prominently, both as an approach to making work and as a visible outcome. Have a Rest (2007), looks like a handcrafted leather bench curling around two wood-veneer towers, but it’s also a ‘copy’ of the first super-computer devised in 1977 by Seymour Cray. ‘D’Octobre a Février’ (From October to February, 2010) is a series of crew-neck pullovers made by knitters Prévieux recruited via the internet. The sleeves are black and the bodies are decorated with brightly coloured abstract patterns of little squares produced by software used for predicting and measuring crowd dynamics during moments of collective revolt. Yellow, for instance, represents the calm individuals in the crowd, while red represents the agitators. Each individual knitter used algorithmic data from a measured crowd to create the motif on the garment.

Prévieux’s focus on the interaction between humans and machines is not driven by a penchant for sci-fi, but relates to a broader interest in technology’s role in the evolution and decline of structures and systems of knowledge. In Atelier de dessin B.A.C. du 14ème arrondissement de Paris (Drawing Workshop B.A.C. of the 14th District of Paris, 2011), he taught four Paris policemen how to draw Voronoi diagrams from their crime-scene maps, demonstrating how the drawings would allow them to analyze the distribution of neighbourhood crime more effectively. Of course, computers can do this in an instant and, due to the slow and laborious process, the data the policemen produced was worthless. But the real value, according to Prévieux, was a series of ‘very successful’ abstract drawings.

Hands are invariably busy in Prévieux’s work: writing and building and knitting and drawing. Indeed, gesture has preoccupied the artist for some time. What Shall We Do Next? (2007–11) is an animated film screened from an old-fashioned overhead projector that demonstrates the hand gestures that will be needed to activate our future devices (smart phones, computers, etc.). These gestures are ‘designed’ and registered at the US patent office even before the devices on which they will be used are produced. Prévieux’s Prix Marcel Duchamp winning projects – a choreographed and spoken-word performance, an accompanying video, What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence No.2) and the video What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence No.3) (both 2014) – integrate and expand on this investigation of the role and power of ‘natural user interfaces’ in our lives.

In the first performance, four dancers re-enact the gestures that have entered the vocabulary of Hollywood sci-fi films over time, such as ‘wave to activate’, ‘swipe to dismiss’, etc. In the second performance, dancers execute moves that were contested during an ownership dispute over Martha Graham’s choreographic legacy, while the third contains a live update of the archive of future gestures. As the dancers move, one of the performers recounts the facts and background information in a genial, didactic manner. The video version of What Shall We Do Next? opens with the dancers making gestures while reciting the dates when the gestures were copyrighted, and goes on to interrogate, through voice and movement, how our ‘natural’ forms of social interaction are mediated by technologies, as well as some of the more clever or ludicrous inventions meant to facilitate interaction that were never produced or marketed. Welcome to the world of control, capture, recognize and detect, where gestures are codified and owned, and where their meanings and functions become increasingly difficult to keep track of.

Julien Prévieux lives in Paris, France. In 2014, he was awarded the Prix Marcel Duchamp. His work is included in 'Shortcuts' at Centre PasquArt, Kunsthaus Centre d'Art, Biel, Switzerland, from 19 April to 14 June. His work is also currently included in group exhibitions at Kunstverein Hannover, Germany (until 25 May); Musée d'Art et d'Industrie de Saint-Etienne, France (until 15 June); Centre National d'Art Contemporain de la Villa Arson (until 1 June); and Espace de l'art concret de Mouans-Sartoux, france (until 31 May).

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.