Julien Prévieux is a multidisciplinary artist that for years has investigated the relationship between technologies and the human, employing diverse formats and languages. Many of his works escape specific language and discipline categories. They are open processes, social experiments on what the artist defines as “crisis wrecks”, iconic residues of financial scandals, legal cases, traces of symbolic structures or visual codes produced by economic and political systems.
He has worked with lists, diagrams; devices and processes for classifying, archiving and visualising reality, as well as to challenge the categories of past and future. As stated by the artist, the exploration of what happens in the ‘back end’ of society has become a methodology to attempt the representation of highly complex phenomena concerning work, scientific research, technological innovation, copyright, inequalities in accessing knowledge. His work What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) is at the centre of the third stage of INBTWN, the programme by Centrale Fies I curated that investigates the relationships between body and technologies between physical space and the Web. The video work What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) is part of a broader research the artist has dedicated to the study of codified gestures that have been patented by ICT companies.
Departing from questions such as “Why do we move as we move? How will we move in one, ten or a hundred years? Who do our gestures belong to?”, since 2006 the artist has collected the original documents of the patents registered at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Such patents define collections of gestures of what Prévieux defines an “archive of future gestures”, a knowledge incorporated by the users’ bodies through the use of devices and in fact owned by firms such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, Sony and others.
What Shall We Do Next?
(Sequence #2) (2014)
HD Video and database
21 September – 30 October 2020
INBTWN Chapter III
Curated by Claudia D’Alonzo
Presented by XL – Centrale Fies
The gestures included in the patents are the basis of a series of works in which Julien Prévieux re-elaborates and recontextualizes their contents in different formats: animated films, dance performances and videos. Sequence #2 is a film made with six performers who interpret some of the gestures and diagrams contained in the patents as if they were dance scores. For INBTWN the video is presented together with a database of the original patents filed by the companies.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Part of your works are inspired by current news or legal cases. It seems that you highlight little-known singular events as symptoms of wide social and/or political conditions by searching, selecting and re-elaborating documents, sources, traces or ‘wrecks’ of real facts. Among the references of What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) there is a series of articles on legal process for the “slide to unlock” gesture patent between Samsung and Apple. How have you started working on the project?
Julien Prévieux: I started to collect patented gestures in 2006: 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 full part of the invention and, to some extent, they can have an owner just like the invention itself. At first, I was aghast by the idea you can own such things as the movement of two fingers on a screen. These gestures, triggering different functions, are to a certain extent the property of the inventor of the device. On another level, I made the assumption these gestures patented today are the movements we may have to do in the future.
I started to collect these specific movements searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website. In 2011, this This process of patenting gestures led to the well-known controversy concerning the “slide-to-unlock” movement Apple patented several years ago. Steve jobs had engaged in a policy of massive patent filing and a patent “warfare” with competing companies. The “slide-to-unlock” gesture was presented as one of the proofs Samsung/Android copied Apple.
Claudia D’Alonzo: How have you worked with the performers? Was there any link with the Martha Graham Dance Company case, that is another reference in the video?
Julien Prévieux: I worked with dancers in different ways. I started with students in dance from University Paris 8. We did a workshop to test the gestures together and to see how we could work with this material, having in mind choreographers like Yvonne Rainer who used everyday gestures in her task oriented choreographies. Then I worked with Rebecca Bruno, a choreographer and dancer living in Los Angeles, with whom I collaborated to write and choreograph a live performance designed as a demonstration of these potential movements. Later, I worked directly with groups of dancers to extend this first score and film the performance.
In the live version of the performance entitled What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #3), I tell the story of a famous trial involving choreographer Martha Graham. Because she became an employee of her own company she worked for hire and owned almost nothing of the repertoire she had created. This is a case study regarding the way dance can be copyrighted. Another aspect of the way gestures and the notion of property can be mixed in capitalist cultures.
Claudia D’Alonzo: You define What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2) as a project born from an archive of future gestures. Your research is characterized by collecting, classifying, archiving, modeling phenomena and then creating alternative ways of representing their complexity, through very different codes and languages. Would you tell me more about this aspect of your work?
Julien Prévieux: What Shall We Do Next? is part of a body of work sharing a common research framework that takes the study of the influence of technology on bodies as its starting point. This process began during the creation of the different “sequences” of What Shall We Do Next? This work took various forms: workshops with students as I said, performances with dancers, an animated film or a short film.
Similarly, in my other film Patterns of Life, key experiences from the history of motion capture are reincarnated by dancers from the Paris Opera. From Georges Demenÿ’s recording of pathological walks in the late 19th century to the “activity-based intelligence” of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the film revisits the genealogy of movement quantification and visualization, and the different ways of making sense of recordings of body movements. The scientific history becomes choreographic instructions, activated in specific settings.
These works share a desire to move materials, all of which have to do, at different levels, with archives and the optimization and control of bodies, from one medium to another (performance, film, or workshop) without necessarily stabilizing them in a definitive version. They open a critical field of research on current models of control society and show different attempts to bifurcate the original materials. Ways of reappropriating gestures, knowledge or forms of life. And potentialities to reshuffle the cards.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Nowadays there is a much talk on machine learning. I think What Shall We Do Next? leads us questioning more about human learning related to technologies. So I ask you: what are we learning from machines? What norms are we incorporating or how are they disciplining our bodies?
Julien Prévieux: To go back to the patented gestures: we incorporate movements thought upstream by engineers and companies. We, as technicized living beings evolving in a world shaped in great part by data, are incorporating many of the movements designed for us: infinite scrolling or pinch-to-zoom are part of our everyday lives. This phenomenon has amplified over the past several years alongside the growth of knowledge and power technologies, enabled by the capture and interpretation of movement. These recent developments are the latest part of a longer history in which bodies are incorporating various body techniques despite their willingness.
But it is not as depressing as it sounds. Embodiment does not always work: gestures thought up beforehand are “withdrawn” or become obsolete, replaced by others. Slide to unlock is an example. A successful gesture a few years ago, who will remember it in 5 years? There are multiple feedback loops that cause a gesture to stabilize or disappear. Also, our gestural state is a large and very unstable construction site and has always been so. Marcel Mauss tells us about the swimming technique he was taught: he had to blow out water while swimming to swim like a steamboat. A few years later this technique disappeared.
Claudia D’Alonzo: The NUI, Natural User Interface are one of the main topics of What Shall We Do Next?, also with historical examples as Theremin and Tape Drawing technique. Why have you focused on these specific interfaces? Can you tell me more about it?
Julien Prévieux: Working with NUI is a way to look through a particular technological “keyhole” and better understand the intricacies of capitalism and moving bodies. These NUI are a good viewpoint to see the micro-demonstrations of a system of government consisting of the interweaving of governance from the business world and simultaneous recourse to state intervention in order to guarantee the market operations. This political-economic strategy is based on technologies for measuring, evaluating, monitoring and mobilizing bodies and individuals, the principles of which can be broken down and brought to light.
Claudia D’Alonzo: “In a laboratory, a roll of white paper, 26 or 27 feet long and two feet wide would be unrolled on the floor. The researchers would draw a line in the middle of the paper. The soles of the subject’s shoes would be sprinkled with iron oxide. The patient would be asked to walk along the guideline, thereby leaving footprints on the paper which allowed for his gait to be measured from various parameters. Because of their illness, some subjects would walk in such a way that with each step they appeared to be falling. The amazing thing is that, after being diagnosed thousands of times in the 19th century, these conditions ceased to be identified. Could it be that ataxia, tic disorders and dystonia have gradually become the norm?”
This is an extract from Notes on Gesture by Giorgio Agamben, quoted in the film. What aspects of his discourse on gesture are you interested in?
Julien Prévieux: WSWDN (Sequence #2) has a voiceover based on a collage of different sources: paragraphs extracted from the patents, a text from a designer on human computer interactions, or this citation of Giorgio Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture.” For Agamben this is not a question: 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… In this film I wanted to combine different focal lengths concerning the invention and crystallization of gestures. This quotation opens a field of reflection in relation to the idea of norm and standardization.
By hybridizing work with the body, minimalist scenography and the presence of texts on stage or in voice-over, I conceive forms of “documentary performance”. Here this is linked to the human-computer interaction but more generally we can ask what are the singular effects of relentless quantification on our bodies and on our lives? I believe there are ways to escape from it. Dance is one possibility, humour also and what we have called Statactivism is another way out.