Today's critical discourse is only too ready to pigeonhole the contemporary artist as a prankster busily and playfully subverting bureaucratic procedures and merchandising emblems. Whether this is cause for complaint or rejoicing is for others to decide. One may consider that the activity of “free play” enables artists to effectively turn the weapons of humour and mockery against the idiocies of the culture industry and enslavement by the business world. On the contrary, it may be said to only strengthen their hold on us through implicit adoption of design and advertising codes. These, however, are two mutually reinforcing points of view, for once he abandons the critical stance underpinning his political denunciation, the artist who claims to be playing a double game lays himself open to suspicion of simply playing the game, of diverting himself with the new embodiments of alienation in a supposedly replayed relationship that remains fundamentally ambiguous despite all the twists and all the subtle discrepancies pointing to an artistic urge behind this course of action.
Is Julien Prévieux free of this ambivalence? The question would be relevant if the oeuvre he has been building for some years now was clearly part of the "pop", practical-joke version of critically-inflected art. But the singularity and interest of his agenda must be looked at in the light of the way it eludes the habitual readings and calls for closer attention to the nature of the processes it invents from one work to the next.
Prévieux sometimes describes his work as an exercise in "counter-productivity", by which he means a new resistance strategy. I would be more inclined to speak of "wilful misuse", for the primary issue here is the use we make of things, the way we avail ourselves of them; and this is especially true of all systems of control having to do with today's "production relationships". But Prévieux doesn't see himself as some unproductive Bartleby or artist-without-an-oeuvre. In some respects his work even signals a kind of (most often inappropriate) overproductivism, together with a perfectionism not far removed from the obsessional. His Non-motivation letters, for example, are in no way an expression of unwillingness and even less of a flagging of interest: in their own way they are part of a form of activism whose motivations I shall proceed to outline.
I mentioned perfectionism a few lines earlier. It's often the case that this artist's projects have their starting point in a direct, if obtuse urge to improve a process or push it up a notch, even if this involves overloading and over-revving the mechanism. Other times it's simply a matter of proving, to himself and others, that he's equal – and better still, more than equal – to some given challenge. Two works provide exemplary illustrations of this.
Post-post-production doesn't involve using the editing-table image to present the artist as, yet again, a manipulator of signs. We know that "relational aesthetics" has made postproduction one of its pet paradigms, with the artist settling for the simultaneously modest and grandiloquent role of editor or reprogrammer of social forms. A mere link in the ongoing production chain we call "culture", he nonetheless emerges, via his various editing and routing processes, as the brilliant inventor of "scenarios" capable of establishing itineraries across the cultural production landscape. Prévieux clearly has no need to claim this kind of status: by moving directly into postproduction he defines himself as, simultaneously, bricoleur, copyist and arranger – in a way that goes without saying.
In his case the improvement process is less important for its frank determination to hijack, displace or ironically stand the values of a mass-market movie product – here a James Bond film – on their head, than for its demonstration of the possibility of a clumsy (call it low-tech) yet effective reappropriation of certain spectacular effects the artist sets out to push still further in the direction they're pointing in. In brief it's a business of augmenting, of adding a fresh layer (and maybe lots of them) by using available means to key in one decorative inlay after another, like someone patching a video game. Following each other in an endless avalanche, smoke, lava, explosions, rain and snow ultimately saturate the image, obscuring the logical sequence of the plot to the point of blocking any narrative interpretation. The benefit is clear: as the spectacular "backdrop" advances into the foreground and takes over the image completely, the plot retreats into the background, revealing as it goes its pitifully stereotyped character. But maybe the most important thing is not to be found in this pale reflection of the truth, which only confirms what we already knew.
This over-revving is the equivalent of effecting a shift in the viewer's perceptual capacity, with overkill and saturation gradually inducing a lightly hypnotic state. It's as if, indiscriminately, the tritest shot can become material for an "action scene", or the plot be cancelled out as it's engulfed in a deluge of special effects that reduce the filmic image to the blatant opacity of light and sound in a state of constant eruption. Whatever the case, the artist's underlying rationale is entirely affirmative. At no point does he set out to plunder a work so as to undermine or delegitimise it, nor even to recombine its components so as to generate new comparisons that might reveal the internal contradictions of a given form of expression or of the production relationships and styles of consumption that underpin it. If indeed there is appropriation here, its primary aim is to improve, extend or augment the film, to make it a "souped up" James Bond, so to speak – an exercise that has very little to do with any denunciation of showbiz glamour. In his own oddly sophisticated way Prévieux is not so far removed from the methods of Art Brut, and Jean-Marc Chapoulie is right to describe him as a "fireworks artist". Let's be frank, only a poor idea of subversion [détournement] prevents us from seeing this.
The second example, the video Roulades (Rolling), must first be understood as quite a performance in the everyday sense of a sporting feat. This was already the case with Crash Test – Mode d’emploi (Crash Test: A User's Guide); but here there is also the invention of a new practice and a new form of behaviour, specifically a new way of entering and moving through a generic provincial city, with its streets, alleyways, stairs, parks and traffic circles. The comic impact of this performance/feat hinges in part on the artificial constraints imposed on a human body by preventing it from walking and forcing it, instead, to roll from one place to another. This perverse exercise in locomotion, which begins by depriving itself of the resources of the standing position and actively avoiding the habitual movements that constitute walking, would not be so effective without the pointless expenditure of effort it demands of the performer: by forcing his limbs and muscles to function against the grain, and by systematically misusing everyday circulation spaces and paths, he shapes a new bodily machine, thereby slipping a kind of incongruous animal evolution into the sinister quotidian routine of an urban or domestic setting.
You only have to take the direction suggested by this intuitive sense of "wilful misuse" to become aware of the relative fallaciousness here of the notion of hijacking (détournement); for Prévieux "lowjacks" more often than he hijacks, making play less with the signs than with codes and procedures – translation, correlation, encoding, decoding – that shape and diffuse them. Thus the coupling of a conversation programme with voice synthesis and recognition software results in an unlikely dialogue between two computers. In this mechanised version of the Chinese whisper, the boundary between noise and information becomes virtually indiscernible. In F.A.Q. the coloured pictograms from the covers of a science-book series are reproduced picture-size by a professional painter and transmuted into works of geometrical abstraction. With things thus pushed to their limits, symbolic correlation is reversed and it is now the title of the work, transformed into a caption, that seems to illustrate the image that originally modelled it according to the codes of graphic design.
Of course this infiltration or short-circuiting of codes always involves an element of violence. The resistance practised by Prévieux most often takes the form of combating the opposition with their own weapons, his favourite rhetorical figure being the return to sender. The aim is to take control in the very situation in which the viewer or user seems condemned by the system to the status of passive consumer or mere "requester". The Non-motivation Letters the artist writes in response to job offers – as if the offers in question had been made to him personally – are the most striking, and certainly the best-known example here. These doggedly prepared little traps – almost a thousand letters have been sent out, eliciting a negligible number of replies – can still be interpreted as a devastating denunciation of the world of business and the bureaucratic machine. But the most interesting aspect is the way interference with this machine can sometimes produce strange outcomes: when, for example, a formal, affect-free relationship is temporarily rehumanised in the context of a simple misunderstanding.
In all these cases it is a matter not of standing values on their head or of breaking or reversing codes; rather, by adhering to and sometimes extending the forms in which these values and codes present themselves, the artist is out to push them beyond their limits, into odd contexts in which they are forced to vary their effects. This is the art of the hacker, who makes his presence and his skill felt at exactly the point where the procedure seems the most unambiguously automated.
Let me repeat that "wilful misuse" involves two things: bypassing and systematic misapplication. Bypassing, then – the skirting of a problem – rather than hijacking. For instance, bypassing the rules by slipping into their interstices, as in Eclairage Illicite (Illegal Lighting). If the law forbids certain visual codes in the public space, you can always come up with a phosphorescent trace that is only visible at night, when no one is looking. In the same way you can set up a free-access data base for door code users, or succeed in obtaining the fingerprints of a former Minister of the Interior now promoted to President and use ink stamps to put them into circulation; here too, in addition to the critique of biometric control systems, there is quite a feat involved.
To bypass and misuse, as has already been said, is to saturate the machine, push it beyond its speed limit. But it is also to thwart the dominance of the code by neutralising its function, by making it work like a washing machine with no load. So À la Recherche du Miracle Economique (In Search of the Economic Miracle), a paranoid reading of the classics of political economics intensified by the blind application of a process normally used for decoding the Bible, ultimately scrambles its own message via what might be called an excess of clarity. Once more a modification of the sign system affects the system as a whole, with the text becoming a rebus or a ciphered message: the hermeneutic panic generated by misuse of the encoding/decoding procedure drives the linear logic of the reading towards a kind of diagrammatic organisation. In the margins – or on the body – of the text constellations of circled words, linked by connectors of uncertain purpose, form a new grid whose cartography is utterly imprecise but which offers itself as a formal equivalent of economic reality. Everything comes together in a state of superfusion: discourse becomes picture. This strategy is at work even more explicitly in La Somme de Toutes les Peurs (The Sum of All Fears), a fresco produced by applying decision-making software to the synopses of Hollywood films. Here too wilful misuse is initially apparent as a paranoid saturation effect: when everything is charged with meaning, when everything connects with everything else to convey the threat of some imminent catastrophe, the flood of signs ultimately causes congestion – "a blockage of the left hemisphere" as the artist once put it in describing his simultaneously frontal and oblique strategy of resistance.
Text published in the catalogue "Gestion des stocks / Backup" in 2009
Catalogue to download (pdf)