Cryptic Deconstructions of Big Data

In Julien Prévieux’s solo show at Julius Caesar, the artist asks: what, if anything, can be made of our intense reliance on technology to learn about our world?

Still from Julien Prévieux, “Patterns of Life” (2015) (all images courtesy Julius Caesar)
Still from Julien Prévieux, “Patterns of Life” (2015), HD video, 15’28’’ (photo by Julien Prévieux, courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)

CHICAGO — Toward the end Julien Prévieux’s short film “Patterns of Life” (2015), a female narrator calmly states:

Today, intelligence gathering is like looking in a global ocean for an object that might or might not be a fish. It might be anything and it might be important, but at first, we are not sure it even exists. And whatever it might be is constantly moving and interacting with a huge number of other objects… It’s like going after the unknown unknowns, things we didn’t know we didn’t know. We used to know what we were looking for, and therefore were looking for things. Now we don’t know what we’re looking for and instead of looking for things, we’re looking for activities.

The script is collaged together from an article by Letitia A. Long, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and a Donald Rumsfeld–esque statement about the uncertainty of mining big data. As you listen to it, people of various ages, genders, and races float across the screen in organized lines, while a few individual interrupters navigate their own erratic paths. In brief vignettes such as this, the film visualizes the ocean of big data — the shorthand term for the “extremely large data sets that may be [and are] analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions,” according to Oxford Dictionaries through the use of human form and movement. In doing so, it asks: What, if anything, can be made of our intense reliance on technology to learn about the world around us and our place in it? What are we missing that we hadn’t even been looking for?

Still from Julien Prévieux, “Patterns of Life” (2015), HD video, 15’28’’ (photo by Julien Prévieux, courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)
Still from Julien Prévieux, “Patterns of Life” (2015), HD video, 15’28’’ (photo by Julien Prévieux, courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)

Visiting this cryptic exhibition in the days leading up to the election was unsettling. Even before last Wednesday’s results, I had been struggling to discern what, aside from deconstructions of big data, Prévieux was getting at with his modest yet stirring show, The Graphic Method, on view at the similarly modest yet impactful artist-run Chicago exhibition space, Julius Caesar.

Now, following more than a few early morning bloody marys and conversations with equally freaked-out friends/artists/moms, I realize that a longing for empathy is potentially what binds the seemingly disparate prints, drawings, and films in the exhibition. Or maybe I am simply longing for empathy myself. At the very least, Prévieux’s analysis is a means of unraveling big data’s reckless and relentless pace. It reminds you to remain vigilant and question the seeming certainty of the world around you.

For example, during an earlier scene in “Patterns of Life,” while a man methodically pulls metal pegs from a grid, the narrator considers the idea that “time is money,” concluding that “unnecessary motion is therefore money lost forever.” The track and action are both deadpan, but the contradiction is never resolved; it simply exists. I wonder what other (nonmonetary) types of value may be derived from artistic activity and empathic interactions. A second film, “What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2)” (2014), takes up the subject of now-ubiquitous gestures like “swipe right,” considering control as it relates to our interactions with technology and the companies that own the patents to those gestures. Both films share a serene tone and spare, Modern aesthetic that counter their dystopian content.

Still from Julien Prévieux, "What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2)" (2014), HD video, 16’47’’ (courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)
Still from Julien Prévieux, “What Shall We Do Next? (Sequence #2)” (2014), HD video, 16’47’’ (courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)

The 2D works on display read like purposely unfinished sentences — just enough to make you feel like you might be missing something. Although the exhibition is installed so that the drawings lead into the two films, which are playing on a loop, the experience is the other way around. The drawings, including one that unfolds in 3D space, appear to be small tangents from the films that further explore how technology affects the way we understand ourselves.

Julien Prévieux, “Ghost (Pickpocket)” (2016)
Julien Prévieux, “Ghost (Pickpocket)” (2016), site-specific installation at Julius Caesar

This is especially clear with the only site-specific work, “Ghost (Pickpocket),” which resonates directly with a scene from “Patterns of Life.” In the film, you see a closeup of a man’s eye, while a woman standing across from him appears to trace the path of his eye onto an image of a domestic Victorian room with yarn. Likewise, using his computer, Prévieux traced the path of curator (and Hyperallergic contributor) Kate Sierzputowski’s eyes while she was viewing a photo of his large, abstract aluminum sculpture “Pickpocket,” which is itself derived from mapping a pickpocket’s trajectory. Prévieux then replicated Sierzputowski’s results in the corner of the gallery using yarn. The film narration and the exhibition text tell us that “eye movements reflect human thought processes.” I wonder what the map would look like if Sierzputowski had been looking at the sculpture IRL.

Most notable and confounding are the drawings completed in collaboration with police officers of Paris’s 14th District. For this project, Prévieux used personal connections to meet police officers who were willing to work on rendering complex Voronoï diagrams and heat maps — both of which are usually generated through machine learning — by hand. The “unnecessary motion” of painstakingly drawing out the diagrams undermines their intended utility: to provide and predict information about crime in real time through the detection of patterns.

Julien Prévieux,
Installation view, Julien Prévieux, The New Graphic Method, showing diagrams and maps from the artist’s drawing workshop with the B.A.C. of 14th district of Paris (2011–15)

Though technically impotent, the resulting drawings are nearly identical to their computer-made counterparts. What happens if you replace machine learning with human training? What was going on in the minds of the police officers as they recreated these drawings of their beats? Did they start to see themselves vis-à-vis their positions in a new way? Could drawing exercises like these lead to better policing, more empathy?

On the opposite wall is a group of images that appear to be doodles lifted from someone’s notebook. Close. In actuality, Prévieux used a telephoto lens to photograph a whiteboard inside Google’s Los Angeles office and then rendered the resulting images in india ink. The artist describes this series as a way to “track the trackers” or “stalk the stalkers,” though unlike other works I’ve seen featuring the tech giant, these drawings bring to mind the quirkiness and individuality of humans who likely work there IRL. Out of context, the images suggest the idiosyncrasies of Google employees: What does a cute, curled-up snail have to do with self-driving cars — is that someone’s pet or the key to the future? Was a software engineer trying to draw an eyeball or a stick figure, or a stick figure surfing on the surface of an eye? Were they making a bad joke about surfing the net or just ready to go home for the night? Are the scrawled words “Today is Great” meant as inspiration or a sardonic admission that all is not right?

Julien Prévieux, Google images
Julien Prévieux, “Today is Great” (2014), indian ink on paper, 16 x 20 inches (courtesy Jousse Entreprise Gallery)

A few days after seeing the show, I’m walking down the street when the cool fall light casts a gridded shadow through the bus-stop glass. I’m transported back to “Patterns of Life” and begin to wonder about the matrix I’ve found myself in. Has the imposition of big data obscured our ability to see each other at all? Could art be a viable alternative to finding each other and what we seek amid the waves of our global ocean?

Julien Prévieux: The New Graphic Method continues at Julius Caesar (3311 W Carroll Avenue, Chicago) through November 20.

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