Focus sur Virgile Fraisse
in conversation with Mo Gourmelon
Mo Gourmelon: It’s in the air, the series is a genre that attracts the attention of artists. To give just two very recent examples: Virginie Barré’s project in the throes of being filmed titled La Cascadeuse, and at the Rennes Biennale “Incorporated!”, Liv Schulmann organized her series Control in six episodes while at the same time embarking on a new series Que faire about unmotivated TV scriptwriters, re-reading, for the occasion, Tonino Benacquista’s Saga, also incidentally cited as a reference in Virginie Barré’s project. You yourself are completing your first series titled Pragmatic Chaos, made up of a pilot episode, two episodes, and an epilogue. Your references are quite different: where does this project come from? What permits you to use this new four-sequence format, and how are you going to distribute it?
Virgile Fraisse: The series appeared in my work by way of a video made in 2014 called Situations suivantes. What was involved was reproducing a scriptwriters’ room in the political context of South Africa. Five scriptwriters tried to construct a comedy based on the daily life of a group working in a copper mine. What interested me then was the process of constructed writing. The following projects inherited from this, by developing in several chapters. There’s the project underway, SEA-ME-WE, which is a series of films shot in parts of the world connected by one and the same undersea cable which I recently made a chapter in Mumbai, and the series Pragmatic Chaos.
Pragmatic Chaos is a series in four episodes taking its name from an algorithm created in the context of a competition held in 2009 by Netflix. Several teams competed against each other in a race against the clock to improve the film-suggestion algorithm created by Netflix, Cinematch. Despite the convincing results of the BellKor team, and the hefty reward of one million dollars, the winning algorithm has never been used by Netflix. At that moment, there was tremendous media coverage of the competition, and I wanted to take it as the point of departure for four tableaux revealing the impact of suggestion and recommendation systems (algorithms) on our daily life. The series was produced in the context of the exhibition/TV programme Labor Zero Labor in Marseille. Each episode was first broadcast live by that online television, and then made available as a replay.
MG: An artist who refers to the series genre is not limited to a formatting involving the number of episodes or the time-frames imposed. How did you deal with these data? How do you decide to make four episodes of different lengths?
VF: The series Pragmatic Chaos was conceived to work with a small number of episodes. The first three are roughly the same length, while the epilogue is shorter, acting like a snapshot. Three were shot in situ in the studio/exhibition space at La Friche, and the last episode behind the letters Marseille installed by Netflix to promote their series.
MG: The original TV series moved to the Internet. The artists who refer to it are on the Internet, too, so as to find a means of distribution. On television, initially, we reckoned on several months, with the programming of a weekly episode, playing on tensions, desires, expectations, and frustrations. I’m thinking of the interminable series Peyton Place (then called a serial), whose book of reference of the same title written by Grace Metalious was republished in 2016. Understanding of series now has to do with simultaneity and the order planned by the director is not necessarily respected. Does one think about this when making a series at the present time?
VF: The Netflix strategy of making available, in one fell swoop, all the episodes of a new season, has greatly influenced the production of new series. For example, the episodes in the series Black Mirror are all autonomous, but dealing with the same subject, so you can take the series from either end. It’s this process which influenced Pragmatic Chaos. Only the presence of the three same actors summons up a possible narrative linearity. The two central episodes were respectively jointly written by Antoine Dufeu and Georgia René-Worms. This involved collaborating with them in critical spaces which were close to them, the book and its distribution on the one hand, and the construction of a feminist platform on the other. The brief of each episode was thus to re-negotiate the forms of the series by way of different borrowings and influences.
MG: Beyond the references and the context present in the mind or not, of the commission of an algorithm by Netflix, I’m struck by the emphasis of your actors. There is a declamatory tone, highly theatrical acting, a distribution of words, a courtesy, and in a word the anti-“fuck” which Emmanuel Burdeau displays in his essay about the series The Wire. The replies have been repeated, I imagine? How did you choose your actors, and how did you get them started in this series? Also, how did you direct your actors?
VF: I think that images have a responsibility in their capacity to influence the world. We have seen this with the presidential elections in the United States, which have been greatly affected by Donald Trump’s shows. I don’t think that “fuck”, no matter how cinematographic and nonchalant it might be, represents an adequate response to the contemporary world. Instead of it, I prefer a more disguised form of irony. The writing of episodes does not involve bursts of anger or revolt. But this revolt tends to be constructed. The work with the actors consisted in heightening the artificiality of situations staged in a minimal set. There were rehearsals, but stress was put on a form of spontaneity, offering more room for the interpretation of the text, and sometimes for improvisations. The theatrical writing was also strengthened by the co-writing work. The numerous re-uses of extracts of texts in each episode also go in this direction.
MG: I was very moved by these characters, that young woman, for example, who is up in arms about the use of French, and those two other young men who assert a position, having a perfect mastery of the language but without being pompous. What I appreciate is that your writing is not coded, which would make it generational, or community-related. You talk about a minimal set for this series. You say that the epilogue of Pragmatic Chaos dialogues directly with Prediction/Production, 2016. Can you talk about this film again? It is also being presented in the Saison Video 2017 programme, and this time in dialogue with Housewarming, 2016, by Effi Weiss & Amir Borenstein.
VF: The first three episodes of Pragmatic Chaos take place in a simple set—a few partitions made of MDF; whereas, conversely, the last episode uses a real décor—the back of the letters installed by Netflix. This latter takes the form of a visit and confronts the excess of the project investigated by Netflix. It echoes my previous video, Prediction/Production, which announced the production of this same series, a bit like a science-fiction film. Prediction/Production speculates about the claimed scientific construction of the production of the series, referring to the announcement made by the Netflix CEO, who claims that the decisions to do with locations and casting were made using algorithms.