ON THE GO: Interview with Fred Sapey-Triomphe

Fred Sapey-Triomphe (b. 1963 in Paris, France) is a digital artist who lives and works in Paris. Until September he is presenting his project Unicode 顔 Face on ON THE GO; an artistic project presenting – in random reading – all existing unicodes superimposed on human face videos issued from social networks. The entire project is a composite and extensible artwork that combines the graphic beauty of unicodes with the richness and the variety of human expressions. Confused? (You are not alone) If you – like us – wrinkle your nose and need to tread a fine balance, when understanding the intangible digital universe, then fear no more! We talked to Sapey-Triomphe about his digital artistic practice; what unicodes have to do with us humans and the manifold of facial expression – and what he thinks about the rapid technology development, in which we all are entangled and that has become somewhat of an extension of ourselves, like the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan already proposed in 1967.

Interview by Pauline Koffi Vandet and Isabella Aleksandra Fuchs

 (Photo: Fred Sapey-Triomphe)

You call yourself a digital artist and have created numerous digital artistic installations involving the spectator and the physical public space. In 2016 you created an interactive installation at Vallensbæk Station here in Copenhagen, curated by DIAS Kunsthal. This exhibition is also viewed in a public space – free of charge, for anyone to see – but an online public space. How did the idea for this particular project come about? 

I received the invitation from Fotografisk Center for the On The Go platform, and not being a photographer, I thought of a new series, that I am currently working on that can be adapted to a still image presentation. The images produced for the Unicode 顔 Face series are screenshots of randomly generated videos. They are unique in the sense that they cannot be reproduced, which relates them to photograph taken on the spot, but without a camera.

Without reading your project description, we see various human faces with various facial expressions covered with different numbers and what you call “unicodes” and there we got lost. Unicodes, what is that? Can you briefly tell us the story behind Unicode and why you have chosen this as a tool in your artistic practice?

I lived in Japan when I was a student in the early 90s, and since then I kept on studying the Japanese writing system which is considered to be one of the most complex writing systems in the world. I wanted to do something creative with it and during my research for this project, I discovered the Unicodes – a digital coding system. All unicodes represent a huge repertoire of surprising graphic forms, and each unicode is connected to a symbolic value which become significant when combined with form words. Individually, unicodes make me think of small creatures endowed with power, a sort of 2D Pokemon…

 (Photo: Fred Sapey-Triomphe)

The faces depicted represent a manifold picture of people around the world; both women and men with different skin colors and different ages, wearing various attributes which illustrate the diversity of culture and ideology around the world. You mention that the faces are taken from videos issued from social networks. What is the story behind these particular pictures of faces and why did you title the exhibition “Unicode 顔 Face”?

Some unicodes remind me of facial recognition designs. By associating them with human faces different types of shapes appear. I was looking for expressive faces and there are hundreds of videos online of people doing facial yoga or diction. These videos feature all kinds of people with very diverse human expressions. I created a program that randomly matches faces, fonts, and colors. The result is generative and cannot be repeated.For the title of this work, I wanted to put a Japanese / Chinese word that represents over 70% of the total 150,000 unicodes. It is the character Gao 顔: face. This character is itself made up of several symbols: seashell, beard, leaf and stand up…

We also see a lot of humor, happiness and comic effects in the pictures presented. The many faces show different kinds of moods in a rather silly and childish way. The strong colors in different shades emphasize the childishness of the pictures. It made us think of a manga figure with their intense – almost overstretched – facial expression. Where did you collect your inspiration for this particular project and for your artistic practice in general? 

I am inspired by 4-panel comics, cinema B, Mexican wrestling, keychain figurines, etc., from all cultural sub-genres. I receive a lot of energy from these simple and powerful representations. And after a whole year of seeing people with face masks, and with a significant part of their expressive capacity hidden, I wanted to see faces that were smiling, angry, anxious, surprised, etc.

A simple google research got us clarified that Unicode is a digital universal language. In fact, unicodes are the reason why we can communicate with emojis on our smartphones today. Seen through Mcluhan’s eyes, you might say that unicodes is the media that determines what and how we communicate with one another. Do you see unicodes as a manifold and democratic language or do you also see any challenges with this (relatively) new language?

Unicode was created in 1991 and represents an attempt to compile and numerically classify all of the existing writing systems on this planet, living or extinct – even the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are coded. However, there are still writing systems on this planet that escape the Unicode classification, because they are very isolated and without any digital communication.

Scripture systems shape our personality; I observed this in Japan where the sophisticate Kanji/kana writing system organizes communication and therefore social behavior. Also, the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis shows that language shapes our imagination and our perception of the world. I see unicodes as an attempt to totally digitize the extraordinary inventiveness of the human mind. This phenomenon is part of what people like Mark Weiser and Adam Greenfield call ubiquitous computing, or the digitization by a multitude of digital devices communicating with each other from all areas of human experience.

And as in every era this technological step induces a transformation in our perception of the world, which McLuhan has described in his book Understanding Media (1964). The challenge is to seize these tools –the medium, to broaden our field of creative experience on the world, before it is the medium that seizes us …

 (Photo: Fred Sapey-Triomphe)

Here at Fotografisk Center, we believe in the importance of photography for our understanding of each other and the world around us. Our use of technological media has increased in recent decades and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become even more aware of the potentials and limitations of the media. The mediums can no longer be seen as isolated entities but have become an extension of our way of understanding, experiencing and being in the world. What significance do you think emojis (the media) have on our understanding and perception of each other both locally, culturally and globally? 

Emojis are like a non-verbal sign newspeak. There is no word to name them, we have to make up a sentence. Sometimes, I wonder what emojis there represent more sensitive lived experiences, and often I cannot find it… Here two questions arise: should we only experience emotions that can be represented by existing emojis, that means around a hundred emotions and therefore experience ourselves as an emoji. Or shouldn’t we invent new emojis? Maybe we should invent real time generated emojis to coincide with every second of our lives. And then they would be as complex as we are and could have an independent life. The prediction of the future is very uncertain…

About the artist

Fred Sapey-Triomphe (b. 1963 in Paris, France) is a digital artist who lives and works in Paris. His training began at the École Boulle school in Paris, then at the ENSBA in Paris and ended with a master’s degree in Fine Arts in Kyoto, Japan. Sapey-Triomphe notably creates digital artistic installations – SPIM *, using light as a raw material. This enlightened visual artist cultivates references to Op Art, kinetic art and manga, while wielding technology to provoke an immediate visual experience. He has exhibited in numerous museums, galleries, festivals and public sites in France and abroad. In 2016, he created an interactive installation for the DIAS Copenhagen in Denmark and he won the competition for a light work under the A86 motorway in St Denis, near the Stade de France, launched by Plaine Commune. Latest in 2020 and 2021, he created the first interactive building with Pixel-Façade in Montreuil.

For more info: www.f.sapeytriomphe.free.fr

Thank you
We would like to thank Fred Sapey-Triomphe for his cooperation and contributions during the online exhibition on our digital platform ON THE GO. The exhibition ends August 31st, 2021.

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