This interview with Marguerite Humeau was featured on the cover of Metropolis M’s summer issue:
Agnieszka Gratza: You studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and then at the Royal College of Arts in Design Interactions. How did you make the transition from design to art?
Marguerite Humeau: My background is in design but “design art” doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not a “design artist”; I’m an artist. I studied textile in Paris and then I spent two years at the Design Academy. It was a bit too product-oriented for me. So I looked around and a friend of mine was in Design Interactions at the RCA. The tutors there were all designers working in the space they called “critical design” or “speculative design”. What I loved about it was the intellectual rigour. The focus was on emergent technologies but most of the projects were not answers to problems, they were really trying to design scenarios, to push things to the extreme and question things.
AG: Is that what people mean by “speculative design”?
MH: This is more “critical design,” I would say. Speculative design, which grew out of critical design, is more about “what if?” scenarios: what if this hadn’t happened, what could have happened? Where my work is still influenced by design is this idea of making a proposal for something new, instead of just commenting. You could make a proposal for another world; it doesn’t have to be a proposal for a coffee pot.
AG: Some of the works you produce are signed by Le Studio Humain.
MH: No, that\s my collaborator. Le Studio Humain is Benjamin Penaguin who is an art director and we started collaborating when I graduated. I wanted to find a way for the physical pieces to exist in different contexts, like when the projects are shown in a magazine or online, and this is how we started the conversation. He does all the video work, most of my images; for example, now he’s working on the poster and the trailer for the Palais de Tokyo show.
AG: Let’s start with the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures, which is still your best known project.
MH: The first creature was my graduation project and then I developed it as an opera for an exhibition that happened the year after my graduation in 2011. I developed two creatures, “Mammoth Imperator” and “Lucy”, in 2011 and then, the following year, I had the show with the complete opera – including “Mammoth Imperator”, “Walking Whale” and “Terminator Pig” – in St Etienne, France, which toured in Europe. When I started to research this project I realized research, as well as the odyssey and the quest, would be a big part of my work as an artist.
AG: Why do you insist on styling yourself as an adventurer, an explorer? And why are your works fashioned as odysseys?
MH: Because they are. My projects always start with a mystery that I have to solve and they become these very long-term odysseys: reaching people, experts; sometimes I collaborate with hundreds of experts who advise me how to do what I want to do. It really feels like an adventure, although it’s not a physical adventure, like going to a place…
AG: So you travel vicariously, in your imagination or on the Internet?
MH: Mostly yes. When I was looking for extinct languages for Cleopatra, I contacted academics who got in touch with people in lost villages in Syria, people you would never be able to reach directly. For the show at the Palais de Tokyo I went out to the jungle in Thailand to source elephant tears. So I also travel, it’s not only on the Internet.
AG: Tell me more about the elephant tears.
MH: I’m working on a project that’s related to elephants and I wanted to see how elephants are sculpted in the temples of Anghkor Wat in Cambodia since they are considered sacred animals. This was more for my archive. Then I went to Thailand because I wanted to see real elephants. For one of the sculptures at the Palais de Tokyo I needed to get elephant tears, so I asked a driver in Thailand to take me to a specific place. I didn’t know if I would be able to get the tears or not. When I got there I took a lot of pictures and videos as documentation for my work and at some point I saw that the oldest elephant was crying natural tears. I asked the elephant keeper about it and he said it’s normal when they are old. So I took one drop, put it in a bottle and brought it back to London.
AG: But why did you need elephant tears, if it’s not a secret?
MH: My show at the Palais de Tokyo is about reenacting the origin of life and in particular the origin of sentient life. I asked zoologists: Had humans not evolved as sentient beings which species would have become dominant as a sentient species, according to them? I got a few different answers but I picked the elephants.
AG: What do you mean by “sentient”?
MG: I mean conscious. Elephants already have death rituals. I read about a researcher who was in the jungle and saw the matriarch of one elephant family that had just died. For three days all her family stayed next to her body, looking at her on the first day; on the second day some of them stayed with her body while others went to get tree leaves to cover her body with. This was all done in complete silence and then on the last day they started trumpeting and then left the body. He reckoned it was a sort of death ritual. Elephants also have a language that’s well developed and that we don’t fully know. It was recently discovered that elephants hear clouds moving and that this could explain why when there’s a drought they know where to go to get water and where there is rain, thousands of kilometers from where they are. There are a lot of fascinating facts about elephants.
AG: How does this feed into your work at the Palais de Tokyo?
MH: I’m developing a family of ten sentient elephants that I’m imagining and making into sculptures. Each has been reduced to a specific biological state or function, in the same way as my prehistoric creatures were designed to make sounds, which is why I recreated only their vocal chords and the resonance cavities. At DUVE in Berlin one sculpture, “Taweret,” was producing the elixir of life, and I also only kept those organs that I needed to produce it. In the Palais de Tokyo show, I’m exploring the same idea. Because I’m talking about sentience and biological consciousness I’ve been looking at how you artificially engineer emotions. Is it only about hormones and biological processes or is it something else? To answer your question, one of the elephants has been designed to be constantly sad. It’s also a reference to the pleureuses, the criers, of ancient history.
AG: What other emotions will these sculptures embody?
MH: They stand for emotions as well as states: one is dying; one is getting born; one is engineered to despair.
AG: And how will these sculptures be displayed?
MH: We’re building a “biological showroom”. There are three pieces but they are all part of the same installation: the family of elephants, ten sculptures producing sound and liquid; the FOXP2, a sound piece which is a choir of voices; and the fresco that will be used to cover the showroom like a carpet.
AG: How are we to understand this idea a “biological showroom”? Is it any different to displays you would see in a natural history museum, for instance?
MH: Until now I was thinking about natural history museums and laboratories. With the biological showroom, we’ve been looking at commercial spaces. I’m engineering life and death, emotions, creatures and voices in a way that raises ethical issues. Is it something we want? My sculptures are all done in 3D and they are CNC-ed, which in the industry you use for mass production on an industrial scale.
AG: What exactly is CNC?
MH: It’s a big robot that sculpts from a 3D model that Le Studio Humain produces from my drawings. It can sculpt the piece out of a big block of foam so it’s not 3D printed. 3D print is powder or plastic that you add to create a piece. CNC is exactly the opposite because it uses a big block of foam and it removes all the excess material. It looks like an archaeological excavation. It’s as though you were digging and finding the shape inside the block of foam. As my pieces are highly designed, I thought it would be interesting to present them as if it were a demonstration stand.
AG: What will this demonstration stand look like?
MH: It’s still very much in progress but imagine a platform that will be designed to showcase the family of elephants. You will have this main stand in the middle, and around the showroom you have voices that are being played.
AG: What kind of voices will they be?
MH: My idea was to recreate 108 billion voices of homo sapiens: that’s the number of humans who have been living on planet earth since the first tribes of homo sapiens, a 100,000 years ago. I thought, what if I could get all of humanity to sing at the same time?
MH: They’re reenacting the origin of language – the tilting point when the chimpanzees start to develop an articulate language. At the beginning I wanted to reenact the whole evolution of language, but it proved a bit too much, so I decided to focus on the FOXP2. That’s something I’ve read about in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. He says that at some point there was a single chance mutation – one gene mutated allowing the larynx to go down and this is when humans started to develop language. This exact moment is what I’m focusing on. I’ve been contacting linguists around the world to try to understand what and how it happened. There are not many linguists who are specialized in that. Fifteen or twenty at most.
AG: I can’t imagine all of them have time to get into a conversation with an artist.
MH: When I work with experts it’s not a conversation as much as an email exchange. When we have all these emails, we confront them, we put all the information together and we develop the piece. I’m working with my collaborator, Pierre Lanchantin, who is based at the laboratory of voice synthesis in Cambridge. We’ve worked together already on Cleopatra’s voice. We’ll design voices that will be divided into different choirs by age; there will be 24 different groups of individuals who are signing and talking at different times.
AG: Why divide them by age?
MH: I was reading about Dante’s Paradiso, which is divided into spheres of heaven, and at the same time I was researching cloud theory and reading Benjamin Bratton’s theories on the Cloud structures which he describes as a stack. That’s how I think about this project. The dream of becoming an immaterial being. It struck me as funny that, on the one hand, you have paradise, which is in the sky and that’s supposed to be where our souls live in the afterlife and, on the other hand, we talk about the Cloud and there are all these dreams of artificial intelligence. Maybe one day we’ll only exist as souls and virtual entities.
AG: In projects such as Requiem for Harley Warren “Screams from Hell” and some of your previous works you explore geology and journeys to the centre of the earth, whereas now you’re looking at the sky, and heaven as opposed to hell.
MH: In my studio I have this graph I made. The vertical is the sky and it goes deep in the ground, and the horizontal is past times and future times. I was trying to work out where all my projects fitted on this diagram. For instance, the Opera of Prehistoric Creatures is deep in the ground, in the past, and then there’s an arrow: it goes back to the present because I’m reviving them today. Cleopatra is only time, it goes from the past to today or maybe the future. Then “Screams from Hell” is only on the vertical: from deep in the ground I’m bringing it to the surface of the earth in the gallery. The choir at the Palais de Tokyo goes from the past to the future, whereas the elephants are a parallel world: I’m not really reviving them, as you said, I’m creating them anew and trying to see how they could have evolved.
AG: The Palais de Tokyo project seems to bring together a lot of your prior interests. Would you say this is the most ambitious of your projects to date?
MH: Yes. I’ve been so lucky. It’s only my fourth solo show. It came very quickly. My first solo show was in early 2014 at la HEAD in Geneva; the second one was curated by Nadim Samman at Import Projects in October 2014; the third one was in Berlin at DUVE in April 2015; and my fourth is at the Palais de Tokyo. I was completely overwhelmed when they invited me.
AG: What about your contribution to Manifesta11? Are you one of the associate artists?
MH: Christian Jankowski came for a studio visit during Frieze Week in October, we talked and he asked me to propose something. The way it works is that they send out a list of all the professions that can be found in Zurich. You have a pdf with hundreds and hundreds of different professions, from bakers to taxi drivers to surgeons. Each artist had to propose two or three options.
AG: You don’t necessarily get your first choice then?
MH: It depended on whom they could find for you. I liked the fact that you did not propose a project but a collaboration; the project is the result of your collaboration. So I’m on an equal footing with my collaborator or “host” – that’s how Jankowski calls them. My host is an engineer at the laboratory of autonomous vehicles and he specializes in designing decision-making processes for autonomous cars.
AG: Like the google self-driving cars?
MH: He doesn’t work for google; he’s part of the Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich. They don’t only work on cars; they also work on flying, walking, underwater robots. But my host specializes in cars.
AG: Why did the idea of autonomous cars resonate with you and how does it tie in with your wider practice?
MH: The autonomous cars are in a way the new beasts. They can navigate on their own and they will eventually transport us. That’s what Matthias Bürki, my host, does: he engineers intelligence for these beasts. The project is about the origin of love. I’m engineering two beasts to interact with each other and fall in love. Apparently love appeared 150 million years ago with the first mammals. Ada Lampert, in her book The Evolution of Love, argues that love appeared with warm blood, that’s to say with the first mammals, because the hormones that are generated when you fall in love can only come from warm-blooded creatures. When researching the first mammals, I found this species called cynodonts that is a missing link between the dinosaurs and mammals. They are warm-blooded but they still lay eggs, which makes them the ancestors of the mammals. So I imagine that maybe love appeared with cynodonts, and I’m engineering two cynodonts to fall in love with each other using hormones and mating calls.
AG: And are you reconstructing them again using 3D models?
MH: Exactly, but just the parts that I need: the brain and part of the face and of their sexual organs – the hormone using organs. They are emitting hormones and mating calls and I’m filling the whole space with anti-love drugs, the drugs that are used for chemical castration. You have to imagine these two creatures: you can only see the top of their head and they are diving in this fog made of this anti-love drug.
AG: But that’s rather counter-intuitive: wouldn’t you want to spur love on, as opposed to stemming its flow?
MH: No, they are trying hard. This is a new direction in my work: creating rather than solving enigmas, mysteries and situations. That’s what I started with DUVE in Berlin.
AG: It sounds like the poison and anti-dote analogy might be useful here.
MH: Exactly. The two creatures are moving in the fog and they are engineered by my host, using skills that he’s normally using for cars but applying them to the beasts. For example, when the male sends this kind of signal the female should react this way. That’s how we try to test the interactions.
AG: And where will this be shown?
MH: It’s still a bit blurry. As part of the Manifesta brief we’re supposed to show two works: one at the host’s work space and one at Manifesta. I really want the main piece to be in my host’s work place at the university. There’s a sort of entrance hall around which there are balconies, windows and huge corridors. You could see the fog from the different levels but you wouldn’t really know what’s happening and the access would be closed to the public. I could set it up in a white cube but I think it’s more challenging to show it in a place that is not intended for displaying art. Maybe showing art in museums is a prehistoric idea.