Marguerite Humeau delves into pre-history and mythology to uncover what it means to be human in the age of the internet
Artist-academic-adventurer Marguerite Humeau is on a quest to find connections between the known and the unknown. From occult traditions to ancient histories, Humeau weaves un-evidenced knowledge into communication technologies. She is exploring what it really means to be human.
Questioning the nature of our existence in the past, present and future, her work weaves connections between eras, crossing generational gaps to capture a key essence of being. How can resurrecting the sounds of prehistoric creatures, or recreating the voice of Cleopatra, help us to understand ourselves and our place in time? In what ways is the internet another form of the occult? What does it mean for reality to study an object that is impossible to ever know?
With a new visual language, Humeau is reminding us that there is more to life than the here and the now, casting the present as a speculative territory rich with potential.
POSTMatter: Your projects require extensive research and collaboration with experts working in different fields to yourself. What is your own academic background, and how did it lead you to your current practice?
Marguerite Humeau: My background is in design. I graduated from the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art, led by critical designers Dunne & Raby in 2011. This is when I started to work on my project ‘The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures’. I didn’t know then what this project would become, or how much it would inform my practice as an artist.
I wanted to resurrect the sound of prehistoric creatures by reconstructing their vocal tracts; but since vocal tracts are made of soft tissue and soft tissue do not fossilize, I had to find a way to reconstruct them. Facing the absence of physical evidence, I had to go on a quest to find the missing pieces of information to bring the beasts back to life.
The process became an adventure. I met people with very different types of expertise: paleontologists, marine mammal specialists, biologists, zoologists, geomythology specialists, cryptozoologists. In later projects, I also met conspiracy theorists, telepathists, dowsers, and fortune-tellers.
Since then, my projects have often started with the investigation of a specific lost world, a mysterious zone. I then contact experts and they help me in formulating hypotheses on how to re-enact, reactivate, resurrect, or communicate with this specific world. It’s a very rich way of working that enables me to think outside of what I could imagine if I was working on my own.
PM: You have previously stated that: “Reality is becoming increasingly opaque, and could be seen as a ‘permanent fiction’”. Could you explain how you seek to confront this idea?
MH: This quote is from artist Laurent Grasso. I was fascinated by it while I was writing my dissertation in 2010, entitled "Space, Sublime and Spectacle: the Black Rainbow". Through my essay I aimed to understand the spatial mechanisms of supernatural events. I was successively the essayist, the oracle and the guide of an imaginary travel agency taking my audience on a tour through fantastic territories.
The Supernatural is an intrusion in the Real. What happens when technological progress allows the fantastic to become possible? The essay drew parallels between the evolution of special effects, miracles, scientific progress and the reproduction of nature on a large scale, the architecture of the sacred, and the representation of the sublime in contemporary cinema. The text predicted the obsolescence of special effects and the advent of a synthetic world.
What happens when developments in science and technologies enable the fantastic to become possible? How can I create physical situations, in the exhibition space, that seem supernatural at first sight, but that are able to be made plausible by present or future scientific developments?
I dig through geological and digital layers of information whilst exploring lost worlds, solving mysteries and searching for true facts. I have to face the absence of real "sources" as well as the increasing opacity of reality. Now I embrace this situation. Instead of searching for the absolute truth, I create complex scenarios that mix real and fictitious information.
What happens when developments in science and technologies enable the fantastic to become possible?
On that note, I think this quote by Maupassant is still relevant: "How the Earth must have been disturbing in the past, when it was so mysterious!"
PM: One shared characteristic of occult and communication technologies – especially the internet – is a strange sense of presence. How does the question of presence influence your work?
MH: "Presence" is one of the few terms that I am trying to define through my work – what is the difference between "life" and "existence"? What does it take to create a sensation of a physical "presence"? Can one be alive but not conscious? What does it mean to be "sentient"?
PM: You create sonic sculptures that are historically resonant not only through sound, but also through the voice. In what ways is the voice a useful and exciting tool for resurrecting the past?
MH: The voice and the speech are directly connected to the brain, to the soul. There’s an old fantasy, present in almost all religions, of disembodiment that suggests the soul could eternally survive the dead body. One of the most striking manifestations of the immortal or resurrected soul is the voice.
I dig through geological and digital layers of information whilst exploring lost worlds, solving mysteries and searching for true facts.
Communication technologies, by detaching the voice from the body, hold this promise that they can allow one to become immortal. The soul can travel through time and space; it can wander in the "vast and diffuse oceans of the ether", through the flow of the Internet, and maybe it can reincarnate in the newly formed bodies of the biotech era.
Speech is a reflection of the brain – of one's thoughts. This is also what differentiates an animal from a human being. This means that crafting a voice is not only about the voice itself; it is about crafting the internal process of thinking of the being, determining its nature, its sensibility, and what it has to express through the voice.
PM: How would you answer this question that is asked on the CosmosCarl website, where you were featured this year: “How do we move through the internet and how are we moved by it?”
MH: I take the internet as a new mode of existence through which I want to redefine the historical genre of the odyssey in our contemporary era.
PM: In ‘Cleopatra’, you bring together art, pop and academia to question the future of performance. What answers did you find?
MH: With this project I discovered that the voice is strong enough to give a sense of physical presence. In the first version of the project, I asked Le Studio Humain to design a video, while in the second version (for my show Echoes at Duve Berlin this spring), I only played the voice a cappella. I think that this was much more powerful.
I take the internet as a new mode of existence through which I want to redefine the historical genre of the odyssey in our contemporary era.
It took me time to understand that the body or the visual representation of a body is not necessary anymore. This is how I see the future of performance, whereby developments in neuroscience could one day allow humans to replicate or create souls or to engineer consciousness. How would these new forms of life perform, look and sound?
PM: This project was also an important project for the preservation of distant languages, such as Ge’ez, Median and Ancient Greek. What did you gain from working with the world’s last translators of these languages?
MH: I was forced to realise that I would not be able to find the translators for each language because some of languages have entirely disappeared. Having to face that, I had to find the last translators of dialects that do still exist and that are close to the languages I was looking for. I discovered that a lot of the ancient languages have merged and evolved to become the same contemporary language and this is something that I find deeply problematic.
PM: The notion of the quest runs throughout your work. You are yourself journeying as an artist and researcher, while each project is itself a quest for communication between distances in time, space, species, worlds and forms of knowledge. What are you looking for on these adventures?
MH: I’m trying to understand what humanity is really about by confronting us with worlds in which we don’t belong. What is the essence of life? Are there common threads between these worlds that run through past, present and future times? Is it possible to imagine worlds before and after humans? Is it possible to invent things that we will never see? How can I face the impossibility of thinking about something that I don't even know ever existed?
For more information on Marguerite Humeau's work, click here.