CONVERSATIONS Mousse 53
Double Exposure: Marguerite Humeau and Cally Spooner
by Sam Thorne
Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, interviewed two London-based artists for this issue.
Marguerite Humeau is interested in producing speculative narratives investigating prehistory, occult biology, and extinct forms of life.
Cally Spooner uses philosophy, pop music, current affairs, and corporate rhetoric as sources and references for her productions that appropriate different performance genres.
SAM THORNE: You have described your practice as exploring “the means by which knowledge is generated in the absence of evidence.” What are the implications, for you, of this way of working?
MARGUERITE HUMEAU: It started when I began working on The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures (2012). My idea was to resuscitate the sound of prehistoric animals by reconstructing their vocal tracts: their lungs, trachea, larynxes, vocal cords, resonance cavities. When I started the project, I thought I would get in touch with the Natural History Museum, and that they could share their research with me, so that I could then 3D print and inject compressed air inside the shapes, to recover the sounds.
Unfortunately, when I consulted experts, they told me that, because all of those parts are made of soft tissue, they don’t fossilize. They have disappeared forever; the only evidence is in the surrounding bones. Regarding the actual shapes that I was looking for, there was absolutely no way to know how they looked. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought it was amazing because it opened up a whole new world. It meant I could use scientific facts, like the bones, but all the rest was left for me to speculate on. This is what I mean by absence of evidence. It is about trying to reactivate, to resuscitate, to reenact creatures that are so far remote in space or have been extinct for such a long time, that even if I am trying to do my best to bring them to life, it is eventually impossible for us to know how they were like, and if my assumptions are correct.
ST: Your investigations have led you from tiny creatures trapped in the Antarctic ice to the voice of Cleopatra.
MH: With Cleopatra: That Goddess (2014), the project was about the languages Cleopatra used to speak that are all extinct today. Also at the moment I’m doing a project on the origin of love. I’m looking at the subject of love from a purely biological and evolutionary point of view. I was reading a book called The Evolution of Love (1997) by Ada Lampert. In this book, Lampert mentions this idea that hormones and feelings don’t fossilize, so there’s no way for us to know when love really appeared. Lampert is only guessing when love could have appeared in evolution. The hormones associated with the feeling of love require warm blood in order to exist. Warm blood causes warm feelings and warm blood is a new invention of evolution, being only about 150 million years old. There might be a missing link after cold-blooded dinosaurs and before mammals, cynodonts who laid eggs but had warm blood.
One very important thing is that, in my projects, I’m only proposing one potential solution—I’m totally aware that it’s one among billions of possibilities. It’s pure speculation. These things don’t exist anymore, so there’s no way to know if I’m right, which is part of my work: this failure. It’s not to fail, but to try as hard as I can to achieve something while accepting that it might never be the right answer.
ST: There’s something striking about how you frame these projects. Often, things that are described as human voices are not actually human voices. You have an opera, but it’s of prehistoric creatures, or you have screams from hell—sounds from the depths of the Earth becoming anthropomorphized. I was wondering about those transitions between states. What about them are you interested in?
MH: When I first started, I wanted to rethink performance in the bioengineering era. Now that we can create new forms of beings, types of life, what could these perform? For example, in the Spike Jonze film Her (2013), the main character is just a voice. This is such a striking example of the evolution of the actor: she can be a voice, and that’s enough for her to exist. People recognized that the voice was Scarlett Johansson; her voice is enough for her to be present. In regard to the transitions, for the prehistoric creatures, it was the transition from fossil to flesh. It was not necessarily about humanizing things, but…
ST: More about bringing them to life?
MH: Yes, and trying to understand what it means to bring something to life. Can you only do that by resuscitating a voice, or do you also need some kind of physical entity? Do you need movement? That’s also what I’m exploring with the project on love. I’m injecting movement into the sculptures to see if that’s an important component for the understanding of life.
ST: Which leads us to talking about your new projects, in the sense that often your works are looking at the very genesis of life. The new project that you’re developing, which will be shown at the Palais de Tokyo this summer and then at Nottingham Contemporary in the fall, is titled Reset (Life Performance) Proposal for Re-enacting the Origin of Life.
MH: That’s still a working title.
ST: You said that you set yourself the impossible challenge of artificially reenacting the origin of life, and the evolution of sentient life.
MH: I’m trying to explore what life is, and also ask, how abstract can it be? For some projects, the creatures have a physical body, so they are sculptures. But in my show last year in Berlin, I made black mamba paint, so this time the body became completely liquid. The paint was injected with venom, so it was deadly. In the show there were sculptures, a cobra as a sculpture, and there was the voice of Cleopatra—so there was another type of life. There was the liquid body, the paint. It was part of what I wanted to explore with the Reset project. This time my idea is to reenact the origin of sentient life. There are three chapters within this project. The first is the Homo sapiens choir, where I’m looking at the origin of language, and trying to create a choir of 108 billion Homo sapiens: that’s the number of humans that have been living on planet Earth since the first tribes hundreds of thousands of years ago. I’m trying to get them to reenact the exact moment when human language appeared.
I was inspired by a book by Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1991), in which he tries to understand why there is so much similarity between humans and chimpanzees when it comes to DNA, and so much difference in the ways we evolved. According to him, the 2 percent difference includes the DNA responsible for the vocal cords, so at some point, he says, there was a single chance mutation, completely random, and this mutation allowed the larynx to go down, and so gave humans that chance to develop an articulate language. I thought it was fascinating; of course, it’s a simplified version of what actually happened. There are other factors. But to imagine that there was a random event that had such an effect—to Diamond, this is the origin of humanity.
Usually I get advice from a hundred experts for each project. For this, there were fewer, because it’s a highly specialized topic. There are maybe ten or fifteen linguists in the world who are looking for the origin of language from various perspectives. For example, there’s a lab in Russia that’s trying to make what they call a Babel Tower, mapping all the languages in the entire world spoken today. They are tracing back their origins and hoping that by doing this, at some point, they’ll come to the origin. Others look at the origin of language from a completely mechanical point of view; others from a purely environmental point of view. I’m working with an assistant, who is working full-time on the research, and all these people disagree with each other [laughs]. It’s exciting, because now we know what we want to do, and we’re emailing linguists, and they react to what we say, and the conversations we are creating are interesting.
My assistant and I decided to approach our Homo sapiens choir from a purely mechanical point of view. We summarized the research we’d done, but at some point it has to become an artwork; you can’t involve everything. We imagined that the first humans were imitating the sounds they were hearing—the sounds of nature, probably. We have been looking at the shape of the vocal tracts, and seeing what kinds of sounds were actually possible: what kinds of sounds they could produce physically. From the sounds of nature, they become phones, which become like syllables. We have this pool of sounds, and from this pool of sounds, we will create a new language.
For this project, my collaborator is Pierre Lanchantin, who works at the laboratory for voice synthesis at Cambridge. He sent me some examples, for instance a recording that has American English, French, and Turkish versions of a certain spoken piece, and from extracting the phones, he created his own language by mixing the three languages together. When you listen to them all together, it sounds like a real language, but it doesn’t exist. So, we are using the same process. The show will be reset—every fifteen or twenty minutes, we don’t know yet—and we imagine that each time a new language will be re-created, but from the same types of sounds. We’re interested in all of the potential languages that humans could have developed and perhaps never did. Depending on the way you put these sounds together, and how they are articulated, you can create a whole series of different languages. It’s quite an ambitious project.
ST: You’re also working with an elephant vocalization specialist who advised Steven Spielberg on dinosaur sounds for Jurassic Park (1993). Could you talk about the nature of the collaboration or the advice you receive from the other people in this project and others?
MH: It can range from simple advice to proper collaborations. The scientists are advisors. For me to collaborate with someone I need to give them what I call carte blanche. With my collaborator in Cambridge, we brainstorm together, we really work together, and are totally equal. With the scientists, I usually email them. It’s interesting the number of people whose email addresses you can find on Google, like this Spielberg advisor. He specializes in dinosaur hearing, and he designed all the sounds for Jurassic Park. But again, he was just an advisor. I am interested in what they have to say, but I want to also keep that distance, because they are doing scientific research and publishing papers. It’s sensitive information, and difficult for them to get involved in another project, and if you don’t defend their point of view, it can be tricky. Pierre Lanchantin, my sound collaborator, and I have worked together for two years, on Cleopatra and on The Screams from Hell (2015). We are also working together on Reset.
ST: Pierre worked with Phillippe Parreno on his Marilyn project, right?
MH: My collaborator Nicolas Obin worked with Philippe Parreno. Nicolas Obin belongs to the laboratory of voice synthesis at IRCAM in Paris. We worked together with him, and with Pierre, on reviving Cleopatra. This is how Pierre and I started to work together.
I’ve also worked with Julien Bloit, who was also affiliated with IRCAM. I can’t remember how I met him. He helped me design the prehistoric creatures’ sounds. Most importantly, he designed a program that allowed the creatures’ sounds to evolve. In the show, the creatures listen to each other, and that’s how they evolve. A mammal starts with three to five sounds, and by the end of the show it is able to produce three hundred different sounds because it was listening to the whale, and the pig that was next to it. We did lots of studies with Julien on language, like how it becomes more complex.
There were many debates around immigration in France at the time. When I was doing the language research, I thought it was particularly relevant to these debates because when a language is in a closed circle, it gets poorer and poorer. When you allow other people and languages to get in, it gets richer and richer.
When I worked on Cleopatra, I got in touch with the people at the lab of voice synthesis at IRCAM exactly because I knew that they had worked with Parreno on Marilyn. I met Pierre randomly in London, and he’s the Paris lab leader’s best friend, so they all know each other—the world of voice developers is a very small one.
The reason I collaborate is because I know my own limits. I have an idea, a direction, and I do the research, but I need someone else’s expertise to make the project happen. I want the collaborators to feel free, and that the project is also for them and interesting for their own research.
SAM THORNE: Let’s start by talking about your titles, which often feel like a personal form of address. I’m thinking of Carol, I Think My Place in History Is Assured, or And You Were Wonderful, On Stage.
CALLY SPOONER: “Carol, I think my place in history is assured” is what Margaret Thatcher said to her daughter Carol, right before she died. “And you were wonderful on stage” was something Will Holder wrote to me in an email after a performance I did—I just inserted a comma. For another work, I gleaned Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated in Any Manner from a Daily Mail article—it’s what Nike said when they fired Lance Armstrong as their spokesman following the doping scandal.
My titles can have to do with what I’m reading, voices in the media at the moment, things friends have written me and so on. Carol, I Think My Place in History Is Assured came at a moment when I was thinking about the desire to fix something in place, or to stop something moving so it can stay the same forever, and be celebrated as a piece of history. I find that to be quite a violent idea. I’m interested in how things can stay moving and alive, but I’m not sure this hooks up so well with managing legacy, or perfecting a public image.
ST: So legacy is the point at which performance becomes permanent, or absolute?
CS: … Maybe… I’m thinking about moments when a living declaration gets immortalized, or when something fixed, and objectified, can stand in for someone. I could talk about these titles for a long time, and in very different ways though, they have different ideas attached to them.
ST: You have in the past worked episodically, a given project accreting over the course of different performances. What does that episodic way of working afford you?
CS: It gives me time to work on things properly. It also protects you, because when people ask you to do something, you make a little bit more of whatever you’ve been working with. I’ve always done it. I first did it with a radio play I wrote called Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence (2010), which took about two years. Every time I was invited to do a show, I would write or perform a bit more of it.
When Andrew Bonacina invited me to a show at International Project Space, I at that time, wanted to produce a body of writing, a novel, I thought. I knew I couldn’t do that if I’m in production, making performances or shows. So I needed the show to become the novel, and set out for myself writing structures and deadlines. Then I started to study, and wrote this thing, and spoke through this thing, gathering materials. Staying with something for a long time is extremely beneficial in terms of growing agency, and your… subjectivity I think.
ST: Presumably because you have a different set of interlocutors as you move from episode to episode—whether that’s different spaces, institutions, galleries, curators, or artists you’re working with along the way. The work becomes inevitably composite.
CS: You come into contact with things. With Collapsing in Parts, I would write the novel every month and publish it, and it would go out however it was. It was a self-imposed deadline. And every couple of months I would do these footnote events, something live and production-related. The writing informed the footnotes, and a lot of social knowledge I gained from the footnotes wound up in the writing. I had this space where I was coming into contact with many different things, and then those were landing on the page, imprinting. I ended up with a kind of social, spatial cartography. No one knows that it’s a cartography, because it just looks and reads like a novel, but it is, because I’d been navigating material with people, conversations, my own doubts or uncertainties, triumphs—these all mulch together.
ST: I know you worked at an ad agency for a while, and you’ve spoken before about transposing those ways of working or ways of speaking. You were in a situation of workshopping and rehearsing. It seems like there are whole systems of migrations that inform your work, and context.
CS: I’m suspicious of industrial design. I could never write a proper novel.
ST: Why are you suspicious of design?
CS: I suppose that sounds really bad! I need to rephrase that…I’m trying to say I don’t get on well with projects that know for certain what they want to be or attain, and then move toward that goal. I don’t have anything exactly that I want to reach for. I don’t have anything to say unless I’m coming into contact with something and responding. It’s like falling in love. I’ll come upon a text, a person, or a situation, and that could be when I’m in Antwerp in 2010, in a bar with Jeremiah Day, and he’s talking about a work by Hannah Arendt. I go and pick up the wrong book, but I think it’s the right book, and I really like Jeremiah, so I commit to this book, and then suddenly I spend two years with it, writing a novel through it. Or, you go to work because you need money, and you wind up at an advertising agency, and you’re so blown away by the strangeness of the mechanics at play there that help them organize their clients and employees, and put the voice of the corporation in the body, and the body in the corporation. That’s not the best thing to fall in love with, but you stick with it, right?
ST: So it’s about what can be generative— whether that’s a chance encounter or something that you have to do, like have a job for a while.
CS: All the time, things are nearly-not happening. You’re almost nearly-not meeting this person, or nearly-not making the decision that you can’t do this job any more. I suppose that’s how anyone operates, but what I’m trying to say is that I don’t have a massive lot of ideas. There’s just certain things that I’m drawn to, and trust. And I stick with them.
ST: Many of your projects sit outside of the traditional white cube or black box, as with the High Line in New York, or the rotunda stairwell at Tate Britain, or the BMW Tate Live Performance Room. How do you try to work with or against architecture?
CS: Even when I’m working in a more neutral space, like the New Museum or gb agency, the first thing I deal with are its particularities. I don’t make portable objects that I make in a studio. So the first thing I have to confront is, “Oh my god, I don’t have any work for this show, at all.” But, there’s always material I’m reading, usually theory, sometimes fiction, so first I take my reading, or these encounters, or conversations I’ve been having, then I reach for what’s there: how the space is laid out, the mechanics of display and visibility. Then I keep reading, but through the space. Increasingly as an exhibition maker—and I didn’t realize this would happen—I’ve started re-reading and re-writing various architectures as the primary material of the show.
Of course we’ll have to talk about institutional critique, but I don’t think of it as critique. I think of it as an extension of the act of writing in the sense that it’s like, “Here I am,” situated, and trying to assemble different pieces of material that I’ve been dealing with, and what can I feed off of. When I make my New Museum show, I’ll be in the Lobby Gallery downstairs and the whole show is built around a glass wall. I came back and back to thinking about the glass wall, and how strange it is to have architecture that is so vitrine-like, and that I was going to be putting live bodies in there. What would that mean and how could I work through that? And then from there, thinking about other architectures in the space, like its lights, sound system, and dimensions, and suddenly I’m realizing, “Ah, OK, I have a show here.”
ST: You mentioned institutional critique. What does it mean for you today, as someone who was born around the time that the term started to be used, associated with figures such as Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser, Michael Asher, and Fred Wilson? How has the object of critique, or the strategies, changed?
CS: I find Andrea Fraser’s current strategies to be amazing, and also problematic. I’m thinking specifically of her crying, such as in her Dia talk Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry, or on the shoulder or in an in conversation with Chris Dercon at Tate. It’s this fierce gesture, triggered I guess by training, to perform the direct implication of her private self who has been so absorbed and tantalized by the institution that she’s/we are damaged by, and can do nothing but produce these as a disclosures she and we cannot fully comprehend… I think that’s a great assemblage and I’m interested in and admire such power moves. But I don’t know how I feel about their premises, which is that the institution equates normative, hierarchical dualisms that subjugate and in critiquing the institution I critique power in the rest of the world…. But her model is more interesting because it obviously moves on from that, quite considerably…
ST: The limitation of it is still that the institution is almost always synonymous with the Western museum.
CS: It’s totally back-scratchy.
ST: There’s a great line by Trisha Donnelly, that she’s always been annoyed by institutional critique because it’s like complaining when somebody throws you a party.
CS: Isn’t she amazing? Trisha Donnelly’s approach is still based in negation, slowness. But it’s not about a rejection. Whereas with Andrea Fraser, tearful conflicts play out in this body that must carry the institution that destroys and exploits her (and our) subjectivity, or agency. I don’t want to love things and be committed to things that erode me in order that I may have a voice and career to speak. I want to acknowledge, know of, write of them, and gather them through different techniques of utterance. Ultimately I’m trying to work out how I can create a movement, tension, or cartography from those things: a composition—a piece of writing. I feel like my work has become more about materialism, or even pragmatics that has to do with me as a situated, trying to read a lot of stuff that’s in front of me, let a lot of stuff move through my body, run into certain people and things, and then produce an arrangement from that.
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary. He is a contributing editor and columnist at Frieze, and a co-founder of Open School East, a free-to-attend study programme in East London. His book, School: Conversations on Art and Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press later this year.
Marguerite Humeau, born 1986 in France, lives and works in London. Her work stages the crossing of great distances in time and space, transitions between animal and mineral, and encounters between personal desires and natural forces. Humeau explores the possibility of communication between worlds and the means by which knowledge is generated in the absence of evidence or through the impossibility of reaching the object of investigation.
Cally Spooner was born in Ascot, UK, in 1983 and lives and works in London. Her recent solo exhibitions include On False Tears & Outsourcing at The New Museum, New York (2016), And You Were Wonderful, On Stage at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2016). Her recent live productions have been presented at Tate Modern, London (2014); Tate Britain, London (2014); the High Line, New York (2014); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2013); and Performa 13, New York (2013).
Originally published on Mousse 53 (April–May 2016)