GARAGE Magazine, Fall/Winter, 2016
Marguerite Humeau’s recent exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and at Manifesta 11, Zurich, captivated the art world with their imaginative and intellectual scope. Both take the form of installations that amount to highly specific worlds, fusing narrative, contemporary technologies, and speculation. Inspired by heterogeneous research materials, including scientific papers, opera, and biblical and philosophical texts, the artist concocts visions that feel both futuristic and primordial. It’s high time, then, to delve a little deeper into the material, and ideas, that have inspired her.
1. The Origin of Love
Humeau always begins by identifying a lost or unknown world—a specific moment, place, or creature. Her task then is to understand it, to access it in some way through the use of emerging technologies such as 3D scanning, and to bring something back—such as a sculptural form—from “the other side” to serve as the protagonist in a narrative installation. As an artist, she makes speculations real, or offers the closest—most achievable—analogues. But despite the esoteric nature of her subject matter, and the specialist media she employs, Humeau’s work is concerned with fundamental topics. In her recent installation at the ETH Autonomous Systems Lab in Zurich, as part of Manifesta 11, her starting point was the question: What is the origin of love?
The work, When Skies Above Were Not Yet Named (2016), was inspired by a book by the evolutionary psychologist Ada Lampert which examines love from a biological perspective. Lampert’s thesis centers on the idea that love hormones require warm blood; no reptiles need apply. Humeau therefore fixed upon the first warm-blooded animals: cynodonts, amphibious egg-laying beasts which first appeared in the Late Permian period, approximately 260 million years ago. She selectively sampled their anatomies in sculptural form—modeling their brains, faces, and hormone-generating organs—to restage the moment at which love was born. Two half-swimming, half-walking 3D-routed cynodont heads meet in a fog comprised of morphine and chemical castration drugs. They approach each other with trepidation. Is this the beginning of something special? Perhaps, but menace also hangs in the air. In Humeau’s theatrical vision, love, arising from equal connection, is from its very inception besieged by an environment that violently attempts to suppress it.
2. The Origin of Language
Humeau’s installation FOXP2 (2016), at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, was entered through a corridor suffused by a choral soundtrack: 108 billion voices—one for every human who has ever lived–performing the birth of language. This “song as evolution” begins with throaty sounds that mimic birds and environmental noises—a kind of primitive beatboxing. Soon come the first attempts at speech. It is a struggle; there is coughing and grunting, awkward groping toward more developed expression. In due course, more complex formations take shape, emerging from the sounds of nature: crackling, splashing, and whistling. Eventually, the wordlike sounds coalesce into groups that seem to be phrases, or chanted incantations. It is a narrative, even if we can’t understand it as such. In fact, it is a speculative ur-language generated by algorithmic analysis. Humeau and a collaborator had one of the earliest existing texts of Genesis translated into all the languages available on Google Translate, then used a specially devised program to search for shared linguistic forms. As random as evolution itself, the reverse-engineered “proto” or “meta” language that emerged was just one of almost countless possible outcomes. If the program had been fed slightly different data, it might have delivered a completely different result. The search for origins, Humeau suggests, is an inherently creative process, rather than a straight uncovering of facts. Indeed, contemporary physics confirms that the act of observation conditions the form of the thing observed.
3. The Origin of Consciousness
Is speculating about the origin of consciousness the same thing as talking about the beginning of the world? For the ancient Greeks, Mind, Soul, and the One, or oneness—which, in the works of the early Church fathers, such as Saint Augustine, was the figure of God—were overlapping concepts that represented aspects of the Absolute. Today’s data-based science has abolished such metaphysics, only to license the theoretical possibility that the world is, in fact, a simulation being run by a species of artificial intelligence: perhaps the origin of what we consider “consciousness” is merely the boot command of a program, and what we think of as the Absolute is just the mind of a machine, without a soul. Certainly contemporary neuroscience, which correlates behaviors and thoughts with electrical activity in particular regions of the brain, and is making progress in implanting memories through invasive measures, has no use for the notion of a divine spark.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about the “trauma of reason.” Humeau proposes the idea of a human infected with datura, the hallucinogenic which she asserts was the forbidden fruit of antiquity. Using datura as a dye, in FOXP2, Humeau adds color to the idea of consciousness; that is, she creates a visual representation of the post-Enlightenment philosophical consensus that consciousness is not a transparent container or a blank canvas, but conditions the form of the objects within it, suffusing them with its tint. In the age of neuromedicine and body–machine interfaces, Humeau proposes the idea of consciousness as an intrusion, an agent, a foreign body.
Humeau’s FOXP2 installation features—among other elements—a large pink carpet. Its pigmentation is, she informs the viewer in wall-mounted labels, is made of the datura fruit and “liquid human.” To liquidize a human body is horrific, an inhuman act, implying a comprehensive stripping away of all the outwardly defining features of personhood. But it is also, in terms of iconographic import, post-humanist. In fact, the dye is composed of the human body’s chemical components; in this installation, Humeau proposes a wholesale reduction of man to matter, boiling us down to a list of chemicals. This idea of life as no more than a biomaterial agglomeration, which might be reconfigured at will, seems an insult—yet it is at the core of contemporary medicine, pharmacology, and data science: life as a programmable sequence of operations. The reconstitutable human—which is not a human at all, but an open system—represents a new figure that our cultural consciousness must digest. It is a bitter pill.