More than 2 years ago, i was interviewing young designer Marguerite Humeau about her attempt to bring back to life the voice of extinct creatures by reconstructing their voice box. The idea is even bolder than it sounds because the lungs, trachea, larynx + vocal folds, mouth and nose are made of soft tissue, and therefore don't fossilize. Marguerite started by giving her voice back to Lucy (aka Australopithecus Afarensis), one of the first hominids who used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago.
Since then, Marguerite's work has gathered awards, been presented in several exhibitions and discussed in conferences. But even more interestingly, the resuscitation endeavour has expanded to more extinct animals. A mammoth and two ultra ugly and fearsome creatures, the Walking Whale and the Terminator Pig, have now joined the loud party.
To re-create the vocal tract of the animals, the designer met with paleontologists, elephant vocalization specialists, explorers, engineers and other experts. The process of reconstruction involved shaping 3D models of the soft tissue from MRI scans and/or fossil data. Sending air through the resulting prototypes triggers a sound that might be similar to the sound the prehistoric creatures made when they were alive.
Marguerite presented the animals in the Politique-Fiction exhibition in Saint-Etienne. Check out the audio recording. More recently, the prehistoric creatures where in Eindhoven for the STRP biennial where they performed live for the first time together with Dutch musician and DJ Jameszoo. If you're curious about the result of the encounter, just click on the images at the bottom of this page.
Sadly, i missed the prehistoric creatures' performance in Eindhoven. Which gave me a good excuse to contact Marguerite and get more details about her work:
Hi Marguerite! I first interviewed you during the work in progress show at RCA. You were starting to work on 'bringing back to life' the vocal chords of Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) who used to live 3,85 to 2,95 million years ago. Your new opera features 3 prehistoric creatures. An Ambulocetus, an Entelodont, and a Mammoth. Can you tell us why you chose these 3 creatures? And what they are exactly?
We talked at the very beginning of my epic quest to resuscitate the sound of prehistoric creatures by reconstructing their vocal tracts.
'The opera of prehistoric creatures' now features three beasts namely an Ambulocetus aka 'Walking Whale' (which used to live 50 to 48 million years ago), an Entelodont aka 'Terminator Pig' (which used to live 38 to 16 million years ago), and a Mammoth Imperator (which used to live 4,5 million years ago). All three pieces are realised on a 1/1 scale and standing on trestles at the height of each original animal.
I first started to work on Lucy, one of the first hominid. Lucy is now part of the MoMA permanent collection and touring as part of a show curated by Mark Leckey for the Hayward Gallery (Hayward Touring program) called The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. The show deals with our contemporary animistic relationship to the objects around us. As Mark Leckey explains, "as modern technology becomes more pervasive objects appear to communicate with us". This seems to bring us back "an archaic state of being, to aboriginal landscapes of fabulous hybrid creatures, where images are endowed with divine powers, and even rocks and trees have names".
The three large pieces - Entelodont, Ambulocetus, and Mammoth Imperator - are hypothetical reconstructions of the beasts vocal tracts. Because the vocal tract (larynx, vocal chords, trachea, lungs, resonance cavities) is made of soft tissue, it does not fossilise. This was problematic from a scientific perspective. But as a designer, solving this enigma was really exciting. I would have to redesign all these inner parts, using different areas of science, but also, and most important, other tools like speculation, design, rumours, collective imaginary.
My work of reenactment was therefore made difficult. The project questions the way we talk about prehistory - and about our history. How can we talk about something that has entirely disappeared? All the attempts to tell this story will only be one version amongst many different versions of the original story.
This was made very clear in the process of the project. We have a lot of clues on how Woolly Mammoth used to look like, to sound like, where they used to live, etc. Also, as we talked about last time, there are a few Woolly Mammoths which have been found in the Siberian permafrost. We have much less clues on how the Mammoth Imperator used to be like. This is why I was really interested in it.
The plot thickens with the Walking Whale, a terrestrial mammal which started to swim. I speculated on its vocal tract. It might have been somewhere between a larynx (like terrestrial mammals) and a sonar (like dolphins).
There are equally very few fossils of the Terminator Pig. I therefore even had to recreate a fictional skull of this creature so I could base my research on something tangible.
The beasts are now revived. They are semi-real, synthetic ruins.
The 3 beasts are performing in an opera which premiered at the STRP biennial a few weeks ago. I couldn't be there for the performance but i did see the beasts in the exhibition. How did you animate them? What was the performance like?
The beasts perform an opera. Each of them produces a sound as their vocal chords vibrate. The sound is controlled by a 'brain' which was designed by Julien Bloit. We had long conversations together with Julien Bloit and our sound collaborator Charles Goyard on how this brain should be constructed. We looked into Claude Levi-Strauss research and were especially inspired by this quote: «Humanity is constantly struggling with two contradictory processes. One of these tends to promote unification, while the other aims at maintaining or re-establishing diversification».
We were interested in the idea of creating a fictitious cycle for a speculated rebirth. We also looked into Oudeyer's research on the evolution of speech.
Instead of starting from a parent (single) call, and then get more and more complex like most languages; we would reverse the process so the beasts would get born as complex beings and tend towards simplification and unification.
Each performance lasts for 1H30.
For STRP we tried a new experiment. We asked local dubstep musician Mitchel van Dinther (aka Jameszoo) to tell the beasts a story in 3 acts. For the performance, I asked Mitchel to face the beasts, so it was a battle between himself (the maestro) and the three creatures. As if he was persuading them to reveal something. Mitchel was challenging them to react to the story, trying to find the right notes and attempting to have an impossible conversation.
Act I - Extinction - 3"
Act II - Prehistoric cryogenics - 7"
Act III - Reverse evolution - 4"
A text describing the opera says that the performance "sets up the rebirth of three cloned prehistoric creatures, showing their wanderings and their epic journey through time. They are seeking to evolve in our contemporary era." How do you see them evolving in our era? Surely, there is no place for them now?
The opera is an ambiguous piece of work. On one hand, the revived creatures and their sounds are fascinating and exhilarating. On the other hand, one might think: "How far will we go with cloning technologies? Is this really what we want?".
Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures- Installation trailer (Video: Ben Penna, Sound: Association Phonotonic)
Are you planning to do something else with these creatures? Or are they happy staring in an opera only?
"Proposal for Resuscitating Prehistoric Creatures" is now comprised of a trailer directed by Benjamin Penaguin; a book called "The Infinite Odyssey" gathering all my documents and correspondence; an 'Épopée' in 14 chapters which has been published in TAR Magazine Issue n.9.
I am very interested in the idea of an infinite, never-ending project, a project that always renews itself and comes back to life in different forms.
This project is the first chapter of the 'design trilogy' I am currently working on, which deals with attempting to communicate with unreachable, extinct or unknown forms of life.
I'm also intrigued by the people you collaborated with in order to create the opera. Namely, Jameszoo, Julien Bloit and Ben Penna. How did you get to work with them? Is it easy to convince other artists to work on an opera for prehistoric creatures?
In June 2011, I completed the Mammoth Imperator for my final show at the Royal College of Art. I was then commissioned by curator Alexandra Midal to complete my opera for the exhibition Politique-Fiction at the Cité du design in Saint-Etienne.
I started then to work with Julien Bloit who is a research engineer and musician; and engineer/inventor Charles Goyard whom I worked with to refine the design of the larynges and vocal cords. Working together was truly fantastic. We would spend days experimenting in Charles' studio in Montreuil, discussing about the project on a more conceptual level, building and testing prototypes.
The project is like a science-fiction adventure film made for real. I was also interested in using strategies from the film industry to exhibit the project, as an installation, online, as a printed story, and so on.
I have been discussing about this project from the very beginning with art director/graphic designer Benjamin Penaguin . We then developed the idea of a trailer together and I gave him "Carte blanche". We now work and discuss a lot together. Benjamin also designed the libretto for the performance Beasts Back Saga with Mitchel van Dinther.
I discovered Mitchel's music recently. I immediately became a big fan of his EP Faaveelaa. He mixes the sound of his chicken (which lives in his kitchen) and of his parrot to create very strange and interesting beats. I wrote a story in three acts and asked him to create a track for each chapter. It was also a "Carte Blanche".
Any upcoming project, field of investigation, or exhibition you'd like to share with us? Do you want to talk about the letters to the (almost) Aliens?
I am working on the second chapter of my design trilogy for my upcoming solo show.
With 'The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures' project, I wanted to explore the use of design as a catalyst of supernatural events and miracles, as a producer of real-time science-fictions and as the prosthetics of parallel worlds. These are topics I have been investigating since my Master dissertation at the Royal College of Art.
In this second chapter I will explore the idea of the 'designer-illusionist' further.
This new project is an epistolary novel relating my attempt to communicate with the possible 'almost-alien' inhabitants of the Vostok Lake in Antarctica.
The Vostok Lake is one lake amongst four hundreds subglacial lakes in Antarctica which are covered with kilometres of ice. The Vostok lake has been isolated under three kilometers of ice from the rest of the world for more than fifteen million years.
A dilemma emerges from this situation. Drilling through the ice and reaching the lake (like what the Russian scientific team has been doing in the past years) means altering its 'alien' character. But if we choose not to enter this lake we are left with a complete mystery.
This situation also occurs in Fellini's film Roma. While building the Roman subway, the workers reach a wall. They have to drill through this wall in order to pursue the construction of the subway. They discover behind this wall a magnificent roman villa covered with beautiful frescoes. These paintings had been isolated from the rest of the world for thousand of years.
How could I find an alternative way to communicate with these 'almost-aliens' without penetrating the lake pristine waters? And how could I convince them to reveal their identity and tell us more about what is hidden under the ice? How could my "letters" to them look like?
Maybe I could trick them into thinking that we know who they are... using illusions, mimicry, or camouflage, building dummies in order to trigger a response.
I am really inspired by the work of illusionist Jasper Maskelyne who was hired by the British Army during the Second World War. He and his "Magic Gang" used magic tricks on a large-scale: they made Alexandria disappear, created a dummy army with fake tanks and soldiers and so on.
This project could also refer to Ettore Sottsass "Ceramics of Darkness" designed in 1963.
I am currently being advised by glaciologists, illusionists, psychologists, conspiracy theorists, telepathy practitioners and even dowsers.
Book description: The Art of Walking: a field guide is the first extensive survey of walking in contemporary art. Combining short texts on the subject with a variety of artists work, The Art of Walking provides a new way of looking at this everyday subject.
The introduction relates peripatetic art now to a wide range of historic precedents, and is followed by a series of visually led 'Walks' dealing with seven overlapping themes: footprints and lines; writers and philosophers; marches and processions; aliens, dandies and drifters; slapstick; studios, museums and biennales; and dog walkers.
The guide includes newly commissioned art and writing, and many artists have been actively involved in the design of their respective pages.
This overview of artworks dealing with walking completely took me by surprise. I was expecting psychogeography, peripatetics, geolocation and theory. But The Art of Walking: A Field Guide is not only light on words, it also follows themes that range from aliens to slapstick to dog walking.
The way the content is illustrated is worth a mention too. There are the usual photos that document performances of course but also letters, preparatory drawings, souvenir programme, etc. The succession of images for each artwork allows the reader to fill in the dots, complete the short presentation text and create their own narrative. The author even asked some of the artists to participate in the editorial process. For example, The Art of Walking opens on a series of proposals that artist Peter Liversidge wrote down on his old typewriter for the author of the book, for himself or for the reader. He invites you to put down the book and go outside, for example. And following his suggestion, the book closes on 5 empty pages for you to write down notes.
The book was thus nothing i expected. And that's never a bad thing.
Special mention for the format and design of the book. Soft cover. Thick, glossy pages but not too glossy (if you know what i mean.) Round corners.
And now for the traditional tour of some of the works presented in the book:
In 2003, Regina José Galindo walked from the Congress of Guatemala building to the National Palace, dipping her bare feet in a basin filled with human blood, leaving red footprints behind as a protest against the presidential candidacy of Guatemala's former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt whose military regime committed widespread human rights abuses.
In 1991, Francis Alÿs dragged a magnetic toy dog on wheels through Mexico City until it became covered entirely in coins, bits of old tin cans and other street debris.
In the 1999 video performance 'Stoat', Marcus Coates is staggering on wooden platforms, in a pitiful attempt to recreate the animal's gait.
GPS device in hand, Simon Faithfull walked along the Greenwich Meridian from Peace Haven in Hampshire to Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. Following the exact line of longitude involved climbing through windows and up fences, crossing private properties, swimming through streams and crawling through hedges.
Marches by Lawrence Abu Hamdan is an audio recording, booklet and map documenting two performances on 23 May 2008.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan choreographed two marches in the Queen's Walk and Tower Hill areas of London. The marchers stomped wearing footwear created by local cobblers for greater sonic effect.
And While London Burns is the soundtrack for the era of climate change, set amongst the skyscrapers of the most powerful financial district on Earth, London's Square Mile. An opera for one, it takes the listener, equipped with an mp3 player on a walking audio adventure through the streets and alleyways of our city.
Between 1976 and 1979, Keith Arnatt photographed dogs and their owners out for walks near his home in South Wales. The artist went to great lengths to ensure that the owner and his pet are looking at the camera at the same time.
"Where the photographic act is concerned, a dog's attention span is extremely short. When, for example, calling a dog's name fails to attract its attention, I am forced to resort to more extreme measures."
"My barking and growling are quite effective, though such antics tend also to affect the owner's own response. And though a fair number of pictures do show the dog making the required response, they are marred by showing the owner peering down to see whether they are doing so."
In 2007 high wire artist Didier Pasquette attempted to walk between three of Glasgow's Red Road high rise tower blocks. Unfortunately, high winds forced Pasquette to retrace his path. The performance was used by artist Catherine Yass as the basis of a reflection on the urban environment.
Also by David Evans: Critical Dictionary.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired today at 4pm (London time.)
My guest at Resonance this afternoon is Kira O'Reilly, a performer whose work i've encountered a number of times in biotech art context. I've been particularly drawn to the works that address the ethics of human/animal interactions and more generally our complex relationships with animals. The most discussed of her work is probably inthewrongplaceness, an intimate performance that Kira developed on her return from a residency at the art science collaborative research lab SymbioticA in 2004. Realizing the similarities between the pig's skin and her own, Kira danced skin to skin with a dead pig and invited members of the audience to touch both her own and the skin of the nonhuman animal,
A few years later, Kira presented the performance, Falling Asleep With a Pig in which she cohabited with a live pig called Deliah in a specially constructed sty. Sometimes they shared the space for 36 hours and in other performances, the cohabitation lasted 72 hours.
Kira O'Reilly's work has been exhibited and discussed widely throughout the UK, Europe, Australia, China and Mexico.
Kira is currently busy working on a three year AHRC funded creative fellowship at Queen Mary University of London called Thresholds of Performance, between body, laboratory and text.
I just read in a press release that i was one of the 20.000 visitors of the sixth edition of STRP in Eindhoven. The yearly festival is now a biennial but the formula hasn't changed much: 10 days of science&tech-infused art and of electronic music.
The theme of this year's exhibition is City of Cyborgs. Not the city of androids, clunky clones and man/machines contraptions but the city we are already walking through, smartphones in our pockets, implants in our bodies for some and ready to get our hands on Google glasses. City of Cyborgs in STRP speak means animatronics, opera for prehistoric creatures, a forest of interactive lasers, tapas made from edible solar cells, absurd mega machines and lots of dance. The high tech, the low tech, the digital, the organic and everything in between and beyond.
This year, STRP provided me this with a good excuse to catch up with and reflect on today's cyborg scenery and with the opportunity to discover artists and works i had never encountered so far.
I might be late to the party but i've just added the name of Ief Spincemaille to my list of young artists t follow. Sadly, I didn't manage to get my hands on his Reverse Blinking goggles. All i can say is that people kept telling me "Have you tried it? Have you?! it's brilliant! Brilliant!' Since i've missed the fun, i'll just copy/paste the description:
Imagine being caught with your head inside a photo camera. It's completely dark. Only when the shutter opens for a very brief moment, you perceive a flash of the world. You see people as static figures, entire street scenes as moments frozen in time. Everything you lay your eyes on seems to acquire the characteristics of a photograph. The shutter moves so fast that it leaves no space for movement. The plates move up and down causing your eyes to make a reverse blinking movement: the plates are generally shut off, and only open and close quickly and briefly. The spectators can open and close the shutter themselves with a button, allowing them to determine the frequency, but not the speed (shutter time).
I did however, have a go at the other work that the artist was showing: the Chain driven 3D mirror which makes it possible to walk around your own head and view it as if it belonged to somebody else. The most remarkable aspect of the work is that it doesn't involves any digital technology but relies entirely on mechanical components: a chain, sprocket and motor.
I actually found it more interesting to watch visitors trying on the apparatus. They seemed to hover between the fascination to watch their own head under every possible angle and the self-conscious feeling that people around them are watching them. I wish i had a better photo of the installation but i stupidly deleted mine and the ones provided by the festival focus more on the near-orgasmic expressions of the visitors than on the artworks themselves.
Paul Granjon's modified Robotic Perception Kits were available for a test-run in the exhibition space but they were so much in demand that yet again, i didn't manage to get them on. The goggles and ear sets allow users to experience the world as is if you were a robot.
I'm going to hop right into the performances programme. Because you cannot curate a cyborg-themed festival without including Stelarc, one of the opening night performances saw him manipulating his now legendary Exoskeleton. The beastly machine has been touring festivals and exhibition for several years and it still has the power to knock out and turn us into a collectively gasping crowd. I for one was very impressed.
That same night saw a performance by Daito Manabe. The artist has gained fame over the past few years by sitting solemnly in front of a table while the muscles of his face are controlling the tones and rhythms of his musical performances.
Back to the exhibition and to contraptions i wouldn't be seen dead wearing: Guo Cheng's The Mouth Factory is made of drills and lathes designed to be operated with the user's jaw and mouth.
A couple more works you might or might not have heard about already:
Valerie, My Crystal Sister is a crystal chandelier that hides a moving story: the attempt by designer Lucas Maassen to create an object that would be, genetically speaking, the sister that he never had. The chandelier is not only a visualization of the basic code of life, it also asks whether it is possible to use the biological process that created Maassen as a design process to create an object. The designer first crystallized synthetic DNA fragments taken from his parents and then produced a magnified version of this crystal also out of crystal. Finally, Maassen assembled one thousand such pieces to form the chandelier exhibited at STRP.
Jordi Puig's A-ME is an 'emotional memory recall device.' The installation allows visitors to upload memories to an artificial brain. They can also navigate the brain and listen to the memories that other people have stored in A-ME.
Waterfall Swing. The name says it all.
More images on STRP's flickr set.
A couple of weeks ago, i attended the Performing Architecture evening at Tate Britain. The event attempted to answer the questions 'What does performance have to do with architecture?' and 'How can a building perform, and how can we perform a building?' Call me an ignorant but i had never heard about Performance Architecture so i'm gathering here a few notes i wrote down during the Late at Tate night. I hope to get a chance to explore performance architecture with more details in the near future.
The most enlightening introduction to the practice was probably the discussion that Tate Curator Marianne Mulvey had with performance architect Alex Schweder and Lamis Bayar , Associate Editor of Le Journal Spéciale'Z.
Performance architecture is an emerging term but it comes from a long history of performance art. Emblematic examples would be Yves Klein's Air Architecture and his iconic Leap into the Void in 1960. Performance architecture also builds upon the works of avant garde architecture studios such as Haus-Rucker-Co, Archigram and Superstudio.
While architecture is usually prescriptive, performance architecture has to do with permission. It gives more agency to the people who occupy or pass through a building, urging them to explore and open up a building.
For the Late at Tate event, Schweder and Bayar scattered instructions inviting visitors to 'perform' Tate's Duveen Galleries. The examples of performance architecture taken from Schweder's portfolio might explain the concept with more clarity:
For 5 days, Schweder and Ward Shelley lived in Counterweight Roommate, a twiglike building made for two occupants of the same weight. Movement in the house depends on using the body mass of one's roommate as a counter weight to aid ascent or slow descent. When one occupant wishes to go up to the kitchen at the top level, the other must go down to the bathroom at the bottom. Between these two rooms are two private sleep / work rooms on levels two and four, and a common room at level three where the ends of the rope meet.
The same pair spent a whole week living inside Stability, a wooden seesaw with two beds, a kitchen and a bathroom. The structure moved up and down whenever either of the occupants decided to move from one room to another. The work was about the negotiations and moments of cooperation that take place when several people share a living space as the position of one of the dweller immediately affects the comfort of the other occupant.
Other projects that the architect mentioned in his talk included giving instructions to people to 'paint this floor until it touches the ceiling' and asking people to breathe warm air as soon as they entered an adjacent room where the temperature is always lower (the room was used to store meat in the past.) Imperceptibly and over time, the breath of the visitors raised the temperature of the second room.
The rest of the evening included more talks, a couple of performances, a workshop, and a series of famous and less famous short films such as Gordon Matta-Clark's spiralling 'cut' that breathed light and air into two derelict 17th century buildings in Paris.
Two films that document Absalon living within his experimental Cellules, 1:1 architectural propositions for idealised living-pods scaled to, and designed to condition, the sculptor's body and mind.
A film by Thomas Lock that deconstructs northern France's abandoned WW2 bunkers and Atlantic Wall into a time-based collage of fractured imagery and sound.
As well as Sean Snyder's Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land that follows a Romanian oligarch's re-creation of the ranch from the TV show Dallas - one of the few American TV programmes broadcast under Ceausescu's Cold War rule.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM is aired tonight.
My guest in the studio is artist and film maker Charlotte Jarvis.
Over the past few years, Charlotte has worked with scientists to bio-engineer a bacteria with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence, she developed performances that showed the public what could happen if one day, synthetic biology was used to eradicate greed, lust and anger from a group of children.
But today, Charlotte is going to dispel a few myths about stem cells and discuss her award-winning project: Ergo Sum.
A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Her tissue and blood samples are now in a lab where they will be transformed - medically metamorphosed - into induced pluripotent stem cells and from there into a range of completely different substances. A second self will be created, a self-portrait, a dopplegänger, made from a collage of in vitro body parts. Brain, heart and blood vessel all biologically 'Charlotte', yet distinctly alien to her.
The show will be aired today Thursday 7st February at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman.