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.
Elastic Reality is an exhibition about the internet, about its ubiquity and ability to permeate physical space, it's about the way permanent connectedness has added layers and complexity to the notion of 'reality'. Elastic Reality is not just reality, nor is it simply virtual reality or augmented reality, it is an expanding, ever-morphing reality.
This ever more complex environment blends the virtual and the real, the dataflow with the landscape. Whereas new terms are regularly coined to describe this state of things, none truly encapsulate the multi layered realm we inhabit. Hence, comes the notion of elastic reality, which was inspired by the works on display in this exhibition. The participating artists not only play with these distortions of the "real", but also pioneer new ways to interact with their work. The formal exploration of new interfaces is as much part of their preoccupation, as is the content of their work, and the kind of commentary on the current state of reality we live in.
Elastic Reality was co-produced with Le Fresnoy, Studio des Arts Contemporains, a post-graduate art school and audio-visual research and production centre, where young artists are invited to produce new work under the mentorship of guest artist-professors. The exhibition is a selection of the works produced in the course of last academic year (ending in June 2012.)
Some of the works are openly political, others are of the 'move around and interact' kind, some invite to introspection, others are made to dazzle. There were good surprises (notably Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.) and a few fresh ideas but I must say that half of the description texts drove me CRA-ZY. Do french-speaking people really have to write in such a convoluted way? Does being arcane equal being smart?
Anyway, here's a couple of works i found particularly interesting:
The Mafia's retaliation was brutal. Bombings, murders, attacks on touristic spots and other demonstrations of violence. Vincent Ciciliato grew up against that background and the game he has developed unfolds in six different locations in Palermo, some of which are the stage of a murder. Players have to re-enact the murders and fire at moving targets inspired by real murders but they don't actually know if the person is an innocent passerby or the specific person who has to be eliminated. The identity of the victim is revealed only after they have been shot (to kill people, players have to do the well-known gesture of holding a handgun up and then aiming and firing with the finger.) The executor becomes the witness when the shot is followed by a series of archives documents that reveal the murder that took place at that exact spot some 30 years ago.
Zahra Poonawala's Tutti installation made me think of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo's magnificent Intonarumori but the reference was actually the acousmonium or loudspeaker orchestra, a set of 80 loudspeakers of various sizes and shapes designed by Francois Bayle for tape playback.
Tutti invites visitors to a dynamic experience of listening by walking around the components of the orchestra. The characters each have their own volume, register and a different personality. In front of this background the soloists stand out, isolated loudspeakers that are mobile because they react to the movement of the spectator who is incited to move to make them react. The different layers of sound intensify this spatial organisation. From a fundamentally complex chord which forms a base, the reaction to the spectators' movements determines the changes of intensity, ignites solos which stand out from the sound mass.
Ryoichi Kurokawa was one of the mentors of the students at Le Fresnoy in 2012 and as such, he was invited to develop his own work during his stay in Northern France. As can be expected from the über-talented artist, the result is jaw-dropping.
Dead End is a charismatic metallic sculpture inspired by abandoned industrial monuments and futurist constructions, the start of fantastic progress of the edification of a modernist mirage; hybrid architecture striving to rise up but also to deconstruct, to gradually deteriorate.
"The void of distance is nowhere else."
Véronique Béland's installation attempts to listen to radio waves that civilizations living on other planets might broadcast. This is exactly what the SETI program has been doing with very little success since the beginning of the 1960s as part of its mission to find intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The young artist, however, proposes to capture «non intelligent» radio broadcasts and process it through an automatic generator of random texts. The data is captured by radio-telescopes from the Paris Observatory, the algorithm turns it into a text and a synthesized voice articulates it in the exhibition space in real time.
More descriptions, details and essays in the press kit.
Previously: Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.
Elastic Reality. Beyond the Exhibition: New Interfaces for Contemporary Art in Europe was curated by Benjamin Weil. The exhibition remains open at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) in Gijón, Spain, until 8 September 2013.
The works on show visualise diverse physical occurrences. From the ground floor to the top floor, the installations, videos and photographic pieces investigate phenomena that get further and further away from our daily experience.
The installation on the ground floor, Thermic, screens the usually invisible heat waves floating through space. Hot air produced from a streaming heat source made visible by a spotlight rendering shadows of it onto the wall. Like a mirage, we can see fluctuations of air thus realizing that we are not surrounded by empty space but by physical, flexible matter.
One floor up, the video future past perfect pt. 04 (wolken) shows clouds that appear almost as an optical illusion - the camera zooms in while different shots of clouds are interspersed together. Accompanying prints from the wolken series show clouds that reveal resemblances to both micro and macro structures.
In particle noise on the top floor of the gallery, radioactive particles and magnetic noise are captured in sound, with Geiger counters being the source for a sound installation. The
Carsten Nicolai - Observatory is at Ibid Projects until 20 April 2013.
The Winter Sparks show at FACT Liverpool is small and efficient. Three large-scale installations that experiment with scientific phenomena and pay homage to Nikola Tesla. The works can be experienced without mediation but each of them also conveys several layers of meanings and readings, whether you're intrigued by the technical description or by the sheer beauty of the sparks, lightening bolts, and sonic properties of the works. Each piece in the exhibition also functions as both an art installation and a musical instrument that the artists played during the opening night of Winter Sparks.
I already told you about the Evolving Spark Network installation yesterday so let's move on to Alexandre Burton's Impacts, a work that demonstrates convincingly that you can still stun and amaze the crowd using a technology that was invented around 1891. The installation uses Tesla coil and a quick look at its wikipedia entry taught me that the electrical resonant transformer circuit is so popular that its enthusiasts show off their home-made Tesla coils at "coiling" conventions, that Björk used a Tesla coil as the main instrument in the song Thunderbolt, and that others use coils to play Mario Bros theme song.
Right before we approach the installation, we are advised that it's better not to go too close to the work -actually "Do not to touch!" is a better way to describe the warning, not to enter the room with a pacemaker, nor to let unaccompanied children in. Even mobile phones are not invited to the party as "there is a chance that the electromagnetic field emitted by the tesla coils could corrupt the flash or damage the memory of your mobile device or crash running programs."
The Tesla coils are activate by the presence of the visitors. As you go near, arcs of electricity of variable intensities come crashing against a glass pane. The violent flashes of light and sound are dramatic and fascinating, because of the lightning bolt patterns formed of course but also because you have the feeling of being in close proximity to danger.
With this new work, Alexandre Burton proposes the use of plasma (loosely defined as an electrically neutral medium of positive and negative particles) as matter and medium itself, circumscribed by a defined frame and articulated through unique programming. In this way, IMPACTS serves as a reminder of the danger and muscle of this marvel while capturing its sublime beauty and rhythmic potential.
Part physics experiment and part art work, the installation takes its cue from the Wilberforce pendulum, a spring hung on the ceiling with central and eccentric weights that alternate between two oscillation modes. Once calibrated, vertical and circular movements alternate even without additional external energy. It is an example of a coupled mechanical oscillator.
Bosch & Simons equipped the springs with audiovisual equipment that documents everything around the FACT Atrium. The video camera, microphone and loudspeakers capture sounds in the environment and in turn, generate visual and audio data that visitors can experience on a screen located in a dark room nearby.
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 20th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 22nd November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
This week i' talking with Nelly Ben Hayoun about space science technologies, aliens and music. The designer spent a whole Summer in California to direct the International Space Orchestra. The cast of the opera is pretty spectacular. It is performed by space scientists from NASA Ames, Singularity University, International Space University and the SETI Institute. The music was composed by Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, Maywa Denki and Arthur Jeffes. The lyrics are by Bruce Sterling & Jasmina Tesanovic. Finally, Grammy-Award winner Evan Price was in charge of the musical direction.
One of the next stops for the International Space Orchestra is going to be Space Odyssey 2.0, an exhibition that opens on 17 February 2013 at Z33 Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt.
Another work i discovered at the GAMERZ festival in Aix en Provence a few days ago. And just like yesterday's this one give sound a visual presence. So visual actually that artist Cécile Babiole defines her work as a 'sound sculpture.'
Bzzz! The sound of electricity brings us back to the pre-digital sound, to a time when electric energy was so raw and new, that it buzzed, sparkled and vibrated. The work renders the sound of electricity audible and spread it over the ambient space. Six frequency generators comprising basic electronic components allow the electrical current to be modulated so as to generate slightly amplified sound vibrations.
The soundscape is best experience when walking inside the sculpture, going from one sound to another, seeing how the cables and loudspeakers slightly vibrate as if the electrical current was waking them to an organic life. The sound wave generator itself is at the centre of the circular structure. It was amusing to see how male visitors felt entitled to turn the buttons to control the sound. I guess any artwork that uses electronics is now regarded as being automatically 'interactive.' But this piece wasn't. Cécile Babiole did however use Bzzz! as an instrument for a performance she gave during the opening of the festival
By reinventing an obsolete low-tech sound wave generator in this all-digital age, Bzzz ! serves as a commentary on the history of technology and a tribute to unprocessed, unsampled analog sound : in a word, the raw sound of electricity.
Video showing the installation in action, along with a short interview with the artist (in french):
Also at the last edition of GAMERZ: Macro-videos for musicians in action.