Reviving Cleopatra in music video: Marguerite Humeau’s #extinction

Marguerite Humeau, "Cleopatra - That Goddess", 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin
Marguerite Humeau, “Cleopatra – That Goddess”, 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin

The concept of “Extinction” was the talk of Frieze London, with the Serpentine Gallery’s Obrist-curated marathon sparking creativity across the British capital. Marguerite Humeau’s project for this occasion resurrected Cleopatra as contemporary pop princess via a music video. The artist’s previous work has focused on resuscitating the roars of prehistoric creatures and communication with spirits via the recreation of a 19th Century “Angelic Organ”. To celebrate the online premiere of the new work “Cleopatra” here on Sleek, Import Projects Co-Director Anja Henckel and Sleek Art Editor Jeni Fulton sat down with the Humeau to talk extinct languages, pharaoh queens and, of course, the screams of hell. 

Watch the online premiere of “Cleopatra – That Goddess” by Marguerite Humeau below

CLEOPATRA – THAT GODDESS from Marguerite Humeau on Vimeo.

What sparked your interest in Cleopatra?

My work starts with this question: how does one tell history when history is gone and there is no evidence to claim that this is history is more valid than anything other speculation? Regarding the Cleopatra project, I was thinking about the fact that it is now possible to print living vocal organs. For there, I thought, whose voice can I revive? Cleopatra is an icon, but actually her body, her mummy, was never found. When you try to learn more about who Cleopatra was as a woman, there is not much information. Also, I realised that I could take the project further by exploring extinct languages. Cleopatra was the first pharaoh to learn Egyptian and to understand that it was important to speak in the language of her people, as well as the people she was doing business with. She spoke nine different languages that are all now extinct.

How did you design the voices and the languages?

I sent an email to ten different experts: a surgeon, an ethnomusicologist, an archaeologist, a language-evolution specialist and so on. To synthesize Cleopatra’s voice, I worked with a laboratory for speech synthesis in Paris called IRCAM.

How did you find these experts?

Google! And instead of asking them for scientific information, I asked for them to describe to me what they think Cleopatra might have sounded like, according to their area of expertise. For example, I had a dialogue with a historian who wrote Cleopatra’s biography, and an ethnomusicologist who studies Egyptian music. They all wrote precise depictions of what they reasoned Cleopatra might have sounded like.

With voice, there is always this question of what a person is – like in Spike Jonze’s movie “Her” and this ambiguity between machine and person. 

Cleopatra is a voice and a digital 3D model of her body. What is most terrifying is that now she actually does exist… as a resuscitated virtual being. There is a kind of ambiguity – she is present, but only through her voice.

Marguerite Humeau, "Cleopatra - That Goddess", 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin.
Marguerite Humeau, “Cleopatra – That Goddess”, 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin.

The concept of reality as a distinct mode of existence is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Romantic division between the real and the fake, the alienated and the unalientated, is vanishing. 

It’s completely archaic.

If you can’t tell the difference between a bot and a realistic Cleopatra that has been recreated through sophisticated 3D printing technology, in the end does it really matter?

It is all about what we believe. What do we want? I think the core of my work is the idea of presence – What is a being, how does it exist, and how far can we go to push the boundaries of what ‘existing’ or ‘living’ mean? In my project “The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures” there was still a physical body for the resuscitated beasts, because they were sculptures and were there physically, generating the creatures’ roars. With Cleopatra it is more ambiguous, as she is not revived as a physical body but only as a “partial object”. 

Marguerite Humeau, "Cleopatra - That Goddess", 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin.
Marguerite Humeau, “Cleopatra – That Goddess”, 2014. Directed by Benjamin Penaguin.

I’m interested in how the issue of moving from the object to subject plays out in your work. Is this something you think about?

I went to the Design Academy in Eindhoven because they had quite an experimental approach to design. I then applied to Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, and realised that in the Design Interactions department the focus was more on contents than objects. My tutor, James Auger, really imparted a love for narrative in me – a close relationship between your story and reality is very important. The story has to be backed up with extensive research to be believable. I’m interested in collaborating rather than commissioning. My skill is to craft the narrative. I am not a sculptor, I am not a poet, I am not a writer: it’s more about being a director than anything else.

What’s your next project about?

It’s about the screams from Hell. There are allegedly gates to hell in Mexico, Turkmenistan and Siberia. In Siberia, scientists recorded a sound that was coming from underground that really sounded like screams. The sound went viral on the internet. I investigated, and of course it was a hoax. I am interested in it now because I want to see if I can reconstruct the hoax physically – where do the sounds come from? Do they come from stalactites, from the crystals growing underground? Maybe from the wind coming in and making the crystals ring? I am trying to recreate these screams by using all a selection of rocks and underground speleothems that actually do exist in these wells to Hell.

Cleopatra, Invocation with Flashes of Light, HD Video (color, sound) and installation with cushions in synthetic frog skin, 2014, premiered at the Extinction Marathon, Serpentine Galleries, 18 – 19 October 2014

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