Artist Spotlight: Marie-Jeanne Musiol
Marie-Jeanne Musiol is a photographer whose fascination with "energy botany" is expressed through her art practice. In this interview, FFOTO's Cassie Spires talks to Musiol about the interests that inform her creative process. What follows is an illuminating conversation with an artist whose open-minded sensibilities accommodate both hard science and metaphysical approaches within her worldview.
Cassie Spires: I am thrilled to talk to you on behalf of FFOTO's audience about your practice. Let's start at the beginning. Can you recount a formative experience that put you on the path towards becoming an artist?
Marie-Jeanne Musiol: That's a key question. Some artists have a very strong intuition of what they want to do - I didn’t have this sense. I was moving through different media, exploring the ephemeral qualities of drawing, when a photographer brought me into a darkroom. There I discovered three simple steps also related to ephemerality: develop, stop, and fix. My unbroken relationship with the darkroom had begun. It was around 1985.
CS: How has your practice evolved since then?
MJM: When I first migrated from drawing to photography, I was quickly taken by the way space and time actively deploy in photography. Initially, I would draw directly on photographs to combine the two media. Then I started to draw on the ground and to photograph tracings and their shadows. These early explorations evolved over time.
Fairly soon in my practice I travelled deep into the jungle to capture Mayan sites overrun with vegetation. I was fascinated with the way nature would swallow up these sites. I went on to explore the high Tibetan plateau, bent on capturing through a kind of artistic archaeological sensitivity the spirit of places with the energy they activate.
In 1994 I journeyed to Auschwitz, not far from my family farm. There, another dimension emerged: that of a site at the heart of a contemporary archeology of horror, predicated on ruins and the visible remains of victims. It was very hard to do representational photography in the camp as everything has already been shown. Rather, I sought to project images of the felt energy so intensely experienced in that space. There and then, I resolved to use photography differently - not merely to represent but to embody the energy of sites and of all the living (some trees in Auschwitz are the same trees that victims had once stood beside). I then started working on various tree series indicative of that presence.
Afterwards, having returned to Canada, I searched many years for the process and tool that would yield a direct representation of energy fields around living things. Auschwitz had given me the impetus to seek out the means, and I came across electromagnetic (EM) photography with its ability to capture the light corona around organisms. Ever since, I have been recording a host of interactions with plants and getting live results. However, I have not done energy captures of plants in Auschwitz. The intuition came from the site, but the purpose evolved as it was not possible to work in the camp.
I found the apparatus for EM photography by accident and the learning process was long but successful. There’s not much range in the possibilities - the machine mostly captures the emanations of small entities like fingers and toes. I quickly realized there was no artistic project there and decided to experiment with plants. A few people had done it before but not systematically. I now have around 1,600 negatives of leaves (and rocks) in various states of expression. Many more negatives are simply duds and some years I find no imprints at all. Perhaps there is a correlation with solar cycles and flares - the sun averages a 22-year cycle, so halfway through there’s a maximum intensity that fluctuates at other times.
EM photography is a very sensitive process - a life capture process. Not fabricated, not manipulated but coming straight up on the negative as evidence of what is occurring. The effects of cutting a plant, as well as its healing or dying processes are all recorded. Because plants can be re-energized by hands or thought, and photographed as these energy transfers occur, I have the “before” and “after” negatives.
Concurrently I also uncover mirror images of the cosmos in minute plant details. Many are on a 1:1 scale when paired with NASA images. In a recently published book, The Radiant Forest: An Energy Herbarium, I've juxtaposed a number of these correlations showing how similar formations are equally contained and spread throughout all elements of life, from the very big to the very small.
The universe itself can be viewed as a holographic field where the totality of information is evenly distributed and accessible to an open mind. When a physical hologram is cut up, every little piece encompasses the whole image with the laser beam becoming the revelator. The holographic nature of the world is a given for me. That's not necessarily how scientists see and describe the cosmos, but then artists have the very creative freedom to observe differently.
The way we look at things can limit our broader understanding of how phenomena work. We have inherited an objectified way of looking at reality from the Age of Enlightenment. It was enlightened then but it's not adequate anymore as we try to integrate energy realities in our considerations. While we still view cause and effect as an absolute for example, we bypass the evidence that no single cause generates a single effect and that countless causes bring on myriads of effects best expressed as a web structure.
David Bohm is one person in the science world to know (some of his lectures are on YouTube). A quantum physicist and luminary whom Einstein considered his spiritual heir, he incited the research community to integrate science, philosophy, linguistics and spirituality but was marginalized for this in his lifetime.
CS: Can you tell me more about the EM apparatus you mentioned? How does the apparatus work? Did you build it?
MJM: I could never have come up with this high-voltage apparatus myself. Initially developed by Valentina and Semyon Kirlian in Russia, it eventually made its way into German, French, and US bioenergy applications. It consists of an inductor and an electrode on which a plant and a negative are positioned to record light emanations.
CS: Switching gears, can you tell me what practical concerns your art has been faced with lately?
MJM: I've been doing energy captures for over 20 years, and my practical concern is now to extend the representation of luminous fields through other photographic means. I have recently done live video captures processed from a digital camera - somewhat complicated and bordering on scientific representation of phenomena, but still artistic. I’m not out to prove anything but rather to show, which is much different. This is my practical concern - to extend the vision.
CS: What are you planning to work on for the months ahead? What themes are you currently exploring?
MJM: My desire is to propose a first energy herbarium and eventually open up the perspective of an “energy” botany. The insides of organisms have largely been observed but how do we resonate to their light fields? These days, botanists are apparently more centred on the DNA of plants, focusing on the dissection of matter and its building blocks. However, for me, what emanates from all living things is just as interesting because it acts like a subtle connector with its own laws to be discovered. As I continue to capture the energy image of hundreds of plants to add to the energy herbarium, I am now attempting to do the same for their root systems, the equivalent of the aerial leaf system. Visually, the roots may be closer to the figures of electrical sparks - to be seen!
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes the relationships between root systems of different kinds of trees. This inspired me to photograph these systems. At the moment I am still working out the intricacies of the experiment.
CS: When you look back to 2020 from the future, how do you think this year will have shaped your practice?
MJM: This year has definitively highlighted how our vision, the way we integrate unexpected events and build our realities, is predicated on many parameters, some very crystallized, others more fluid and evolving. I am thinking about a public presentation on these “ways of seeing” to bring the discussion into energy territory.
The Y2K phenomenon in 2000 was really a shared moment in time because everyone was on edge, expecting the crash of the whole internet system. We were beginning to understand the universal ramifications of networks and deep connections. The COVID-19 situation brings us once again in contact with the invisible presence of some extended force; here the virus. Although many see the virus as a physical agent to be vanquished with a vaccine, it is more akin to intelligent life spreading in ways we don’t understand because we are not attuned.
Strangely, while the internet has ushered in the immediate transfer of information through networks, it has not deepened durably our understanding of the information fields that connect all matter, thoughts, representations. Many still believe in physical contagion only, not energy contamination.
This is something I have been exploring since the beginning of my energy photography practice. We look at things as physical objects with physical properties while energy properties are overlooked. In (Western) science and medicine, it's very hard to find treatments that are based on energy processes. The pill is the ultimate pharmaceutical and chemical intervention. I see how transfers occur between myself and plants, and among plants themselves; on the other hand, I realize how our understandings are shaped by a technical vision. This is the real challenge: the vaccine might take care of this particular virus but many more will emerge if we don't see things differently and treat nature accordingly.
At all levels our interactions project an energy pattern that is shared, transferred and imprinted on other living organisms that do the same to us. Ignoring this fundamental back-and-forth connection keeps us locked up in mental silos. This pandemic year will have furthered my understanding that nothing exists in abstraction.
CS: Is there one work or series on FFOTO that you would like to tell collectors about?
MJM: Only two series of work are posted on FFOTO and they are both relevant to what I’m trying to do. One is the ongoing plant series focusing on the energy fields of plants and from which I also extract mirror images of the cosmos. This is an important part of my search, finding cosmic reflections in very small plant details that are revealed simply because the scale of vision has changed. I actively explore this holographic nature of seeing.
The second series is Black Holes - photos of the latrine pits in the Auschwitz concentration camp, shown as images of dark planets, cosmic dark holes in which the whole of Western civilization nearly sank: many of them with no depth, some of them with small perspectives. Some 55 images punctuate the sinister walk.
CS: As a Masters candidate in Ryerson University's Film + Photography Preservation and Collections Management program, I am always seeking to familiarize myself with the contemporary art scene. Are there any artists on FFOTO that you yourself are a fan of and that you'd like to recommend to our audience?
MJM: I appreciate Eadweard Muybridge as the experimental photographer who introduced real-time progression of movement in photography, striving to overcome its static nature. I also love Diane Arbus, a humanist who entered her subjects’ personal fields to distill their essence. And finally, Claudia Fährenkemper, a highly exacting artist who succeeds in bringing out the inner details of the living with stunning precision.
Marie-Jeanne Musiol's photographs are available via FFOTO courtesy of Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montreal.
Interviewer Cassandra Spires holds a BA in art history from Queen's University, and is currently an MA candidate in Ryerson's Photo Preservation and Collections Management program. Her current research interests include Canadian photography and decolonial practices in public institutions.