Marco Donnarumma is a new media artist and performer of international renown, born in Italy but now based in Edinburgh. His works have been presented both in Europe, in the U.S. and Asia.
Basically, his work explores the dimension of the human body in relation to outer space, real or virtual, investigating its sonic dimension, the sonic and expressive potential, either natural and in connection with technology
He does not omit to questioning on the iteration, the participation and the man / machine relationship. Last month Donnarumma was awarded first prize in the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition for Xth Sense, tecnologia e non solo, created by Italian artist.
The main issue is the action of muscle contraction in the physical world, and the consequent production of electronic signals and sounds in the virtual world (the tenth sense, indeed). Paradoxically, The platform of the practical artwork is the body,biological platform thatis brought to dialogue and reflect on the virtual one.
A prime example of this type of research and creation of Hypo Chrysos, in 2011, and whose last performance took place in February at the Edinburgh Inspace. A certain drama and intensity permeates this audio-visual work, since it is inspired by the hypocrites of the Dante’s sixth circle of Hell. At the center, the body intended as visceral being: pulsation of the blood and the contraction of the muscles produce biophysical signals that are amplified by Xth sense technology, whose sensors amplify the sound waves produced by the body.
Muscular tissues, blood, heart rate, the meat -would say Francis Bacon– boom out. At that point sound meets the outer space and reach an iteration with the audience. To all this, are added images, lights and visual forms, always produced by that first bio-signal and projected by a video.
Previously, Donnarumma had explored the natural ability of human biophysical system to produce muscular sounds, like in his Music for Flesh II, showing that body mass is nothing but the shell of biological processes and neural impulses, not so different from the sound ones.
Among the various works of the artist, we also find electronic music, audiovisual performances such as IC :: ntr :: l Natur, at whose center is a butterfly and its metamorphosis, in interaction with software, music and a musical instrument. Again, we find a variation of the theme of human control of sound, within a system as complex as the natural one.
Still within the sound art, Donnarumma has also explored the generative sound, with Golden Shield Music made in 2009, multi-channel installation based on IP addresses. Generative work of art, its main core is the reflection on censorship and the digital accessibility.
We asked some questions to Marco Donnarumma, on the occasion of their awards at the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition.
Silvia Bertolotti: What Xth Sense differs from other works submitted for the contest?
Marco Donnarumma: The jury verdict was based on the instruments design, musical qualities, and performative capabilities. 20 finalists have presented extended traditional instruments, gestural controllers, robot musicians, feedback systems, and sound-sensitive environments. It has been an exciting event.
I think the judges were convinced by the XS sophisticated level of musical interaction. I remember when Cyrille Lang (MOOG), one of the jurors, said that a musical instrument (a new or an “old” one), to be defined as such, has to be able to become its player’s voice. It’s an extremely interesting viewpoint, especially if applied to the study of new musical instruments. Perhaps this is the essence of the XS, to give a visceral voice to the expressiveness of its player.
Silvia Bertolotti: Can you briefly explain the Xth Sense technology and the role of the open source tools, on which the work is based?
Marco Donnarumma: A biotechnological device is generally based on biofeedback. This is a technique aimed at making tangible to our senses the body physiological processes, which would otherwise be unknown. There is a broad field of studies on the applications of biofeedback systems to music, but most of that research is focused on the tracking of electrical signals through the skin. The electrical signals are converted into control data, enacting the body as a complete controller. In contrast, the XS is an interactive biophysical system, which instead of a bio-electric input, depends on a mechanical impulse, an acoustic oscillation. Extending the previous biomusic research, the XS tries to situate biotechnological instruments in a more contemporary and musically interesting context: one in which the body is not just a controller, but an actual sound generating force.
This model exemplifies the idea of a new musical instrument that is not designed around the human body, but for the human body. In other words, an instrument that does not depend on a quantitative analysis of the biological body, but rather on its innate expressive qualities.
The XS uses a microphone that captures mechanical subcutaneous vibrations (or better, sounds) that originate within the muscle fibres at the onset of a contraction. The sonic vibration produced by the performer’s muscle tissue becomes the musical material, and it is live sampled according to the same data stream.
The performer generates visceral sounds and controls their live sampling and spatialization, while a computer diffuses them through the loudspeakers. At this point, the performer shapes again the sound stream exerting new limbs contractions. It’s a creative feedback loop between the biological body and a sensing instrument, which I called biophysical music.
The use of free and open source tools is an integral part of the project. The software was developed on Linux (but it’s Mac OS X compatible) and is based on Pure Data aka Pd, a free software, which relies on an incredibly active community. The sensor design has been optimized so to be affordable and easy to build, even by those who have no experience with electronics. The code and the hardware documentation are freely accessible online (http://res.marcodonnarumma.com/xth-sense). DIY kits are available too. This means that anyone can create an XS, modify it, extend it and share the result.
What I’m very happy about is the possibility to manually build the sensor from scratch during a workshop. This year I kept eight XS workshops in different parts of the world, and every time it has been a rather rewarding experience. The course seeks to demystify the infallibility and the complexity of biotechnologies. In fact, the XS project aims to overtly share biologically inspired instruments that until now have been closed and expensive. Personally I like to think that the role of XS is to promote the idea of new, open and accessible musical instruments that explore the qualities of human creativity.
I developed the XS in the context of the SLE research group (Sound Lab Edinburgh) and with the initial support of the Edinburgh Hacklab. The project was supported by Creative Scotland, the Scottish Arts Council, and Inspace, a joint partnership between the Informatics Department at the University of Edinburgh and New Media Scotland.
Silvia Bertolotti: In which ways do you believe technology will shape the human body in the future? I think for example of androids, implants, intelligent machines, etc.
Marco Donnarumma: This is an interesting stage in our recent history. Technology and the human body are becoming increasingly complementary. Some time ago the idea of wearing sensors directly on the skin was fairly difficult to grasp; almost a cyberpunk idea reserved to a few avant-gardists. Today this is everyday routine; we wear and interact with computers every day in every place, from home to the university, from an exhibition to the pub. Now that the use of circuits and binary code has become ubiquitous and implicitly accepted at any social levels, it is easier to shape technology around the human body. This, in turn, enable the bypass of long-standing cultural and religious taboos. Needless to say that the more futuristic biotechnological applications are mostly being explored by military research centres. However, there is a global collaborative movement, unified by the Do It Yourself (DIY) culture, that is acquiring the needed tools and methodologies to produce innovation. Thus, while military research has focused on autonomous beast-like robots, and exoskeletons that increase soldiers’ physical abilities, several projects of open medical instruments and DIY bio-hacking have already taken hold, and are steadily growing.
Given this premise, it is difficult to foresee which will be the form of the technological body in ten years. I believe the answer depends on the ethical choices we make today. Any discourse on the human body rises undeniable ethical, if not political, issues. To quote Marshall McLuhan “We Become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. “
If the DIY movement will survive with the present vigour, in the future we will have the opportunity to choose the form of our body and the level of its technological affection. In any case, there is always the risk that the military, pharmacological, and advertisement lobbies will try to choose for us. It is therefore critical to spread an awareness of the functionalities and limits of the technological habitat that surrounds us.
Silvia Bertolotti: Which is the intrinsic body potential that technology will not affec
Marco Donnarumma: This is an interesting question. The technological tools available today to artists, governments and IT giants can penetrate the body, more or less intrusively, to capture and monitor different biometric data. The advertising and security industries are rapidly somatizing the instrumentality of biometric data. The Japanese corporation NEC has been testing digital walls that use a customized facial recognition system to collect information about passers-by and serve real-time, physiologically customized ads based on biometric data. The United States Department of Homeland Security is testing a program called FAST, which includes the use of a sensor array to conduct covert surveillance of individuals not yet suspected of a crime. The system secretly observes and stores a wide range of data including “cardiovascular signals, pheromones, electro-dermal activity, and respiratory measures” to describe the criminal potential of an individual, and thus “pre-know” the coming of criminal activities.
From the analysis of thought (via the brain waves), to emotions (by measuring the heart rate, and the changes of the neuronal flow) and movement (with accelerometers, infra-sound sensors, etc..) the human body is completely under assault.
In fact, I’ve always been doubtful about the artistic applications of mere physiological measurements. Namely, I’m not sure how the quantitative measurement of an electrical signal can truly describe a thought, an emotion or a creative idea. It does sound like a paradox to me. That’s why I believe it is essential to explore paths that will enable to extend the body expressive qualities, rather than measuring its physiological processes. What makes us truly human cannot be represented in sequences of 0 and 1. Possibly, what technology will never affect is our desire to be and create what we want. Whether this desire will foster a constructive or disruptive outcome depends on the man-machine models we design today. Unfortunately it is no exaggeration to imagine a world in which we replace our bad memories with chip connected to Facebook, overcome our shyness by replacing our eyes with a pair of the fascinating pupils from the iBody series, or learn how to manage social relationships by reading tutorial on Google instead of meeting people in real life (which I believe happens already).
Silvia Bertolotti: How your art explore the human body, whose matter is “creative” in itself?
Marco Donnarumma: My approach aims to explore the “broken ground” where the body meets technology, putting forth many questions, but only few answers. My practice tends to investigate the body inherent expressive qualities by means of technological tools. However, I am not interested in the result, but rather in the process. I try to ask myself precise questions and to develop alternative perceptive experiences. This way I seek to reshape the relationships that bind us to the machines.
In this sense, the XS allows to extend the expressive nature of a body on stage. The movement does not cause the sound. Instead, it is the sonic event that describes a new dimension of the movement. Instead of making use of artificial sounds, synthesized by a computer, the biophysical music depends on an acoustic sound that comes from within the body. The sound of muscle tissues originates immediately before the movement itself. When the chemical energy in the muscle cells becomes kinetic energy to exert movement, the dispersed energy takes the form of an acoustic vibration. A biophysical music performer is able to produce and control these sounds in a sophisticated manner, in real time. The machine deals with the mediation of the player’s visceral body with the virtual sonic world, ensuring maximum transparency and enjoyment of the creative act that comes to life on stage.
Silvia Bertolotti: How does your creativity relate to a body that is constantly exposed to technology, what is the role of your art in this relationship?
Marco Donnarumma: I believe that an artist has, albeit indirectly, a great responsibility towards the social body. I see in the fostering of critical creativity a strong potential in this sense. If the modalities of an artistic investigation are convincing and well motivated, the process that gives birth to an artwork can become a model; hence, it can escape its initial context to reach different fields of application. In the case of the XS, the instrument in itself does not matter much (it remains deliberately invisible to the viewer), but, to iterate, it is the process to be crucial. In fact, the same model of biophysical music generation can be used in music, dance, theatre, performance art or even in the medical field. It’s an idea that seeks to affirm the success of a performative work, not as a function of technology, but as a continuous process, built step by step through the physical effort and expressive skills of the performer.
I think that to combine the human body with computational systems is a need and a responsibility for many artists today. As for me, I like to think that technology is only one of the means I need to pursue my artistic practice. But who knows, maybe in 30 years technology will no longer be synonymous with innovation and experimentation, and we will need to find another language to express ourselves.
Silvia Bertolotti: Which is the main difference between two works as Hypo Chrysos and Music for Flesh II, that still points out the “sonic” potential of human body?
Marco Donnarumma: These two works are drastically different from each other. It was a conscious choice that allowed me to investigate the XS in different performative contexts. During the composition of Music for Flesh II (MFII) I wanted to focus exclusively on the musical paradigm, analysing different levels of interaction between muscular impulse and sound. From the micro interaction between a single wrist contraction and a grain of sound that emerges from the loudspeakers, to the macro musical composition that rapidly grows according to the articulation of gestural phrases, the boundary between the real and the virtual body is blurred and eventually disappears completely. The body is extended and somewhat celebrated for its expressive qualities and cognitive skills. The transparency of the relationship between musicality and musicianship is a critical matter in this work.
The concert seeks to excite the ears and fascinate the eyes. In complete contrast, in Hypo Chrysos the body is consciously subjected to an exasperating mental and physical strain. The skilfulness and the control exhibited in MFII are completely absent in this work. Instead, it is the raw and cruel resistance of my muscle tissues that emerges in the foreground. While I struggle to move in a circle for over 20 minutes dragging concrete blocks of 15kg each, the physical capabilities of my body are stretched to the limit. HC materializes the actual tension and friction of my flesh in a fully immersive and audiovisual landscape. A computer collects and stores the sound pulses produced by my muscles, blood flow and ligaments, and calculates a wall of sound that slowly emerges from eight loudspeakers. When the sonic vibrations of my inner body becomes tangible sound, they violate the outside world, so to reach the audience bodies. At the same time, my physical generates a swarm of virtual entities, light and organic forms diffused by a video projector, a window portraying my visceral body.
Silvia Bertolotti: How the sonic body you explore is situated in the natural world? I think of works like the I C::ntr::l Nature.
Marco Donnarumma: Intriguing question. Well, IC::ntr::l Nature (ICN) represented a time of major transition for me. In ICN I control the life of a butterfly on a screen by playing an augmented electric bass guitar. By improvising on the bass I create sounds and control moving images, creating an organic and obscure audiovisual landscape. The insect that lives on the screen responds to my movements in an agreement of mutual attraction. It was the first work in which I felt the need to focus the audience to the relationship between the body and the media, rather than the technology. This led me to develop strategies that enabled me to move away from the computer. Initially I used to play sitting among the audience, holding the bass in a horizontal position and operating the computer in front of me. During three years of development, I wrote a software that would let me free to place the computer in a corner of the stage, forget about it and control audio and video just by playing the bass. In this way the performance became more convincing, for the public could finally concentrate on a transparent visual relationship between my body and the virtual world of sounds and images.
The human body in ICN is something external to Nature, is a situated agent that acts against the natural world. Curiously, the sonic body I investigate today is a living part of nature. It is an corporeal entity, whose natural qualities mediated by technology, become source of meaning. The XS may seem a cybernetic device, but for me it is just an amplifier of bodily sounds. I often find myself imagining the vibrations of my flesh reaching the ears of a listener in the audience.
Silvia Bertolotti: How do you create your artworks? What is the creative process that you usually follow, if one does exist?
Marco Donnarumma: I do not think to follow a well defined process. Like everyone, I try to specialize my practice in fields that I find fascinating and relevant to investigate, but I never censor my thoughts. Instinct, curiosity and imagination are critical to me. Every moment of our life can be a source of inspiration. I never trash an idea, but I try to constantly develop it according to my experience, and the community around me. In practice, I build my own instruments, software or hardware, from scratch. If the tool I need is beyond my reach, I try a new approach, but I never let an idea disappear. I use only free software as I rather personally write the code personally, so to be able to communicate as well as I can. In addition, to use free software means I can freely share my work, and then compare my ideas with other people’s work, and inform my experience. It’s an immersive and continuous creative flow.