Marco Donnarumma is a performer, sound artist, musician and writer based in London. His main tool of expression is the body, physicality, sound. He uses biomedical and sonic technologies, software, sensors and transducers to creates and share biophysical instruments. He was nominated for SHAPE by ASSOCIATION ELEKTRONI[K].
Why did you decide to use your body as a facilitator of creation, a very personal and physical medium. Can you describe your journey towards arriving at your preferred tool of expression?
I’ve been working with sound as both a musician and performer for over ten years now. I’ve been making audio-visual performances for a while, I used to play the bass guitar and create interactive audiovisual performances where a software I had written understood the way I played the bass and allowed me to interact with sound and visual media. I’d been doing that for a few years and then I started to feel constrained by having an instrument to hold in my hands. You can play a bass guitar in a million different ways but still you have to pluck a chord to make a sound. On top of that, while using computers and pedals, and having a lot of equipment on stage, I began to notice how people would mostly focus on the gadgets on stage rather than on the performance itself. I decided to stop doing what I was doing at the moment and try to develop a completely new approach. I started looking at bodies and technologies made for the body, and ended up looking at biomedical engineering.
From there I looked into the ways with which I could develop my own body instruments, using biomedical devices. At that time, most of these were and expensive, so I sought a technological principle that would allow me to create a bodily instrument that was new and original. That’s how I arrived at human bioacoustics, a set of methods which involves the capture and amplification of sounds from the human body – acoustic vibration of muscle contraction, heartbeat, blood flowing in veins – all these inaudible sounds which testify to the fact that we are alive. Using these methods I created the Xth Sense, which is a musical instrument that amplifies sounds from the human body to make music. That’s how I got interested in the body, but then, in making that instrument I had to completely change the way I used to think about a performance and its format. Eventually I developed different methods that allowed me to explore the body in different ways.
In your performance, there’s almost an element of theatricality.
On one hand, when working with the body it’s really easy to get into approaches that are cheesy and not really meaningful, so you need to be clear about what you are trying to say. On the other hand, I’m interested in making works that can make people think in different ways. Sometimes they might be extreme performances with my body, other times it’s a more intimate and intense take on the visitor’s body. I can see why people can observe theatrical aspects in my work, but I see it more oriented towards performance art than theatre. The instruments and the interactive strategies I use in my performances are created so that my actions and expressions real. For instance in one of my works, called Hypo Chrysos, I pull 50 kg concrete blocks in a circle. The hardest thing that I had to learn while playing that piece was to avoid being theatrical. The action itself is already quite dramatic, and I don’t need to add anything else to it to make it more intense.
What is the interplay between the action and the sound in your pieces?
Every time I make a new work I start from a concept, which may be more or less abstract. In the case of Hypo Chrysos, for instance, the idea was to use sound as both a material, a material means of physical resonance between my body and the visitor’s body and the performance venue as well. While imagining how to realise this concept, I began to think of ways in which the sound from my body could be so constant and so tense as to provoke, on the long term, something that would be physically perceived by the audience as well. I was inspired by the Inferno from the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, where one of the Bolgias of the Inferno is occupied by the hypocrites who are condemned to walk endlessly in cloaks that are covered in gold but filled with lead inside. I thought that it would be good metaphor to implement also because of the performative aspects it yields – pulling something, the weight, the resistance, the friction, those were the elements I was looking for to enact this process of physical resonance with the audience. From these kind of foggy ideas I started to develop a proper action. A lot of that comes from my passion for the action art and performance art of the 1970s and 1980s. To think about sound, effort, the body, resonance, and getting physical and sharing this physicality.
The body is an object featured in philosophy, religion, spirituality. Are any of these aspects also present in your work?
Yes, definitely. A lot of my work, especially in the last years, is informed by cultural studies and philosophy. One of the core aspects is that we learn by doing and we are the way we are because we have this specific body. We have very specific features that can be extended, transformed, or disrupted, that’s something that is at the core of both my practice and my way of thinking about artistic intervention. Another important aspect is processual philosophy that has fostered ways of looking at the body as something that is always in process, always incomplete. Incomplete as opposed to all of the other animals that have a body which is tightly designed for the environment that they have to live in, the human body is not designed for any specific environment. We change the environment to keep surviving rather than changing our own body. You can look at a technological instrument in thousand different ways, but the important fact is that an instrument also has an identity that is inferred by the way it is developped, and by the way we interact with it. Instruments are made of matter and parts in the same way that human bodies are. This observation is translated into my practice by arranging pieces of machines and pieces of bodies in specific ways so that I can initiate processes and see what happens. In Nigredo, which is an installation where I use the visitor’s body as part of the instrument, the sounds from the visitor’s body are captured by the technical system, processed, and then fed back to the visitor’s body through acoustic transducers that are literally in contact with visitor’s skull and bones. It is a work that would not function with a dead body.
What is the relationship between the various media in your work?
I’m trying to think about my work as lacking a hierarchy of media and processes. Everything is a large assemblage of different aspects and different elements, different media. The way I work with these elements is always different and it’s always informed by the way I used it before. I always try not to repeat something I did before, or if I want to use a similar process, to make it different, because I think this can keep my practice alive. There is a pool of different things that interest me, and different tools that I know how to use, but there are also a lot of other tools that I don’t know how to use, and I learn day by day. I’m not afraid of waiting several years before actually making a project. It’s always changing, but I think that as long as you have a clear idea of what you want to express and what kind of experience you want to offer to your audience, then it’s good to be free in terms of what kind of methods or elements in media you want to use.
Do you try to take the audience into the account when you create?
Yes, I think that is really important. And this doesn’t necessarily imply that I want to make the audience happy. I have no expectations from the audience other than to feel something, to experience something. I can’t stand the idea that is spreading over these past years, of digital/media arts as a synonym of beauty and thoughtless engagement. I mean, look around you, we are in a state of constant war, famine, environmental disasters, massive poverty, corruption, and our lives are affected and controlled through food processing, social media, censorship and surveillance. Is it the beautiful digital art a way to forget about reality? Is it a limbo of soft clouds to stare at? I think digital art, as any other art, must be provocative, thought-provoking, radical, and it doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or beautiful as long as it gives something which for it can be called a piece of art. We are overloaded with things that are not really giving us anything, works that are technical exercises and that’s what I try to avoid.
These days, with technology being so widespread, how can artists utilise it in their work?
On one hand, these kinds of situations today make it easier to propose different ways of using technology because people are simply more accustomed to it. It’s easier today than twenty years ago to get a visitor to take off a shirt and wear a couple of sensors because they have probably already had sensors on their bodies before coming to see your work. On the other hand, this makes technology in art have less impact, less conceptual strength. Stelarc has used crazy technology in the 1980s and people rarely had an idea of what he was doing. A lot of his work is based on the kind of impact he was capable of creating by being a true pioneer in the field. Nowadays, that is a bit more difficult, because the development of technology is very fast and widespread. Since technology is so accessible nowadays, there is an overuse and abuse of technology in arts, and people don’t realise they may arrive at the same results in without using any piece of technology at all. I strongly believe that if you use a specific technology that should be for something that is very meaningful to your work.
What are the meaningful ways, in your opinion, for an artist to work with technology?
At a quantitative level it’s much easier for an artist to use technology today, at a qualitative level it’s much harder. The whole thing with new media or digital arts is that we are always trying to label things as “new”, which is always very tricky term to use. “New” in respect to what? Video art, as it’s called now, has become an established field of contemporary art in the sense that people are actually buying video art now. Maybe in the near future, people will also buy performances.
In terms of the sonic, is it important to create something innovative?
I would say it’s important to learn to respect sound. That’s the most important thing for me at least. Thinking about the importance of sound in our everyday lives, the importance of sound as in music, but also the importance of sound in our environment, the importance of sound in our own bodies, the way in which sound allows us to share, be social and learn. Sound is a core element of our development and also the development of our identity and this is still not fully understood. That’s also why I work with inaudible sounds. One of the things that interests me in working with bodily, inaudible sounds is that by amplifying them, you make audible and visible a whole other world that we are part of, that our bodies constitute. That’s a good getaway from everything we know. Technological advance is not something that artists must do. This doesn’t mean I’m for a separation of science and technology, it’s the opposite, I work with engineers on a daily basis, and I make technology myself. What I’m saying is that technological innovation shouldn’t be an artist’s core interest. It’s much more challenging and relevant for an artist to focus on how to develop a language that is yours, something specific to what you do, and with that, to be able to contribute something to the world.