Marco Donnarumma: „Corpus Nil: Eingeweide“

“It’s about understanding that we humans are not any more important than any other creature on the planet”


Marco Donnarumma: “Corpus Nil-Performance im ZKM, 2016 (Photo by Onuk)

A lot has been written lately about the end of the artist as we know her/him. The legend is on the street that AI will take over the process of art creation and that the humans will become obsolete. For Marco Donnarumma this is just another example for people thinking in black and white. During the 2018 edition of CTM Festival Donnarumma will debut his new work  „Corpus Nil: Eingeweide“ at Hau2 and for the first not perform alone on stage – he will be joined by the robotic prosthesis Amygdala, driven by custom AI algorithms and behaving  independently from its wearer. Thomas Venker talked to Marco Donnarumma.

Marco, your performance at HAU2 as part of CTM is entitled „Corpus Nil: Eingeweide“. Could you tell a bit more what to expect?
“Eingeweide” will stage a tense bodily experience. It will be the experience of a human body and a machine searching for a different, and yet joint bodily identity, where the distinction between them, between flesh and circuits, muscles and wires becomes incredibly hard to make. The performance will be a process of live experimentation, in which my performing body is the means of experimentation. For the first time in my career, I won’t be performing alone on stage, but my partner won’t be human. It will be a robotic prosthesis driven by custom AI algorithms which I’m working on since a year and a half with a fantastic and generous team of scientists, designers and artists, including Margherita Pevere, Ana Rajcevic, Christian Schmidt, Alberto de Campo and Manfred Hild. Personally, this performance is probably the most challenging piece I have created so far, we will see how we fare!


Amygdala (Photo by Margherita Pevere)

A while ago you posted this video of Amygdala on your Facebook site. How central is this creation for the performance at HAU? Its part of it, right? Could you describe en detail how you developed it and what’s the general idea behind it and the long time development goal?
Yes, indeed, “Amygdala” is an integral part of “Eingeweide”. Amygdala is a living paradox in itself: a prosthesis that behaves independently from its wearer. And that’s exactly the idea that I’m working with. What does it mean to make a machine that is truly and fully autonomous, independent from human control? And what happen when such a machine becomes part of a human body? Could this help us understanding that the power of the human body is it’s capacity to be different and to take unexpected forms and identities?

As mentioned above, Amygdala is a robotic prosthesis driven by AI software. The only thing it learns is an animistic ritual of purification called “skin-cutting”. It is practiced still today in Papua New Guinea, Africa and East Asia, and it consists of cutting one’s own skin to drastically alter the appearance of one’s body, as well as to purify oneself by letting “corrupted” blood flow out. Amygdala, as a stand-alone installation artwork, hangs from an industrial-grade server cabinet. There, it tries to learn the ritual as best as it can, forever. It does not have any criteria of “success” or “failure”, in that sense, it is dysfunctional. In “Eingeweide” Amygdala will improvise using the ritual movements it has learnt so far, and I will perform along with it.

What’s interesting about Amygdala, is that we do not program its movements, we program only the way it perceives its body moving. Its behaviour is generated by neural networks that adapt to the world in real time by physically sensing things around. The development of Amygdala started almost two years ago. I’ve been working with a growing crew, including Prof. Manfred Hild, of the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory, Prof. Alberto de Campo, at UdK Berlin, and artists Ana Rajcevic, Christian Schmidt, Margherita Pevere and Rosalie Laurin. If it wasn’t for them, nothing of what we’re talking about would have ever been possible. We are now at version MK3, hopefully the final one, because then we plan to make other 6 or 7 prostheses, each with a particular behaviour.

Which brings me to the questions, how you see yourself: Are you a performer? A musician? A scientist?
Ahh, this question! I ask it to myself every 4 or 5 years, and give myself a temporary answer, until the next time the question comes. These days I’d say I’m a performance artist and a media artist. But then, sound and music are crucial to everything I do, so what about the music part of the “artist label”? And then, I always work with “emergent” technologies, and what about mentioning that? Don’t know honestly. At the end of the day, I still prefer to recognise my passion for performance over the rest, simply because I can clearly see that’s where my interest for everything else comes from. I experiment heavily with sound, technology, hardware, software, light, space, but the reason I do that is because I want to create palpable experiences, evident actions, alternative realities that exist before your eyes everytime you see a work of mine.

How important are categories like this for you anyway?
They used to be much more important a few years ago, but now I can cope with them pretty well. You know, apart from an individual artist’s rants about being labelled this or that, presenting yourself – as an artist – in a particular category it’s a fundamental skill for survival and success. One has to choose carefully how she wants people to see herself, within the art world and outside of it as well. Then, it is also important to experiment with the limits of those categories, to find your own very particular and narrow path. It is about where do you want to leave your mark in the big puzzle of the world? This also entails choosing the right peers. Having a group of peers who understand and share your general practices and intentions is crucial to long-term artistic practice, we are social animals after all, like most mammals.


Amygdala (Photo by Margherita Pevere)

I had the great pleasure to attend your „Corpus Nil“-performance in Beijing last year. Could you talk a bit about the differences between „Corpus Ni“ and „Corpus Nil: Eingeweide“? How do I have to imagine the process happening after one of your performances? Is it a constant process of changes as the changing title seems to dictate or do you also sometimes keep the same performance kind of stable for a certain time?
“Corpus Nil” is a performance I created in 2016. In this piece my body morphs continuously, from a shapeless piece of flesh into an unfamiliar creature recalling some sort of unknown animal. The surround sound and the light composition is generated by an AI software (wrote with Dr. Baptiste Caramiaux). The software “listens” to the sound of my muscles and then re-synthesise them in real time, using a bank of oscillators and other sound modulators. However, the sound and light patterns, the overall audio mix and particular musical choices are autonomously made by the software. I can only influence its choices by moving more abruptly, or subtly, or else, depending on the particular moment of the piece.

“Eingeweide” extends and transform “Corpus Nil”. I will use the same software, expand the musical palette and most importantly develop a semi-improvised choreography with Amygdala, an AI with a body. I will wear Amygdala on my body and interact with it physically, playing on tension, instability and repetition. We will also create a set on stage using some organic material I’ve been working on for a while, of which I rather not give details,… best is to come and see! At a narrative level, “Eingeweide” is a prequel to “Corpus Nil”, it will conjure up what happened to that unfamiliar creature in “Corpus Nil” before it was born, where it came from.

I see “Corpus Nil” and “Eingeweide” as part of a series. And I plan to make it a trilogy, with another new piece when the right time will come. I have never changed a piece after its creation. For instance, my concerts of biophysical music, which I still tour today, include two pieces, “Music for Flesh II” and “Ominous”, created respectively in 2011 and 2012. I do not change them as I think they say everything they have to as they are. With Corpus Nil I always had the feeling there was much more to say, depths to explore deeper, so when CTM asked if I was interested in a new commission for its AI program, I thought this was a nice chance to go further,… and here comes “Eingeweide”.


Amygdala (Photo by William Veder)

We both participated in the panel discussion „Who plays the music? – AI and music today“ at Goethe Institut in Beijing reflecting on the future of music production under the thesis that artificial intelligence is more and more becoming an influential actor. While some people claim that the artist will soon be obsolete, you did put this interpretations of the status quo vadis in the corner as totally unrealistic and more likely argued that artificial intelligence will have an impact on the artistic paths only. Could you maybe outline those thoughts here a bit en detail and what that means for your concrete work?
Well, you see, that is a typically human way of seeing the world: as a rigid grid of dichotomies. The artist won’t become obsolete anytime soon, but that’s not even an important issue. The real problem is people thinking in black and white. AI will not make obsolete humans, AI is and will remain an intrinsic part of what we are, and of what the world, the whole planet is. It’s about understanding that we humans are not any more important than any other creature on the planet, and that we too, as our many other fellow creatures, are open to hybridise ourselves with other “things”, living and non-living.

That said, honestly I can count on the fingers of one hand the artworks that – recently – have shown how AI can really be artistically meaningful (see Ben Bogart “Dreaming Machine”, Martin Backes “What do machines sing of”). Research in AI and art is nothing new, it’s going on since at least the 1960’s. But we’re living in the age of corporate 24-hour hype-cycles domination, so, as soon as Google researchers publish a fancy trippy drawing made by some machine learning algorithms, lots of people immediately “obey”, get the corporate tools and creates copycat work. As a result, a phenomenon that was originally not that relevant, all of a sudden becomes a convention.

In my own work I try to be as critical as possible. I am my worst enemy. So when I work with neural networks, machine learning and AI, I treat those technologies as cynically as I can. That does not always work, naturally, sometimes I get enchanted by their potential, but I’m always looking for what is not said, what’s not emphasised, where are the problems, the risks?

Watching your performance in Beijing I was stunned how bodily intense it was without really letting the whole pressure outbreak. Instead it seems  that all the energy was rotating within your body. What do you feel while performing? And how does your body feel afterwards?
The best performance of “Corpus Nil” is when I am able to enter a trance-like state and go through it until the end of the show. The choreography requires that I balance the weight of my body on the head, which stands upside down against the stage floor. This is on purpose, so that I cannot see anything and thus I can only focus on the sound vibrations through the floor and the light patterns. This also implies that I have a lot of blood circulating through the head for the whole duration of the performance. So, for instance, I learned to perform different breathing patterns that, one hand, help me cope with the “headrush”, and on the other shape my body in ways that, from the spectators’ view, should look strange, unfamiliar.
During the performance I try to turn myself into something other than me. It’s a great feeling. The day after the show my body is pretty dead though. It needs full rest, as for any other demanding performance art piece. Before a show, I make sure to warm up long and good, which obviously helps handle muscle tension the day after. Then, while I rest, I always wonder how the performance was, because I can never see anything! I try to reconstruct scenes in my mind through the vague feelings and sensations that linger.

It seemed that all that matters is happening on and in your body – but then: how important is the environment for your performances, the audience as much as the settings?
Absolutely important. I refer to my pieces as “experiences” as I hope they reach the audience in a visceral way. To that end, I work with sound in particular ways, dealing with psycoacoustic as well as vibrationals phenomena in space, such as standing waves or beating effects. This, in combination with a quadraphonic or octophonic sound system and interactive lighting does not only constitute the aesthetic of the piece, it also envelop and sometimes overwhelm the space and the spectators.
In the right venues, I like to tweak my sound compositions to produce vibrations of fixtures or interesting natural reverberations. For “Eingeweide”, Dadub Studio (my musical partner Daniele Antezza) will handle the live mixing of the music with some good old analog machines. It’s the first time I try this and I’m really looking forward to experiment with him.


Amygdala (Photo by Willikam Veder)

I wonder if you see other artists out there sharing the same kind of research interest as you? Do you have an artistic peer group?
I guess it depends on how broad that “sharing” is meant. Of course, each and every artist has a peculiar line of work and interests, the more specific the better. But there are artists out there doing great work on the limits of the body, sometimes with technology, some other not at all. The artists that I feel closer to me are Olivier de Sagazan and Stelarc. Olivier is a fantastic artist and performer, he uses no electronic or digital technology, but I do feel we share a similar experimental approach to the body and the materials that make the body up. Stelarc is an obvious inspiration as well, especially for his earlier works with suspension and pneumatic robotics. What I strive to do is to create a practice of my own, something that it honours the heritage left by the artists I love most, but at the same time expands that heritage, transforms it and brings it elsewhere, where it can grow into something totally new.

As for the peer group, yes, fortunately I live in Berlin! This is an awesome place where to share and grow within a community of peers. Right now the city thrives with talented artists working at the edges of disciplines and I’m so glad I can hang out with them regularly, for a chat, a beer a concert or less trivial gatherings. Among those whose work I esteem and feel close to my aesthetic are artist Susanna Hertrich and Butoh-Theater company 4Rude, just to name a couple. Then, even better, some of the artists I esteem work with me too! Margherita Pevere does incredibly elegant and touching work mixing visual art with bioart. Ana Rajcevic creates amazing bodily forms, taking inspiration from fashion, sculpture and the other living creatures around us human.

I saw you posting about the current Survival Research Laboratory performance in New York and calling them heroes. That fits well as coming from your work on Amygdala I wanted to ask you how important the influences of a group like them or a filmmaker like David Cronenberg is for your work?
Ehehe, yes, I love their work. It’s funny but really dark, critical and visionary. And yes, you got me there. I obviously grew up entrenched in cyberpunk and sci-fi culture, in film, music and literature. Cronenberg is one of my favourite directors, but also Lynch and Kubrick. Then, Asimov, Le Guin, Huxley, Lovecraft, countless anime, from successful ones like “Evangelion” and “Ghost in the Shell”, to the less known “Texhnolyze” and “Aelita”. Then, as a scholar, a great deal of inspiration comes from academic literature on body theory, with Lisa Blackman and Margrit Shildrick among my favourite authors.
I think one of the most important experiences though has been rave culture. I’ve fond memories of my time raving around TAZ here and there. That’s where I learned about the physicality of sound, the instability of perception, and the power of hundreds individuals occupying the same space to create one unique flow of sensations. And of course, here we should not forget the Mutoid Waste Company, incredible stuff.


Amygdala (Photo by Marco Donnarumma)

On your website I found the information that you also give workshops. What kind of workshops are these?
I love to teach what I learn through my research and production cycles. So, for instance, I give workshops on biophysical music, music played with interactive software, physiological sensors and markedly physical performance. Here we build from scratch an instrument I created in 2010, the XTH Sense, and learn how to play with it. It captures sounds from muscles, blood flow, heart and respiration, which you can then compose in real time by moving your body.
Last year, as I delved deeper into AI and robotics, I began giving workshops on AI ethics and its relation to prosthetic. This is a critical thinking workshop, where together with the participants, we discuss basic notions related to AI ethics and real world effects of those ethics as well. We talk about ideas like hybrid genders, synthetic emotions and technological incorporation.
I’m now working on a new workshop, together with Ana Rajcevic, to show the basics of robotics and prosthetics, but with the clear goal of creating something that forces the human body into directions that would not be “allowed” by its natural form. Actually, we will give this new workshop soon, keep an eye on an announcement to follow.

For every person in art and science it is important to keep track with the progress in their discipline. Do you have the feeling that in your case this is valid even more as there is this huge dynamic going on?
Good point. As someone working in art & science, it is definitely important to be up to date with the particular technology or scientific experiment relevant to one’s practice. However, in the times we live in, by doing so one risks to easily be absorbed by the latest development and forget about what’s artistically meaningful. So, aside from following technological developments, I think it is even more important to let oneself get inspired as often as possible. Everybody finds inspiration in different things, but whatever that thing is, one should not let it become a distant echo, one should be able to immerse herself in what inspires her.
That said, I actually do not believe art & science to be a discipline in itself. Art has always had to do with science, just think of Leonardo da Vinci. What is different today is that some scientific methodologies have become more accessible than before, so for an artist it is relatively easier to experiment. I’ve always been using technology and science in my works, so why should my work be categorised art & science now? Sometimes I wonder whether the art & science label isn’t just something made up to help policy makers and huge funding institutions to circulate tax-payers’ money…. but I’ll leave it at that!



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