Numbers or Souls? Angelo Musco’s Ecotechnical Bodyscapes

Angelo Musco. Xylem.  2011.  Metallic C-Print mounted between Aluminum and Plexi-glass.  8'x20'.

“For some it’s the numbers,” Angelo Musco told TIME Lightbox in an interview last March. “For me, it’s the souls.”

Musco creates “Bodyscapes,” enormous images composed of thousands, even millions of naked bodies. What looks like a forest scene or a bird’s nest from a distance turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a mass of bodies stretched, reaching, bent, huddled, flying, swimming, curled, piled, entwined—but most of all, amassed, aggregated, collected, concentrated. The images are certainly beautiful, but it is a terrifying beauty. For Musco, the body is a site and a celebration of pain as well as joy.

The circumstances of the artist’s birth are astonishing. After a gestation of eleven months, Musco was an excruciating fourteen points at birth and acquired Erb’s palsy, which left him paralyzed on his right side and necessitated a childhood of intense physical therapy.

The themes of conception, gestation, and birth are readily apparent in Musco’s work, in which images of nests (Ovum) and swirling submarine worlds (Tehom). So too, however, is a desperate drive to control the body, to have it compose and arrange itself, to move or remain fixed according to one’s will. This impulse toward control informs his entire process. Musco climbs a ladder to photograph his models, who are situated on a green backdrop below. From this perch, he directs his subjects, in groups and alone, to take on various attitudes and positions. With the help of a small team of digital artists, he uses Photoshop to compose the bodies and create his bodyscapes. It is a process that takes months, sometimes years, to complete from conception to the final work.

While the images that Musco conjures clearly reference the natural world, most prominent to me is the technology—the technics or technicity—involved in his work. Of course, I’m speaking at a superficial level about the digital tools and techniques, the concrete apparatuses, that Musco and his team use in their image manipulation and production, though these aren’t really that interesting in and of themselves. For me, these tools and techniques respond to a certain technological conception of the organic body (the human body, but not exclusively so, of course) that has taken hold from the latter half of the twentieth century onwards.

The primary technique in question here is that of concentration, which, for Jean-Luc Nancy, produces the mondialité, the “globality” or “world-wideness” of bodies, and thus heralds the birth of the globally integrated world we inhabit today:

The world-wideness of bodies [la mondaialité des corps] is also announced in this way. Bodies murdered, torn, burned, dragged, deported, massacred, torturned, flayed, flesh dumped into mass graves, an obsessing over wounds. The cadavers in a mass grave aren’t the dead, they aren’t our dead: they are wounds heaped up, stuck in, flowing into one another, the soil tossed right on top, now winding-cloth to define the spacing of one, and the another, death. There’s no scar, the wound’s still open, the bodies don’t retrace their areas. As if on the reverse side of spirit, they’re sublimated into smoke, vaporized in fog. Here, too, the body loses its form and sense—and sense has lost all body. Through another concentration, bodies are only signs annulled: this time not into pure sense, but into its pure exhaustion.

It’s hard to say to what extent concentration (initials: KZ) will have been the birthmark of our world: a concentration of spirit, an incandescent SELF—and a concentration of bodies, masses, gatherings, crowdings, crammings, accumulations, demographic spurts, exterminations, large numbers, fluxes, statistics, the haunting presence, for the first time, of a world population, anonymous and exponential. . . .

Thus the world of bodies is produced, and this is finally our world’s unique and genuine production. Everything comes back to this production: there’s no difference between “natural” and “technical” phenomena (a cyclone in Bangladesh, with its hundreds of thousands of deaths, its tens of millions of victims, being indissociable from demography, economy, the linkage of North and South, etc.); or else, on another level, a society causing margins and exclusions to proliferate is affected, and also infected, by shockwaves all the way into its centers (drugs, AIDS), and these are still bodies, and this is still their wound. This, then, is what world-wide [mondial] means first and foremost; it’s not necessarily something that occupies the whole planet (even thought that too is becoming the case) but what, in place of a cosmos and its gods, in place of nature and its humans, distributes and gathers bodies, the space of their extension, the exposition of their denuding. (Nancy 77-79)

This is what Musco’s work depicts: our globalized world of wounded, raw, and displaced bodies, endlessly captured, concentrated, commanded, and controlled. This is a world of vulnerability, yet in that vulnerability is the potential for endless connectivity, which Nancy calls the “ecotechnical”:

Our world creates the great number of bodies, creates itself as the world of bodies. . . . Our world is the world of the “technical,” a world whose cosmos, nature, gods, entire system is, in its inner joints, exposed as “technical”: the world of the ecotechnical. The ecotechnical functions with technical apparatuses, to which our every part is connected. But what it makes are our bodies, which it brings into the world and links to the system, thereby creating our bodies as more visible, more proliferating, more polymorphic, more compressed, more “amassed” and “zoned” than ever before. (89)

The exposure to which Nancy refers here, he is careful to note, does not imply that bodies are suddenly being turned into “technical objects,” as if they never have been before. Bodies have always been imbricated with, connected to, produced by, and processed through technologies and techniques, subject to innumerable machines and machinations. New means of connecting and concentrating bodies and the enormous scale at at which these linkages, connections, and interfaces among bodies and apparatuses now take place simply make the technical dimension of bodies more blatant than ever before. The ecotechnical simply “sheds light on” what is most machine-like about organic beings, what is already material and manipulable; calculable and quantifiable; discrete and digital; posable, composable, decomposable, recomposable, disposable.

The danger here is that bodies rendered in this way lose their sense, their soul, become banal—a generalized life that is subject only to a tekhnē of production and control, and not one of creation and creativity. Musco’s art is striking in that it rides the interstices between these two possibilities, an exercise in technologies of control, but also techniques of artistic creativity. His concentrations of human bodies is dehumanizing—or rather de-anthropomorphizing—but imbues them with new sense, and new soul.

Just a final note: Musco has become fairly prominent of late, and is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, slated for release this fall. I have embedded the teaser trailer for the doc, called Conception, which looks like it could be an intriguing film. I must admit that I find somewhat disquieting the repeated tableaux of Musco standing fully-clothed amidst his naked models, who reach for and clutch at him from below as the camera tracks in a circle around them. That is not at all to question the artist’s motivations or the ethics of his art. I feel as though these shots have more to do with the filmmaker’s decisions than Musco’s, but that’s pure speculation on my part. In any event, these shots clearly speak to the notions of control and the ecotechnical production and concentration of exposed bodies.

http://vimeo.com/50584131

Sources:

Jean-Luc Nancy. Corpus. Trans. Richard A. Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
TIME Lightbox.
Visual News.
Angelo Mucso.

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