An examination of his film Muto
The film fades up from black as the jarring sounds of a busy street play. The camera tilts and pans drunkenly but with the stilted rhythm of frames being shown step by step. We pan across a brick wall covered with graffiti tags and come to rest on a section of the wall. The harsh sound gives us the impression of mortar, stone movement, perhaps ball bearings shaking in a can of aerosol paint. Chalky white paint appears suddenly on the wall then, as if a brick has fallen out, a hand is revealed drawn to look like it is inside the wall. The cartoon black and white hand reaches out in a stutter of stop-motion movement. The camera jerks and bucks, tracking the drawing. The wall becomes smeared with trails of paint as a whimsical spider made of arms crawls across the surface of bricks and drops to the pavement below. Created entirely of paint on the side of the wall, it begins walking across the surface leaving a trail of whitewashed images behind; the camera is the only testament to the movement of this object through space and time. Thus, begins Muto, (2008) a stop-motion street animation by the artist known as Blu (see fig. 1).
Like many street artists whose work started as illegal activity on the sides of abandoned buildings, Blu keeps his identity hidden, does not allow his face to be photographed, and does not give interviews. He is known around the world for his street art and has been featured in festivals, galleries, museum shows, books and magazines; yet, Muto has vastly expanded awareness of his work. Muto (fig. 2) has been seen by 10 million people on YouTube and has won numerous awards including the Grand Prix at the 2009 Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film. As a growing voice in street art, Blu brings a combination of influences and global sensibilities to an art movement that has impacted lives in ways that traditional painters cannot. By mainly operating outside of the gallery/museum system, embracing the Internet as part of the documentation of the work and using the world as a canvas, Blu (along with other street artists working today) are creating a new paradigm and experience of art. Their work is a response to the simulated world we occupy—a seductive, symbolic concept of reality where nonsense and playfulness can find expression. By examining Blu’s own body of work, his techniques and inspiration within the context of the contemporary street art movement, post-modern philosophy, and the tradition of experimental animation, we can gain insight into Muto as a work of art and a cultural experience.
Street Art Origins
Muto (2008) was developed over several months while traveling through Central and South America with filmmaker Lorenzo Fonda, who was making Megunica, a documentary on Blu. The film’s title is derived from the countries that they were traveling through: MExico, GUatemala, NIcaragua, Costa Rica and Argentina (Rivasi 2007, p.8). The film documents a series of sequential drawings that Blu made on walls, ceilings and the ground in and around Buenos Aires and Baden. The images are created with the use of the street, yet they morph into something new when assembled in sequential order and viewed as an animation.
In his introduction to Animated Painting, Lev Manovich discusses a new aesthetic based on combining animation in a collage experience that has been made possible by new and cheaper digital technologies. He calls these collages a
new visual aesthetics that goes “beyond effects.” In this aesthetics, the whole project—whether a music video, a TV commercial, a short film, or a large segment of a feature film—displays a hyper-real look in which the enhancement of live-action material is not completely invisible but at the same time it does not call attention to itself the way special effects usually tended to do. (2007, p.2)
In Manovich’s framework, then, Muto constitutes one such collage – a hybrid of stop-motion processes and the conceptual underpinnings of street art. However, as Riggle (2010, p.246) notes, an artwork can be considered “street” if, “and only if, its material use of the street is internal to its meaning.” In other words, the street constitutes a location owned by the public and others. The intention of the artist toward the street is integral to its definition. The street has certain properties that the art must acknowledge and reconcile, including the ephemeral nature of art that can be manipulated, changed, removed, and re-contextualized by others (see fig. 3).
Blu himself has been involved with the street art movement since the 1990s. A native of Boulogne, Italy, he has painted hundreds of walls in Europe, primarily in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In Megunica, he discusses his move from graffiti-styled tagging to full-scale painting. He recounts,
Generally, when I start[ed] painting walls, graffiti was more like the same word repeated on every wall. Like it was a pre-made sign stuck to the wall. What changed me was realizing that around my paintings was a building— something I could take advantage of. (Megunica, 2008)
Transformation of Surface
Blu’s awareness of the surface of the building is integral to the mural and animation work he creates. He gravitates towards buildings that typically would not make good canvases to paint on: they have odd alcoves or structural elements, or many windows. He cites the architectural styling of American artist Gordon Matta-Clark as an influence on his use of surface. Matta-Clark was a former Cornell architecture student who, inspired by abandoned buildings and abandoned spaces in New York City, began to make public art from them by cutting slits into buildings and realigning foundations to cause whole houses to be split into pieces. He purchased unwanted tiny pieces of real estate, such as a 32” x 350’ plot he bought for 25 dollars. Matta-Clark re-contextualized these odd spaces by calling them estates, and taking people on tours of them around the city. Sometimes he worked within the law, sometimes not. His manipulation of public spaces created art that was unexpected and ephemeral (Rosenberg, 2011). According to Blu, “the way Matta-Clark used the building as a sculpture; it’s something I try to imitate when I paint” (Lewisohn, 2008, pp.129–130).
Cedar Lewisohn, curator for the 2008 Street Art show at the Tate gallery, continues, “Blu sees buildings as ‘sheets of paper’ to sketch on. Due to their massive scale, his works often give the impression that the buildings they’re painted on aren’t quite big enough” (Lewisohn, 2008, pp.129–130). Because of this, the entire canvas of the building is taken into account, including the warts, or the elements that might otherwise be considered to impede the work. In Muto, Blu explores the potential of these structural flaws within the context of not only the street experience, but within the playfulness of the animation. Drawings crawl around walls, through doors, onto sidewalks, briefly engaging with other objects found in its path. The scale of the drawings transforms from small intimate images to gigantic two-story tall animations. Blu contends that:
Because of architecture I have always liked working in a big scale. Here it’s like benign Pulgarcito, who wanted to dominate the world of Giants. But when you’re at the drawing table, you’re Gulliver, trying to dominate the small people. So in this situation is the artwork that overwhelms you, and the impact is stronger but when you look at a painting, you are the one who overwhelms it so the experience is totally different and anyway, the scale is not the problem. Painting at this scale is the problem. (Megunica, 2008)
Blu’s process for creating the work begins small, with concepts inked in his drawing book, although often they transform into something new (and much larger) when he approaches the walls he works on. His method is to paint with a brush, as opposed to the spray can so ubiquitous to graffiti artists. Typically with this type of large work, today’s muralists use cherry pickers and cranes to provide the flexibility to reach the many storied buildings that they paint on. For smaller walls — perhaps 30 feet or less — Blu uses a telescoping pole with a variety of paintbrush sizes attached. He manipulates the brush with a lever on the side of the telescoping pole. Lines drive his work; like large doodles, his creations are usually flat color with a predominance of black and white rendered in a comic book style that supports the graphic look of the work. With limits on color and technique, Blu is free to add an abundance of detailed linear drawing to the work. He elaborates on this technique in Muto, compounded by the frame-by-frame nature of animation – inhabiting a wall that is repeatedly whitewashed as new frames of animation are drawn on the previous frame and documented with the camera.
The process of animating his street art allows Blu to experiment with location in a new way. No longer is he only connected to a single geographic place. As the animation moves across the surfaces of abandoned buildings, walls and street sidewalks, the location playfully changes. Blu brings in the camera close on the animation, then, when pulling back, reveals to the audience that the location has moved from exteriors to interiors from one wall to another. Through this transformation, Blu builds a new concept of the street that can only be achieved through animation. Muto revels in its ability to roam while continuing to find context within the street. This hybrid experience is only possible by combining the aesthetics of animation with the philosophy of street art. This type of sophisticated dialogue with the audience is achieved by making the audience aware that this is animation, not a film trying to make you believe in it as reality, not unlike Magritte’s famous painting, La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images). Magritte declares in writing below a painted image of a pipe, “This is not a pipe.” Just as the pipe in the painting calls attention to its artifice as a representation of an object, Muto similarly does not try to present itself as a trompe l’óeil effect. Blu does not disguise his work as an attempt to simulate realistic movement or foreground a narrative, as commercial animation often does. Instead, his animation is as much about his own methods and the nature of the canvas as it is about the content.
This predatory playfulness has its roots in many of Blu’s artistic influences, including Italian independent comics and satire from the magazines Il Male, Frigidaire and Cannibale (Lewisohn 2008, pp.129–130). It is significant that the publications Blu mentions as having influenced his work were highly satirical and also politically and socially concerned works geared to an adult audience. They were created during the turbulent mid to late 1970s, when a growing number of youth became disillusioned with the communistic control of labor and freedom. In 1977, Bologna was the epicenter of student protests and the growth of the new comics movement. Many comic book artists, students and musicians lived in the city, which was home to the oldest European university, Bologna La Dotta. Student protests against the communist left resulted in police brutality, tanks and a student death (Castaldi 2010, pp.46–47, 56). The Italian government created a tyranny of “truth” by using the state-driven communication machine of books, posters, signs and electronic media. These magazines sought to upend their truth by telling lies in the fashion and formula of the state, to reveal the foolishness of the state’s claims. Exaggerating stories made to look like new articles similar to what the contemporary publication The Onion does, ridiculing the state’s media machine and the public’s gullibility for believing it. Art was used to counter and mock the state. Italian writers and artists created content that was sexually explicit, socially combative and radically affected by youth counterculture.
Borrowing from this history of subversion, Blu undermines traditional modes of how art and architecture are interwoven in public spaces, using his animation to generate a dialogue with his audience. As opposed to art viewed in typical venues as galleries or museums, the art of the street is predatory; it requires an audience, but one that is unaware of the art. It preys on viewers by jumping out at them from unsuspecting places. In Muto, predator-prey relationship is manifested along the axis between what is amusing and what can be considered grotesque. Cute one-eyed creatures in one scene recombine to form a human face that bulges outward, disgorging its own teeth, which in turn gallop off down the sidewalk. One of the teeth then opens like a door, and a human figure steps out. In this fashion, Blu seduces his audience by defamiliarizing his locations, flipping the symbolism from safe to dangerous, from mundane to extraordinary.
Transformation of Ideas
Muto brings to life the ideas of transformation that Blu explores in his street art. This is not the transformation of nature; rather it is the force of industrialism, of non-organic elements combining with humanity. Like street painting, it involves transformation of surfaces and spaces that are otherwise taken for granted or abandoned and recontextualizing them. In these places, Blu creates a dialogue through the juxtaposition of his imagery. There are forces of life cycles and evolution apparent in the use of cocoons and bodies splitting to reveal new creatures, objects and humans. These ideas have informed his graffiti work for years and his trip to South and Central America was an extension of this.
Many of the countries in which we have been, have had a tragic—recent history, whose effects are clearly visible—the daily poverty; the exploitation on the part of fruit multinationals[. …] To hear these stories from the mouth of the people is not like reading it in books. (Neelon and Blu 2007, p.89)
Blu’s confrontation with poverty and corporate injustice in the nations through which he travelled overwhelms the film Megunica. Much of the documentary acts as a travelogue of oppressed communities. The filmmakers’ focus evolves from Blu to the people and the locations they find themselves in. To this end, Blu’s work uses elements of cartoons, humor and Dadaist nonsense to create social and political commentary within his animated and graffiti art. His work is aware of its political location, often referencing the social environment in which it finds itself. Bananas transform into guns in an image painted in Comacchio in 2006, decrying the corporate banana trade’s social irresponsibility that fuels the violence in South America. Blu believes that public art can lead to inspiration in the people exposed to the message: “You also understand that things could change if you could stimulate the youngest with interests different from criminal ones: creativity and art have much to do with this because they could change the vision of the world completely” (Rivasi 2007, p.10). Blu thus follows a tradition of mural painting and social reform that harkens back to Latin American artist-activists such as muralist Diego Rivera. This stratagem of using public space to incite the community is by its nature a harbinger of controversy and conflict.
Muto begins with an animation doodle, something playful and perhaps not fully conceived. The opening of Muto, for example, gives the impression of an artist finding his inspiration in the opportunities presented by location and whimsy. Yet during the process of the animation, Blu organizes his animation around the central themes that carry over from his graffiti work. The transformation of location, a sense of playfulness harkening to Dadaist art; an understanding of art as a tool against authority and a concern for social needs are the goals that seem to come out of his work. Blu takes the conversation to a the larger community space of the Internet, using Muto to express his ideas on the nature of transformation, contending that it doesn’t always lead to renewal. Within the animation, a man walks across a wall holding his head as it changes from one geometric shape to another. He briefly evolves into a four-legged mechanical creature then becomes a crystallized pile of geometry. The human form subsumes to the mechanical and the geometric. It’s not always pretty; this melding of humanity with the industrial world and the blending of the two is a theme that often enters his work.
The novelty of the transformations attract us by making the audience wonder what will happen next, but on a deeper note, there is a lure to the stutter of the camera movement and drawings on the surface of the buildings that lends an air of authenticity to the animation. We understand that Blu is creating an illusion of movement, the flawed nature of the artists hand is on display for us too see, he is not simulating a reality.
Animation is often called the illusion of life. How appropriate is this term, especially when we consider that simulation is much different then illusion? Simulation strives to be mistaken for reality. As Baudrillard (1990, p. 29) points out, “modern unreality no longer implies the imaginary, it engages more reference, more truth, more exactitude – it consists in having everything pass into the absolute evidence of the real.” This hyper-reality “gives you so much – colour, lustre, sex, all in high fidelity, and with all the accents (that’s life!) – that you have nothing to add, that is to say, nothing to give in exchange” (Baudrillard, 1990, p.30). A different kind of understanding plays into an illusion, such as a stage magician creates with a trick to fool us. The audience steps into an agreement to try to be fooled. The magician knows he is creating a false moment; the audience understands this too. If he can create the illusion without revealing the truth of how he creates the moment, then we congratulate him on an illusion well done. The moment the woman is sawed in half ,the audience doesn’t leap to its feet in horror over a tragedy, Instead, we celebrate the fooling of our senses by the capable hands of the artist. In cinema, when the film attempts to deny the audiences participation in the process, pushing for greater computer generated imagery, striving for simulated humans, adding stereoscopic glasses, or anything to make us believe that the fake is real, the result is a diminishing return for our belief in the unreality the harder the film tries for the “absolute evidence of the real.”
The opening title sequence of the 1983 documentary film Wild Style, by the legendary graffiti artist Zephyr, is exemplary of this disconnect. Director Charlie Ahearn hired him at age 19 to create the opening which, as Zephyr has said, “this had never been done before” (artofthetitle.com). Watching the credits, there is a pronounced stylistic difference between Zephyr and Blu’s approach to street art. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, there is a pronounced difference in philosophy. Zephyr’s title sequence attempts to simulate the idea of graffiti coming to life. It removes graffiti from its location in the street and tries to reproduce it with animation cells painted and inked in a studio. It suffers from what happens when graffiti is removed from its context and shown in galleries or art exhibits. Part of what gives graffiti its edge is the street; without the street it becomes feeble. Blu, in an interview in Garage magazine said, “many people simply paint on canvas what they did in the streets maybe because they have no new ideas or maybe because this is the easiest way to sell something. Obviously in this way you slander both the street work and the gallery work” (Rivasi, 2007, p.12). Zephyr, as one of the leading pioneers of graffiti in New York City, was trying to translate his style into traditional animation techniques and tools. Comparing Zephyr’s title sequence with Muto provides a clear example of how connected Blu’s animation is to the street, whereas Wild Style’s title loses some of its impact because of the loss of credibility. As Nicholas Riggle mentions in his article on street art, by “using the street, artists willingly subject their work to all of its many threats—it might be stolen, defaced, destroyed, moved, altered, or appropriated” (2010, p. 245); this gives the work both context and authenticity.
Context has always helped give animation impact, dating back over a hundred years to the first film animation by James Stuart Blackton, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). Using stop-motion with chalk and paper cutouts, and featuring Blackton as a magician making drawings magically move, the film acted as a link between the live vaudeville performances of the past and the new magic of the cinema.
There have been many pioneers of animation that have explored not only the use of stop-motion to create the illusion of movement but the play of the seductive image in animation. Blu’s work follows the pioneering animation of Norman McLaren in Neighbors, his 1952 Academy Award-winning short film. McLaren created the short using a technique called Pixilation, which uses people and props as stop-motion puppets. In Neighbors, the love of a natural resource leads to conflict between two neighbors are ultimately transformed into savages, as paint animates their features. In this fashion, Pixilation creates magical real/unreal moments. Blu also shares the use of animation to document the movement of his paint and drawings with contemporaries such as William Kentridge. Kentridge draws and erases his art on paper documenting the changes in camera creating stop-motion movement. His movement leaves trails of erased drawings as testimony to the passage of the artist and the material much as does Blu with his trails of whitewashed surfaces.
Muto achieves its magic by being understood by both the creator and the audience not to be real—much like Magritte’s contention that “This is not a pipe.” The walls are not alive with moving lines but the stop-motion is documenting a person’s effort to paint lines that appear to move. We enter into the film as a willing participant, seduced by the possibilities expressed in the ambiguity and seeing the authenticity of the art that is created and performed before the camera in the street.
He melts into an even larger head and shoulders, lifts his hands to his head and peels open his skull to reveal, like a nested doll another smaller version of himself inside his head. This continues to repeat 4 times until a 2-story house is revealed (see fig. 4). Out from the house crawls a figure similar to our 6-handed creature at the opening of the animation, except now sporting the head plucked from the figure. The creature scurries into the bushes and into the dark of a crevice.
Transformation of surfaces, transformation of imagery and transformation of ideas—over and over figures crystallize, to be reborn, crack apart to reveal new copies of the original. At the end we see the final evolution; insects swarm over the head until its black with them, then drop to the ground dead revealing the skull. As an overplayed symbol, it still finds life by providing closure.
Blu brings to stop-motion animation a freshness that is contextualized within the motivations and ideologies of street art. By grafting together the tools of painting, the canvas of architecture, the post-modern ideas of simulation and seduction, and an awareness of hybrid styles and technologies, he creates a new experience in his wall animation Muto. In a world overrun with the hyper-real Blu reminds us that the illusion of movement is more authentic then its simulation. Muto is real because it never loses connection to context and it communicates this directly to the audience. In the end, so much of what Blu says in Muto is his desire to make us aware of change. Where else could all of this transformation lead but to death, the ultimate transformer? In nature life rises from this process of renewal, but death in this seductive metaphor leads only to silence: Muto.
A previous version of this paper was delivered at The Animation Machine. The 24th Society for Animation Studies Annual Conference, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. August 25-27, 2012. Thanks to Editor Amy Ratelle for her invaluable help in preparing this paper.
Brad Yarhouse is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Kendall College of Art and Design.
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© Brad Yarhouse
Edited by Amy Ratelle