Dawn light suffuses an unassuming city street. Cars flicker past, an unsettling visual staccato. As the camera's gaze settles on a brick wall, animated fingers push out a brick drawn in white paint and a curious figure emerges. In his remarkable short film Muto, street artist Blu uses a laborious animation technique to depict grotesque morphing beings navigating and interacting with the urban landscape. First rendering these static images in house paint on urban surfaces and photographing them, Blu then makes minute changes before photographing the altered image. He continues this iterative process, knitting images together in post-production to create wall-painted animations traversing the cityscape.
In some ways, Muto dramatizes contemporary thinking about modern cities. Urban theorists such as Henri Lefebvre have emphasized the spectacular nature of urban space, wherein a totalizing gaze (epitomized by the aerial view of the map) effaces the embodied experiences of individuals moving through the city. Others have cast the metropolis as itself a spectacular medium; the futuristic noir cityscape of Blade Runner imagines this at its most extreme, as the perpetual flicker of massive screens replace the surfaces of buildings. Trends in street art have reflected this shift in the nature of cities; though long recognized by the lexical “tag” of graffiti, much street art now is iconographic.
Yet, Muto recalls other aesthetic movements that sought to redefine the increasingly spectacular nature of urban space by returning the individual body to the metropolis. The Situationists practiced the dérive, an unplanned wandering through the cityscape that defied its legislated routes. Early graffiti has also been recognized for its spatial claims on the city – for example, heavily graffitied trains in New York served as dissemination networks for hip-hop’s countercultural messages. In this way, Muto continues the spatial impulses of early graffiti, even while recognizing the changing shape of our spaces.
In Muto, Blu constructs a vision of urban life as both intensely visual and embodied, at once destructive and generative. As its transforming figures cavort through the metropolis, they ask you to follow them with your eyes, moving you under and over various urban surfaces. In this way, Muto renders a vision of the city as a space of play and transformation. At its most grotesque moments, it reminds us how, in the society of the spectacle, our embodiments shape the living city.