Technology Gets Under the Skin

T2 investigates the work and mind of Australian performance artist and renowned individual, Stelarc, to catch a glimpse of his view for our cyborg future. Daring, and at least compelling, we find he has created at the edge of the man/machine frontier a pioneering space to watch.

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By  Kate Concannon Published  September 4, 2001

Cyborg Ambitions|~||~||~|Stelarc is an Australian performance artist who has been augmenting and altering his body in displays since the 1960s. He has received numerous honorary titles from the academic world, including an Honorary Professorship of Arts and Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Stelarc’s artistic purpose is to extend the body, technologically and physically.

His performances and projects over the years have thus involved integrating his body with technology in order to interact on an intimate level, both electrical and virtual. His projects include the ‘Third Arm’, ‘Extra Ear’ and ‘Fractal Flesh’.

Stelarc’s performances and his artistic aims are concerned with what he regards as the “body obsolete”. By this concept, he expresses what he considers our need to go beyond the centuries old perception (and complacency) that we are at the top of the evolutionary chain, rather than capable of enhancement by diverse technologies, which are far more precise and powerful.

Can I call you a performance scientist?

No, no (good try though ha, ha!)...

Some would say that it is a lack of perspective or human arrogance (hubris even) to consider ourselves the final product of the epic evolutionary process. Do you consider the next phase of human evolution and development to be cyborgification?

Well, if by that we mean the increasing hybridisation of the biological and machine architectures, of cells and silicon chips, of the reproduced with the cloned, of virtual entities with physical bodies and machines, then, yes, we can call it cyborgification.

Remember that it can be argued that the body has always been a prosthetic body, augmented by technologies. The body has always been a cyborg. We have always been what we fear to become. What is interesting is the body now becomes a host for its technologies. Micro-miniaturization and biocompatibility (in substance and scale) mean technology can become a component rather than a mere container of the body.

We could recolonize the human body with nano-technology robots that will augment the functions of bacteria and viruses now inhabiting us. The body need no longer be repaired, but could simply have body parts replaced. Extending life no longer means “existing” but rather “being operational”.

||**||Stelarc's Projects|~||~||~|Where do you plan to take your experiments/art in the future? What are you attempting to demonstrate about humans and technology in your work?

The general interest is in the construction of alternate and intimate interfaces to experience the alien and involuntary. The body, on the one hand, is having its subjectivity telematically scaled up (to extrude its awareness, to project its physical presence and perform remotely), and, on the other, becoming a host for the desires and actions of other people who are spatially separate but electronically connected (see performances such as Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite).

In other words, the body experiences a split physiology where half of the body behaves without its agency. As to future art projects or performances, there are no blue-prints or plotted strategies for future actions. In fact, the future isn’t contemplated, rather it is being constructed....

Describe the Third Ear and 6-legged robot projects. What technology will be involved and what do you hope to achieve?

Imagine an ear that cannot hear, but rather can emit noises. Implanted with a sound chip and a proximity sensor, the ear would speak to anyone who got close to it… Or imagine the Extra Ear as an Internet antenna, able to amplify RealAudio sounds to augment the local sounds heard by the actual ears.

Well, it’s the Extra Ear that is the difficult project to realize. I’ve had lots of medical feedback on the placement of the Extra Ear and ways it might be surgically realised. It seems the best way to do this would be to construct the ear on the arm. If all the procedures can be done with local anaesthetic, then that would be more acceptable medically. And, if a substitute to cartilage can be used, then it would not be necessary to remove cartilage from the thorax.

Anyway, getting appropriate assistance to do an ear construction has proved difficult because of the conservative medical community and its ethical concerns. Either I go south of the border and throw lots of money at a dodgy practitioner, or I go to Brazil where they do radical sex-change operations. I’d just have to be careful what organ was attached to the side of my head (ha, ha). Anyway, I’m still considering options.

||**||AI Appeal|~||~||~|The new Locomoter project is a collaborative effort between Nottingham Trent and Sussex Universities with funding from the Wellcome Trust. Although it’s similar to the Exoskeleton project in that the robot has 6 legs, it is a more compliant and flexible mechanism that will enable more intuitive operation.

The human on the machine is literally the body of the machine. By shifting my body weight or twisting my torso the type and speed of locomotion can be controlled. And, whichever way I turn my body, the robot will walk. It is not a passive walker like Exoskeleton. It looks like an insect but will walk dynamically, like a dog! This will be an example of a non-intelligent operational system — neither the robot nor the human operator has a large brain....

As we understand, your formal training is in the arts. How did you learn about AI and such technology, and what is its appeal for you? Have you received any honorary titles on account of your internationally renowned work?

Oh, my technical training is very limited. Sure I know a little about AI and AL. I read a lot in those areas. I’ve attended conferences and often done presentations in scientific seminars. I’m especially interested in conceptual and philosophical issues that construct body and cyborg discourse. My medical knowledge is literally only skin-deep. I always need the assistance of computer programmers, engineers and medical people.

What’s interesting about virtual entities, robots and that whole direction of artificial life is how simple systems can operate and become aware of their worlds; how behaviours like flock ing, predator and prey behaviours can emerge; how collaborative and social behaviours can evolve.

OK, I’m Honorary Professor of Arts and Robotics at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and I have recently been awarded an Honorary Law Degree from Monash University in Melbourne. I am presently Principal Research Fellow, Digital Research Unit, Visual and Performing Arts at Nottingham Trent University in the UK....

||**||Future Fantastic?|~||~||~|Many people believe that augmentation of the body by technology (cybernetics) will open totally new sensory/perceptive experiences to us, who, till now, have been limited to ingestion of the world around us by 5 senses — and limited logic to process the meaning of this input. Having had first hand experience of the body interacting with technology, what do you imagine these new perceptions may involve?

Well, I don’t imagine. As an artist I try to construct real-world interfaces and actually experience them. Only then is it possible to articulate, to speculate somewhat specifically and meaningfully. It needs to be added that the questions these performances have generated are about undermining the convenient constructs of what a body is, what a body does, and how a body models and makes the world.

The more performances I do, the less I think I have a mind of my own, or any mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense. And, when this body speaks as an “I”, it does so knowing that “I” is a simplified and convenient language category that is actually a body in relation to many other bodies; in the medium of language, within which we communicate; in the social institutions, within which we operate; and in the particular culture, within which we've been conditioned, at this point in time in our human history — and so on. “I” is only applicable in a very restricted frame of reference.

If you had the option of technologically enhancing your body in more permanent and extreme ways (becoming a cyborg), would you have any reservations about doing so? Of what in particular would you wish to become capable by ehancement?

I feel uneasy about answering this kind of question. Again, it is just too general. But anyway… medically plausible modifications, yeah, I’d consider that kind of possibility. I guess if the cerebral, sensory or motor experience or operation produced alternate, enhanced or extended capabilities it would be meaningful to take the physical risk.

Any new sensory perception that could be experienced directly and subjectively would be of interest. The realities of medical practice and medical ethics at present are such that experimentation is done for altruistic reasons on patients with bodily injuries or pathological conditions. The most extreme surgeries and implants are done on the injured and the aged. Now, if they can add artists to their list, that would be great ha, ha....

Do you believe that cyborgification of humans would pave the way to trangression of boundaries that perpetuate racism, sexism and other dubious facets of human behaviour?

Oh, I think that it could amplify the biological and social status quo with all our prejudices as it simultaneously provides us with the opportunities to enhance our abilities to go beyond them.
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