TransAlchemy Interviews Stelarc
Stelarc is a performance artist who has visually probed and acoustically amplified his body. He has made 3 films of the inside of his body. Between 1976-1988 he completed 25 body suspension performances with hooks into the skin. He has used medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, Virtual Reality systems, the Internet and biotechnology to explore alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body. He has performed with a THIRD HAND, a VIRTUAL ARM, a STOMACH SCULPTURE and EXOSKELETON, a 6-legged walking robot. His FRACTAL FLESH, PING BODY and PARASITE performances explored involuntary, remote and internet choreography of the body with electrical stimulation of the muscles. His PROSTHETIC HEAD is an embodied conversational agent that speaks to the person who interrogates it. He is surgically constructing an EXTRA EAR on his arm that will be internet enabled, making it publicly accessible acoustical organ for people in other places. He is presently performing as his avatar from his SECOND LIFE site.
In 1995 Stelarc received a three year Fellowship from The Visual Arts/ Craft Board, The Australia Council and in 2004 was awarded a two year New Media Arts Fellowship. In 1997 he was appointed Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. He was Artist-In-Residence for Hamburg City in 1997. In 2000 he was awarded an Honorary Degree of Laws by Monash University. He has completed Visiting Artist positions in Art and Technology, at the Faculty of Art and Design at Ohio State University in Columbus in 2002, 2003 & 2004. He has been Principal Research Fellow in the Performance Arts Digital Research Unit and a Visiting Professor at The Nottingham Trent University, UK. He is currently
Chair in Performance Art, School of Arts, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK. He is also Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Artist at the MARCS Lab at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Stelarc’s artwork is represented by the SCOTT LIVESEY GALLERIES in Melbourne.
Why do you believe the human body is obsolete? What is the alternative?
This body is obsolete, absent, empty and performs largely involuntarily. I guess in retrospect, the suspension performances physically exhaust the body and expose its inadequacies and its limitations. The body has always been inadequate. This obsolete, absent and empty body needs to be augmented. It constructs instruments and machines to better perceive and manipulate the world. It’s curiosity is amplified and further desires are generated. The media, machine and technological terrain that we inhabit generally outperforms the human body in speed, precision and power. We have taken an ergonomic approach in designing our instruments in the past, to deal with the limitations of our bodies-with the acuity of our sight, the responsiveness of our fingers and dealing with human fatigue. It’s now time to redesign the body to better match the capabilities of its technology.
Your art involves the manipulation of your body via electronic controls. If humans begin augmenting themselves with brain chips and cybernetics doesn’t it seem obvious that outside manipulation would occur?
You say that we (humans) have never had minds of our own. If we’ve never had our own minds, then who has?
Not only have we already become cyborg bodies but we have always been zombies, without a mind of our own nor any mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense. No-one has a mind. There is nothing inside my head. There are no ideas inside my head. There are no images inside my head. There are no memories inside my head. These are generated by my interaction with the world. What’s important is not what happens within us but what happens between us, in the medium of language in which we communicate, in the social institutions that we inhabit, in the culture that we’ve been conditioned. (When this body says “I” or “my” it says so as a language construct. “I” only indicates this body. It’s a huge metaphysical leap to imagine it refers to something inner that owns or actuates the body.
Do you believe in a higher form of existence outside the body? If so, could such existence be considered spiritual?
With the possibility of other habitable planets and multiple universes, we can’t discount more complex and diverse life-forms that have alternate awareness and perhaps operate more intricately. Would such life-forms be more intelligent? Perhaps. Although what it means to be intelligent is both a situational and contextual evaluation. I might be an intelligent quantum mechanics physicist but an uninteresting artist. If by spiritual you mean more subtle behavior, then OK. If by spiritual you mean mystical or divine, then that’s a personal and arbitrary metaphysical choice. What’s “outside” the body are other bodies, things and social structures. The higher form of existence outside the body happens between bodies…
Photographer- Keisuke Ok
The further development of converging technologies will destroy our established notions of civil liberties and privacy. I see you playing to this theme, especially with “The Extra Ear.” Isn’t our privacy something worth holding onto?
What now becomes important is not our identity but rather our interfaces. Not our mobility but our connectivity. We need more surveillance, not less surveillance. But we need it inside the body. The body has no early alert warning system that alerts us to pathological changes in chemistry,temperature and cell-growth. Nano-sensors might detect and alert us that something is wrong at a cellular and intracellular level. Nano-bots would more precisely deliver medication and might better manage excising of tumorous growths or blockages in our circulatory systems. The Ear on Arm will become a mobile and accessible acoustical organ. Although it is constructed on this arm it will enable people in other places to hear what the ear is listening to. We have evolved soft internal organs to better function as a body in the natural world. We can now engineer additional and external Internet organs to better interface and operate in the media terrain that we now inhabit.
What has led you to believe that the constructs of mind, soul, and self-hood are *completely* obsolete and non-nonfunctional in our present reality, rather than *partially* or even *potentially* obsolete and non-functional?”
Oh, I’d word it differently. Mind, soul and self-hood are social and language constructs. They are arbitrary and convenient constructs. They describe and are indicative of certain subtle body behaviour. The are not some intrinsic essence. These are words that equate with a homunculus construct. It’s not an issue of obsolescence but of non-existence. Nietzsche asserts that there is no being behind the doing. (Agency is what we attribute to an act in retrospect). Wittgenstein reveals that thinking occurs on the paper upon which you write. (Thinking is not what happens simply inside your head). What’s important is what happens between us, not within us, in the medium of language in which we communicate, in the social institution in which we operate and in the culture that we’ve been conditioned.
Well, perhaps what it means to be human is not to remain human. To strive for the other, for the alternate has always been a human trait. One can argue we have always been prosthetic bodies. That what it means to be human has been largely determined by our cultural artifacts and our technologies. Alfred Whitehead said that our imaginations are only as good as our instruments. New technologies generate unexpected information and images which destabilize our paradigms of the world and what it means to be a body. When this person speaks about a body it is a body that is a physiological, phenomenological, interacting and aware entity in the world. Or thought differently space and time is how the body experiences the world (Kant) or that the body is a manifestation of the world, rather than merely inhabiting the world (Merleau-Ponty).
-Are you familiar with the transhumanist movement and if so what is your personal take on this? Will they be able to achieve a total transcendence of there physical selves?
transcendence. Perhaps your avatar automaton can forever inhabit virtual spaces in electronic media. I’ve been performing as my avatar in Second Life from my SL site- http://tr.im/jFGN. And in the early 90′s I was performing with a Virtual Arm and a Virtual Body. This involved gesture recognition and real-time motion capture. What’s interesting are these alternate actual-virtual interfaces and performative possibilities that can be engineered. As for the idea of achieving a total transcendence of our physical selves, well that’s the wrong question to ask. To be an intelligent agent we need to be not only embodied but also embedded in the world. Of course we can be differently embodied. With might be embodied with a bodily lack (operating with less than 4 limbs), or in excess (with a Third Hand or a Virtual Arm). We might be augmented by an artificial heart or accelerated by machine. Or our bodies might function with replacement parts- an artificial heat or a transplanted face. “A total transcendence of our physical selves” is a contradiction in terms. What constitutes and constructs ourselves are our physical bodies. It doesn’t have to be this body. Or only one body. Or a carbon chemistry body. It might be a silicon chip circuitry body. It might be a swarm of nano-bots morphing into differently shaped bodies. But it has to be some body.
How far are you willing to go with your art? If presented with the ability to upload your mind into a machine would you?
You go as far as you need to ha, ha. As far as you can. Well, the idea of uploading your mind into a machine is inadequate and contentious in a number of ways. Especially since this person is asserting there is no mind in a body- the way we conveniently construct it. Also any information transferred about this body (not from within this body) would need to be contextualized with social information and our cultural conditioning for that personal data to be meaningful. I would characterize what would happen not so much as a transfer of mind from a biological body to a machine but rather as a reconstruction of a biological body as a machine knowing what we know about the body and its social and cultural context. Furthermore, what we describe as identity and memory is not simply the result of what we conveniently construct as mind, but is also the way we walk, the sound of our voice, our facial mannerisms and our emotional expression. Not to mention intricate webs of relationships with other bodies and things. That’s quite a lot to upload, map and contextualize…
Artistic practice is the realm of exploring, experimenting and exposing. It is about ambivalence, ambiguity and the slippage between intention and actuality. It is not simplistically an act of affirmation but of generating anxiety and uncertainty. Of accidents and surprises. That’s what artists have always been doing and will continue to do as an integral part of being curious and creative. These projects and performances are tentative explorations in media, machinic and virtual augmentation of the body. There will be increasing interest in modifying the body, in redesigning the body, in engineering alternate and hybrid bodies which result in a diversification of the human phylum and a splitting of the species. This will not be the outcome of eugenic engineering but rather by individually driven bodies. What will be interesting are these alternate anatomical architectures. Chimeric bodies that are combinations of biological, machine and virtual systems.
I began performing when I discovered I was a really bad painter in art school. I’ve always been envious of gymnists, dancers and singers who use their bodies both as a mode of expression and a means of experience. I was also interested in the body as an evolutionary architecture, the apparatus for perceiving, operating and manipulating the world. It has always been inadequate doing this. So what’s interesting is how the body, augmented by its instruments, accelerated by its machines and amplified by its computers becomes an extended operational system. The body now performs beyond the boundaries of its skin and beyond the local space that it inhabits.
-What do see the human race morphing into with the added ability to modify itself?
Well, we are inhabiting an age of circulating flesh. The face of the cadaver is displaced, stretched and stitched to another head. The blood flowing in my body today may be flowing in your body tomorrow. Organs are extracted from one body and transplanted into another. Ova are fertilized by sperm that is unfrozen. Fertilized eggs are frozen and await reanimation. We can preserve a body indefinitely through plastination. A dead body need not decompose. Simultanously we can sustain a comatose body connected to a life-support system. And we can engineer partially living entities in-vitro whilst we can extra stem cells and reinject them to repair a body in-vivo. There is the possibility of stem-cell growing organs and of printing organs. The dead, the non-dead and the not yet living exist simultaneously. We live in an age of the Cadaver, the Comatose and the Chimera. Rather than morphing into a single other, the human species will split into a multiplicity of body forms and functions. Simultaneously Zombies and Cyborgs. Of hybrid human-machine systems, of chimeras operating with mixed realities. A proliferation of actual-virtual interfaces, seamlessly slipping between genetic inclination and engineered desires. Cyborg bodies might be augmented by exoskeletons and manga-machines, bodies might become hosts for micro-miniaturized machines and nano-bots (the body looks the same, feels the same but internally it is augmented), or biological bodies are connected and can haptically communicate and collaborate with the internet as an external nervous system. There are a multiplicity of diverse possibilities- of contestable futures. The future never comes, it is incessantly becoming other. The future never is because it can never be imagined. The future is never achieved because possibilities always collapse into actualities.
Split Body: Voltage-in / Voltage-out
Photographer- Igor Andjelic
For more information visit Stelarc’s web site here