Redefining The Human Body As “Meat, Metal and Code”: An Interview with Stelarc

For decades, performance artist Stelarc has pushed the boundaries of posthumanist thought. We met him in Berlin to discuss how technology will recode our understanding of what it means to be human.

“Ear On Arm”, Stelarc, Venice International Performance Art Week 2016. Photographer: Piero Viti

Late in 2017, I attended a show by performance artist Stelarc, as part of the Wings Of Desire Symposium in Berlin. It was definitely not your typical art crowd, with an unsettling percentage baring surgically implanted horns and an even more unsettling percentage of white people with dreads. More unsettling still was the experience of watching the performers being rigged up, with hooks inserted through their skin. But once the performers were in position, I was captivated. Loud distorted sounds of the participants breathing echoed through the factory, as the five participants (or as Stelarc would call them, “bodies”) hung naked from the roof. Spotlights highlighted the bodies, throwing the whole crowd into a pit of darkness, duly focussing everyone’s attention on the performance. It was eerie, but beautiful. The performers had surpassed the immense pain and limits of the body, seemingly finding tranquility.

Stelarc has been performing for over 40 years with his body as the medium and sometimes even the gallery space. His performances and works range from voluntary surgeries and robotic third arms to flesh-hook suspensions and prosthetics. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we met up on a rainy, dark afternoon in Berlin. But for all Stelarc’s eccentricity and, for want of a better word, freakiness, when I sat down to interview him I was surprised by his gentle nature. He wore a nice sweater, a scarf, was eloquently spoken and incredibly insightful. It is strange to think that two days after our quiet coffee in Friedrichshain, he organised that rather frightening, 5-bodied suspension performance in Malzfabrik. But we all have our quirks, right?

It’s 2018 and we’re moving into some pretty uncertain times, where technological advancements will completely alter our experience and understanding of what it means to be human (or possibly, post-human). This notion brings an existential fear to most, but seemed only to excite Stelarc as he walked me through his art practice — or as he put it, his exploration of “alternate anatomical architectures”.

The most bizarre of these alternate anatomies is the third ear growing on his forearm. The “Ear on Arm” project involved surgically constructing and cell growing an ear on his arm. Beginning in 1996, it took ten years for the project to find funding, and willing (sane) surgeons who wanted to undertake the first procedures. When asked about the process, Stelarc tells me that the scaffold of the ear was inserted beneath the skin, the skin suctioned over the scaffold and after six months tissue ingrowth and vascularisation occurred. Stelarc went on to excitedly explain that finally, after 20 years, a microphone and wifi chip will be implanted into the ear. This will allow anyone, anywhere to log on to an internet portal and listen in on whatever Stelarc may be up to, 24/7. “This ear will not be an ear for this body, as this body has two good ears to hear with”, Stelarc charitably explained through a wide grin. Interestingly, the “ownership” of the ear is then shared with hypothetically anyone with an internet connection and the desire to listen in.

Left: “Third Hand”, Stelarc, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya 1980. Photographer: Simon Hunter. Right: “Third Hand Diagram”, Stelarc, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya 1980.

Stelarc’s third ear is just one manifestation of his vision of a future where nanotechnology will recolonise the body. This vision encompasses tech taking on a more invasive role in the body, beyond medical necessity— or, more accurately, the body embracing tech internally. Currently, Stelarc is working on the designs for a nano robot that will travel down his tongue, and he notoriously held an “internal” exhibition whereby he installed a mechanical sculpture inside his stomach.

Through probing, extending, modifying, suspending, and pushing the limits of the body, Stelarc has realised that “the body is highly inadequate. It can’t do minutes without air, a month without food, if it loses 10% of its body fluid, it’s dead, if its internal body temperature changes between 3 and 4 degrees it’s in serious danger.” I glanced down at my own inadequate body, imagining a future where the human body is not “obsolete”, to quote Stelarc. Naturally, he tells me, we have adapted to these limitations with the creation of technology.

Clearly, we have come along way from the Apple II computer, launched in 1977, only a year after Stelarc began create work. Not only have we adapted with technology but are beginning to merge with it. Stelarc thinks of the body now as “a contemporary Chimera of meat, metal and code”. However, the limits of this Chimera at present are manifold. We have “data beyond our subjective experience, that data is often generated by instruments and mediated by instruments,” he asserted. If we are beyond shouting and hearing distance, we can not communicate. In other words, we aren’t able to perceive “life beyond certain scale”; our subjective scope is limited, drastically so when one considers the scope of data available to us.

“Propel: Body on Robot Arm”, STelarc, DeMonstrable – Autronics, Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Perth 2016. Photographer : Steven Aaron Hughes

This idea of bodies being spatially separated but electronically connected is something which has long fascinated Stelarc; he coined the term “fractal fresh” to describe this simultaneous connection and separation. In 1995, years before the art world fully embraced the dot-com craze, Stelarc performed “Fractal Flesh”, an interactive performance which fused the internet, an exoskeleton and his third-hand prosthesis. While Stelarc was in Luxembourg, an audience at the Pompidou in Paris, the MediaLab in Helsinki and the Doors of Perception conference in Amsterdam could remotely choreograph his body, which was rigged up to a robotic exoskeleton. “As my body moved, the senses in my body generated sound,” Stelarc recalled. “The only thing I had control over was my third hand, which I was able to actuate through signals from my abdominal and leg muscles.” Rather than the overdone art trope of splitting mind and body, “Fractal Flesh” split the body itself. In “Fractal Flesh”, the internet became almost a nervous system for the body.

Not only is this a time of “fractal flesh”, but also what Stelarc describes as “circulating flesh” and “phantom flesh”. Phantom flesh refers to the skin of our virtual avatars, and the interaction between online and electronically connected bodies. “Circulating flesh” refers to the process of extracting one body part from another — we live in age where a hand from a cadaver can be attached onto a living person, and begin to function as their own. We’re circulating organs and body parts, creating artificial limbs, cell-grown parts and mechanical hands. “Increasingly, the body becomes a prosthetically augmented body”, Stelarc adds. Of course, our bodies are still biological, but “in reality we are more than just a biological creature interacting with the world.”

Image: Exoskeleton, Stelarc. Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana, 2003. Photographer: Igor Skafar

With his extensive knowledge of technological advancements and posthumanist philosophy, I wanted to pick his brain about whether he thought technological advancement would wipe out, or consecrate prejudice. Optimistically, I would like to believe that technology offers us opportunities to break down and disrupt existing power structures. Sex, gender, and sexuality in particular could all be radically re-evaluated through the framework of technology. Stelarc agreed. “Technology standardises and equalises potential between the physical elements of sexes”. He continued, “there is a blurring between the binary distinction between male and female. It’s problematic. It doesn’t exist.” As technology re-politicises the body, “we begin to question how meaningful it is to make these binary distinctions. Certainly,” Stelarc continued, “if notions of reproduction were to be erased.”

Indeed, reproductive difference between the sexes could be mitigated within our lifetimes. With the possibility of a future where we can engineer an artificial womb, “an embryo and a fetus may be brought to bare a child totally external to the human body. Fundamentally and philosophically, your life would begin without ‘birth’.” Stelarc highlighted skin cell technology whereby you can now take the skin cell from an impotent male, and recode it into a sperm cell. More interestingly, scientists are beginning to take the skin cells from a female body and make a male sperm cell. “In a reproductive sense, the male then could be deemed obsolete,” he laughed. In this future, sexuality and gender constructs would be demolished, along with the male-female interface of reproduction. Stelarc reminds me that “in nature, particularly with the insect animal and microorganisms, there are many examples of asexual reproduction.” It’s therefore “not unnatural to undermine the notion of male-female sexual reproduction” as a natural part of our evolution.

“Stomach Sculpture”, Stelarc. Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, NGV, Melbourne 1993. Photographer: Anthony Figallo

This stemmed into a conversation not only about social and political structures, but the very concept of life and existence itself. “If we could replace malfunctioning organs with replaceable 3D printed parts or stem-cell grown organs, theoretically, an individual might not die. Your existence, then, does not begin with birth and does not necessarily end with death.” Stelarc admitted however “that this doesn’t mean your existence may not be terminated by some catastrophic, accidental or natural event. Merely, it fundamentally alters our perception of our biological life.” The political, moral, and personal implications of a world where our understanding of what it means to be born, live and die are vast, and perhaps even completely beyond our comprehension today.

Stelarc brought me back to 2017 with an example of current technology redefining what it means to be human. Recently, a twin turbine mechanical heart has been designed and transplanted into a human body. Stelarc expressed that unlike any artificial heart before, it does not attempt to mimic our existing heart; it goes beyond the deficiencies of our biology, and is more robust and more reliable than any other previous heart. Curiously, the twin turbine heart has no heartbeat — “So in the near future, you may rest your head on your loved one’s chest, and they will be warm to the touch, sighing and breathing and certainly alive, but they will have no heartbeat.” Immediately, this one piece of technology completely redefines how we understand the human. As a living human who has experienced excitement, love, heartbreak, anxiety and fear through the physical act of my heart racing in my chest, I struggled to imagine a heartless (or should I say “heartbeat-less”) existence.

“Ear On Arm Suspension”, Stelarc, Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne 2012. Photographer: Polixeni Papapetrou

Before my encroaching existential crisis engulfed me, we ended the interview. I left our meeting in awe of a man that, at the age of 71, is still at the foreground of technological art and posthumanist thought. Stelarc was making interactive internet art before the invention of Google (and dare I say it, before I could talk). Decades into his work and exploration of the limits of the human body, Stelarc continues to break and bend our conceptions of what constitutes a body, and fundamentally, what it means to be human.

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