Professor Stelarc is an Australian performance artist known for going to extremes, from aggressive voluntary surgeries and robotic third arms to flesh-hook suspensions and prosthetics. For over 40 years he has been pushing the physical, conceptual, and technological boundaries of the human body. His work has inspired and awed people the world over, and given many a new perspectives on what the body means, where it begins and ends. Since the early 70’s, ever since discovering he was a bad painter in Art School, Stelarc taught in Japan for 19 years and became a full-time artist 3 years ago. At present he is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the School of Design and Art at Curtin University, Perth Australia. “I’ve always been envious of dancers and gymnasts who use their bodies as their medium of expression. As a performance artist you have to accept the physical consequences of your actions. So suspending your body, inserting a sculpture into your stomach and constructing an ear on your arm requires a certain indifference, being open to whatever eventuates” he tells me. This is a fascinating interview with one of the most open-minded and creative individuals I’ve been fortunate to speak with.
You are famous for the statement “the human body is obsolete” tell us more about what you mean by this and ways in which the body can be better augmented?
The body now inhabits a terrain of speedy, robust and reliable machines, with sensor and computational systems that far exceed our capabilities. The body in its present form and with these present functions is inadequate. Asserting the body is obsolete is not alluding to some kind of disembodied existence. Rather the body’s design is flawed, with slim survival parameters. Our very functions and interactions in the world result in our death. We should consider alternate anatomical architectures. Alter the body’s architecture and you adjust its awareness of the world. Our physiology largely determines our philosophy.
Many people and companies such as Calico (part of Google’s parent, Alphabet) are exploring the subject of solving death. It sounds bazaar but is death merely a medical condition that we have not yet found a treatment for? The consequences of living forever will, of course, be felt by nature most. The reality is, though the global population is set to increase to over 11 billion by the year 2100, we will never see every human living forever.
I suspect that there would not be an instant solution. There would probably be incremental adjustments to allow a body not only to extend its longevity but also to continue living at optimal mental and physical capacity. Gradually, over time there would be social adjustment to this altered condition. The immediate question that comes to mind is what age is determined optimal and who determines that age. It’s not only about physical condition but having enough time to understand the world and act appropriately in it. Of course we can justify the biological status quo and accept that although the body might deteriorate over the years, it is simultaneously gaining the wisdom to existentially accept its condition. Is it possible to dissociate our physical and mental states? An the interesting outcome in studying cell senescence, would be not only to prevent ageing but possibly reverse ageing. There would be all kinds of social and ethical issues generated. Reverse it in what way? Does the individual make that decision or does it become a social imperative. And if the slowing down and even prevention of ageing possibly occurs, then yes, we have a population problem. But only if we continue to inhabit a closed bio-system. Without sounding too sci-fi, off world colonies would become essential. Looked at positively, life is rare in our solar system and living in off world colonies is not only a solution for overpopulation but also it makes sense it terms of a smarter survival strategy for the human species.
What inspires you – I would love to learn more about how you see the relationship between art and technology?
As an artist, ideas are easy, what is meaningful is actualizing them. To engineer an interface and to physically experience it, results in something meaningful to say. These ideas are only authenticated by my actions. Artists generate contestable futures. Possibilities that can be interrogated, possibly appropriated but most often discarded. We should remain in the realm of contingency, rather than be motivated by necessity or utility. Technology is not simplistically enabling but rather it is a highly destabilizing. As Paul Virilio asserts, with every new technology, there is a new kind of accident. Art messes with technology, hacks technology and incorporates the unexpected and the accidental. And art generates ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty.
The “Ear in Arm” project (image below), was highly interesting and one you are very well known for, tell us about the project, how it was conceived and reflecting back on it what did you learn?
Oh, the idea for an extra ear goes back to 1996, but it took 10 years to get funding and find 3 plastic surgeons to assist. Initially, the extra ear was positioned next to my left ear. But that was an anatomically dumb place to try to construct it as there was always a danger of partial face paralysis. The forearm, where the skin is sensitive, thin and flexible was a more appropriate place. The project has never been completed. I still only have a relief of an ear on my arm and it still hasn’t been internet enabled. There is a good chance this will happen next year. The ear on my arm, electronically augmented, will effectively become a remote listening device for people in other places. Doing cosmetic surgery is easy since you are only shaping a present part of your body. It’s much more difficult to construct an additional body part and fully integrate it with your body. And this is a process requiring multiple surgeries over a protracted period of time. But my patience is wearing thin…
What does technology mean to you?
Attachments, augmentations and implants ha, ha. Machines perform precisely, repetitively and tirelessly. What’s seductive about instruments is that they generate unexpected images and information about the body and its world, far beyond the body’s perceptual parameters – which necessitates adjusting our paradigms of what it means to be human. Computational systems process and retrieve information more reliably as well as calculate at massive scales and extreme speeds. Data streams circulate and algorithms contaminate the human biome. What is not to like about technology?
Tell us about your views on wearable and implantable technology?
McLuhan describes technology as “the external organs of the body”. But now miniaturized and biocompatible technology is engineered also as internal components of the body – as replaceable parts and organs. Increasingly, the biological and the artificial blur into ever more biocompatible materials. 3D bio-printing and 3D printing of embedded circuits will result in more robust body parts. If we can stem-cell grow organs, if we can 3D print organs then this will result in an excess of organs. Of organs awaiting bodies. Of Organs Without Bodies.
Do you think we will all be Cyborgs one day?
We fear the involuntary. We are anxious about becoming increasingly automated. But we fear what we have always been, Zombies, and what we have already become, Cyborgs. We have never had minds of our own and we have always been prosthetic bodies.
Do you think connecting our brains to computers will be safe and what dangers do you see ahead?
Neural implants will amplify our cognitive capabilities and allow intimate online connectivity as well as live-streaming of our brainwave activity. But, yes, there will be the possibility of being hacked and our brains and bodies being manipulated by malicious agents. Whether by people in other places or viral code infecting us. But that’s happening already in our biological world and with our external technologies and media.
What scares you about technology (if anything)?
Well my concern is more the people that use the technology…
How do you see yourself living in 5-10 years time?
Somewhat similar to how I am living today…
What role do you see robotics playing in our everyday lives in the next few years?
What is most interesting is recolonizing the human body with nano-technology, to augment our bacterial population. The body has no early alert warning system of pathological changes in chemistry, temperature or blockages in our circulatory system. By the time you feel the lump in your chest, the tumor has become malignant. The cancer has metastasized. Nano-sensors and nano-bots could detect and repair the body at a cellular level. But imagine redesigning the body atoms-up, inside-out. You would not see it happening, you would not feel it happening. The transformation would be so incremental that a redesign would be painless. We have digital tools to morph images. We will soon have the nano-devices to morph our physical bodies…
Looking ahead into the future what are you most excited by and why?
The unpredictable. Artists are in the business of engineering contestable futures. Possibilities that can be experienced, interrogated, possibly appropriate but most likely discarded. The realm of the future is the realm of contingency, not of necessity or of utility.
Where is the best place we can follow your work?
I try to keep my website updated www.stelarc.org but current activities or my whereabouts are not posted. And I’m only a reluctant and intermittent user of social media. So just Google me to find out. But I’d like to mention one more thing. PS Media are presently publishing a book titled “Stretched Skin – Obsolete, Uncertain and Indifferent Body”. The book will be launched in Berlin this month. It is a complete overview of my suspension performances, with exceptional images, excellent contributions by theorists and texts by the artist.
Stelarc explores alternate anatomical architectures, interrogating issues of agency, identity and the posthuman. He has performed with a Third Hand, a Stomach Sculpture and Exoskeleton, a 6-legged walking robot. Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite are internet performances that explore remote and involuntary choreography. He is surgically constructing and stem-cell growing an ear on his arm that will be internet enabled. In 1996 he was made an Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh and in 2002 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Monash University, Melbourne. In 2010 was awarded the Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts Prize. In 2015 he received the Australia Council’s Emerging and Experimental Arts Award. In 2016 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Ionian University, Corfu. Stelarc is currently a Distinguished Research Fellow, School of Design and Art, Curtin University. His artwork is represented by Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne.