To watch Australian performance artist Stelarc play a video of his suspension performances -- in which he hangs naked from flesh-piercing hooks attached to ropes -- is a bit like voluntarily running your long fingernails down the surface of a clean blackboard. Looking at his face, you notice that it is not only devoid of pain, but that it looks almost ...tranquil. Aware of the response within yourself, you feel your own senses amplify with empathy, as if wanting to share the pain would help ease it for him. As he continues to talk about his other work, it begins to dawn on you that that is exactly what Stelarc is about: amplification.
"The early suspension performances were partially a way of determining the psychological and physical parameters of the body," he says.
Exploring the body's relationship with the physical and virtual world has been the lifetime mission for Stelarc, now in his mid 40s. "What's intriguing for me is how we've evolved as absent bodies. Because the body is designed to be open to the world, because the body is composed of external input devices, it means that the body projects into space. Mentally, we operate in the world and our physical bodies seem to recede behind us, and the only time our physicality surfaces is when we malfunction, when we feel sick, when we do yoga. So, we operate mentally in the world because we've evolved as absent bodies, as bodies designed to be open to the environment. That absence is heightened by the fact that we function automatically and habitually. When I increasingly malfunction, it means that I look forward to an increasing awareness."
Having originally trained as a visual artist in the mid 1960s, Stelarc soon became disinterested in sculpture and painting. Instead he focussed on attaching technology to the body to alter awareness or generating artificial environments in which the body could express itself. The first things he made in art school, for instance, were helmets and goggles which altered one binocular perception, almost a predecessor to the headmounted display units that are worn in today's virtual reality systems.
His instructors did not react favourably to his odd interests, even at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, of which he says "No one understood [what I was trying to do], and in fact I wasn't allowed to do a fourth year, and so I was never allowed to complete my art course." After leaving the Melbourne Institute of Technology, he moved to Japan, where he stayed for twenty years, "primarily because I couldn't afford to leave!"
It was there in Japan where Stelarc found the technological environment conducive to the kind of work he wanted to do. One of the projects he was able to develop was his famous robot third arm. This arm, which acts as a cyborg extension to the left arm, is controlled by electrodes connected to various parts the body (see diagram). When muscle activity is detected in a given area, a certain part of the third arm is triggered to move. Stelarc has taught himself to control the arm to such an extent that he can write a single word using all three arms simultaneously. "The third arm was designed initially as a visual attachment to the body, but the temptation to find some sort of functional use for it resulted in some drawing and writing attempts. Because of the spacing of the hands, you had to write every third letter, so it wasn't so much a physical control as it was trying to remember the sequence of letters. So I was writing 'e', 'l', and 'i' for the first three letters, then moved the three hands across, wrote 'v', 'u', and 'o', move them across, and 'o', 't', and 'n'. It took several months to practice it and do it relative smoothness." Stelarc has only managed to achieve it with two words -- evolution and decadence!
Another of Stelarc's most notable projects was his virtual arm performance in which a virtual arm is controlled by a pair of VPL datagloves using a gesture-recognition command language. The right glove acts as the mimicking glove, the left glove is the gesture-recognition glove, which allows the computer to recognize basic gestures, producing movements in the virtual arm such as continuous finger rotation or continuous wrist rotation. Stelarc explains that the interest in this project was not so much the seduction of being immersed in a VR space but rather experiencing phantom-limb effects, similar to the phenomenon where amputees lose an arm and still sense that it's there. With this particular phantom-limb effect one could control and actuate the limb, render it in different ways and shoot spheres from its fingertips.
Relaxing his pose slightly, Stelarc tells of an encounter with a young lady who had a real prosthetic arm. "I gave a seminar on the third arm a couple of years ago, and a couple of girls came to speak to me afterwards. After a while, I noticed that one of the girls actually had an artificial arm, mostly just a cosmetic one. She was an art student and wanted to try an operational mechanism, so we stuck some electrodes on her arm, and she was quite excited that she was sort of moving this mechanical hand. Having disconnected her, she said, 'Do you realize that I've got several of these arms, [since] there's always one being repaired, or I'm always stubbing a finger off, or burning part of the arm, so I've got some extra ones.' So she asked me if I would like one of her arms, and I said, 'Well, yeah, sure.' And without further hesitation, upon the spot she unscrewed the arm from herself, handed it over, and started walking away! It was rather disconcerting, because here I was with four of them, and she was walking away with one! But the whole idea of what was visually a part of this person was simply disconnected and given to someone else brought home the whole notion of embodiment and identity."
With ongoing developments in virtual reality systems, Stelarc has found a new ways of exploring familiar concepts since one of his original curiosities was to explore relationships of the body in artificial environments. Having worked in VR for about six years, he believes that when one's virtual body is increasingly imbued with an artificial intelligence it also becomes increasingly semi-autonomous. When this occurs there is the possibility that the virtual body can become an operational agent, and could become a kind of living image entity. "So the realm of the post-human may very well reside not in the realm of the cyborg," he says, "but in the realm of intelligent images."
He then describes the work of Patty Neece at M.I.T., who is working on Internet agents, in which one can program one's agent to search the Internet for information. "You just tell your agent what you want, and your virtual agent collects it and presents it to you in the morning. This notion of virtual agents is a very interesting one, of course, because with so much information on the Internet, there must be better ways of retrieval."
Typically common of any artist who works within the fringes of the mainstream, Stelarc's observations at times seem a little far out, if not disconcerting. As progress and evolution continue, it becomes clear that perhaps these wild concepts are not so far out after all. Stelarc claims that "there is a blurring of distinction between what an organism is and what a mechanism is. I mean, I did a performance in a gallery for eight hours where 800 people came to the gallery and activated a program that got my body moving in different ways [through electrodes]. And for those eight hours I was watching parts of my body move in space. I neither willed that action, nor did I contract those muscles to make that movement. It conjures up notions for me about the extruding of intelligence into wider systems, where intelligence no longer resides just in the human component of that system.
Stelarc avoids making moral or value judgements on the role of technology in society, as he believes that value judgements are always difficult to make and always contentious. "Often, value judgements are immersed in cultural memory, personal history, and the moment in time with which the given institution will function." But that doesn't mean he uses technology uncritically or naively. "I'm not a techno-nerd, I'm not even a techno-enthusiast in that sense of the word. Technology comes from the Greek word 'techne', meaning 'skill'. So technologies are merely the contemporary strategies for determining and evaluating the world and the body that inhabits and interacts with it. It's not a dilemma for me, but that's not to say that as artists we're not concerned with abuses of those technologies, or we're not worried about the human and social despair that occurs with the use of military or medical technologies."
All of Stelarc's performances, whether they involve probing the internal tracks of the body or connecting the body to computer and allowing it to function as a virtual entity in cyberspace, are strategies for new operational possibilities, he says. The body might be accelerated, then attempt planetary-escape velocity, or it might seek domain in artificial worlds. "For me, they're all strategies using new technologies which redefine what it means to have a body, and if it's important to remain human anymore."
Originally published in CyberStage, Issue 1.2, Summer 1995