When it comes to bridging biotechnology and art, Stelarc, the Australian performance artist dedicated to visually probing and acoustically amplifying his body, should be considered a primary forerunner. Performing with prosthetics, robotics, the internet and biotechnology, he was awarded the Hybrid Art Prize in the Prix Ars Electronica 2010 and is best known for his body suspensions (with hooks underneath the skin), his stomach sculpture and prosthetic head projects, and, notoriously, the ongoing Extra Ear: Ear on Arm project (2006), in which he implanted an extra ear on his left arm. He discusses this, new ethics with technology and the comparisons with Mitt Romney.
Maria Dimitrova How was Stelarc born?
Stelarc When I went to art school, I discovered I was a really bad painter, so doing performance was a good alternative. Joking aside, I’ve always been interested in evolution and the evolutionary “architecture” of the body and in thinking about how our physiology largely determines our philosophy. I never imagined that we should accept the biological status quo of the human body and doing performance was a way of not only expressing myself as an artist, but also directly experiencing what it meant, for example, to explore the insides of the body or augment the body prosthetically.
MD Your work has largely been focused on extending the capabilities of the human body. How far do you envisage the project going?
ST There’s nothing that’s completely determined with all these things. What the artist is doing is constructing contestable futures, so it’s not interesting just to speak of utopian or dystopian scenarios, as often happens in science fiction. In science fiction, there’s still often a nostalgia for the human and the dystopian or utopian images are still pretty much anthropomorphised. What’s interesting is to think of your work as contestable futures, whose ideas might be evaluated, sometimes appropriated, often discarded. It’s not interesting to think of art as a blueprint or illustration for some particular discourse.
MD You’ve said that your work is dedicated to exposing the body’s inadequacy and involuntary behaviour. Do you see technology as allowing us to minimise errors and imperfections?
ST Well, the idea of error, or “accident” is something that is inherently interesting for artists. And for me, art is only interesting if it generates uncertainty, ambivalence and makes you question. I don’t see art as affirmative or enabling, and neither is technology. I think technology is a somewhat destabilising strategy.
MD Tell me about your Ear on Arm project; how did it begin?
ST It has taken a long time, initially because it was difficult to find people to assist. It took ten years before we did the first surgery [in 2006]. We approached the local TV stations, but eventually it was Discovery US that decided to provide the funding. Things moved very quickly from then. We found three surgeons who were willing to assist. We began by expanding the skin in my forearm. We had an inflating prosthesis inserted and I was self-injecting twice a week for two months. It was disconcerting and quite painful because the skin was stretching. Then we inserted a scaffold that gave the shape of the ear from a porous biomaterial called “MedPor”, and once the skin was suctioned over the scaffold, there was tissue in-growth and vascularisation occurring in the next six months. The ear is now fused to my arm and it’s grown its own blood supply. It’s still only the relief of an ear; we still have to surgically lift the helix to create an earflap and to grow a soft earlobe using my stem cells.
MD The original idea was to have the ear internet-enabled, right?
ST Yes, originally the idea of the ear was that the ear would speak to the person that comes close to it, though later the opposite idea became more important. It’s not interesting if it’s only a human-like ear on my arm. This project is only interesting if it becomes internet-enabled. Then it will be a mobile acoustical organ for people in other places. In other words, this ear is not for me. I can hear with two good ears; it is a remote listening device.
MD How do you respond to Paul Virilio’s critique of your art as “anti human”: that through your experiments you are threading on potentially dangerous territory without assuming any responsibility?
ST Firstly, I must say I admire a lot of his work and we’ve become friends, but because of his religious background, because of his experience growing up during WWII, he sees a very menacing and malicious side of technology that he foregrounds. In terms of his own religious beliefs, the body becomes a sacrosanct entity, so the skin is seen as the binding of the self and the beginning of the world. But if you start penetrating, if you start inserting cameras into the body... I think there’s a feeling of “threat” both to his own personal body but also to the idea of “what is human”. For me, “what is human” is precisely not having to remain human at all. In other words, being curious creatures. We’re always examining the other, the alternate. We incorporate the accident not as a catastrophe but as a possibility. And I’m quite optimistic about the possibilities. Also, I think artists have a responsibility to mess with technology, not to necessarily accept it.
MD So messing with technology without a notion of ethics?
ST With every new technology there’s a new kind of accident, a new ethics. Now we accept the possibilities of having an artificial heart, of plastinating bodies; whereas a hundred years ago, this would have been seen both religiously and ethically debatable.
MD Talking about responsibility, one blogger on Delaware Liberal called Romney “the Stelarc of politics”…
ST That’s hilarious! What does he mean?
MD He wrote that Romney’s campaign is “an experiment in post-truth politics, and also an avant-garde performance art-piece, which explores the negative space created when absolutist claims of positive outcomes are devoid of any details”. Is your work politically driven in any way?
ST One can argue that any action is political but I’ve never wanted to engage in the main mundane acts of politics. But in a general way, for me, it is important to be responsible not only for ourselves but for other people. In a sense what’s important is not what happens inside you and me, but what happens between us, in the medium of language, in the social institutions, in the culture we’ve been conditioned to live in. We have to rethink that notion of the individual and free will. That’s my concern for the republican approach; where it’s left up to the individual to choose. This is just an excuse for the people who are well off not to have any responsibilities for anyone else who is worse off than they are. We contribute with our decisions to what happens in the world, but it’s only a contribution in the complexity of other events, other people making decisions, instruments and technologies that monitor us or accelerate us, or prosthetically augment us, and we have to consider this complexity of interaction. And to realise that language makes us speak as if we are minds in the world, as if we have individual bodies, free will and free agency. The more performances I do, the less I think I have a mind of my own, even a mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense. If I have some kind of sensibility, then that sensibility is being expressed physically because of the necessity of relating to other people.
MD What’s next for Stelarc?
ST We are currently working with Brunel University’s Engineering and Design department on an ambidextrous arm project, trying to build a universal prosthesis, whose fingers can bend both ways. I want to perform with such an ambidextrous arm, but it’s probably going to take three or four years to actually complete. There’s another project for Sydney’s International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in June, when I’m going to grow a second skin. We would engineer an incubator that has to have the humidity and temperature to encourage microbial growth, but also has to sustain a human body inside, so it can’t be hazardous to the human, but at the same time encourage microbial growth. I would be in this incubator for about three or four days continuously, but after that I would peel the skin off, leave it and allow it to grow for several more months.
MD And when you internet-enable the ear, do you plan to have it on constantly, or during segmented performance periods?
ST I’ve always imagined it as a continuous capability. It could be a distributed Bluetooth system, so the ear is part of a distributed mobile device.
MD So you will be open to transmissions from the outside world 24/7?
ST Yes. Though I’ll be well behaved, I won’t swear, I’ll speak clearly! It will improve my attitude immensely.