Extended-Body: Interview with Stelarc
Paolo Atzori and Kirk Woolford
Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, born in Limassol, island of Cyprus. Stelarc moved to Australia, where he studied Arts and Craft at T.S.T.C., Art and Technology at CAUTECH and M.R.I.T., Melbourne University. He taught Art and Sociology at Yokohama International School and Sculpture and Drawing at Ballarat University College.
Stelarc has been extending his body through performances since the late 1960s. His performances include attaching a "Third Hand" to his body, extending himself into virtual space with a "Virtual Hand", and over 25 "suspension" events where he hung his entire body from hooks piercing his skin. Stelarc's artistic strategy revolves around the idea of "enhancing the body" both in a physical and technical manner. It originates as a polarism between the "primal desire" to defeat the force of gravity with primitive rituals and a low- tech and the hi-tech performance with the third arm and the related cybersystem. His intention in both cases is to "express an idea with his direct experience."
Through Stelarc's work, we reach a second level of existence where the body becomes the object for physical and technical experiments in order to discover its limitations. When Stelarc speaks of the "obsolete body" he means that the body must overcome centuries of prejudices and begin to be considered as an extendible evolutionary structure enhanced with the most disparate technologies, which are more precise, accurate and powerful: "the body lacks of modular design," "Technology is what defines the meaning of being human, it's part of being human." Especially living in the information age, "the body is biologically inadequate."
For Stelarc, "Electronic space becomes a medium of action rather than information".
CTHEORY: When did you first decide to hang yourself between two different worlds - to place your body between two levels of existence...
Stelarc: Well you have to remember the suspension events weren't the initial, sort of primitive and physically difficult events and the technology ones were the more recent, more sophisticated ones. In fact, the third hand project begins a year after the first suspension event. These things were happening simultaneously. On the one hand you were discovering the psychological and physical limitations of the body. On the other you were developing strategies for extending and enhancing it through technology. I've always used technology in my performances. The very first things I made in art school were helmets and goggles that altered your binocular perception which stylistically has this connection with virtual reality head-mounted displays and compartments which were whole body pods that you sort of plugged you whole body into, and that was assaulted by electronic sounds and lights.
CTHEORY: When people see your suspension events, they immediately think of Hindu, American Indian, or other rituals. Which of these practices did you come into contact with first?
Stelarc: It was the Hindu Indian ones that I knew about, but one has to put this into the context that for 5 years I was doing suspension events with ropes and harnesses, with a lot of technology. Laser eyes were first used when the body was suspended, oh, '70, '71 that sort of time scale, but one of the sort of visual disadvantages of all this paraphernalia was that there was all this visual clutter: all the ropes and harnesses were seen more to support the body than to suspend it, so when I first came across the notion of piercing the skin, I thought, if you could suspend the body using techniques like these, then you would have a minimum of support, you'd have just the insertion and single cable. Mind you, I never hid, there was no desire to make the suspension a kind of image of levitation. For me the cables were lines of tension which were part of the visual design of the suspended body, and the stretched skin was a kind of gravitational landscape. This is what it took for a body to be suspended in a 1-G gravitational field. The other context is the primal desire for floating and flying. A lot of primal rituals have to do with suspending the body, but in the 20th century we have the reality of astronauts floating in zero-G. So the suspension event is between those sort of primal yearnings, and the contemporary reality. Of course, suspension means between two states, so I think there is an interesting linguistic meaning that fits in with the idea of suspending the body. For me there was no religious context, no shamanistic yearnings, no yogic conditioning that had to do with these performances. In fact, they occurred in the same kind of stream of consciousness. In mean, I don't take any anaesthetics, I don't chant or get into altered states. I think metaphysically, in the past, we've considered the skin as surface, as interface. The skin has been a boundary for the soul, for the self, and simultaneously, a beginning to the world. Once technology stretches and pierces the skin, the skin as a barrier is erased.
CTHEORY: Do you follow a very strict discipline to train your body for your performances?
Stelarc: In fact, there's never really been any discipline and when I start feeling the performances have become, in a sense predictable, because the techniques assume more importance than the creative impulses, then I stop doing them. I stopped doing the suspension events 4 years ago because having done 27 of them in various locations and different situations there seemed to be no more raison d'etre to continue doing them. The interest was really coupling the expression of an idea with the direct experience of it. That applies to all of these performances whether the suspension events, the stomach sculpture, the third hand performances, or the virtual arm event. These are all situations where the body is plugged into for direct experience. So it's not interesting for me to talk academically or theoretically about ideas of interface, the important thing for me is to plug in, extend the body with cyber-systems and see what it can actually do.
CTHEORY: So you've always been interested in enhancing the body?
Stelarc: Oh, absolutely. And the connection with VR systems is a very fundamental one with me because, as I said, the very first things I made at art school were these helmets which split your binocular vision and compartments which were sensory environments, multi-modal structures for experience with the body. So that was a primary concern, and really the suspensions are often taken out of context whereas they are part of a series of sensory deprivation and physically difficult events which include: making the 3 films of the inside of the body, where I had to film 3 meters of internal space, for example. All these actions occurred simultaneously. The agenda wasn't a stylistic one with a particular technology, it was a general one. A sort of probing and determining the parameters of physical and psychological interface.
CTHEORY: You always work with your body. Your body is your form of representation, your medium. How do you feel being both an artist and an artwork?
Stelarc: It's interesting you've pointed that out, I've never felt that I am the artwork. In fact the reason why my performances are focused on this particular body is that it is difficult for me to convince other bodies to undergo rather awkward, difficult and sometimes painful experiences. This body is just merely the convenient access to a body for particular events and actions. So I've really never been obsessed by the fact that somehow I am the artwork because I don't critique it in that way.
For me the body is an impersonal, evolutionary, objective structure. Having spent two thousand years prodding and poking the human psyche without any real discernible changes in our historical and human outlook, we perhaps need to take a more fundamental physiological and structural approach, and consider the fact that it's only through radically redesigning the body that we will end up having significantly different thoughts and philosophies. I think our philosophies are fundamentally bounded by our physiology; our peculiar kind of aesthetic orientation in the world; our peculiar five sensory modes of processing the world; and our particular kinds of technology that enhance these perceptions. I think a truly alien intelligence will occur from an alien body or from a machine structure. I don't think human beings will come up with fundamentally new philosophies. An alien species may not have the same notions about the universe at all. The desire for unity may well be the result of our rather fragmentary sensory system where we observe the world sensually in packets of discrete and different sensory modes. So our urge to merge, our urge to unify, that religious, spiritual, coming together might very well be due to an inadequacy or an incompleteness in our physiology.
CTHEORY: If such a philosophy is devised, it would not be a human philosophy. How would it be applicable to the human race?
Stelarc: Well of course one shouldn't consider the body or the human species as possessing a kind of absolute nature. The desire to locate the self simply within a particular biological body is no longer meaningful. What it means to be human is being constantly redefined. For me, this is not a dilemma at all.
CTHEORY: So a human is not this entity sitting here with these two arms and two legs, but something more beside?
Stelarc: Yes, of course, if you are sitting there with a heart pacemaker and an artificial hip and something to augment your liver and kidney functions, would I consider you less human? To be quite honest, most of your body might be made of mechanical, silicon, or chip parts and you behave in a socially acceptable way, you respond to me in a human-like fashion, to me that would make you a kind of human subject.
CTHEORY: You keep speaking about redesigning the human body. Who decides and how should it be redesigned ?
Stelarc: (Laughs) There is often misunderstanding about these notions, partly because they are critiqued with a kind of rear-vision mirror mentality of a fascist, dictatorial, Orwellian-big-brother scenario.
I don't have a utopian perfect body I'm designing a blueprint for, rather I'm speculating on ways that individuals are not forced to, but may want to, redesign their bodies - given that the body has become profoundly obsolete in the intense information environment it has created. It's had this mad, Aristotelian urge to accumulate more and more information. An individual now cannot hope to absorb and creatively process all this information. Humans have created technologies and machines which are much more precise and powerful than the body.
How can the body function within this landscape of machines? Technology has speeded up the body. The body now attains planetary-escape velocity, has to function in zero-G and in greater time-space continuums. For me this demonstrates the biological inadequacy of the body. Given that these things have occurred, perhaps an ergonomic approach is no longer meaningful. In other words, we can't continue designing technology for the body because that technology begins to usurp and outperform the body. Perhaps it's now time to design the body to match it's machines. We somehow have to turbo-drive the body-implant and augment the brain. We have to provide ways of connecting it to the cyber-network. At the moment this is not easily done, and it's done indirectly via keyboards and other devices. There's no way of directly jacking in. Mind you, I'm not talking here in terms of sci-fi speculation. For me, these possibilities are already apparent. What do we do when confronted with the situation where we discover the body is obsolete? We have to start thinking of strategies for redesigning the body.
CTHEORY: This recombinant body implies a widening of our sensibilities, of our perception. But our senses are linked to our brains, everything "happens" in our brain. So it's not enough to have, for example, X-ray vision. We need to change our synapses, the connections in our brains as well.
Stelarc: We shouldn't start making distinctions between the brain and the body. This particular biological entity with it's proprioceptive networks and spinal cord and muscles, it's the total kinesthetic orientation in the world, it's the body's mobility which contributes towards curiosity. The desire to isolate the brain is the result of a Cartesian dualism. It's not really productive any more to think in that sense. We have to think of the body plugged into a new technological terrain.
CTHEORY: We can see things that were previously invisible. We can go to the very little through nano-technology, see into infra-red and ultra violet spectrums, but this is not a direct perception. We get this through artificial systems...
Stelarc: Yes, and what will be interesting is when we can miniaturize these technologies and implant them into the body so that the body as total system becomes subjectively aware again. New technologies tend to generate new perceptions and paradigms of the world, and in turn, allow us to take further steps. If we consider technologies as intermediaries to the world, then, of course, we never have direct experiences. At the moment, we operate within a very thin electro-magnetic spectrum, and I would imagine that as we increasing operate in wider spheres of reality, then yes our perceptions and philosophies alter or adjust.
Technology has always been coupled with the evolutionary development of the body. Technology is what defines being human. It's not an antagonistic alien sort of object, it's part of our human nature. It constructs our human nature. We shouldn't have a Frankensteinian fear of incorporating technology into the body, and we shouldn't consider our relationship to technology in a Faustian way - that we're somehow selling our soul because we're using these forbidden energies. My attitude is that technology is, and always has been, an appendage of the body.
CTHEORY: Stelarc, your latest work centers around a sculpture you built for your stomach. What was the impetus for creating a sculpture to display inside your body?
Stelarc: I've moved beyond the skin as a barrier. Skin no longer signifies closure. I wanted to rupture the surface of the body, penetrate the skin. With the stomach sculpture, I position an artwork inside the body. The body becomes hollow with no meaningful distinction between public, private and physiological spaces. The hollow body becomes a host, not for a self or a soul, but simply for a sculpture.
CTHEORY: Funding any artwork is difficult, especially getting money for high tech equipment. Did you have trouble finding funding for the sculpture?
Stelarc: Actually no. One of the museums in Australia was preparing a show and asking for sculptures which explored alternative display spaces. I told them I had an alternative way and place to display a sculpture.
CTHEORY: Can you describe the stomach sculpture?
Stelarc: It's built of implant quality metals such as titanium, steel, silver, and gold. It is constructed as a domed capsule shell about the size of a fist. The shell contains a worm-screw and link mechanism and has a flexidrive cable connected to a servo motor controlled by a logic circuit. The capsule extends and retracts opening and closing in three sections. An embedded instrument array, light and piezo buzzer make the sculpture self-illuminating and sound-emitting.
CTHEORY: How did you insert it?
Stelarc: Very slowly. The stomach sculpture is actually the most dangerous performance I've done. We had to be within 5 minutes of a hospital in case we ruptured any internal organs. To insert the sculpture, the stomach was first emptied by withholding food for about 8 hours. Then the closed capsule, with beeping sound and flashing light activated, was swallowed and guided down tethered to it's flexidrive cable attached to the control box outside the body. Once inserted into the stomach, we used an endoscope to inflate the stomach and suck out the excess body fluids. The sculpture was then arrayed with switches on the control box. We documented the whole performance using video endoscopy equipment. Even with a stomach pump, we still had a problem with excess saliva. We had to hastily remove all the probes on several occasions.
CTHEORY: Now you've penetrated the body. You've hollowed it out, extended it, expanded it, hung it out a window, mapped out several miles of its interior. What is the next step?
Stelarc: It is time to recolonise the body with microminaturised robots to augment out bacterial population, to assist our immunological system, and to monitor the capillary and internal tracts of the body. We need to build an internal surveillance system for the body. We have to develop microbots whose behavior is not pre-programmed, but activated by temperature, blood chemistry, the softness or hardness of tissue and the presence of obstacles in tracts. These robots can then work autonomously on the body. The biocompatibility of technology is not due to its substance, but to its scale. Speck-sized robots are easily swallowed and may not even be sensed. At a nanotech level, machines will navigate and inhabit cellular spaces and manipulate molecular structures to extend the body from within.