How long has the man/machine relationship troubled everyone from philosophers, artists and engineers to scientists? If the body is not just a biological given but as susceptible and contingent as anything else, where do we stand in this embodied relation? Better yet, how do we express it? In the era of increased connectivity brought on with the infrastructure of information communication technologies (internet), and the increasing capabilities of science, technology and medicine, new frontiers once only spoken of in science fiction are becoming reality. In light of new horizons, we can and must choose how we conceive of and redesign our bodies. For one thing is clear, as long as there are bodies there will always be a technological relation that is in need of investigation, interpretation and expression. Who could be more appropriate to write about in regards to the man/machine relation other than STELARC—perhaps the progenitor of expressing these new frontiers via the body as the work of art.
For Stelarc, the body is both the site of experiment and the medium of expression between the relationship of technology and the human. In Stelarc’s own words, the artist of the 21st century is one who can become a genetic sculpture working with the body itself and always posing the question what does it mean to be human? Guiding his experiments include ideas of comparative anatomy, evolutionary architecture and the performance and enhancement of the body.
Stelarc’s experiments are no investigation of utilitarian improvements to the body led by a naive post-human Kurzwielian quest. There is no moment of a transcendental uplink of consciousness, a merger with machine where the mind is uploaded as software and the Extropian dream of immortality and endless extension can be lived out. Finally, there is not a concern with categories and meanings that are generally ascribed to the artist e.g. post-human, but the actualizing of ideas through visual and experimental performance. What these performances reveal to us is that for Stelarc, it is the considering of radical and alternative sorts of embodiments and multiple trajectories of the man/machine relation, one not restricted to symbiosis (chimeras) or the body as purely host to technology.
With the insertion of technology into the body, the body is not only enhanced but a richer potent subjective experience is made possible. Take for instance the 3rd Hand Experiment. It is a performance of mixed realities (machine, biological, data based streams and virtual systems)—an overlapping of various modes of operations where new interfaces are engineered. In another performance, Stelarc’s body was connected to muscle stimulators remotely controlled by users on the Internet—users were able to stimulate movement by the click of a mouse. The themes explored in these two performances are what Stelarc calls a Cyborgian construct, where the concern is not the local space that is occupied by the body but a remotely accessible body that performs with a distributed agency across space and time. Alternatively, in the Ear on Arm Project, he had a cell-cultivated ear surgically embedded in his arm (which remains to this day). This allows remote users the accessibility to tune in and listen through his prosthetic ear to the environment that he is experiencing. It is not only a replication of bodily structure or anatomical architecture, but about the remote accessibility of bodies in an era of diminished boundaries and connectivity, where spatiality has paradoxically both increased and decreased.
In pushing the frontiers for contemporary visual, performance and body art, Stelarc challenges our assumptions of human action and agency and asks us to consider what it means to be embodied spatially, whether physically or virtually. His performances also reveal how human action and agency can change with different technological and bodily relations and what the limits could be (if any). By proposing alternate and diverse uses of the body we are forced to confront the reality of its contingency and changeability. Primarily, the artwork of Stelarc leaves us with a vision that there is such a thing possible as a fluid, collaborative, transitive and connective body without organs—a body that can be continuously re-engineered and re-expressed only limited by one’s own vision of what it means to be human.
Interview with Stelarc here Website here