From I-D Magazine, February 1992



Performance artist Stelarc believes we can improve the human body. Take out natural organs. Install improved artificial ones. Add a third hand. Or virtual limbs. Is he a space cadet or a future human ?

In these times of health fascism and body image disorder, even the most toned-up can always find something that needs a little more work. But hardly anyone can be prepared to take things as far as the Australian performance artist Stelarc. When he looks in the mirror in the morning, he sees a body that isn’t so much out of condition as obsolete, something that doesn’t need a weekly workout so much a total workover. “The only was I see is that the body is mass produced but at the moment it doesn’t have any replaceable parts. OK, we’re making artificial organs. But this is just a medical approach. What we really need is a design approach. If you have a heart that wears out after 70 years, this to me is an engineering problem. We should start to re-engineer the body.”

Over here recently to plan a performance for the EDGE’92 festival which will take place in London and Madrid in May, Stelarc gave a presentation on his work to the Blue Skies conference on art and technology in Newcastle. Listening to him ponder his various plans to hollow out the body and fill it full of useful high test machinery in preparation for a life in space, you might have been forgiven for thinking he’d already severed most of his links with the planet. However, he can’t just be written off as an art world space cadet. Over the last 20 years, in performances involving sensory deprivation, suspending himself in mid-air, wiring his body for sound, filming his insides and hooking himself up to a robotic ‘third hand’ to stage odd little test runs/dramas which mix up the ‘natural’ and the automated, Stelard has made compelling use of body art to bring into focus the possible fate of the body in post-human age.

Consequently he’s becoming a big hit with critics like postmodern panic theorists Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Echoing their fin-de-millenium terminology, Stelarc himself talks about living in the last day of the human, a post-Frankensteinian world, in which the boundary between humans and machines already blurred. With cosmetic surgery anlmost an impulse purchase these days and people talking seriously about leaving their bodies behind to enter the digital landscape of a virtual world, it’s easy to see his point. What’s challenging is the the upbeat spin he gives al this. We may turn into weird technological hybrids of flesh and metal, we may even become the aliens UFO spotters expect to appear from the skies, but for Stelarc this isn’t depressing or frightening, its exciting, something to celebrate. At the Blue Skies conference, Stelarc’s own expanations of his work had an ecstatic, deliberately confrontational edge, and contained mainly of snappy slogans and aphorisms (“The important thing now isn’t freedom of information, but freedom of form, freedom to mutate and modify your body”; “Information, not gravity, is the force field which will modify and shape the body of the future”), the effect of which was heightened by his rumbling cartoon mad scientist laugh.

He’s good enough to suggest that he could carve out an alternative career as a stand-up theorist (like the Krokers) or even a cyberpunk SF author. Perhaps he could even cut it as a research boffin. Although his jerky third hand may seem more then a primitive gesture, it invited NASA enough for them to invite him over to lecture their scientists about how it worked. Currently he’s based at the advanced Computer Graphics Centre, where he’s experimenting with a ‘third arm’ and virtual limbs. However, Stelarc says his work isn’t about hard science, that it’s just a playful exploration of technological possibilities. Playful isn’t quite how you’d describe his suspensions. Here hooks were inserted into his body and he was suspended naked over different landscapes and cities (he was arrested when he tried it in New York). At first sight, the supensions seem to slot into a well established tradition of body art, concerned with reinventing religious details rituals of pain and endurance. Although he admits that they were painful, Stelarc distances himself from what he sees as the outdated fundamentalism of much body art. The suspensions are about exploring “the primal image of the body in space. We dream of flying. There were lots if primitive rituals which involve suspending the body and now we have astronauts floating in zero g.” At the Blue Skies conference, Stelarc faced a similar set of objections from feminist and Green critics who argued that he was just a future jock hung up on techno-visions, another boy dangerously obsessed with his toys.

Certainly, it could be argued that Stelarc has constructed his blueprints for the body of the future in a social vacuum. Perhaps the potential will exist in the future for people to redesign their bodies. But it seems likely that this kind of thing will only be available to the rich, and that it will be accompanied by a kind of de-evolution amongst the poor. However, his performances are obviously attempts to rethink our current attitudes to technology and to look beyond paranoid scenarios about machines ‘taking over’. If you think about it, a few hundred years ago a persion with an rtificial hart would have been burned at the stake. Overall, I think we’re projecting our rather obsolete emotions onto machines. There’s no reason for these machines to be imbued with agression like us. The problem is really a human one. We’re carrying around this evolutionary baggage of agression and jealousy, this chemistry that generates survival instincts, which we don’t really need anymore. In fact, in a technologically enhanced world, perhaps these emotional urges are amplified to the point of being destructive, of threatening the whole planet.

For Stelarc, the idea that we can turn back from technology is the real fantasy. We will develop with it anyway so we might as well start thinking about how to exert a measure of control over the whole process. As he might put it, it’s time for jacking your body for real.


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