Stelarc: The Body and the Artist

World renowned artist Stelarc 1 recently returned to the University of Warwick, 16 years after appearing at Virtual Futures 1995. In his talk he discussed his experiences past, present and future including his current ‘Ear On Arm’ project. What is Stelarc’s motivation? How does he deal with pain? What does he intend to do next?

“The original Virtual Future conferences brought together artists and academics where the academics did performances more like artists and artists entered into an academic space and became a bit more articulate,” laughed Stelarc, a performance artist who returned to Warwick to deliver the keynote talk at Virtual Futures 2.0 titled ‘Circulating Flesh: The Cadaver, the Comatose and the Chimera’.

Artists and academics do not only get together to talk about ‘the future’ but it seems the subject is uniquely suited to this type of collaboration. When talking about the unpredictable ‘future’ academics have to relinquish their ambition to proffer knowledge while artists find themselves producing work that proves meaningful to those invested in related research.

Stelarc’s Ear On Arm project, for example, was interesting enough to three plastic surgeons that they offered their expertise and time without expecting a fee (as the name suggests, Stelarc now has an ear surgically constructed and cell grown on his arm). It is only the relief of an ear at the moment – his skin was suctioned over a porous scaffold that encouraged tissue in-growth and vascularisation to occur. So the ear is fused to his forearm and it has grown its own blood capillaries. There are plans to use stem cells to grow a soft lobe in the relevant position and elevate the flap of the ear through further surgery.

The artist’s motivation is not scientific research however. This project, bordering on the monstrous when taken out of context, is contextualised by Stelarc’s related work that concerns itself with extending ‘the body’: “Following on from the Third Hand project, which was a hard, mechanical prosthesis, I wanted to explore the possibility of a soft tissue prosthesis and the original plan to construct an extra ear on my face came from there.”

“The outcomes have always been to indicate and expose the body’s inadequacies and it’s largely involuntary behaviours. The assumption with our body is that the self is a skin bounded, single-agency and that is simply not the case.” Some might assume that this makes Stelarc some sci-fi fantasist that imagines ‘the future’ populated by cyborgs of meat, metal and code- but actually his position is much more subtle.

Sometimes undertaking an act means accepting pain as part of that action. I try to perform with a 'posture of indifference'

The Cartesian idea of the individuated mind occupying a physical body has been reified into the English language, which means egoic assumptions about ‘the self’ are almost automatic. Stelarc thinks that this distracts us from analysing the alternatives, like the idea that actions can be understood as composite responses to a complex environment structured by educational, cultural and societal institutions, embedded in a shared language used for communicating.

More interested in what happens between bodies, than within them, challenging the extensions of a particular (in this case his) body on a physical level agitates the paradigms within which we think about human-to-human interaction.

The slight problem with this, for me, is that my uninformed guttural reaction (nausea) to some of his projects (the Ear On Arm project, the suspensions/levitations which involved piercing his skin with hooks and using them to lift his body off the ground without the assistance of anesthetic) did not provoke me to ask such questions. All I could focus on was the pain – I wanted to know how he dealt with it and why he would choose to put himself through it – but conversing with the artist made the link more apparent.

“The intent of the performances is not to have a painful experience. But if you want to actualise certain ideas, physical difficulty is sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes undertaking an act means accepting pain as part of that action. I try to perform with a ‘posture of indifference’. ” There are lots of other instances where people put themselves through painful experiences because it is necessary to achieve their goal, although not exactly analogous, include getting a tattoo or fitness training.

Questions about how it felt, or what he thought about as they pushed the hooks through his skin were basically unanswerable – you get caught in the trap of assuming there is a mind talking to a body and this is one of the ideas that Stelarc is challenging. “The self is a useful and convenient construct but that does not mean there is actually an ‘I’ in your head,” he explained. And there is a point in time when thinking has to cease and the act occurs. Basically, he just gets on with it.

The fact that he does ‘get on with it’ evidences a deep commitment to praxis, which he stated in his lecture was the process through which he learnt the most. Not interested in just talking about his ideas he enacts them making use of his body. He sees this praxis as one method of generating ‘contestable futures’, stating that he is not in the business of presenting utopian or dystopian blue prints for the future.

On reflection, generating contestable futures was a theme running through the whole of the conference, although the methods of inventing and presenting such futures may have differed.

Stelarc joined his fellow artists and academics with this expressed aim: “I present these ideas so that they can be examined, discussed, appropriated or most likely discarded. Perhaps they might generate other ideas, moving us away from simplistic notions of the future and introducing a multiplicity of alternatives.”

  1. Stelarc is a performance artist who is interested in the post-evolutionary architecture of the body. He has visually probed and acoustically amplified his own body. In 1975-1976 he made three films of the inside of his body, 3 metres of probes into his lungs, stomach and colon. Between 1976-1988 he completed 25 body suspension performances with hooks into the skin, in different positions and varying situations and locations. He has used medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, Virtual Reality systems, the Internet and biotechnology to explore alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body. He is currently Chair in Performance Art, School of Arts, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK. He is also Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Artist at the MARCS Auditory Labs at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Stelarc’s artwork is represented by the SCOTT LIVESEY GALLERIES in Melbourne.

Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah

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