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June 3, 2018

Meet the Australian ‘techno-artist’ growing a web-connected ear on his arm

by John_A

There’s a body in Perth, Australia, one of the most remote cities on Earth, transmitting signals about how other bodies will behave in the future. It’s an unremarkable body, bald-headed and fit, complete with organs and limbs in all their preordained places. Plus one.

On the fleshy side of the left forearm there’s an impression of an ear, emerging from the skin as if punching through from the netherworld. It’s bulbous, life-sized, firm to the touch. Pockets of biomaterial and porous Polyethylene form divots and contours around its edges. Living cells, blood vessels, and tissue have moved in, permeated the pores of the surgical implant, and made the extra ear an inarguable part of this man’s body. Today it’s a relief, a replica, rather than a functioning organ. But if all goes as planned, by year’s end it will be connected to the internet, equipped with electronic circuits and a microphone so anyone, anywhere can tune in to the sounds around it.

Ear on Arm is an ongoing endeavor by the artist known as Stelarc, whose eccentric performances put his mortal form in the indifferent grip of technology. Stelarc sees the modern body as a “chimera of meat, metal, and code,” and uses it as the map, the vessel, and the uncharted territory to be explored. Each ensuing experiment, pushes the boundaries of his physicality and gives us a glimpse at the ways we’ll engage with the hyperconnected world.

“I’ve always been interested in comparative anatomies,” Stelarc told Digital Trends at the BodyHacking Conference in Austin earlier this year. “Not only the human body but also insects and other animals. All living things interact very differently with the world. We all have different capabilities. We all manipulate and operate in more or less subtle ways. That always fascinated me, and so the body became a convenient location of experimentation.”

“The body is a convenient location of experimentation.”

Over more than forty years, Stelarc’s art has put his body into precarious positions — both physically and conceptually — with visceral performances that probe the many tensions between man and machine.

In 1985, he was tethered to a construction crane by steel wires and body hooks, 100 feet above Copenhagen, Denmark. The crowd below seemed silent. Hanging in suspension, Stelarc heard only the whistle of the wind and the creaking of his stretched skin.

Thirty years later, in a piece called Propel, Stelarc was strapped onto an industrial robot arm in a factory in a suburb of Perth, then flipped and twirled like a human pinwheel for over half-an-hour. An anxious engineer stood near a control box, poised to smash the “kill switch” lest a glitch caused the robot to revert to its nesting position with artist still in tow.

Polixeni Papapetrou

More recently, during a marathon performance in 2015, the artist donned a video headset, noise-canceling headphones, and a partial exoskeleton in an act of abandoning his “eyes,” “ears,” and “arm” to the Other. The artist toured London through a video feed sent to his headset, as impromptu videographers carried a camera are town. Audio from New York City filled his headphones with sounds of traffic, chatter, and shuffle of footsteps. His right arm contorted involuntarily, controlled over the internet by digital puppeteers. The performance, Re-wired/Re-mixed spanned five consecutive days, six hours a day. Stelarc took one break to urinate.

The artist is often hooked up to contact mics that amplify the sound of his movement — but noisy as his art may be, he isn’t necessarily trying to say anything through his performances. Instead he says he’s making “gestures” towards strange possibilities of the human body, dragging technology down an unpaved path to an augmented, alternative anatomy.

Which highlights the least two most common threads that run through his work: exploitations of the body and apparent apathy towards technology. To the average viewer, his performances are fraught with uncertainty. They’re the sort of thing you’d spend weeks preparing for. And yet Stelarc says he rarely prepares. His performative face is almost always that of a man at a bus stop with nowhere to go — neither content nor concerned that his ride will arrive. The rare wince you might catch is more often the result of an electrode zapping his body into motion than some existential distress. When sic-fi author William Gibson met Stelarc, he called the artist “one of the calmest people I’ve ever met.”

“I approach these performances with a posture of indifference,” Stelarc said. “Indifference as in being open to possibilities…of minimizing expectations and allowing the performance to unfold in its own time, with its own rhythm.”

Apathy is arguably the most reliable mindset in which to moderate the meeting of man and machine. Today’s consumers are groomed to purchase the latest device, but little within our DNA prepares us to take on each next technological leap and we aren’t especially discrete about how we adopt tech into our lives. Negligent indifference could be the tag line of this digital age.

Ad agencies roll out algorithmic targeting, apparently unconcerned about its potential impact on the psyche. Consumers adopt new products without caution or conceit, like infants given a grenades to play with. Apple has been accused of failing to protect the Chinese workers who manufacture their products, and yet consumers continue to buy them. Plenty of Facebook users are aware of the company’s shoddy privacy policies, and yet stay logged in. Even in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytical scandal, most social media users seem utterly unconcerned by its complicity.

Stelarc’s performances are caricatures of our relationship with technology.

Stelarc’s performances are like caricatures of our relationship with technology, carnival mirrors that reflect distorted forms of human-machine intimacy.

In Re-wired/Re-mixed, the 2015 performance that saw Stelarc decked out like a Gibsonian cyborg, the artist offered himself to strangers, allowing them to command his senses. Throughout the 1990’s Stelarc engaged in similar internet acts, such as 1995’s Ping Body, during which his muscles were stimulated in accordance with ping response times from 40 global locations, effectively turning his body into a “barometer of internet activity.”

In 2000, Stelarc wore an upper-body exoskeleton controlled by a genetic algorithm in a performance called Movatar. Through random mutations, the genetic code forced the artist and the metal apparatus into an involuntary choreography. A panel of control pedals on the floor gave Stelarc some degree of control over his movements, enabling him to modulate but not fully neutralize the system when things got too hectic. In a more recent performance, 2017’s StickMan, the artist wore a full-body, algorithmically controlled exoskeleton, fitted with microphones that amplified the sound of the moving limbs.

Today, algorithms pull the strings on our everyday lives, curating what we buy on Amazon, watch on Youtube, and read on Facebook. Evan Selinger, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology and co-author of the book Re-Engineering Humanity,  thinks these technologies have the power to corrupt our very identities.

“Technology affects our humanity because it impacts of senses…our thoughts…and how we think,” he said. “It impacts our decisions, including our judgement, attention, and desires. It impacts our ability to be citizens, what were informed about and how we stay informed. It impacts our relationships… It even impacts our fundamental understanding of what it means to be human, who we are, and what we should strive to become.”

Where many people see our dystopian future play out as a robotic revolt, Selinger said his concern “is that we are going to be programmed to want be placed in environments that are so diminishing of our agency and deliberation that we outsource our emotions and capacities for connection.”

In an inversion of a gamer in command of a virtual character, Stelarc has made himself a real-life avatar commanded by an algorithm. These compounded feedback loops break down classical conceptions of the self, raising questions about agency and control that are ever more poignant in today’s hyperconnected society.

“With all of these performances [I was] blurring the distinction between the biological, technical, and virtual,” Stelarc said. “And increasingly now we’re expected to perform in these mixed realities. So how do we seamlessly slide between these operational modes? I mean, we’re all doing it in some way or another.”


Stelarc ReWired ReMixed RWRM @ STRP 2017

Exoskeletons haven’t quite caught on, but algorithms and machines control us all. Facebook’s infamous social experiment highlighted the interplay between our news feed and our emotions. Every time our phone rings, our minds and bodies are drawn towards the device.

In Stelarc’s view, we’re building up a certain “thickness,” a melding between the physical and virtual worlds. Our embrace of technology is “not merely happening at a thin screen level,” he said. “The experience is deeper and much more profound.

“Our faces have become flattened onto screens, and so in one sense our experience is at screen level. But because these experiences are becoming more high-fidelity, immediate, and haptic, this flat-screen interface becomes a much more optically ‘thick’ and haptically ‘thick’ experience. We’re blending our biological bodies with technological and virtual systems. It’s not that the screen is interfacing this body and that body. We’re kind of blending into one thickened system of experience.”

Stelarc’s performances embrace a fairly unsafe relationship with technology that in many ways mirrors our own dependence on it. His posture may be indifferent but Stelarc is almost worryingly committed to his art. The devotion runs deep enough to put his life at risk.

In one such event, called Stomach Sculpture, the artist swallowed a small robot — two inches long and half an inch wide — tethered to an external control box, which, when activated, caused the capsule to unfurl like a tulip, flash a light, and emit a beeping sound from within his stomach cavity. An endoscope followed closely behind, filming the gastric performance.

Anthony Figallo

“Obviously if it malfunctioned and it couldn’t close again, there would have been a problem extracting it,” Stelarc said. “I mean, a serious problem. In fact, [the performance] was done within five minutes of a major hospital,” just in case.

The capsule used in Stomach Sculpture was coated in biocompatible materials like silver, gold, and stainless steel, but at the time, Stelarc had an idea to use copper, which would react with his stomach acid and potentially create a sort of crude battery, powering the robot and freeing it from its tether to the outside world. That proved unfeasible in 1993, but in 2017 engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea.

Stelarc has a tendency to preface technological progress in unexpected ways. Case in point, the announcement earlier this year that surgeons successfully transplanted an ear that they’d “grown” through cartilage cultured in a soldier’s forearm.

“People are becoming portals of internet experience.”

The artist’s own ear is still a work in progress — his longest performance to date. When he first conceived of the idea in 1996, Stelarc wanted to clone an additional ear on the side of his head. When that proved too dangerous and technically challenging, he settled on a medical scaffold that would be implanted into his forearm. It’s took another decade to find a doctors willing to perform the operation, but he finally located a plastic surgeon and his protege who coordinated the surgery in Los Angeles.

The fact that Stelarc convinced certified surgeons to slice open his arm and slip in a prosthesis for no medical purpose, is a provocative performance in its own right. For Chris Hables Gray, author of the Cyborg Handbook and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, it’s a vital act of dominion over one’s own body.

“Stelarc got doctors to overcome their own medical guidelines to do this surgery,” he said. “They violated the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors have had a big debate about this. Some say this is a violation of the Oath and others say that fundamentally patients should have a right to control their own bodies, especially if they’re an artist exploring what it means to have control of your body with technology.”

Stelarc is now coordinating with members of the biohacking community to fit his extra ear with electrical components that would connect the organ to the internet, allowing anyone with web service to tune in to the artist’s surroundings.

“The ear is not for me,” he said. “I’ve got two good ears to hear with.”

Ear on Arm Stelarc wants to engineer a kind of “internet organ” to literally, physically integrate with the digital world. It’s more than just a remote listening device. It’s the artist’s most earnest attempt to explore the human body of tomorrow — an alternative anatomy that can jack in and even be hacked.

“People are becoming portals of internet experience,” Stelarc said. “In my Re-wired/Re-mixed performance I effectively outsourced my senses to people in other places … It was a gesture towards future bodies, where you would be able to incorporate vision, hearing, and haptic experiences of people in other places. Your body is not this locally operating, locally perceiving body, but rather a body that’s distributed and can form beyond the boundaries of its skin, beyond the local space that it inhabits.

“That’s what’s sort of significant about what’s happening today [with Ear on Arm]. On the one hand it’s hacking a body to locally insert some chip circuitry, but the implications of that are once we’ve got chip circuitry, it can wirelessly connect online. Then it’s performing globally, not only locally. Of course, the other implication is that the body can be literally hacked, all the technology in the body can be hacked. This will generate some other interesting possibilities of interaction.”

Steven Aaron Hughes

If that sounds like Stelarc is inviting people to hack his artificial organ, that’s because he is. Or, at least, he’s not taking steps to prevent it. The artist has been letting people remotely control his limbs for years. Why stop now?

“I don’t really think in either dystopian or utopian terms into it in the sense of what technology is or does,” Stelarc said. “Having said that, yes, there are there are ethical concerns. There are physical dangers. There are going to be increasingly complex accidental situations, or situations that generate accidents. And on the one hand, you have a kind of a gung-ho cowboy approach to new technologies. Every new gadget seemingly enables the human body. You become part of this sort of capitalist consumer society of new technologies.

“I can only evaluate through my own actions,” he added. “And I typically see the possibilities rather than the negative connotations.”

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