“Technology comes from the Greek word ‘techne’, meaning ‘skill’. So technologies are merely the contemporary strategies for determining and evaluating the world and the body that inhabits and interacts with it.” Stelarc (Jones 1995)
Australian-based performance artist Stelarc (formerly Stelios Arcadiou) works in the concept of human and machine physical interaction. His comments that the body as obsolete. (Stelarc 1980) 3 Believing that the human body can be enhanced through technological means, Stelarc advocates physical bodies must be constantly upgraded like computers to evolve and adapt to the technological culture we live in. (Drummond 2011)
The artist may be seen by some as controversial due to his extreme performances, however his theme of body enhancement now almost fits well with the twenty-first century where most human life spans are longer and where feeling youthfully physically in good health is so important. Technology has improved human life and Stelarc reinterprets and experiments with this directly in his art practise.
The suspensions he did in between 1976-1988 were not only performance art but were also a demonstration of the physical limits of the body and their potential to be enhanced. Vulnerability is uncovered through pain, lead Stelarc to question that the body, separate from the mind, is a type of machine that reacts to the elements it’s exposed to. So the body can become improved by man-made inventions such as mechanics and computer programming. (Stelarc 1980)
“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. My attitude is that technology is, and always has been, an appendage of the body.” Stelarc (Atzori and Woolford 1995)
Man-made technology can improve our physical lives as well as how we live. The human brain has evolved with technological enhancements and so the amplification (Jones 1995) of the human body is also part of that evolution. Intelligence and possible prolonged existence of life can be a result of this.
Stelarc explains his life’s work as “The manifestation of the body as an obsolete body, empty and involuntary, allowed making the body a good host for the interfaces and the interactions with technology in order to develop augmented and amplified operations.” Stelarc (Cangiano 2009)
He has been developing these ideas from more than forty years, exploring concepts of body enhancement through a relationship with technology using human and machine interfaces. Stelarc has been using evolving technology throughout the decades including medical equipment and technologies, the internet and computer simulated environments.
This principle can be seen in various artworks created by Stelarc through the years. His early work remained physical with Stelarc using his body as the showcase for interaction with mechanised technology such as robotics as well as medical advancements found in surgery, prosthetics, x-ray scans and bio technology. While in his later work, his performances have occurred in virtual worlds such as the internet and virtual reality.
An example of the artist’s interest in robotics can be seen in Third Arm constructed in 1980 in Yokohama and performed throughout the world until 1998.
A mechanical human like hand that is attached to my right arm as an additional hand, made to the dimensions of his real right hand. It was made from aluminium, stainless steel, acrylic, latex electronics, electrodes, cables and battery pack and featuring pinch release, grasp release, 290 degrees wrist rotation and a tactile feedback system for a sense of touch. It provides adequate friction for gripping for performance purposes demonstrating human like visual motion and operation.
The motions of the hand are controlled by the electrical signals of the muscles (EMG), from the abdominal and leg muscles for independent movements of the three hands. Signals from muscle contractions are picked up, pre-amplified, rectified and sent to the switching system. It has become the best known and longest used performance object for the artist. Originally it was designed as a semi-permanent attachment to the body, but because of skin irritation from electrode gel and the weight of the hand, support structure and the battery pack (approx. 2 kg), it could not be worn continuously and it became a special performance device. (Stelarc 2011)
This art project demonstrates Stelarc’s use of robotics technology as an enhancing addition rather than a prosthetic to replace a lost limb. It discovered the interface of technology as an indicator of surplus.
The Third Hand performances, with amplified body signals and sounds, have contributed to cyborg discourses on the body. (Stelarc 2011)
A short video can be seen on this webpage.
Another art project that Stelarc created to improve the human body is Exoskeleton from 1988 but completed in 1998.
A six-legged, pneumatically powered walking machine has been constructed for the body. The locomotor, with either ripple or tripod gait, moves forwards, backwards, sideways and turns on the spot. It can also squat and lift by splaying or contracting its legs. The body is positioned on a turn-table, enabling it to rotate about its axis. It has an exoskeleton on its upper body and arms. It is human like in form but with additional functions.
The fingers open and close, becoming multiple grippers. There is individual flexion of the fingers, with thumb and wrist rotation. The body actuates the walking machine by moving its arms. Different gestures make different motions, a translation of limb to leg motions. The body’s arms guide the choreography of the locomotor’s movements and thus compose the cacophony of pneumatic and mechanical and sensor modulated sounds. (Stelarc 2011)
The mechanical structure of the Exoskeleton gives Stelarc’s body a physical advantage for movement that is impossible on its own. It required electronics and programming expertise to function as well as control from the user.
A video of the artwork can be seen here.
Ping Body from 1995 was an artwork that when performed where through electronics links, a performance website allowed the audience to remotely access, view and move Stelarc’s body via a computer interfaced muscle stimulation system based at the main performance site in Luxembourg.
The body’s movements were involuntary and could respond by activating its robotic Third Hand and also trigger the upload of images to a website so that the performance could be monitored live on the Internet. Web server statistics indicated the live event was watched worldwide.
During the Ping Body performances, what is being considered is a body moving not to the promptings of another body in another place, but rather to Internet activity itself, not stimulated by its internal nervous system but by the external ebb and flow of data.
The Ping Body performances produce a powerful inversion of the usual interface of the body manipulated by using the internet. Instead of the body determining its operation, the internet activity moves the body. The internet becomes not merely a mode of information transmission, but also a transducer, effecting physical action. (Stelarc 1996) Fractal Flesh and Parasite along with Third Hand are other works that used his involuntary body system as well.
This art work continued Stelarc’s interest in evolving the human body’s potential and capabilities beyond but also involving interaction through the internet. The world wide public had complete control over Stelarc. This demonstrated the possibility for remote access to the physical body almost offering the relocation for oneself.
A video of Ping Body can be watched here.
Stelarc continued to work with computer technology such as Second Life 2008/9. He pursues the new technology that has been invented over the last few resent years. Also a 3D avatar was created in his artwork Prosthetic Head 2002.
The aim was to construct an animated and reasonably informed artificial head that speaks to a person in an automated way while interrogating them. The Prosthetic Head project is a 3D avatar head, resembling the artist, it has facial expressions with real time lip-synching and speech synthesis. The head nods, tilts, turns as well as changing the eye gaze, all contribute to the personality and the non-verbal cues the head can provide. The purpose was to provide an interactive conversational system, however it was said to be only as intelligent as the person who is interrogating it. The Prosthetic Head attempted to be creative in its responses. It has embedded algorithms that enable it to generate novel poetry and singing each time it is asked. (Stelarc 2011)
Stelarc’s vision for the evolution of the physical human body has been explored thoroughly throughout the many years of his art practise with many other artworks. As these years have gone by so the technology invented by man has changed and improved immensely. It has transformed health, business, culture even politics in the world and will continue to do so. Stelarc’s view of this evolving technology has been portrayed in his art as an almost logical reaction to what is possible in the future. Seen as controversial by some this artist may go beyond the boundaries to explore the limits and restrictions that the human and technology interface can create.
Jones Mark, Summer 1995, Stelarc: Still Hanging Around, Born Yesterday (Cyberstage), http://www.bornyesterday.ca/cyberstage-archives/2011/3/23/stelarc-still-hanging-around.html
Drummond Jeremy, 23/09/2011, Artists STELARC (Australia), Digitized Bodies-Virtual Spectacles,
Stelarc, c.1980, Suspensions, Stelarc, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20316
Atzori Paolo and Woolford Kirk, 9/6/1995, Extended-Body: Interview with Stelarc, ctheory.net, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=71
Cangiano Serena, November 2009, Stelarc’s Extrabody: The Technologic Chimera, Digimag,
Stelarc, 2011, Third Hand, Stelarc, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20265
Stelarc, 2011, Exoskeleton, Stelarc, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20227
Stelarc, 1996, Ping Body, Media Art Net, http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/ping-body/
Stelarc, 2011, Prosthetic Head, Stelarc, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20241