An ear implanted in an arm, who would have thought? Since the 1960s, Australian performance artist Stelarc has been redefining art by pushing the boundaries of the human body. Stelarc brought his latest body modification to Concordia’s CJ building last week to clarify the purpose of having an ear surgically implanted in his arm.
The ear is both a surgical construct and a cell grown ear. However, don’t be fooled; his normal hearing is perfect. After the ear is complete, Stelarc plans to insert a microphone connected to a wireless transmitter. The Internet would enable the ear if located in a Wi-Fi hotspot. Stelarc said that while in Montreal one could listen in on what the ear was hearing in London. “It is not a hearing device for me but rather a transmitting device,” he said. “It is an acoustical organ for people in other places.”
Stelarc has been exploring the idea of recolonizing the human body, which he finds very seductive. “I’ve always been interested in the human body as a kind of evolutionary architecture,” said Stelarc. He enjoys exploring how technology is becoming a component of the human body, rather than something the body rejects.
The 53-year-old performance artist is best known for his suspensions, where he hangs himself up in art galleries, over oceans, city streets, trees and more all over the world using fish hooks through his skin. The artist designed a mechanical third hand activated by muscle signals. Stelarc also had a sculpture, or as he likes to put it, a “machine choreography,” placed in his stomach. The sculpture would open and close, and emit light and sound.
Stelarc’s passion and commitment were apparent in his lecture. His comfort with his work and explanation of the whole process made his art more accessible and less repulsive. Stelarc’s lecture became an interactive one when he allowed audience members to ask questions to a virtual replica of his own head.
“The Head,” programmed by Stelarc, is made to answer questions based on how Stelarc would answer them in real life. At one point, Stelarc insulted “The Head,” to which it responded: “I will remember you said that when robots take over the world.” The lecture made Stelarc’s work more accessible to those otherwise unfamiliar with it. “It is basically an extension of tattoos or regular body modifications, just pushing it to the next level,” said Max Bianchi, a first-year communication studies student at Concordia. “It is just changing the human form.”
Thursday night’s exhibit didn’t just bring out curious Concordia students.
David Johnston, also known as Jhave, a web curator, independent media-arts practitioner and member of arts and technology research network FLUXMEDIA also attended. He described Stelarc as a “catalyst for newer ideas.” Being a performance artist is tricky, because it is easy for people to reject anything that is foreign or unknown. Stelarc’s work is unconventional but that doesn’t make it any less influential. People recognize his work and acknowledge that he has been pushing the boundaries consistently for years.
“All these things that we thought of as magical technologies are slowly becoming normal,” said Jhave. Stelarc’s work may not be traditional, but isn’t that the beauty of art and its subjectivity? “It’s the beginning of something very strange in our lives,” stated Jhave. “Something unknown in the history of civilization.”
The body needs more surveillance systems on the inside because it isn’t aware of what’s going on, argued the artist. “Imagine if a nano sensor can detect the first indication of pathological changes. Then you would be alerted very early on and you might be able to treat these medically.” His idea is that one will be able to redesign the human body, “with the individual having the choice of what to do and how their body might look and function.
For someone who claims to have started on this path when he realized that he was a bad painter in art school, Stelarc has come a long way. No one knows what the future holds, though all can agree that the line between the human body and technology is definitely being blurred.