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The body you’re born with may not be the body you’ll die with – Stelarc

Implanting electronics into ourselves still sounds like something straight out of sci-fi for most of us, but for our guest, the human body is obsolete without modern technology. We talked to performance artist and body-experiments pioneer Steralc.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco-visionaries

Sophie Shevardnadze: Stelarc, it's really great to have you on our show. So, your performance art is actually blending biological body with technology, and you're doing all kinds of exciting stuff pushing the boundaries. And I read you say that, on the one hand, it's all very exciting, on the other hand, we should be careful. So which one is it? Are you embracing the future or does it frighten you?

Stelarc: Oh, I'm neither utopian nor dystopian in my ideas. I think the problem with technology is how to manage it. New technologies generate unexpected information, new kinds of imaging possibilities. So we always extend our sort of comprehension of the world: what a body is, how a body operates, what it means to be human. So, for me, technology is generally a plus, not a minus.

SS: But just to really understand more about you, there's this inventor in Canada called Steve Mann. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. So he's also experimenting with merging his body with machinery for quite a while now, but he's more on a scientific side of it. Like he's doing it for the sake of science. Now you, you're an artist, not a scientist. What you do right now - is it just a commentary to what's happening or is it also advancing science in a way?

S: Well, look, I am only an artist. On the other hand, I have a general knowledge of engineering, of medical technologies because of my hands-on experience with them. I see these projects as aesthetic gestures to new possibilities. I think that we shouldn't consider them in any way scientific research. On the other hand, usually my projects involve state of the art technology. So, for example, when my third hand was first engineered it was sophisticated enough, even though I'm only an artist, to be invited by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and the Johnson Space Center in Houston to demonstrate the hand to the extravehicular activity group. So, although I'm an artist only, there is an interest in how new technologies can further our understanding of the body.

SS: I'm just trying to figure out where the general public is at the moment in terms of understanding all of this, because with Steve Mann, I know he ran into trouble a couple of times. For instance, when he was trying to pass a metal detector, it was beeping like crazy, and the customs officer got so scared that they literally had to sort of rip out some mechanical things out of his body. When it comes to you, do you think it’ll be a little too far out for most of the people at the moment, or not really?

S: Oh, I mean that's very difficult to evaluate. I think new ideas, new philosophies and contemporary art practice often can only be evaluated in the near future. It will not be fully understood now. So, for example, it took 10 years to find three surgeons and to get funding to begin the construction of the ear on my arm. And the surgeons never really understood that it was an art project. During the second surgery, one surgeon was overheard saying to the other two surgeons, “Well, you know, if this is art, we must be the artists”.

SS: We can actually get to ear on your hand project and talk through it in detail. But before we get there, I still want to talk a little bit about the effects of robotization of human bodies. What effect, do you think, this experimenting will have on longevity? I mean, the mechanical parts replacing biological body parts, do you think it could enable us to live forever? This is something that humanity has longed for throughout its existence.

S: Well, I think the idea of immortality, for example, I mean in the near future, this is not going to be possible. Having said that, if we're going to be able to 3D-print organs using living cells, if we can grow organs and parts of our body using stem cell technology, if we can engineer prosthetic parts that can be components of the human body, then we will have a situation where we need not biologically die, because we'll be able to continuously replace malfunctioning parts of our body. And actually, if we can engineer an artificial womb that can bring to bear an embryo to a fetus, to a healthy child, then your existence will begin without birth because your body will already be external and your life will end without biological death. So, how do you define human existence without birth, without death. That's interesting.

SS: Yes, I heard, I read you saying that, you were just talking about reproductive organs right now, where some fundamental tenets of our existence may be re-evaluated with technology like functioning of heart or reproductive organs that actually require you to be a man or a woman. I have two questions. How exactly would that happen? Like, how will technology remove the necessity of gender? The necessity, not talking technically. The necessity of gender. And it's fascinating when you think about it, and it all may come true, what you're saying. But why would we want to do that? Why would you replace your heart that just beats fine, or why would you not want to be a man or a woman?

S: Oh no, I think, when I talk about the future, I always talk about a contestable future. A future of contingency. In other words, a future of choice, rather than of necessity, where some institution or some government undertake some eugenic kind of programmes. Because what it means to be human is different for different people, and it's a value judgment about enhancing your body. I'm not so convinced about transhumanism, for example, because there's this idea that new technologies will improve their bodies. Now, I think this is simplistic because an improvement of your body is a value judgment, an improvement to you may not be an improvement for me.

SS: Yes. Because like this whole… Do you think it's just encoded in us humans, in our species? This drive to change and replace things? Because I was speaking to Martin Rees. I don't know if you know him, he is a very famous astrophysicist. And he thinks that evolution is just going to turn us into machines eventually. Since we're coming up with stuff that is more reliable and efficient than our biological selves. And sometimes I'm like, “Are we really digging our own graves with this curiosity?”

S: Perhaps, but I think, what it means to be human is, perhaps, not to remain human at all. Because as humans we're very curious creatures and we want to explore other kinds of possibilities, other kinds of bodies: machine bodies, other kinds of biological bodies. I mean, I've always been interested in comparative anatomies. So, in evolution we see different kinds of bodies that perceive the world in different ways. In other words, one can argue that an insect, an animal, a human have different umwelts, different kinds of worlds that they experience. You know, we know that a dog only sees in black and white. We know that a bat navigates in ultrasound. We know that a snake senses infrared. These kinds of perceptual apparatuses and different kinds of biological and insect-like bodies experience the world in very different ways and with many different durations. The lifespan of some creatures is only a day. Some creatures live much longer than humans, for example. So, I kind of speculate that a future body might be a biological body that is increasingly machinic, and machines that are increasingly biological, and there'll be this combination.

SS: But wouldn’t that just be an upgrade of the human race, and we wouldn't just be humans the way we know us?

S: Well, but, you know, the idea of what it is to be human is a historical and evolutionary construct, you know. So, for example, when we were hominids and finally developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators and we can construct artefacts, instruments, machines. In other words, bipedal locomotion allowed us to completely change what it means to develop as a human body. And even a couple of hundred years ago, the idea that you would have internal components that were no longer biological parts would have been inconceivable. Now it's acceptable that an amputee might have an artificial arm that is a carbon fiber arm, operated by servo motors connected to the user's nervous system. So we accept this now. We accept the fact that the body that you are born with may not be the body that you die with. You might in the future have a face transplant; you might have an artificial heart. Certainly, people will have artificial joints. That's already happening. So, we still think that they're humans. But this would not have been the case several hundred years ago.

SS: So, your project, the very famous one, Ear on Arm. First of all, can you show us?

S: Sure.

SS: The process of actually implanting that ear in your arm and then connecting it - from what I understand it’s still in process, right - it was sort of related and has been fraught with medical complications, like, I don't know, from what I read, infections, yes? So, don't you think, by getting really sick because of outside interference your body's trying to tell you something? I mean, usually bodies resist something when they understand that they don't need it.

S: Well, you know, I mean, to do anything is challenging and it's sometimes risky…

SS: You can put your arm down.

S: And we can't really generalise about this. There was a serious infection in the second surgery when we implanted a small microphone inside the ear construct. And I had wires coming out of my arm, and that didn't help, because they were in my arm for about 10 days testing the microphone. But effectively. At the end of the second surgery the surgeon, even though he had a surgical mask on, even though my arm was wrapped in bandages with a partial plaster cast, the surgeon could speak to the ear. His voice was picked up and wirelessly transmitted. So it's plausible. And the idea, the intention is still to Internet-enable the ear, to electronically augment it. So, if you're in St. Petersburg or Moscow and I'm in London, New York, Paris - wherever I am, wherever you are, you'll be able to log in and listen to what my ear is hearing. Wherever you are, wherever I am.

SS: So, correct me if I'm wrong, but that is an exact replica right? It's a shape… It's purely aesthetical. Why would you go through that trouble? I mean, you could have just asked the surgeon to implant a chip.

S: It's a good question. As an artist, I'm interested in the idea of alternate anatomical architectures. Why do we have only two ears, two eyes, two arms, four limbs? So, for example, I've performed with a third hand, an extended arm, a virtual arm. I was always intrigued about making a prosthetic part of my body using my own skin, using my own cells. So, for example, the process for constructing this was to implant a biodegradable scaffold which is porous. And when this is inserted beneath the skin, when the skin is suctioned over the scaffold, over a period of about six months, you have tissue ingrowth and vascularisation occurring. In other words, the cells in your body grow into the scaffold, it grows its own blood supply. So, now this is fully integrated as part of my arm. It's a living part of my arm. But what's interesting will be, to Internet-enable the ear.

SS: So this other project that you had, ‘Rewired / Remixed’, sort of outsourced your body senses to others, right? Do I understand the concept correctly?

S: Yes.

SS: For as long as we live, people want to communicate, and they do it through literature, through painting, then later on film, photography. Is this how all these forms of expression will evolve? Into people tapping directly into each other's senses? Do you think it will all come to that?

S: It's not something that will happen definitely, but it's plausible and it's possible. I mean, the ‘Rewired / Remixed’ performance for five days, six hours every day, I could only see with the eyes of someone in London, I could only hear with the ears of someone in New York, but my body is in Perth and anyone could access my right arm through the exo-skeleton that I was wearing and remotely move my body. So, it was this idea, as you said, of outsourcing my senses, my visual and acoustical sensors to people in other bodies and sharing my agency. So, people in other places were controlling the movements of my arm. So, the idea of a distributed body, of an extended mind - this concept is really something that's already happening. We all have wireless media. We communicate remotely. I can see your face on my telephone in Australia, for example.

SS: Yes, but it’s different when you’re physically experimenting. It's completely different.

S: The difference is that you yourself experience it in a more intense way. So, there is that difference. But what I'm saying is that these actions, these performances are in fact already happening in some way or another.

SS: So, if you take that idea to the max, like, this whole interconnectedness, where people in theory connect to your feet and vice versa… That really just grows into the whole species becoming one with each other. Isn't that what all the yoga gurus and people were telling us all this time, that we're actually one, that we’re all interconnected?

S: Oh well, in a kind of general sense. But what we're talking about here is physically, machinically, electronically being connected to each other by choice. So, for example, you can switch on, switch off. You can be online; you can be offline. In fact, now we share two kinds of worlds. We share online worlds where we're distributed, interconnected, and we still experience offline worlds where we're private biological individuals. And this is something that is happening all the time and will continue to happen. But in very different ways. So, for example, another possibility in the future is that all technology will be invisible because it will be inside your body. With microscale sensors with nanorobots. Our body becomes the host for the technology. Technology now is existing external to the body, but in the future it might exist in nanoscale inside the human body.

SS: But the way I see what you're describing - technology that is installed inside of your body and you being connected to the Internet - is a weakness inside of you. More severe than any other physical or biological weakness, because, I mean, if I'm connected to Internet anyone pretty much can at any point hack into me. Why would I want to expose myself to such vulnerability?

S: Well I mean hacking your body is always possible and especially anyone with a chip in their body, a simple chip, is vulnerable to being hacked. And as we have artificial hearts, as we have augmentations to our brain, then that's something that we have to manage. But, you know, that kind of an argument doesn't negate experimenting with these things, because if you want to just be a biological body, then you will have no machines to assist you, you'll have no media devices to communicate with, you'll have no heating system.

SS: It’s still different, because if I have media devices and Internet is all around me, I now do that very often, I choose to cut myself off completely, because I know that there is no privacy in our world. If you talk on the phone, if you go online, everything you are doing is being watched and listened to. But we still choose to give up our privacy for the sake of facilitating our lives. I feel like we already are living in the Internet, and not having internet in us biologically is exactly that choice. When I want to switch myself off, I go off. But if I have it in me…

S: But the problem is, if you don't want to have it, and someone forces you to have it, that's the problem. But people will choose to have chips implanted, to have their cortical capacity expanded, to have an artificial heart to keep alive. So, if we do internalise our technologies, if we have implanted chips, or if we expand our cortical capacity, or decide to have something like an artificial heart in our bodies to stay alive, we still have to engineer them safely and be able to manage them in a way where people can't intervene externally.

SS: Well, that and also just to make sure that our bodies, and brains, and minds can cope with it, because the most of the neuroscientists I talk to right now are saying that with the amount of information we have right now accessible due to the Internet, our brains are just going crazy, because it's too much for it. We're not custom-made for this kind of information. So, if we're talking about having a chip in our head, constantly being upgraded and updated with information, does it mean that we're just all going to be slightly insane in a couple of generations?

S: Well, again I don't take a dystopian view about that. There may be advantages. There’s always some disadvantages. It depends on whether a new technology is overall a benefit. And my personal experiments, I think, suggest that our bodies can manage being distributed, being fragmented, having additional limbs to perform with. And I think that what artists do best is speculate about contestable futures, possibilities that can be experienced, possibilities that can be evaluated, sometimes appropriated, most likely discarded.

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview and good luck with everything!

S: Thank you very much. Thank you.