Exit Archive

Fall 2005 | v.01 n. 01 | Invitational Issue |

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Toward a Split Physiology? On Stelarc’s Performances
Jacob Wamberg

University of Aarhus

A recurrent theme in the performances of the Australian artist Stelarc is the relationship between the human body and diverse technological prostheses. A robotic third hand that can be controlled by thigh and stomach muscles, a remote controlled sculpture that unfolds in the dried up stomach, electrodes that connect muscles and remote internet locations and let the body make involuntary movements – these are among the devices that probe the boundaries between organic and artificial, nature and technology, created through evolution and consciously formed.

To be more precise, and consulting the extraordinarily well-articulated thinking with which Stelarc frames his artistic practice, these interactions explore an emerging posthuman culture in which the human body is becoming obsolete in its untouched state. Accor­dingly, it should be opened towards artificially generated organs that at the same time strengthen and amplify its scope of action and make it dependent on other bodies and their interaction through cyberspace. Apart from a desire for letting the body converge toward its artificial prostheses, transforming the organs into spare parts, this vision implies a part-wise handing-off of autonomy, turning the body into what Stelarc terms an advantageously ‘split physiology’. In this voluntary involuntariness, the authenticity of the body is no longer founded in its individuality, but rather in the multiplicity of remote agents for which the body acts as a host.

In order to explore how far this thinking can wrench significance not only from Stelarc’s performances, but performances in general involving the use of technological prostheses, I want to pursue it further in this paper, combining it with ideas by Marshall McLuhan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Eduardo Kac.

Even though Stelarc has developed significant fragments for a posthuman philosophy, he emphasizes that their basis remains the minutiae of his performance practice. If the often spectacular visual and acoustic effects of this practice point toward an avant-garde ballet and theatre tradition, this does not exclude that it also involves a considerable degree of functionality: to get advanced technology working. Thus Stelarc often explores the forefront of the technologically possible, making joint ventures with specialized firms and individuals in the areas of electronics, computing, engineering and biotechnology.

This practical probing of the limits of technology in relation to the human body opens itself rather obviously to Stelarc’s ideas of the posthuman, not least as they are condensed in his dictum: “The body is obsolete”. According to Stelarc our culture has now reached a phase in which it has, so to say, overhauled the body in its pure biological shape. In the networks of computers such amounts of information are processed that no human individual is evolutionally equipped to cope with them, and accordingly, considering the possibilities promised in biotechnology, Stelarc calls upon a thorough transformation of the now obsolete body in order to get it adapted to its new artificial environment. As Stelarc puts it: "The only way I see it is that the body is mass produced but at the moment it doesn't have any replacable parts. [...] What we really need is a design approach. If you have a heart that wears out after 20 years, this to me is an engineering problem."1

Although it can hardly be considered part of a standard repertoire of human spare parts, the metallic Third Hand must be conceived of as a remedy in creating Stelarc’s object of desire, an operational, hardened and indefatigable body that belongs to the posthuman rather than the human era. With this prosthesis newly developed, Stelarc for instance in 1982 performed a sort of writing exercise in which the Third Hand in tandem with the artist’s two corporeal hands wrote down the highly symbolic word EVOLUTION. This Writing One Word with Three Hands Simultaneously could quite appropriately lead the thought to rehabilitation of accident-stricken patients, for in Stelarc’s Posthuman context it becomes disturbingly ambiguous whether it is the robot hand that learns ‘human’ conduct or rather the human body that gropingly and already half-way disabled adapts to evolution’s brave new phase – what Stelarc even designates ‘the post-evolutionary phase’.

A further important aspect of Stelarc’s performances is to challenge the idea of autonomy, be it psychic or bodily. Thus, since the 1990s, while often stressing the power of the Third Hand as if it were a limb of his own, Stelarc has experimented with giving parts of his body over to external influence. Through electrodes put on selected muscles, electrical shocks of up to 60 volts provoke movements beyond Stelarc’s control and will, thereby transforming the skin to a kind of interface, a corporeal screen remote-controlled by external agents, be it humans, robots or computers. In Fractal Flesh (1995) these external agents comprised a collective of humans manipulating electronic connections in Paris’ Centre Pompidou, Helsinki’s Media Lab and Amsterdam’s Doors of Perception conference, while Stelarc’s left arm and leg reacted to their signals at a site in Luxembourg, only his Third Hand being free to voluntary response. If cyberspace here acted as a passive mediator between remote agents and Stelarc’s body, cyberspace’s own forces were activated in later performances such as Ping Body (1996) and ParaSite: Event for Invaded and Involuntary Body (1997). Here search engines collected data flows from the Internet – pinging signals and jpeg images respectively – in order to transform these data to a combined corporeal and acoustic choreography, with half of Stelarc’s body acting again as its remote-controlled puppet.

It is obvious that these performances pose intriguing questions to the idea of agency, to the will’s relation to the body, and to the site of mind. As Stelarc sees it, this displacing of mind does not lead to a pathological body with a split personality, rather it signifies a body “whose advantage is having a split physiology […]”: “a body whose authenticity is grounded not in its individuality, but rather in the MULTIPLICITY of remote agents that it hosts.”2 Under these conditions traits that earlier shaped the personality such as memory, expectation, desire, emotion and – to a certain degree, and most controversially – freedom, seem all to be compromised.

If Stelarc here points toward technological possibilities that seem yet to lie far ahead, if not belonging to a science fiction never-never land, it is worth stressing that ideas of a technologically extended body were already part of the general analysis of electric media by Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan all media can be seen as technological extensions of man, but with the upcoming of electric media the dramatic event happened that “man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.”3 According to McLuhan this extension reactuates a set of primitive layers of experience – not the expansive, fragmented and perspectival sensations that belonged to the mechanical epoch before 1900, but rather an implosion to a mythical world view, a return of the non-literary cosmos of tribal cultures. In this global village with its common central nervous system there is a distribution of information that reminds one of Stelarc’s idea of a shared subjectivity, especially when Stelarc talks of a bodily shared agency in an “electronic space of distributed intelligence.”4 And yet, in McLuhan the extended bodies are still to be understood at least halfway metaphorically, whereas Stelarc wants them to be real.

However, Stelarc’s ideas of a split physiology haunted by a multiplicity of remote agents get more specific parallels in the thinking of the French poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. As the Canadian cyber philosopher Arthur Kroker has pointed out, many features in French poststructuralist thinking in general tend toward a condition in which humans have become possessed by technology. And although technology, in keeping with many poststructuralist texts, is rarely mentioned explicitly, this possession acquires a specifically cyborgian tone in Deleuze and Guattari’s two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972 and 1980). In this monumental attack on the Oedipus crisis and all the dualist-bound phenomena following this psychoanalytic moment in personal, human history – subjectivity, representation, imitation, form, signification, gender, hierarchic organization – the authors present an alternative state of being in which everything is becoming in an open network, a rhizome, of connectedness: becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-child, becoming-molecular. Here there are no autonomous individuals, as all living beings constitute plateaus, so-called Bodies-without-Organs, in a huge coordinate system of intensities, a fused multiplicity of immanence in which selves become passages, doors, to other selves. In order to let the intensities exchange freely in an uninterrupted flow of desire, a connecting machine is needed, for as Deleuze and Guattari write:

[...] the totality of all BwO's [...] can be obtained on the plane of consistency only by means of an abstract machine capable of covering and even creating it, by assemblages capable of plugging into desire, of effectively taking charge of desires, of assuring their continuous connections and transversal tie-ins.5

Isn’t it tempting to read such a machine more concretely in cyborgian terms and understand it as a William Gibson-like matrix that fleshy beings physically plug in to? Such a reading, at least, would facilitate the connection between Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the self as a passage to a multiplicity of other selves and Stelarc’s idea of split physiology that via the Internet might act as a host for a multiplicity of remote agents. Indeed, in an interview (with miss M) Stelarc himself suggests the following scenario:

Imagine an Internet imbedded research and connection engine that would continuously scan, select and connect online bodies when it senses that a certain task needs to be completed. In other words your body may at one point be functioning alone as an individual, at another moment in time, your body might be simultaneously and automatically connected to other bodies.

Here thus, a loop is realized between Stelarc the performer being partially remote controlled, Stelarc the philosopher suggesting posthuman split physiologies, and Deleuze and Guattari imagining non-Oedipal Bodies-without-Organs as rhizomatic passages.

As regards the idea of the self as a passage, it might gain further technological ground in relation to the concept of telepresence, the manipulation of physical reality via a remote controlled vicarious apparatus that gives the participating observer a feeling of ‘being there’. Although with roots harking back to Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novelette Waldo (1942), telepresence as a concept was codified in 1980 by the robot scientist Marvin Minsky who saw its possibilities in developments of mining, atomic energy and deep water and space research, for instance robots on the moon.6 For the Brazilian-born. American artist Eduardo Kac who has explored telepresence artistically in installations including the remote-controlled robot Ornitorrinco,  telepresence is a “nonmetaphysical out-of-body experience” in which you are: “…asked to remove yourself from the direct experience of the space that surrounds you and transport yourself, in space and time, to another body, to another situation, to another identity. You’re asked to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes […]”7

Yet, if until now the notion of telepresence has been mostly used in relation to cold robotic devices as radius-expanding prostheses for warm humans, I’ll suggest here that one could combine it too with the before-mentioned ideas of Stelarc and Deleuze-Guattari. Thus, Stelarc’s split physiology and Deleuze and Guattari’s self as passage could be directly understood as other phrasings for telepresence, the former autonomous self becoming now a living portal for the experience of remote agents. Or rather through the connective agency of cyberspace and its gradual fusion with carnal bodies, subjectivity and self are no longer bound to one body, but become distributed among many, so that one no-longer-autonomous self, one Body-without-Organs, may remotely perceive and act through another no-longer-autonomous self, who hereby exactly becomes a passage, a door, a plateau for telepresence.

1 I-D Magazine, February 1992

2 Stelarc website: [>] http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/

3 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge, 1997, 1964) p.43

4 Stelarc website: [>] http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/

5 Deleuze Gilles and Felix Guattari  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia trans. Brian Massumi.  (London: Athlone Press, 1988, 1980) p.166

6 Kac, Eduardo. (1993) [>] http://www.ekac.org

7 Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Cambridge, Mass and London: MIT Press, 2002)  p.535

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