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(NSFW) Stelarc Has an Ear in His Arm. Yes, an Ear in His Arm.

(NSFW) Stelarc Has an Ear in His Arm. Yes, an Ear in His Arm.

"People will become portals of Internet experience. For example, I might be able to hack into your body and listen to what you're hearing in Dallas while I'm in Melbourne. While simultaneously I might be seeing with someone's eyes in London, while someone in Tokyo might be remotely accessing and activating my arm. Increasingly, we'll have a much more distributed sensory experience of the world that won't be limited to the local space we inhabit." -- Stelarc

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Standing roughly 5-6 and dressed in all black, Stelarc stands out at this NorthPark-area Starbucks. It's partially because of his gentle Australian accent and leathery, brimmed hat. It's mostly due to the ear that was inserted and fused to the vascular region beneath the skin of his forearm, which he's showing me as he sips a soy latte.

The man seated next to us is visibly terrified.

It would be easy to make assumptions. To quickly label the Aussie performance artist a notoriety-seeker, but that simply isn't the case. He's soft-spoken, wildly introspective and passionate. Since the '60s he's been driven to create and explore the human form's usefulness, limits and architectural role in space. That trajectory spurs the next, which is shaking down Free Will; debunking any division between technological and physical realms; and fostering interaction that unites geographic divides.

Soon, this ear will be wired with a Wi-Fi-enabled microphone, so others may access his arm as a remote listening device. But really, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Stelarc is in town to hang five people by their skin and spin them slowly like human laundry. So let's start there.

Around 1976 Stelarc became interested with the body as a floating sculptural work. He was hoisted, tethered and lifted in various ways but wasn't pleased with the outcome, aesthetically. The tools used were cumbersome to look at; he wanted cleaner lines. That's when he found some images of tribal groups with hooks through their skin. He envisioned a body suspended by wire, supported by hooks, and thought it was interesting. He sought medical council to figure out the whats and wheres of making it happen, but was repeatedly turned down. So, Stelarc did his own research and called on friends to help push fish hooks into his skin and hang him above busy intersections, in galleries and other site-specific landscapes.

For about a decade, these suspension experiments were his art's focus. In an attempt to explore the physical and psychological parameters of the body, Stelarc dangled over New York City's streets, Jogashima's watery shores and Copenhagen's skyline. He learned a lot, like that wading through salt water with hooked skin is miserable and that a windy day, when elevated 60 meters over Copenhagen, can really freak you out.

He couldn't have predicted then that he'd start a movement, but that's exactly what happened. He's in town now because a convention of suspension enthusiasts flew him in. This modern take on the act seems to focus more on thrill, initiation and a sort of rite of passage -- most of which is lost on Stelarc. Still, he's a sort of guru within that community, an early artful iteration of a modern wave of body modifiers and suspension groups.

In addition to speaking about his work with hooks and skin on Saturday night at the Lakewood Theater, he's partnering with a team called Wings of Desire to do a very rare group suspension presentation. Stelarc is choreographing, designing and filming the project, which will run on a live feed for those unable to attend, but will not be participating himself. (Check back for live feed link on Saturday.)

While he doesn't shy away from discussing his work with suspension, Stelarc has certainly moved on to other projects. I asked him about the planning, design and intention behind his more famous recent acts, like the ear arm. Here's what he had to say.  

(NSFW) Stelarc Has an Ear in His Arm. Yes, an Ear in His Arm.

Third Hand The Third Hand was connected with external transmitters and took months of training to master.

That was the first intimate interface with my body. The mechanical hand was actuated by electrical signals by my abdominal and leg muscles. The reason why I chose them is that they didn't interfere with the muscle movements of my other two arms. Which meant the three arms could have independent movement, simultaneously.

It got to where I imagined the hand to open and it opened. To where I realized: 'I have an extra limb that's plugged into my nervous system that's literally a part of me.'

It was almost as much a part of me as my other hands.

You start to think of your body in a very basic way. That for any part of you to move, you've got to control those particular muscles and coordinate them. It started as a very personal interface, and it became a performative object. So I did performances amplifying brain waves, heartbeat and blood flow. Performing sort of micro-choreographies with the fingers and wrist movements.

Remote Access of Half-Body With Laser Eyes

Half of my body was wired up over the Internet, so people in other places could access my body over a touchscreen interface and remotely choreograph it, so half of my body was moving involuntarily due to people in other places. That was really strange, we usually associate our own body movements with an individual agency. When half of your body is involuntarily moving, and you don't know from moment to moment what it's going to do, it's depending on someone remotely situated.

What was interesting was this idea that in reality we are not individual agents. Most of our behaviors are controlled by institutions and cultural conditioning and friends and peers. We conveniently think of ourselves as having free will, but in effect a lot of what you do is habitual and automatic. Even involuntarily in a sense. It highlighted that, by functioning more like a zombie than one with an individual agent.

We have this nostalgia of what it means to be human: Free Will or an indivuated body. Sometimes you have to function very intimately with machines and with other people, other times you perform remotely. Simultaneously we have to interface more often with machines and can also work more removed from one another.

 

(NSFW) Stelarc Has an Ear in His Arm. Yes, an Ear in His Arm.

Ear on Arm "Having experimented with the Third Hand," says Stelarc, "which was circuits, chips and motors, these hard technologies attached to my body, I've always wondered, 'Would it be possible to make a soft prosthesis rather than an external technological one?' It took 10 years to find funding and three surgeons to do it."

The money came through a television project by Discovery on experimental surgery and the surgeons came, strangely, from America.

To understand the ear itself, imagine an appropriately-shaped scaffold made from a porous biomaterial. [Shown on right]

"When this structure is inserted beneath the skin, and the skin is suctioned over the ear, over a period of six months it encourages your own cells to grow into the scaffold," he explains. "So what you get is called tissue ingrowth, and also vascularization occurs, so the ear grows its own blood supply, basically. So it's partly surgically constructed and partly cell grown."

Simply inserting and growing an ear under the skin isn't Stelarc's endgame. He actually isn't interested in the arm ear currently, due to its incomplete state. He wants it to be functional, rather than simply sculptural. The next step is to personalize the ear through a series of stem cell procedures he's securing in Spain. Starting this May a surgeon will grow a replica earlobe from Stelarc's original lobe tissue, but under the skin on his arm, attached to the prosthesis.

"After that, we'll have a lobe. Right now it's only a relief of an ear," Stelarc says as he peels off his jacket, exposing the ear, which is detailed beneath a dermal layer stretched tightly across the prosthesis' surface like Saran Wrap.

Once the lobe project is completed, he'll be able to move on to the final step: remote auditory access through a Wi-Fi enabled microphone transmitter that will be implanted in the arm ear.

"When the microphone is inserted, connected to a wireless transmitter -- effectively a server -- the ear will become Internet-enabled, so if you're here in Dallas you can go online and listen to whatever my ear is hearing wherever I am and wherever you are. This is an ear for people in other places who want to remotely listen in."

I ask Stelarc about the control he'll have over the device regarding his personal privacy. When he'll allow it to transmit and when he'll shut it off.

Well, if you're in a WI-fi hotspot someone would be able to pick up what we're speaking about. But of course I'm not always in a hotspot, and if I switch off my modem at home I'm not online. There's no on and off switch, however. It's not so much the privacy that interests me. It's that how increasingly people will become portals of Internet experience. For example, I might be able to hack into your body and listen to what you're hearing in Dallas while I'm in Melbourne. While simultaneously I might be seeing with someone's eyes in London, while someone in Tokyo might be remotely accessing and activating my arm. Increasingly, we'll have a much more distributed sensory experience of the world that won't be limited to the local space we inhabit.

Now you experience the world through proximity with things, through just one individual agency, your own. But imagine if you could be wired into sort of hacked bodies in other places? Then your experience would be multisensory from different locations and different agencies.

As long as all of this is about contingency rather than control. I think it points to an increasingly intimate relationship with technology and initially it will be incorporated into what we wear, but the next step of course is to insert it beneath the skin.

Learn more from Stelarc's many years of experimentation in his lecture Zombies, Cyborgs and Chimeras, and see five humans drag from hooks like loose buttons on Saturday night. Tickets are available here and cost $15.


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