An Interview with Stelarc
Public Netbase's Miss M and Australian Performance artist Stelarc are having coffee and cake in Vienna, June 1997
Miss M: I have been thinking about asking you embarrassing questions.
Stelarc: Is that "Girls kicking ass" today?
Miss M: Exactly. You mentioned yesterday, that you got into performance art because you would have been a terrible fine artist. That brought up this question for me: Is what your doing mainly for the sake of being an artist? Is that what you always wanted to be an artist, no matter what or how?
Stelarc: Yeah. No, ever since I was thinking about what I wanted to do, there was always to be an artist, but at that young age, being an artist was about being able to draw realistically, or impress people with your drafting skills. At that junior high school level that was what it was all about, but in my later high school years I began more to think about what the nature of art was all about. And it wasn't necessarily – even if you look at the history of art – it's not just simply about hyperrealism or landscape painting or figurative art, there's a much more psychological approach to understanding the individual. So, art is a strategy for comprehending the world, it's not merely a craft that makes hot-couture images for museums. And of course electronic media and the internet provide new operational and aesthetic realms for people to explore and they really radically redefine what the art process is all about. Going beyond the purely psychological to the more global kind of consciousness that has to do with being able to function remotely, being able to connect and interact in a multiplicity of ways, both with other people, with teleoperated robots, software agents. There are probably more programs roaming the net, than there are people now.
Miss M: You just mentioned the concept "to function remotely". If I take it literally it, do you understand your body as a machine, that would also function remotely?
Stelarc: Well, I think it's about seeing the body in a different way, instead of the body being a biological entity, operating in this local space proximal to someone else, in fact the body becomes a body connected with other bodies in other places in a multiplicity of ways, a whole range of sensory antennae that the technology provides. In a sense the body becomes part of this greater operational structure, where intelligence is distributed remotely and spatially over the internet. A body is not just this entity, but this entity connected to another body, where awareness is sliding and shifting, coagulating, ebbing and flowing, intensifying and dimming, depending on the connectivity of the body. So for me, what's important now, is not so much focusing on the individual psyche of a person, but that person's connectivity and multiplicity of operational possibilities.
Miss M: So it is "the body as machine"?
Stelarc: It depends what you mean by machine. In this muscle stimulation system we can physically link up over this electronic space. Now, whether you want to call that a machinic operation or whether you want to call that a new physical coupling, an interactivity between biological bodies, the system that heightens and amplifies and projects human presence simultaneously in different places, well that's really up to a definition of what a mechanism or a machine is.
Certainly the emphasis has shifted from seeing the body as a site for the psyche and as a site for social inscription to now seeing the body in a more structural way. As a body connected to other bodies, as a body embedded and interactive with other technologies and the internet in particular.
Miss M: That's a different concept of body then.´
Stelarc: Well, these were all instances of exploring the bodies psychological and physiological parameters. In some of the suspension events, there was a huge machine that was part of the choreography of the body. And then there were other instances where the body had it's third hand attached, suspended from a monorail station, controlling its up and down movements with a remote control box, activating a motor.
In a lot of the suspension events there was technology used either to choreograph the bodies motion in space or to amplify internal signals, brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow, muscle signals. These performances were just part of a series where the body probed, stretched, extended, repositioned in strange situations and spaces. Remotely activated, and all of these explored what it means to be a body, is it important any more to remain human? I would even rephrase that in a more radical way, perhaps the meaning of being human is not to remain human at all. Ever since we were hominoids with bipedal locomotion, two limbs become manipulated as we begin to manufacture tools, instruments, computers, other machines. So, one can well argue that technology isn't this alien other, but rather technology has always been coupled with the trajectory of human evolution. And the body has developed to this point in civilization through it's technologies. Of course, we know that a lot of the paradigm shifts in our awareness of the world have been the result of new technologies enabling us to have different perceptions, being able to make different measurements, going at faster speeds. Pushing the human bodies metabolism, it's muscular and skeletal system, it's nervous system, it's cardiac rhythms. To function in a technological terrain is to function in a zone of operation in which intention and action collapse into increasing accelerated responses. Now, how can a body cope with this kind of speeded up critical decision making operation in space? Anything from military machines, to the internet to a lot of our scientific instruments, like a tunnel electron microscopes or atom smasher, all of these devices really challenge what it means to have a body and what it means to remain human.
Miss M: Do you still feel human?
Stelarc: It's not that I have been catapulted into this fantasy land, or Sci-Fi vision, or startrekie mentality, but rather by continuously pushing the body, by continuously interfacing the body with new technologies and robotic systems and even other bodies remotely, then your generate experiences that you wouldn't ordinarily have and so consequently you are always thinking and possibly even redefining what it means to function in this way. I don't want to get off to this Sci-Fi fantasy world of the post-human, but of course one can well argue that images and body transformation have already occurred with medical experimentation and surgical operations and the notion of a cyborg is already physiologically coming into being. We can safely implant bits and pieces into the body to increase the durability and function of our joints, we are now being to replace to parts of our organs or organs all together. The notion of an artificial heart is not science fiction anymore. But there are other rather unexpected situations, like nano-technology. It's going to be possible for machines to inhabit the human body.
Technology began as something always external to the body, that inhabited the body's landscape, the human landscape. Now with micro-miniaturization, with nano-technology, we come to a point where the body tissue itself, the internal spaces and tracts of the body, the cellular structure of the body, becomes a host for these micro-miniaturized machinery. We can in fact recolonize the human body with micro-miniaturized machines to augment our bacterial and viral population. And because these machines are at a nano-technological, sub-sensory level, we don't even feel that they are there. But, we could be internally rewiring the body providing an internal surveillance system for the body, we could provide machines that detect pathological changes in chemistry, in temperature, that can detect blockages in arterial tracts. So that's something, kind of unexpected and a radical flip in our relationship to machines. Of course, nano-technology with the possibility to craft neurons onto silicon chip circuitry, then you have a future where interfaces not only become internalized and intimate, they can become much more seamless, connecting other bodies and the body to the internet. That's an unexpected situation.
Another relation of the body to it's machines has been the generating of images. A lot of our technology is technology that makes images, machines that make images. Up until now these images have been benign, they could be transmitted, but now with the possibility of imbuing images with Artificial Intelligence and artificial life, then you have a situation where intelligent autonomous images can become operational agents for the body. Or put into another way, that these intelligent autonomous and operational images in themselves become a kind of alternate lifeform, or artificial lifeform. A lifeform that can proliferate, replicate, transmit itself on the net. A lifeform that goes beyond the post-human notion of the cyborg. So, the realm of the post-human may no longer resign in Donna Haraway's notion of the cyborg. The realm of post-human may well reside in intelligent autonomous and operational images.
Miss M: Your beautiful head-mounted display was developed for the military and not for artists to use. Nano-technology is for the most part not developed in civilian laboratories, but in military ones.
Stelarc: There are places where research goes on without military funding, and I know of people who have refused to be sucked in by military sponsorship for their research. But even given that some technologies do begin as military devices, that doesn't mean that artists can't undermine and subvert and reuse these technologies in creative ways, that might have much more lasting and interesting spin-offs. I think history is replete with instances like those, where a technology or an energy may have been originally used for militaristic uses, but them becomes something that spreads throughout society as a benign and creative thing. I guess I just don't have a very cynical conspiracy attitude towards the world. Of course technologies can be created that are dangerous and deadly and terminal. And of course there are conspiracies in the world. But to see a conspiracy behind every cooperation and to see a military use for every new technological invention, I think is to have a rather pessimistic view of the world. But if we have to have a pessimistic view of the world than we certainly have to examine the evolutionary design of the human body. Because it's essentially that that causes a lot of the problems. It's our carbon chemistry, our conditioned behavior, it's our evolutionary inclination that stamps us as essentially aggressive creatures.
Miss M: Is your work about pain?
Stelarc: No, it's not about pain. If you were to get pregnant, you wouldn't do it to experience physical pain, but giving birth is a painful experience.
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that all art making is intrinsically painful but rather that in situations and circumstances where you put your body into unpredictable positions, where you are pushing the limits, when you are interfacing it with complex and powerful machines, it may be difficult, it may be dangerous, it may be painful, but those aren't the issues, at least in these performances.
Miss M: Where does your obsession with the body and altering the body and connecting the body come from? Is it some intellectual thing, like trying to find different ways of perceiving the world?
Stelarc: Hmm, people have pointed out that it's maybe just because I feel I have an inadequate body.
I think that was partly due to the fact, that your body simply isn't just this biological entity. It is always being augmented by technology to increase it's power, to extend it's sensory range, to increase it's calculating capabilities through computers, so there was always a feeling that the body needs to be augmented, needs to have technology attached to it, to extend and enhance it's operations.
I have the feeling that the body has in a sense evolved in this way, why should I continue with just two eyes, why should I continue to experience the world as a local space. Why should I only operate and function with only two limbs and hands? I think there is this desire to modify, extend, enhance and augment the body, and that's where it comes from. Whether one sees that as a particular and peculiarly gendered urge or whether one sees it as kind of having biological deficiency. In other words, new technologies and instruments generate new information which in turn produce alternate desires and paradigms of the world. So it's this dynamic of never being quite satisfied with the informational and technological environment you inhabit.
Miss M: Have you ever thought of freezing yourself or downloading yourself onto silicon?
Stelarc: I'm interested in the notion of extending someone's lifespan, and I think this might exponentially occur in the near future. But, this idea of having a modern day embarmingprocess, like freezing your body or your head, which is what's happening at the moment. I am not convinced that the raison d'etre for doing that is right-headed enough. Everything I do leads me not only to feel that this body is peculiarly obsolete, but this body doesn't even have a mind of it's own. And what's important is not what emanates from this body but rather what happens between bodies.
One can construct awareness of an intelligence in two ways, in others ways as well but, from a western view point we are obsessed with ego-driven bodies, that's why Freudian psychoanalysis flourished, we had this idea that something in us, is producing our behavior, something repressed and in the sub-conscious is making us perform in certain ways, or is making us envious or emotional or obsessive or paranoid or whatever. Instead of seeing intelligence or awareness or desire emanating from each individual in an isolated sense: The more I do, the more I feel. What's important is what occurs between people in that social space, in that language which is consensual. At this point of time in this peculiar culture of ours, what we call awareness and intelligence is what happens between us. So it's this exchange that's meaningful, not what an individual emanates, and in fact one can well argue that any individual thought has in fact been manufactured and engineered by countless external forces, impinging upon your body.
When I talk about the body, I don't mean it as a counterdistinction to a mind. For me, a body is this total physiological, phenomenological cerebral package, which interacts with the world, interacts with other bodies and is augmented by technology. It's in those operations, in those situations, in those interfaces and exchanges that intelligence and awareness is generated, not simply from an isolated body. So if we develop this attitude which doesn't have to be spiritual, which doesn't have to be Jungian, which doesn't have to transcendental and mystical at all, if we engage in these kinds of attitudes and operations than a lot of our philosophical problems evaporate, a lot of our personal hang-ups don't have to exist anymore, what's meaningful is interaction, exchange, connectivity, collectivity and that makes the transition to function intelligently on the internet.
For me the internet is seen not merely as a medium of transmitting information, like this Super-information-highway is, rather the internet is a transducer that effects physical action in other bodies in other places, the potency of the internet is, how much one can physically alter bodies at these different modes on the internet.
Miss M: Would you like to replicate and have a Stelarc #2, and then do a performance with yourself in New York and the other you somewhere else? Simultaneously touch yourself?
Stelarc: I'd prefer to do it with another person. I'm kind of old-fashioned, preferably with someone of the opposite gender too.
I have done performances where I have performed with a virtual body. But here the interest was in the idea that you could generate interactivity with a virtual entity, a phantom body.
The virtual body had this kind of animated breath like vibration to it. Also by swaying backwards and forwards we generated a very shallow virtual space, when the body was swayed backwards it would disappear. You had this choreography of the virtual body, that was at the same time mimicking physical movements, had a choreography of mapped virtual camera views, was pulsating with your breathing and was appearing and disappearing as you swayed backwards and forwards. It's that kind of in a sense formal beauty, choreography and mapping a physical to virtual. If that virtual body was imbued with some Artificial Intelligence where it decided whether it would or wouldn't respond to your physical promptings, that might generate another layer of interactivity, and be even more interesting.
These performances have never been about psycho-social exploration. The performances were never about this particular body. The body is seen as an evolutionary object, as a structure rather than a psyche. So with that premise, the performances were about other things. In feminist critique, it is very difficult to get away from the political action, but in these performances there is not a deliberate intentional strategy to make a political stance, either in terms of gender or in terms of artistic practice. In feminist critique, the answer to that statement would be that in trying to be neutral that's a political statement in itself.
One can tautologically argue ad absurdum. The intention of the artist is not to be purely personal or purely political. Now, can you be something other than purely personal or purely political? In the realm of human activity one can well argue that you can't. You're either being personal or political, or both, but you can't be neither.
I have always challenged the things that seem to be un-challengable. Like the notion of free agency, an issue that's touched upon here. I mean, if half of your body is driven remotely and the other half locally controlled already free agency becomes problematic. In fact, although we always generate the illusion of free agency, we would like to think of ourselves as free agents, we would like to feel that we are making a decision by ourselves that will be to our advantage, nonetheless one can well argue that the decision you make today is being the result of lots of external promptings, people impinging, institutional expectations, social expectations, cultural upbringing, this point in time in this historical mode that we are in in these parallel world.
Miss M: You don't believe in any freedom?!
Stelarc: Not in any simplistic sense that somehow you are this free and blithe spirit. No, I don't. Having said all of those things, having said that it's possible to perform without being nostalgic, without being driven by desire, without any emotion, doesn't necessarily mean that I am belittling the human body, belittling the personal or the subjective or even undermining the importance