Friday, January 30, 2015

Stelarc: the man with three ears

In case I had not mentioned it, I'm teaching a college class on transhumanism.

Well, it's transhumanism with an emphasis on ethics but the students are still being subjected to gleefully learning about stuff that I'm fascinated by, such as robotics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. In addition to ethics, I really am trying to get across the "human" half of that compound word, "transhuman." One avenue through which I've tried to approach this, at least with one student, is by dropping the name of Stelarc.

I've blogged about him before, but here is a video of Stelarc and his work. He is an artist who sees his body as a canvas and augments himself with technology in an effort to show not only where we are going but where we already are. Or as he is flippantly described at the previous link: "a Greek weirdo who lives in Australia and has been screwing with his body in the furtherance of art, technology, and cyborg rights."

I like this better: the term "cyberpunk" was invented for Stelarc.

Here is Stelarc delivering a manifesto of sorts from the video:

"We're in an age now where bodies are blurring. We can indefinitely preserve a corpse. We can sustain a comatose person on a technological life support system. Cryogenically-preserved bodies are awaiting re-animation. Blood that is circulating in my body now might be circulating in your body tomorrow. We can engineer new kinds of chimeric architectures in vitro, grow tissues and insert stem cells in vivo, so we're really at a time of the cadaver, the comatose, and the chimera."

As a performance artist, Stelarc takes his inspiration from numerous transhuman sources, chief among them being robotics, cybernetic augmentation, computer programming, and surgical enhancement. In 1993, he basically developed his own endoscopy device and titled the piece "Stomach Sculpture." He graduated from there to art pieces such as "Extended Arm" (pictured above) to "Robotic Exoskeleton" and all the way up until the pièce de résistance of his artistic portfolio: "The Third Ear." Through the wonders of biotechnology, Stelarc had a third ear implanted on his left arm.

Let me say that one more time. The guy got a third ear implanted on him. No foolin', no fakin', no posin'. This guy is cyberpunk.

Granted, it's only the relief of an ear right now, but it's cloned from his own tissues. The eventual plan according to Stelarc is to grow the ear out more and then remove it so that electronics can be attached. These will include a tiny microphone with a wireless receiver. The ear would be "internet-enabled" in any WiFi hot spot. Through that, we could all hear what Stelarc's ear is hearing from any point in the world. He understands the risks inherent with the surgeries and still proceeds with no intent to indemnify should all go wrong.

Confused as to why he's doing this? You're not alone. That much is obvious from the video as one art patron asks if the ear "is an erotic area."

Speaking of such things, Stelarc describes how he got together with his girlfriend, Nina. They met in a morgue while she was carrying a human arm. Badass. Of course with the whole ear thing, one wonders if he could grow other additional...organs.

More than anything, Stelarc asserts that he wants his art to make us question or at least re-examine what it means to be human. Are the concepts of the body and the mind really antiquated notions? Deep questions for certain and I'm glad he is asking them, but I'm intrigued about a more practical aspect of his work. Towards the end of the video, Stelarc is shown speaking with visitors to his exhibition. One of them was a tiny man in a wheelchair with a cane across his lap. What if this work that Stelarc is doing leads to a breakthrough in biotechnology that can help that man? Will the art still look weird and frivolous?

Weird? Sure. But frivolous? Ask the guy who can get up and walk out of the chair.

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