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Meet the Australian ‘techno-artist’ growing a web-connected ear on his arm

There’s a body in Perth, Australia, one of the most remote cities on Earth, transmitting signals about how other bodies will behave in the future. It’s an unassuming body, bald-headed and fit, complete with organs and limbs in all their preordained places. Plus one.

On the fleshy side of the left forearm there’s an impression of an ear, emerging from the skin as if punching through from the netherworld. It’s bulbous, life-sized, firm to the touch. Pockets of biomaterial and porous Polyethylene form divots and contours around its edges. Living cells, blood vessels, and tissue have moved in, permeated the pores of the surgical implant, and made the extra ear an inarguable part of this man’s body. Today it’s a replica, a relief, rather than a functioning organ. But if all goes as planned, by year’s end it will be connected to the internet, equipped with electronic circuits and a microphone so anyone, anywhere can tune in to the sounds around it.

Ear on Arm is an ongoing endeavor by the artist known as Stelarc, whose eccentric performances put his mortal form in the indifferent grip of technology. Stelarc sees the modern body as a “chimera of meat, metal, and code,” and uses it as the map, the vessel, and the uncharted territory to be explored. Each ensuing experiment pushes the boundaries of his physicality and gives us a glimpse at the ways we’ll engage with the hyperconnected world.

“I’ve always been interested in comparative anatomies,” Stelarc told Digital Trends at the BodyHacking Conference in Austin earlier this year. “Not only the human body but also insects and other animals. All living things interact very differently with the world. We all have different capabilities. We all manipulate and operate in more or less subtle ways. That always fascinated me, and so the body became a convenient location of experimentation.”

“The body is a convenient location of experimentation.”

Over more than forty years, Stelarc’s art has put his body into precarious positions — both physically and conceptually — with visceral performances that probe the many tensions between man and machine.

In 1985, he was tethered to a construction crane by steel wires and body hooks, 100 feet above Copenhagen, Denmark. The crowd below seemed silent. Hanging in suspension, Stelarc heard only the whistle of the wind and the creaking of his stretched skin.

Thirty years later, in a performance called Propel, Stelarc was strapped onto an industrial robot arm in a factory in a suburb of Perth, then flipped and twirled like a human pinwheel for over half-an-hour. An anxious engineer stood near a control box, poised to smash the “kill switch” lest a glitch caused the robot to revert to its nesting position with artist still in tow.

stelarc explores the possibilities of body 3  ear on arm suspension
Polixeni Papapetrou

During a marathon performance that same year, the artist donned a video headset, noise-canceling headphones, and a partial exoskeleton in an act of abandoning his “eyes,” “ears,” and “arm” to the Other. The artist toured London through a video feed sent to his headset, as impromptu videographers carried a camera are town. Audio from New York City filled his headphones with sounds of traffic, chatter, and shuffling feet. His right arm contorted involuntarily, controlled over the internet by digital puppeteers. The performance, Re-wired/Re-mixed, spanned five consecutive days, six hours a day. Stelarc took one break to urinate.

The artist is often hooked up to contact mics that amplify the internal audio of his body. But noisy as his art may be, he isn’t necessarily trying to say anything through his performances. Instead he says he’s making “gestures” towards strange possibilities of the human body, dragging technology down an unpaved path to augmented, alternative anatomies.

Which highlights the two most common threads that run through his work: exploitations of the body and apparent apathy towards technology. To the average viewer, his performances are fraught with uncertainty. They’re the sort of thing you’d spend weeks preparing for. And yet Stelarc says he rarely prepares. His performative face is almost always that of a man at a bus stop with no particular place to go — unconcerned even if his ride will arrive. The rare wince you might catch is more likely the result of an electrode zapping his body into motion than some existential distress. When sic-fi author William Gibson met Stelarc, he said the artist “struck me as one of the calmest people I’d ever met.”

“I approach these performances with a posture of indifference,” Stelarc said. “Indifference as in being open to possibilities of minimizing expectations and allowing the performance to unfold in its own time, with its own rhythm.”

Apathy is arguably the most authentic mindset in which to survey the meeting of man and machine. Today’s consumers are groomed to purchase the latest device, but little within our DNA prepares us to take on each next technological leap and we aren’t especially discrete about how we adopt tech into our lives. Negligent indifference could be the tag line of our digital age.

Ad agencies roll out algorithmic targeting, apparently unconcerned about its potential impact on the psyche. Consumers adopt new products without caution or conceit, like infants given a grenades to play with. Apple has been accused of failing to protect the Chinese workers who manufacture their products, and yet consumers continue to buy their products. Plenty of Facebook users were well aware of the company’s complicity and shoddy privacy policies, even before the wake of the Cambridge Analytical scandal, and yet most have stayed logged in.

Stelarc’s performances are caricatures of our relationship with technology.

Stelarc’s performances are like caricatures of our relationship with technology, carnival mirrors that reflect distorted forms of the human-machine intimacy.

In Re-wired/Re-mixed, the 2015 performance that saw Stelarc decked out like a Gibsonian cyborg, the artist offered himself to strangers, allowing them to command his senses. Throughout the 1990’s Stelarc engaged in similar internet acts, such as 1995’s Ping Body, during which his muscles were stimulated in accordance with ping response times from 40 global locations, effectively turning his body into a “barometer of internet activity.”

In 2000, Stelarc wore an upper-body exoskeleton controlled by a genetic algorithm in a performance called Movatar. Through random mutations, the genetic code forced the artist and the metal apparatus into an involuntary choreography. A panel of control pedals on the floor gave Stelarc some degree of moderation over his movements, enabling him to modulate but not fully neutralize the system when things got too hectic. In a more recent performance, 2017’s StickMan, the artist wore a full-body, algorithmically controlled exoskeleton, fitted with microphones that amplified the sound of the moving limbs.

Today, algorithms pull the strings on our everyday lives, curating what we buy on Amazon, watch on Youtube, and read on Facebook. The social media giant’s infamous social experiment highlighted the interplay between our news feed and our emotions.

Evan Selinger, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology and co-author of the book Re-Engineering Humanity,  thinks these technologies have the power to corrupt our very identities.

“Technology affects our humanity because it impacts of senses…our thoughts…and how we think,” he said. “It impacts our decisions, including our judgement, attention, and desires. It impacts our ability to be citizens, what were informed about and how we stay informed. It impacts our relationships… It even impacts our fundamental understanding of what it means to be human, who we are, and what we should strive to become.”

Where many people see our dystopian future play out as a robotic revolt, Selinger said his concern “is that we are going to be programmed to want to be placed in environments that are so diminishing of our agency and deliberation that we outsource our emotions and capacities for connection.”

In an inversion of a gamer playing a video game character, Stelarc has turned himself into a real-life avatar played by an algorithm. Through compounded feedback loops, classical conceptions of the self are broken down, raising questions about agency and control that are ever more poignant in today’s hyperconnected society.

“With all of these performances [I was] blurring the distinction between the biological, technical, and virtual,” Stelarc said. “And increasingly now we’re expected to perform in these mixed realities. So how do we seamlessly slide between these operational modes? I mean, we’re all doing it in some way or another.”