The smart body laughs

Edward Scheer on the Stelarc phenomenon

Stelarc and the exoskeleton

Stelarc and the exoskeleton

Stelarc and the exoskeleton

The laugh starts somewhere deep in the body and you can hear it on its journey through the chest and throat before it bursts out of the mouth of the artist like an alien creature. Then it vanishes and you wait for it to re-appear. The famous laugh of Stelarc has a life and reputation of its own, paralleling that of the artist himself. It seems natural enough but can he produce it at will? Is it the body’s natural expression surfacing or a performative behaviour designed to counter the expectations of a contemporary audience desiring outrage, extreme technical detail, physically dangerous actions and any of the other provocations associated with Stelarc’s work over the last 20 years. These questions of the performative are repeatedly raised in his work and they surfaced again at his presentation to the recent dLuxevent at the Museum of Sydney where Stelarc presented elements of his most recent work and offered the assembled a reading of it in his offhand, almost apologetic way (maybe it’s because he knows that the laugh is imminent…).

Despite such a distinctive laugh, Stelarc always depersonalises the experience of his body; he always refers to it as “The body” rather than “My body” and this is consistent with his sense of it as an organisation of structural components infused with intelligence, a smart machine. But what separates his thesis from, say the discourse of VW Kombi owners, is the idea that the body is not simply a vehicle to transport a disembodied consciousness through space/time. As Stelarc said, “We’ve always been these zombies behaving involuntarily” and this is partly why we have such endemic fears about the discourse of the body that his work opens up as it exposes the primal fear of the zombie, bodies animated by a distant alien intelligence (Descartes for example) in our imagining of the body and its function. On the other hand he raises the anxiety of the cyborg, for instance in his most recent explorations of the physical system in his Exoskeleton project which features “a pneumatically powered six-legged walking machine actuated by arm gestures.” The clumsy but alarmingly sudden movements of the machine compose the sounds it makes with those of the body into a kind of live soundtrack. This merging of the body’s sounds with those of the mechanical milieu into an ‘accompaniment’ to the performance is a signature element of Stelarc’s aesthetics in recent years and underscores his interest in the cybernetic potentials of art and behaviour.

One of the topics raised in the panel discussion (Chris Fleming, UTS; Jane Goodall, UWS; Vicki Kirby, UNSW; Gary Warner, CDP Media) following Stelarc’s presentation centred on the anxiety his work seems to provoke in audiences. Both the figure of the zombie and that of the cyborg disturb insofar as they seem to displace our sense of the humanistic self. Stelarc relentlessly pushes this concept to the margins and the space he opens in the field of body imaging and performance is breathtaking and a little scary for humanists because it is a field of future possibility and becoming rather than being and nostalgia.

Stelarc’s ideas were presented to his usual packed house—no doubt attributable to a combination of his appeal and the dLux organisational flair—who were shown video footage of recent and projected future work including Extra Ear. Much more will be said of this extremely controversial project which involves the ‘prosthetic augmentation’ of the human head (Stelarc’s) to fit another ear which could speak as well as listen by re-broadcasting audio signals, or just “whisper sweet nothings to the other ear” as Stelarc said so disarmingly. His other work-in-progress is the Movatar project which is an attempt to extend the use of digital avatars (virtual semi-autonomous bodies) to access the physical body (Stelarc’s) to perform actions in the real world. In this event, the body itself would become the prosthetic device. Yet none of this would be the same without the presence of the artist himself, with the big charming smile and booming laugh, animating a discussion which is sometimes too close to a tech-head’s wet dream. There is a necessary embodiment here of which Stelarc, as a performer, is acutely aware: “These ideas emanate from the performances. Anyone can come up with the ideas but unless you physically realise them and go through those experiences of new interfaces and new symbioses with technology and information, then it’s not interesting for me.” For Stelarc it is the task of physical actions to authenticate the ideas.

In her excellent and encyclopaedic study of contemporary performance art in Australia, Body and Self (OUP), Anne Marsh situates Stelarc in the recent history of the body in Australian performance in terms of a deconstructive journey from the opposition of body as truth/body as artefact, based on a dichotomy separating the natural from the cultural, to the place where these boundaries blur. From catharsis to abreactive process, from technophobia to the cyborg. In fact Stelarc is emblematic in this trajectory. Yet he has been widely misunderstood and misrecognised: as an uber shaman, who talks of the end of the organic body while performing elaborate rituals of pain and transgression of pain on the body in his 25 body suspension events (“with insertions into the skin”) of the 70s and 80s; a kind of electric butoh practitioner in his Fractal Flesh and Ping Body events; and more recently a “nervous Wizard of Oz strapped into the centre of a mass of wires and moving machinery.” (The Age, January 1 1999)

Stelarc has consistently challenged the way our culture has imagined the body, whether it is seen as a sacred object, a fetish of the natural, an organic unity…and the culture hasn’t always kept pace with him. Marsh’s book is also guilty of this as it attempts to situate Stelarc in terms of an enunciation of a particular subjectivity rather than reading it in its own terms. While Stelarc is certainly of the generation of major artists who have used the body as the work of art itself (Jill Orr, Mike Parr), manipulated it as an artefact rather than as a biological given (and therefore a kind of destiny) he is more concerned with the cybernetic body than with subjectivity, and more involved with pluralising and problematising the ways we speak of bodies and imagine them, and how we get them to do things and how they might move differently.

But I wanted to ask Stelarc and the panelists about what animates us? What of the emotive as well as the locomotive? These are questions of affect and energy which this type of work cannot really address and maybe we shouldn’t insist that it does because in so many other ways it is pushing us into new territory. Instead Jane Goodall raised the notion of motivation in relation to movement and suggested that Stelarc disconnects the links between them, so that motion becomes mechanical rather than psychological and does not reflect the motivation of the mover. A manifestation, she said, of the unravelling of evolutionary thinking.

So is Stelarc a post-evolutionary thinker? Well perhaps he is a post-evolutionary artist…As he is fond of saying, Stelarc is interested in finding ways for the human system to interact more effectively with the increasingly denaturalised environment this system finds itself in, and extending the body’s capacities for useful (and useless) action. And don’t forget this latter point. It’s easy to get caught up in Stelarc’s spiel, brilliant and provocative as it is; it is nonetheless an artist’s statement and the suggestive utility of much of his thinking should not stop us enjoying the spectacle of a genuinely creative mind at work and a laugh which is so richly suggestive of Stelarc’s profoundly ambiguous view of the world.

The laugh returns us to the basic contradiction of all Stelarc’s actions in their return to the image of the artist’s body in a way which reinforces the effect of its presence and its adaptive capacities. If the body really were obsolete, Stelarc would be of no greater ongoing cultural relevance than Mr. Potato Head. Adaptivity is the real message but Stelarc knows that obsolescence is a better long term sales strategy.

Stelarc: extra ear | exoskeleton | avatars, presented by dLux media arts and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Museum of Sydney, February 20

RealTime issue #30 April-May 1999 pg. 18

© Ed Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 April 1999