The Body Without Memory: An Interview with Stelarc

Event Scenes

The Body Without Memory:
An Interview with Stelarc

A body has a matrix of meaning imprinted on it from the external world, which influences all its behavior, even on a neurological level. The interface: man-machine, erases perceptual meaning, revitalizing a body long considered in err, and ruled by rationality.

When Stelarc, the Australian performance artist, began his suspension experiments in the seventies, his skin became the medium for experimentation. These mostly private performances were quiet, and completed with surgical precision. Despite the austerity of the performance, on a behavioral level, great excitement was generated. The subject that is the spectacle is the artist who will inflict bodily harm on himself in his performance. The audience physiologically reacts as the hooks become visibly close to his body. As an anticipation of pain, the audience member’s skin crawls, or a lump amasses in their throat. These are autonomous responses of the body being stimulated by the performance, despite not being under direct threat, the audience continues to feel the sensations associated with duress. On a physiological level the audience’s body is the same as Stelarc’s and goes through a simulated physical response.

Stelarc was naked, his skin from shoulders to near his kneecaps, had hooks inserted with wires that ran through mounted pulleys that tugged and stretched his skin as he was raised up. A hook pulling the flesh is an action illustrating form-stimulus interacting with the body. The event of pain is a complex system of bodily activity set off from nerve endings. However, there is no emotion in nerve-endings, a pain sensation is not a subjective response of the consciousness controlled by the mind. Although the suspension event is not rudimentary to the body, the reaction of the body is part of a predictable pattern of reaction. The hook acting as the stimulus penetrates skin and breaks the spatial dimensions that would normally constitute it as form. Often the mind will appreciate the thing-ness of an object and think of it as foreign or outside of its body. Human senses appreciate the hook’s weight, curvature and silver sheen. We make a logical leap to cognize that it is a hook. Still we may believe that this form is outside of our body even though our eyes and hands see and touch it. As the hook penetrates flesh it becomes a very physical extension of the body, where the skin begins to stretch as the force of gravity interacts with the mass that is Stelarc’s frame. He may feel numbness as he is first raised. The shock experience when stimulated is a calming reaction; pulse is slowed, blood flow is diminished. Pain follows the numbness as the body settles on a reaction to the hook’s new relationship with it.

That is where to begin. To understand Stelarc’s art-making process and the performance itself, the audience must become attenuated to their own phenomenological experience. As Stelarc stresses in his experimental work, the mind is not self-contained, even though it can create a language to describe the experience. The mind is only privy to mimesis, it consolidates and cognizes sensory data. This raw sense data is a combination of space, colour, depth, and weight. Form is achieved when the sense organs and mind recognize that all the traits of the stimulus are seemingly static and whole, the mind then totalizes the form by employing language giving it an absolute name like, “hook.”[1] The form’s characteristics stimulate and set a challenge for the sense organ to adapt. For example, the eye’s pupil becomes dilated in a dark room and reciprocally contracts in a brightened room. Under these fluid situations, the eye is in tension, which is a state of disequilibrium. According to phenomenological thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, balance is not determined solely by the mind, but it is a reaction to the form-stimulus by the sense organs and nervous system, which create nerve pathways (inner horizon) that help the sense organs adapt to the stimulus and recognize its dimensions as unique amongst others (global event) which the mind cognizes as a specific form (modality).[2]

Stelarc’s art, often referred to as cyborg experiments, integrates inorganic matter with his body by renewing the neural activity that maintains equilibrium. By extending his body through heuristic machines, Stelarc redesigns and remaps perception. While his suspension events are worthy of debate, Stelarc’s later experiments with multimedia stimuli and the body and ideas concerning artificial intelligence will be the objects of focus. Ping Body an Internet Actuated and Uploaded Performance and ParaSite for Invaded and Involuntary Body are performances that occurred from 1995-98 and his artificial life experiment Movatar an Inverse Motion Capture System is on-going.

The objectification of the body, a theory that informs Stelarc’s cyborg experiments, is not actually a modern idea. The body as a machine, is a theory that is tied to the work of the seventeenth century thinker Rene Descartes.[3] In 1637, Descartes published the Discourse on Method . The body is composed of only mechanical functioning, wrote Descartes. The body and mind were distinctly separate for Descartes, who thought the body a machine, to be informed by the higher order rationality of the mind, that was imbued with pneuma (breath of God or soul).[4] Stelarc’s body and mind have been hollowed out from this dualistic theory. It does not mean he is an atheist, as if his mind or soul does not exist. Rather, he revitalizes the body with respect to consciousness.

“This body is a thinking-moving body, and this body doesn’t deny that it is capable of more subtle and invisible behaviour than the gross instinctual moves that it makes simply with its own internal nervous system and biology,” states Stelarc, whom I interviewed recently in Vancouver where a retrospective of his performances was part of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit, “The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture.”

In Ping Body an Internet Actuated and Uploaded Performance Stelarc interfaced his body with the Internet via electrodes, whose electrically charged involuntary movements were related to the stimulation caused by the Net traffic. On a physiological level, the body is composed of muscles, tendons, joints and the inner ear, which achieve a spatial balance or equilibrium through proprioceptors sensory receptors that react to the inner stimulation from the nervous system that organizes the nerve pathways for response.[5] These pathways are excited both internally and externally and are regulated by the encephalon located in the spine and brain. The encephalon only adjusts the internal voltage to stimulate muscle reaction. This regulates the chronaxie the speed and voltage at which a muscle or nerve fibre is stimulated. While the inner stimulation is electrical in nature, Stelarc is adding additional electricity or an increase to the chronaxie of the muscles that causes involuntary movement, unregulated by the encephalon Since the nerve pathways have yet to be constructed for additional voltage, there is a state of disequilibrium that literally shocks the body into a state of confusion. The result is an involuntary muscle spasm.

“I mean effectively the body and the machine become one operational system. There is a psychological collapse in distance and time,” he says. “In this body’s interaction with the world, it performs more or less subtle and sophisticated actions whose feedback either affirms or negates previous behaviours.”

Thereby, the body is redesigned through technology, as perception adjusts to meet the challenge set out by the stimulus at a neurological level. Now if the spatial distances between form and body collapse, so alters consciousness. Technology is related to techne an ancient Greek term that means both the activities of a craftsman and art of the mind.[6] Martin Heidegger points out that technology, in a time prior to Cartesian thought, was considered as a mode of revelation. Heidegger reasserts this poetic calling forth in the German word ge-stell that defines modern technology and its interface with humanity.[7] While we create technology, it reciprocally challenges us and reorganizes perception in the revelation of its use.

“You look at the body as an evolutionary object for operation and awareness in the world, and you imagine by altering its architecture you might adjust it’s awareness, it’s perception, and of course that is what is happening with technology,” says Stelarc. “This biological body’s operational hardware is constantly being added to, extended, amplified, so thus, it’s not surprising that we have a different perception of the world then in the past.”

When Stelarc conceived ParaSite for Invaded and Involuntary Body the event furthered the symbiotic relationship between man and technology. Similar to Ping the body is connected to the Internet, but in this performance a search engine selects random body images that act as optical stimulation and then the image jpg’s are reprocessed as electricity for muscle stimulation. In this way the simulated visual body, or metabody, moves the actual body. This demonstration evokes Heidegger’s ge-stell as the Internet-generated metabody orders the human towards a revelation of its function. The actual body then becomes a parasite to the parallel virtual world, which is both form and the body extended.[8] What is interesting to (en)vision is that the primary function of the mind, mimesis, or representation and ordering of reality, is produced externally. Consciousness exists from the outside as well as within, which is quickly becoming anaesthetized.

Stelarc states:

The realization of the body’s obsolescence is not necessarily affirming a Cartesian duality. This body in ‘being the world,’ (Heidegger’s term) in functioning and performing in the world experiences certain interactions that expose its limitations that expose its biological parameters and interfaces.”

A further split of consciousness is identified in Movatar, an Inverse Motion Capture System Stelarc’s untested, theoretical model. In this demonstration, Stelarc records the body, as cameras with body markers or electromagnetic sensors record its movements and positions, and these are grafted onto a virtual host or avatar. However, this experiment is not solely an act of disembodiment, because from its initial creator existing in the physical world, this virtual body can act more spontaneously if a Ping — like software program could randomize its movements. Stelarc’s Movatar is ideally imbued with what is called artificial life and can actuate itself through one if not many other bodies existing in the physical world.

At this juncture, there is a note to be made about Cartesian dualism and Stelarc’s theory. The human being cannot be reduced to its reactions with external stimuli, so the Movatar is not the same type of complex system as the human, but is really a composite of mimetic gestures. With Movatar’s randomising software, Stelarc has theoretically created a headless body which feeds off the external world, reacting and adapting its body to stimulus. This is another type of consciousness altogether non-human, despite its source blueprint.

There is little attention being given to the internal world that helps to explore the wider matrix of being, the calling-forth of the external world (global event) which sets the challenge to which the mind-body reacts. While machines can process information faster and can randomise actions, the machines have limited stabilizing capacities. As critical thinker Hubert L. Dreyfuss contends, a computer program’s cognitive skills are expressively restricted to operations and variables. These units and the ordering of them give the computer its meaning, whereas, a human action, like a reflex gesture to turn away, or to have a lump amass in one’s throat is both externally stimulated, as when the audience reacted to the suspended Stelarc (global event); and an autonomous reaction on a neurological level based on the maintenance of equilibrium under times of duress or tension (inner horizon); and finally the cognitive solution of object relation to mind as based on perception on a neurological level (modality).[9]

The body maintains a dynamic tension with the outside world that imprints itself on human consciousness. But, it is through the poetic challenge of technology that humanity finds revelation through the utilization of form. Stelarc’s Ping and ParaSite performances show how the disruption of equilibrium will erase the predictable physical response, as the neural pathways are not prepared for the additional electricity that shocks the body into spasms. This is a perversion of the body that anesthetizes its inner world, and gives consciousness a chaotic jolt towards disequilibrium. Stelarc distrusts the suggested cognitive solution to consciousness. The next phase of evolution will not be contained by rationality and dualism, rather the body will be without memory, and without the ‘thinging’ mind to contain it, and this is where the real fun begins.

Notes

[1] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Structure of Behaviour , Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, p. 47.

[2] Merleau-Ponty. p. 51.

[3] Judovitz, Dalia. The Culture of the Body: Genealogies of Modernity , Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2001, p. 68.

[4] Judovitiz. pp. 73-74.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, M. The Structure of Behaviour , pp. 47-49.

[6] Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays , New York: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 12-13.

[7] Heidegger. pp. 19-21.

[8] An untitled article that is written by Stelarc and published on his personal website: http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/articles/index.html

[9] Dreyfuss, H. What Computers Still Can’t Do , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 238-255.

Mark Fernandes is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Canada. He writes mainly about religion and philosophy.