The Body Is Obsolete: Interview with Stelarc

/Voiceworks, #62, Spring 2005/

Authors Note: I discovered recently that this interview does not exist online so I decided to repost it here. There is something appropriate about considering Stelarc’s relation to embodiment as we process are hypermediated isolation during the Covid-19 epidemic.

In his visceral and often violent speculations on technology’s massive power to dissect and reconfigure the human form, visual-performance artist Stelarc has never shied away from putting his own body on the line. In the last thirty years, he’s dangled 60 metres in the air with hooks through his skin, had his movements controlled by a mechanical exoskeleton; and inserted a sculpture 30cms into his stomach.

“IMG_6400” by we-make-money-not-art is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

His latest work, Blender, is a co-production with artist Nina Sellers. It consists of a churning, spherical vat half-full of subcutaneous fat cut from the pair’s bodies. Stelarc describes it as a ‘choreography of blending and bubbling’, resulting in a ‘liquid body’. On opening night, it looked like an elaborate bowl of carrot soup. I begin the interview by asking him if it’s really just an attempt to use an arts grant to fund liposuction.

Stelarc: I spent $10,000 dollars of my own money just on the operation. What you see in the blender is worth $10,000.

Really? Is it insured?

And the blender itself, the exhibition and the fabrication of the compressed air has probably cost another $5,000. You’re seeing $15,000 dollars of my own money, not arts-funded. People sometimes forget that artists are committed enough to go both physically and financially out on a limb.

Maybe, um, we should talk about the …

The Suspension performances? (laughs)

Well maybe we should. I read on your website that you say ‘The Body is Obsolete’. Could you explain this?

Well, by stretching the skin high above New York and Copenhagen, the Suspension performances were an attempt to explore the body’s physical and psychological limits. So the suspended body was very much ‘The Obsolete Body’.

The Third Hand was an attempt to not just explore the limitations of the body, but to extend the body in some way. It was attached as a prosthesis not as a result of lack – it wasn’t a replacement for an amputee – but as a desire for excess. So the body with the third hand was ‘The Augmented Body’. Subsequently, the body with the internal Stomach Sculpture was ‘The Invaded Body’, and the body with the externally programmed body movements was ‘The Involuntary Body’.

So the body is only obsolete in certain contexts?

People seem to assume that these performances are about a desire to get rid of the body altogether, but that’s not the case. When I say ‘The Body is Obsolete’, I mean that the body in this form, with these functions, is inadequate.

“IMG_6397” by we-make-money-not-art is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It doesn’t mean that we can be disembodied. This is not some kind of transhumanist, transcendental yearning to get rid of the body altogether. Rather, it’s saying that we can reengineer the body, modify the body and construct alternate body architectures.

What’s your ideal vision for the modified human body?

Well there has never been an ideal or utopian vision of the body. When you do things with expectations, reality collapses. You make certain assumptions and there’s a certain predictable outcome. Rather, my work has been an attempt to construct projects and perform with a posture of indifference. When you do something with indifference you try to allow the world to unfold – you try to allow the performance or the project to animate itself.

In what ways do your observations and experimentations suggest the human body will change in coming years?

I think what we’re seeing now are a number of alternate strategies or trajectories for change that have been generated by technology. On the one hand you have the medical-military model of the cyborg body that has more and more life support systems continually attached or implanted inside it. On the other hand you have the increasing development of artificial intelligence and artificial life; alternate sorts of systems that might become interactive and responsive to their environment and to other human bodies.

Then you have some other intriguing possibilities. As technology becomes increasingly micro-miniaturised, we may see that the cyborg body will play host to all of this technology. So instead of bodies being in a landscape of machines, machines will roam a landscape of soft tissue, cellular structures and circulatory systems. The other possibility is what’s happening now, where the internet functions as a kind of external nervous system that connects myriad remote bodies. Here, the body is a node of operation in a larger artificial brain composed of all other networked bodies and machines.

“Unfortunately, the history of this planet doesn’t work on equal access. It’s simplistic to think that somehow everything develops equally at a steady pace and that there’s gradual and positive progress.”

I wonder how universal these visions can be when such an enormous gap in access to technology divides those in the Western crust from the rest of the human species?

Absolutely, and there are all sorts of dilemmas. Unfortunately, the history of this planet doesn’t work on equal access. It’s simplistic to think that somehow everything develops equally at a steady pace and that there’s gradual and positive progress.

One of the things that Paul Virilio points out is that with every new technology, there’s a new kind of accident. Now he sees this in a totally negative sense, but I don’t see it as negative at all, because technology then is not the technocratic phenomenon that merely enables bodies in different sorts of ways. Rather, technology is a destabilising medium that actually forces us to reconstruct our paradigm of the world.

“Image” by pdax is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

We have to be aware that the relationship between the body and technology is quite complex. As the technological terrain becomes more and more complex, it also generates more and more constraints. A mundane example is that now, with technology, I can easily accelerate my body to 100 kilometres an hour. But even as I travel from one place to another very quickly, there is a proliferation of rules, regulations and constraints that I have to be subservient to. I have to physically restrain my body in the car, right? I have to stop at red lights. I have to travel on the left side of the road.

I think it’s simplistic to believe that in a technological terrain we can be totally free. In fact, I don’t think we ever really did have free agency. The human agent has always been a zombie; it’s never really had a mind of its own. And it’s already become a cyborg, because it’s already connected to technology. So we fear what we have always been and what we’ve already become.

You deny human beings’ free agency, but you still talk about the ‘I’ being constrained while the body is destabilised by technology. What might this self or ‘I’ be then?

I think that it’s just a convenient construction that we locate notions of self, mind and intelligence within a body. Expressions of the self occur between you and me; within the language that we speak, within the social institutions that we operate in, and within the culture that’s conditioned us. When I was a kid I read a book by Herbert Simons called The Sciences of the Artificial. In one of the chapters, Simons was trying to explain systemic intelligence, and he said that if you watch ants, they seem awfully intelligent. They scurry here, they move food over there, they seemingly collaborate socially and you go ‘Wow, how come such a simple creature can perform such intelligent operations?’

When you examine an ant you eventually realise that it might go in one direction until it hits an obstacle and that’s when it changes direction, or it might go in one direction until it finds food and then it goes back to its nest. The complexity of the ant is not due to its internal motivations or desires, or notions of a self, brain or mind. This complex pattern of behaviour is actually made up of very, very simple behaviours which express the complexity of the environment.

To a large degree it’s the same for human beings – except that our behaviour is not only structured by the physical environment, but also by our social institutions and our cultural conditioning. It’s those things, and our relationship to technology, that enmesh with our genetic repertoire of behaviour to enable us to perform these complex and seemingly intelligent operations.

“I think that it’s just a convenient construction that we locate notions of self, mind and intelligence within a body. Expressions of the self occur between you and me; within the language that we speak, within the social institutions that we operate in, and within the culture that’s conditioned us.”

“Image” by pdax is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Is there any worth, then, to the human species, or are we just functional nodes in systems beyond our control and understanding?

Of course you value human operations, human interactions, human culture. But what I think is exciting is the possibility of hybridity, of human-machine interface, the possibility of alternate life forms and the possibility for alternate intelligence and logic that is generated by these new technological directions.

This vision of the human species and its future is quite particular to you.

I’ve been very, very uneasy about appropriating simplistic sci-fi speculations about the future. They’re often the result of writers taking present day technology and simply projecting them a little bit this way or that. As an artist, what’s intriguing is to actualise something – to directly experience it, and then to be in a position of authenticity to speak more meaningfully about it.

There is a website that has proclaimed you as one of the first artists to bring futurism into cyberspace. What do you think of this?

Well, certainly there were projects and performances … but, I mean, I’ve been just as equally acknowledged in the piercing and body modification communities. As an artist you do things, and sometimes they’re acknowledged in different ways and generate different sorts of associations. I think it’s the height of arrogance and self-centredness that somehow anyone would consider themselves a ‘key figure’.

What you do [as an artist] is an aggregate of a history and culture that you’ve inherited, and a kind of individual contribution as well. Others will go beyond that and contribute equally. What I find interesting about art is that anyone can contribute meaningfully, because art is about the individual articulation of aesthetics and concepts.

Stelarc is hoping Blender will overcome biohazard issues and make a national tour of Australia. For more information about Stelarc and his art projects, go to