Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-19518-6.
Does Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head Dream of Electric Sheep?
As I read this collection of essays and interviews I was interrupted by an intriguing item on a local commercial TV news station here in Sydney. The item purported to be a culture/arts feature about a new VR installation featuring a virtual talking head called ‘Stelarc’. This was, of course, a reference to Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head interactive project then on display at a gallery in Western Sydney. What the young reporter failed to note was that the ‘Stelarc’, which was the focus of her feature story, is actually more than a 3D computer generated head that makes awkward conversation and bad jokes with its interlocutors. In fact, ‘Stelarc’ is based on a real person, also named Stelarc, whom the virtual head ‘somewhat resembles’, as Stelarc himself says (231).
As anyone who knows anything about this artist will be immediately aware, this media stuff up is also a deliciously appropriate error for a story on Stelarc, an artist who is perhaps best known for his soundbite, ‘the body is obsolete’. I don’t think this research malfunction at Channel Ten in Sydney was really what he had in mind, though it neatly duplicated his rhetoric in the banal sense of rendering his body redundant to the story about the Prosthetic Head. The head itself became, in the news item, an autonomous virtual entity detached from any relation to the head of the living artist also called ‘Stelarc’, something this latter Stelarc could only dream about.
This news item then superficially resembles a kind of inadvertent broadcast media re-enactment of Stelarc’s cybernetic manifestoes about the problematic status of the body in the information age. While it suggests to viewers that Stelarc has already transcended his body and uploaded his head onto a hard drive in Western Sydney, it is of course doubly misleading. The conjuring away of the material body is not a production of the manifestoes and it is also far from what Stelarc achieves in his performances, although these two aspects of Stelarc’s work, the manifestoes and performances, are often confused or telescoped into each other by critics (or reporters from Channel 10) not familiar with his performance art.
Both are important to his project and have made him one of the most notorious and recognized experimental artists on the planet. Notorious because he is always reminding us of our limited capacities as organic entities in a technological age and recognizable because of what he has done to provide tangible and visible evidence of those limitations. In terms of the former, he provides excellent copy for journalists, interviewers and scholars courtesy of a number of radical and visionary statements about the body and the new environments it faces. However, it is through Stelarc’s performance projects that his theses can be tested and their complexities made often achingly visible, a point emphasized by Jane Goodall in the opening chapter of this collection. Goodall discusses how the two aspects of Stelarc’s opus are a kind of dialogue about the limits of organic forms in technical networks. She examines the pain he experiences in his work, despite the rhetoric of the posthuman. She engages with the fears his writings reproduce and perform even in their deployment of terms like prosthetics, phantoms, zombies and cyborgs.
Ultimately her argument situates Stelarc in the context of the theoretical big picture, beyond questions of technological determinism and posthuman aesthetics and into the thick of an evolutionary crisis in which natural selection, as Ernst Mayr had warned, often fails to ‘prevent extinction’. This observation, Goodall tells us, was the idea that propelled Stelarc’s inquiries beyond the natural and into the various experiments he has subsequently conducted on the body’s responses to alien milieu and to complex technical systems. In this sense of locating the work in the larger context of its own terms, Goodall’s is typical of the best responses in this collection, alongside Brian Massumi’s and Julie Clarke’s. The other contributions are marked by a sense of Stelarc’s work taken very much as a point of departure: the Krokers’ somewhat goofy ficto-critical narratives; Tim Druckrey’s elegant cultural history of techno-fetishism, and Amelia Jones’s arch defence of a feminism that Stelarc, for all we know, basically endorses but which, well, she wants to defend anyway.
Jones’s is perhaps the oddest addition to this collection as, a bit like our teenage TV reporter, it takes Stelarc’s rhetoric quite literally. Jones spends pages of worried and intensely invested prose to argue that Stelarc’s practice as an artist contradicts his obsolete body manifesto, citing Theweleit, de Beauvoir, and Descartes to disprove Stelarc’s every other pronouncement. She seems to be unaware of a tradition of avant-garde manifestoes going back to Futurism and Surrealism which, if taken literally, would rather tend to miss the essential poetics of their message. God knows what she would do with Breton’s manifesto from 1924: ‘Radios? Fine. Syphilis? If you like. Photography? I don’t see any reason why not. The cinema? Three cheers for darkened rooms. War? Gave us a good laugh. The telephone? Hello. Youth? Charming white hair. Try to make me say thank you: “Thank you”. “Thank you.”‘ For all his rational framing of concepts Stelarc remains an experimental artist in the avant-garde tradition. And anyway, it’s not that he wants the body to be hollow to deny its materiality and substance, or to appropriate female reproductive power; it’s that the body in its viscera is hollow, or how could you even insert a sculpture into it? For Stelarc, this is an opportunity to imagine all sorts of useful ways to stuff the body’s hollows with enabling devices. For Jones, it’s an opportunity to have Stelarc stuffed and mounted so that he can’t contradict her somewhat outmoded 80s agenda.
Jones refers to Massumi’s analysis of Stelarc on a number of occasions but she can’t have read it or at least doesn’t seem interested in its key notions: i.e. that Stelarc’s art investigates the body as an intelligent entity with the corollary that intelligence is an embodied phenomenon. Massumi’s is an extensive and theoretically ambitious response to Stelarc that takes key phases of Stelarc’s career as a structuring device for his own meditations. In sections such as ‘The Matter of Intelligence’ it deals with the very early performative sculptures as a point of departure for the idea of a ‘continuum of thought and perception’. This section is a little too abstract to be useful as an analysis of the artist’s work but it contains the occasional insight, such as that Stelarc approaches ‘ideas as materialized thoughts’ and makes ‘them into unthinkable objects &–artefacts that can only be sensed. . .’ (134). This brings together a number of facets of the artwork: the rhetorical sculptures of the manifestoes, the performances and the technical artefacts themselves: sense, thought and extension fused in a technical aesthetic process that is unique in the history of arts and sciences.
The section ‘Suspended Animations’ deals more directly with the suspension events which made Stelarc famous. Massumi offers a contribution to the understanding of the significance of these actions, not simply as avant-garde provocations, but as experiments in redesigning the body’s capacities by ‘using the resident forces of the flesh – its elasticity and strength &–to counteract gravity’ (141). This discussion suggests at the very least an attempt to think with Stelarc’s complexity rather than against it in terms of the performatives of systems rather than subjectivities (which he explicitly states is not the domain of his activity). The discussion of the suspensions as ‘a contrived induction of the conditions of evolution. . . an artful rehearsing of its repetition’ (157) is absolutely right as a summary of Stelarc’s theoretical project and returns us to Goodall’s account.
Julie Clarke provides a rich and elaborate contextualisation of Stelarc’s bio-medical projects, especially the Extra Ear project, and is particularly astute in her determination of the importance of these (however incomplete compared with the suspension events, for example). Clarke suggests that in encountering them, ‘we become alerted to the facts that human bodily material is appropriated every day, trademarked and copyrighted by biomedical corporations. . . and that humanity is redefined everyday’ through such activities (210). This is of course the point of even the most traditional artistic work, to make visible the powerful but otherwise indiscernible aspects of our lives. In these terms Stelarc’s significance as an artist can be understood, not in terms of a craftsman of objects, but as a conceptual artist sketching out the edges of a future we are building without quite knowing it.
Marquard Smith’s interview seems to confirm this reading. It offers a very up to date perspective on the work and importantly does so in Stelarc’s own terms. As Stelarc’s comments here reveal, his understanding of the subtlety and flexibility of symbolic systems frequently exceeds that of his explicators and interlocutors: ‘Intense experiences do make it difficult to draw convenient boundaries between mind and body. When you’re in pain, you are one throbbing body. When you are inserted and interactive with a complex technological array, the issue of whether the body or the machine is in control is erased. It becomes meaningless to ask that kind of question.’ (222) Despite the existence of a variety of misepresentations and misunderstandings of his work, from teenage TV reporters and 80s ideologues, this collection tests but ultimately confirms his significance as one of the key artistic voices and visions of our time.
Edward Scheer lectures in the School of Media, Film and Theatre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is a founding editor of the journal Performance Paradigm and has completed a monograph on Mike Parr’s performance art (forthcoming Schwartz Press, 2007) and edited two books on Antonin Artaud and aesthetics: 100 Years of Cruelty. Essays on Artaud (2000) and Antonin Artaud. A Critical Reader for Routledge (2004). He is co-editor of the books Technologies of Magic. A Cultural Study of Ghosts, Machines and the Uncanny with John Potts (2006) and The Ends of the 60s: Performance, Media and Contemporary Culture with Peter Eckersall (2006). He is chairman of the board of directors of the Performance Space in Sydney, a national centre for contemporary arts and performance. His current Australia Research Council funded project is a study of time and performance in nineteenth century experiments in art and science.