(full version of a talk for the symposium: The Science of Stelarc
, at the School of Design and Art, Curtin University, Perth (Australia), 19 June 2013)
Dr. Andreas Broeckmann
Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany
Four Scenarios for Extended and Encapsulated Bodies
1. Three Layers of the "Stelarc" Phenomenon
I would like to begin with the question about whom, or about what, we speak when we speak about "Stelarc". There is, of course, an artist by that name, with an oeuvre of artistic performances, technical contraptions and corporeal interventions, all executed on the body of the artist himself. And the artist speaks about the motivations and experiences that accompany the realisation of these works.
Who or what we speak about as "Stelarc", is a particularly awkward question to ask in the artist's presence – apologies for that –, but it is no less awkward than trying to find a way to speak about the artwork that Stelarc not only "does", but "is". – He reminds us of this split, or dispersal, whenever he seems to talk about his own experience, but what he says is "the Body", and that "the Body" does, feels, endures.
I have no solution for this problem, but I would like to propose that we should be careful to differentiate between at least three layers or instantiations of the Stelarc phenomenon, namely, (a.) the person who develops and performs the works, (b.) the subject of these performances, and (c.) the individual who reflects and speaks about the work. However arbitrary such an analytical distinction may seem, I believe that it helps to grasp the phenomenon in its full aesthetic complexity. Most urgently, I think it is necessary to understand Stelarc's own discourse not as a privileged discourse about the artistic work, but to take this discourse as part of the work, i.e. as an integral part of the processual artwork that we address with the name "Stelarc".
2. Stelarc's work in the context of Machine Art
My own interest in Stelarc's work goes back to the mid-1990s when I worked at the V2_Organisation in Rotterdam where some of Stelarc's performances were staged. Currently, I am working on a study about the relationship between art and technology in the 20th century, in which Stelarc's work will feature prominently in a chapter about the human body in Machine Art. One goal of the book project is to describe the artistic and historical context of more recent electronic art. Therefore, the chapter on the body will not only rehearse the established connections to the work of machine and performance artists like Chico MacMurtrie, Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories, Erik Hobijn, and Arthur Elsenaar, but will seek to describe relations to the body performance work of artists like Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic, and to historical conceptions like those of Oskar Schlemmer's "Triadic Ballet", or El Lissitzky's stage designs for the opera "Victory over the Sun".
An important question that drives my research is, how to describe the historical specificity of artistic practices, and in how far it makes sense to construct such broader historical genealogies. – I cannot go into these arguments here, but we will touch upon them through the examples that I will discuss in a moment.
Stelarc once remarked: "We have to design bodies to match our machines." While Stelarc's artistic work is a unique contribution to the relationship between humans, machines, and the environment, some of his conceptions are not without historical precedent. In this presentation, I will discuss three text samples by Vilém Flusser, Oswald Wiener and Kazimir Malevich, which prominently feature proposals for specific body/machine assemblages. Importantly, I do not want to propose the conceptions by Flusser, Wiener and Malevich as precursors, or alternatives, or complements to Stelarc's own work; rather, I hope to offer external reference or sounding points which may help to both contextualise and rethink the Stelarc Body.
My main reference material for this discussion are Stelarc's discursive reflexions put forward in his texts, in interviews and talks. However, in a next step it would be interesting to relate the various scenarios also to some of the performances and corporeal interventions. So, I'd like to encourage you to think about projects like the Stomach Sculpture, Ping Body, the Suspension pieces, or Movatar, as I go through the following examples.
3. Vilém Flusser's proposal for a "map of the body" (Leibkarte)
A text by the media theoretician Vilém Flusser may serve as a point of departure. In the text "Toward a map of the body", possibly written in the early 1980s, but published only posthumously in 2000, Flusser develops the idea of a model of the human body. The purpose of this cybernetic model is to describe aspects of the relation between the body, the world, and the self, and to raise a number of questions regarding, for example, sensory perception, inside and outside, the body as a medium, regarding the status of the Self, and death. This is how Flusser describes the basic features of the model of the "body map":
"Imagine a hollow sphere whose hollow space is tiny in comparison with its overall volume. This hollow sphere pulsates (whether it pulsates rhythmically or not, shall remain open for now). The very thick walls of the sphere are organised with a high degree of complexity, and this organisation of the walls is in question. The sphere exists in a context and finds itself in a feedback relationship with that context: the context partly flows into the sphere's wall, partly the sphere's wall expells secretions which coagulate as context. The context itself disperses towards the horizon, from which it is, however, set apart. This model can now be labeled: the hollow space in the sphere can be labeled as "myself" (or as "nothing"), the sphere's wall as "my body", the context as "my world", and the horizon as "my death" or as "nothing", or it can remain unlabeled. The purpose of the model is to serve as a coordinate system of my body experience." (1)
In his essay, Flusser then goes on to apply the model to different aspects of the human body and its interactions with the world. The deliberately reductive model makes it possible for Flusser to think about and, in his own formulation, to think through the body. I can here only point to five issues which emerge from Flusser's concept of the "body map" and which, I believe, can also be posed as questions about the Stelarc Body.
Firstly, there is a distinction in German between two notions of the body, i.e. between Körper and Leib. The title of the German version of the text takes the term "Leibkarte" for the English "map of the body". The term Leib refers to the living, conscious or soulful body, a body that is alive and, depending whether the term is used in theological or philosophical contexts, endowed with a soul, or with consciousness. This understanding of Leib differs from the notion of Körper which implies an understanding of the body that is more neutral and objectifying. In the earlier, English version of the text, Flusser used the word "body", so the fact that in the German version he chose the term Leib rather than the more neutral Körper indicates that he conceived of the body that was modelled in the map as a Leib, i.e. as a conscious and or soulful body. – When discussing the Stelarc Body, which of these two possibilities, the neutral Körper or the conscious Leib, would we use, and what would the consequences of such a choice be for understanding the Body's relationship to the world in general, and to technology in particular?
Secondly, Flusser's conception of the body as medium introduces media theoretical, epistemological and ontological considerations about the status of perception, and agency. This theme is closely connected, thirdly, to the distinction between the inside and the outside of the body, its relation to the world, and the porosity of the boundary between the body and its context, or environment. Further, you will remember that Flusser suggests that the small hollow space, the void at the centre of the model sphere can be labeled as "myself", or as "nothing". The question of the Self plays an important role in his interpretation of the model, and it is, I would suggest, also a very important question to ask of the Stelarc Body. Who, or what is it, that would say "I" with regard to the Stelarc Body? And is this Self continuous across the different performances, interventions and extensions? Finally, a theme that Flusser discusses and that is again somewhat embarrassing to bring up in Stelarc's presence, is the notion of Death, and how it is built into the model. – Maybe we can later discuss how these themes resonate with Stelarc's work.
Interestingly, Flusser does not relate the body map, the Leibkarte, to technological aspects, but uses the model only to discuss the human body in relation to the world in general. In a book about the development of technological images that was published in the mid-1980s, presumably soon after writing the text on the body map, Flusser speaks elaborately about the relation between the human body and media interfaces, especially those used in the creation of electronic images and texts. The following quotation presents a critical, rather dystopian vision of the way in which human bodies might evolve in relation to technical media:
"The scenario, the fable which I want to propose, is this: humans will sit, each to him- or herself, in cells, they will play on keyboards with their fingertips, stare at tiny screens and they will receive, modify and send images. Behind their backs, robots will be bringing things to maintain and propagate their atrophied bodies. The humans will be connected to each other through their fingertips and will thus form a dialogical network, a cosmic super-brain, whose function it will be to put improbable situations into images by means of calculation and computation, and to bring about information and catastrophies. Switched between the humans will be artificial intelligences which dialogue with the humans through cables or similar nerve cords. It will therefore be functionally meaningless to want to distinguish between "natural" and "artificial" intelligences (between "primate brains" and "second brains"). The whole thing will function as a cybernetically controlled, indecomposable system: a black box.
The mood there will be reminiscent of that which we experience in our most creative moments. The mood of excess, of adventure, of orgasm." (2)
The ambivalence of these descriptions, which are typical of Flusser's prose and which are deliberately non-moralistic, may remind us of the moral ambivalence that Stelarc conveys when he speaks about his performance scenarios and contraptions that oscillate between pleasure and pain, between scientific experiment, torture rack, and orgasmatron.
4. Oswald Wiener's "Bio-Adapter"
In the mid-1960s, the Austrian artist-philosopher Oswald Wiener developed the idea of the "Bio-Adapter": an imagined device that can fully contain a human body and that, over time, gradually takes over the body and mind of its human inhabitant.(3) At the time of conceiving this idea, Wiener was a leading member of the Vienna-based "Wiener Gruppe" of artists, while his day job was in data processing for the Italian computer company, Olivetti (1958-1966).
Wiener's 1966 text – presented as a fragment, or work in progress in its first publication of 1969 – describes different functional and theoretical aspects of the Bio-Adapter, how it constructs certain experiences and how it, for instance, deals with unavoidable temporary failures. The description singles out certain experiences as conducive to adaptation, namely ecstasies, and sexual ecstasies in particular, to whose induction Wiener devotes a specially long and detailed section. The Bio-Adapter is described as a "happiness suit" ("Glücks-Anzug"), and likened to an artificial "uterus".
The Bio-Adapter is there to counteract deficiencies both of the rapport between the human individual and its environment, and of the psychic make-up of the human subject itself.
"It is its purpose to supersede the world. That means it will take over the heretofore inadequate function of the 'existing environment' as transmitter and receiver of vital messages (nourishment and entertainment, metabolism and intellectual exchange), and will be more appropriate for its individualised task than was the socalled natural environment which was common to 'everybody' and which is now obsolete." (4)
The following description of the deficient human being sounds similar to descriptions that Stelarc has given to justify the technical improvements of the Body. Wiener writes:
"Outside of its adapter, the human being is an abandoned, nervously activated and miserably equipped lump of slime (in terms of language, logic, thinking power, sensory organs, tools), shaken by the fear of life and petrified by the fear of death. After putting on its bio-complement, the human becomes a sovereign entity which no longer needs to cope with the cosmos and its conquest because it now ranges distinctly higher than the cosmos in the hierarchy of possible valences." (5)
Thus, the Bio-Adapter is placed "between the insufficient cosmos and the unsatisfied human." (6)
The gradual adaptation of the human "bio-body" to the Bio-Adapter takes place in several stages. In a first phase, the Bio-Adapter simulates the living environment that the inhabitant is acquainted with through a variety of visual, auditory and tactile interfaces. Gradually, in the second phase, the old body functions are taken over by the Adapter and replaced by modules that can generate experiences much more suited to the wishes and desires of the inhabitant. "Mechanical aggregates become unnecessary and are dismantled by the adapter and converted, or transfered to the storage (where the cell tissues of the bio-body are also kept). (...) Gradual sucking up of the cell organisation by the electronic circuit complexes of the adapter." (7) In this second phase of the adaptation, the goal is not simplification, but improvement, complexity, and expansion of the consciousness of the human – who is alternatively also refered as the "patient", "inmate", or "bio-module".
Wiener's text is a phantasy about a fully cybernated human body – pushing to the limits, ideas of a complete replacement of the natural living environment by a highly individualised and simulated virtual world. "Consciousness," the text says, "becomes the self of the environment." (8) In the fiction of the "Bio-Adapter", the data-processing machine enables the expansion of human consciousness, (9) up to the point where it becomes self-contained.(10)
Since its inception in the 1960s, the concept of the Bio-Adapter has been used and modified for a number of science fiction narratives. But whereas these mostly presume an extreme form of exploitation of the human body by alien or enemy entities, Wiener's Bio-Adapter is conceived as a form of improvement of an otherwise deficient human body. – This of course reminds us of a theme that Stelarc frequently brings up in his discourse, i.e. the idea of the physiological and ecological deficiency of the human body, hence the necessity of its technical improvement – however preliminary and hypothetical the improvements may be that Stelarc himself implements on his own body.
Stelarc develops a comparable phantasy when he describes the vision of a "skin" that, similar to the Bio-Adapter system, completely evacuates and replaces the body:
"When I first looked at alternative anatomies for the body, I speculated about engineering a synthetic skin. It would be quite plausible to make a membrane permeable to oxygene so you could breathe through your skin. And if the skin also possessed some sophisticated photosynthetic capabilities, then it could produce nutrients for the body. So simply through a change of the skin, we could radically hollow out the human body. (...) And a hollow body would be a better host for all the technological components you could pack into it!"(11)
What is the "relation" between the different models that Flusser and Wiener propose, and how do they relate to Stelarc's artistic work? After all, unlike Flusser's fable of interconnected and artificially enhanced human cell inhabitants, and unlike Wiener's ficticious concept of the Bio-Adapter, Stelarc's contraptions are real, and they maintain a realistic conception of the human body platform. In order to discuss the differences between these different designs, it might be particularly interesting to compare the theoretical models put forward by Wiener and Flusser, to Stelarc's projects when these are yet in their nascent, conceptual phase, before realisation.
5. Kazimir Malevich and the new body of Man
A final model that I want to mention extends the historical range of our investigation. It conveys yet another phantasy about a body-machine assemblage, namely that put forward by the avantgarde artist Kazimir Malevich in a text written in 1920, entitled "God is Not Cast Down". Malevich is famous for the invention of Suprematism and for painting the icon of that exclusive art movement, the "Black Square", and he counts among the key figures of the Russian avantgarde of the 1910s and 20s. Unlike the Constructivists, like Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova, with their political and social utilitarianism, Malevich held on to an autonomous and spiritual conception of art. This he explained in a number of writings, among which was the text under consideration here, "God is Not Cast Down". This text was published as a brochure in 1922 when Malevich was head of the art school in Vitebsk and when the publication formed part of a heated debate about the role of art in the new, post-revolutionary Soviet society.
In this 40-page essay, Malevich, in his typical meandering style, speaks about the role of art in a society that used to be dominated by religion, and that is now increasingly under the rule of industrialisation. The three key topics of his discourse are "art", "church", and "factory", and his main aim is a reconciliation of the concept of "God" with the experience of modernisation.
Of particular interest in our context are two sections towards the end, which deal with the transformation of the human body through technology. In section 30, Malevich lets "the factory" speak as follows: "I redesign the world and its body; I change the consciousness of Man (...)." (12) The factory assumes god's omniscience and eventually becomes the mouthpiece of god himself: "I will open Man's eyes and ears and will let his speech resound in many spaces, I will build up the technique of his body in a perfect model. (...) After all, the world is only a failed technical attempt by God, which I will now bring to perfect completion."(13)
Modern industrialisation was understood at the time to bring about a fundamental transformation of both the social and the physiological organisation of human life. The respective scientific studies, closely related to the Taylorist factory system, were done – amongst others – by Frank and Lilian Gilbreth in the United States, and by Alexei Gastev in the young Soviet Union. In their research, the adaptation of the human body to machines for the sake of production efficiency is not science fiction, but science.
Malevich connects these ideas about the industrial transformation of the human body to his argument about the emergence of a new conception of humans. Whereas the Christian church had sought to save the soul by separating it from the body, thus making the soul immortal, the factory – in Malevich's conception – reverses the body-soul relationship, ignoring the soul altogether and instead turning the human worker into the soul of the machine system:
"(The factory) prepares a new body for man as spiritual power and the result will resemble the man that the church divides into body and soul. An armoured weapon, an automobile, represents a small example of what I have been saying. If a man sitting in it is still separate from it, it is because his particular body that man has put on cannot fulfil all functions. The man himself, as a technical organ, can fulfil all the functions necessary for his soul, and therefore the soul lives within him and leaves him when the functions are no longer fulfilled. If an automobile could perfectly fulfil all man's needs he would never leave it. The features of the latter are found at a larger scale: for example, the hydroplane – air and water are united in it, and when everything has been (technically) provided for, man will leave his new body no more.
Thus the factory and industrial plant intend to lead man to a new mechanical empire, changing his body, as well as his soul in a new set of clothes or tools; in that empire man can be imagined to exist in the form that the soul is imagined to exist in the human body today."(14)
You can sense that these are very complex historical sources which would really require a close, analytical reading. Moreover, a direct comparison between the three text excerpts by Malevich, Wiener and Flusser can generate an interesting debate about the historicity of their respective conceptions, thus providing a rich epistemological matrix for our discussion of Stelarc's artistic practice.
My main point here – and with that I want to end – has been to provide examples of conceptions for body-machine assemblages from different moments and contexts in the 20th century. The four scenarios for extended and encapsulated bodies by Malevich, Wiener, Flusser, and Stelarc, share certain hypothetical assumptions about the insufficiency, if not obsolescence of the human body in the face of technological progress, and they each project models for a new type of fusion between the human body and its technological environment.
1. Translated from the German version of the text, "Von den Möglichkeiten einer Leibkarte" (published 2000, S. 116, Vilém Flusser Archive, Best. 1608 Nr. 2058), which differs from, and seems to have been written later than, the unpublished English version (Best. 1608 Nr. 2800).
2. Flusser 1985/1996, p. 175-176.
3. Wiener 1969; cf Zielinski 2011, p. 57-58.
4. "sein zweck ist es nämlich, die welt zu ersetzen, d.h. die bislang völlig ungenügende funktion der "vorgefundenen umwelt" als sender und empfänger lebenswichtiger nachrichten (nahrung und unterhaltung, stoff- und geistwechsel) in eigene regie zu übernehmen – und seiner individualisierten aufgabe besser zu entsprechen, als dies die "allen" gemeinsame, nunmehr veraltete sog. natürliche umwelt vermag." English translations are mine, though I have drawn on Todd C. Hanlin's translation of 2001; AB.
5. "der mensch, ausserhalb seines adapters ein preisgegebener, nervös aktivierter und miserabel ausgerüsteter (sprache, logik, denkkraft, sinnesorgane, werkzeug) schleimklumpen, geschüttelt von lebensangst und von todesfurcht versteinert, wird nach anlegen seines bio-komplements zu einer souveränen einheit, die des kosmos und dessen bewältigung nicht mehr bedarf, weil sie auf eklatante weise in der hierarchie denkbarer wertigkeiten über ihm rangiert."
6. "zwischen den ungenügenden kosmos und den unbefriedigten menschen"
7. "mechanische aggregate werden unnötig und vom adapter abmontiert und umgebaut, oder der reserve (wo sich auch die zellgewebe des bio-körpers befinden) zugeführt. (...) allmähliches aufsaugen der zellorganisation durch die elektronischen schaltkomplexe des adapters."
8. "wird nun das bewusstsein zum selbst der umwelt." – Oswald Wiener associates these ideas on cognition to media theoretical considerations: "die kontinuität des ich-bewusstseins, soweit sie überhaupt postuliert werden kann, ist nicht durch die physische konstanz der ganglien-zellen, sondern durch die konstanz der information gegeben."
9. "erweiterungen des daten-verarbeitenden materials führen zu einer sprengung der den menschen so einschnürenden enge des bewusstseins"
10. "das bewusstsein, dieses kuckucksei der natur, verdrängt also schliesslich die natur selbst. (...) so ruht nun das bewusstsein, unsterblich, in sich selber und schafft sich vorübergehende gegenstände aus seinen eigenen tiefen."
11. Stelarc in Smith 2005, p. 229.
12. "Ich gestalte die Welt und ihren Leib um; ich verändere das Bewußtsein des Menschen (...)." Malevich 1922/1968, section 30, p. 218 (translation modified according to the German version in Malevich 1922/2004, p. 100)
13. "Ich werde dem Menschen Augen und Ohren öffnen und seine Rede in vielen Räumen erklingen lassen, ich werde die Technik seines Leibes in einem vollkommenen Modell aufbauen. (...) Ist doch die Welt letztlich nur ein mißlungener technischer Versuch Gottes, den ich nun in Vollkommenheit errichten werde." Malevich 1922/1968, section 30, p. 218 (translation modified according to the German version in Malevich 1922/2004, p. 100)
14. Malevich 1922/1968, section 31, p. 220 (translation modified according to the German version in Malevich 1922/2004, p. 102-103)
Vilém Flusser: Toward a map of the body. Unpublished manuscript. Vilém Flusser Archive, Best. 1608, Nr. 2800.
Vilém Flusser: Von den Möglichkeiten einer Leibkarte. In: Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln: Lab – Jahrbuch für Künste und Apparate. Köln: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2000, S. 115-124. (Vilém Flusser Archive, Best. 1608, Nr. 2058)
Vilém Flusser: Ins Universum der technischen Bilder. (1985) Göttingen: European Photography, 1996 (5th edition)
Aage A. Hansen-Löve: Die Kunst ist nicht gestürzt. Das suprematistische Jahrzehnt. In: Kasimir Malevic: Gott ist nicht gestürzt! Schriften zu Kunst, Kirche, Fabrik. Edited by Aage A. Hansen-Löve. München: Hanser, 2004, p. 253-452
Kazimir S. Malevich: God is not cast down. In: K. S. Malevich: Essays on Art, 1915-1928, Vol. I. Edited by Troels Andersen. Copenhagen: Borgen, 1968, p. 188-223.
Kasimir Malevic: Gott ist nicht gestürzt!. In: K. Malevic: Gott ist nicht gestürzt! Schriften zu Kunst, Kirche, Fabrik. Edited by Aage A. Hansen-Löve. München: Hanser, 2004, p. 64-106.
Marquard Smith: Stelarc – The Monograph. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005.
Silvia Wagnermaier: Zuführung zum Text Vilém Flussers (Leibkarte). In: Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln: Lab – Jahrbuch für Künste und Apparate. Köln: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2000, S. 113-114.
Oswald Wiener: Appendix A: Der Bio-Adapter. (1965/66) In: O. Wiener: Die Verbesserung von Mitteleuropa. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1969. (Todd C. Hanlin's English translation is available at http://files.flageorgia.org/hkurz/wiener/ow-1-us.htm
(visited 17 June 2013).)
Siegfried Zielinski: ... nach den Medien. Berlin: Merve, 2011.