Extra Ear Project
Luckily for us, the Australian performance artist known as Stelarc, formerly Stelios Arcadiou, is not prone to sensationalism. He only wants to transform his body into a portal on the internet. Which is why visitors to Exit Art, a gallery in Midtown Manhattan, are being treated to a video of Stelarc’s left arm being cut up like a rare tenderloin to implant what will eventually be a Bluetooth-enabled artificial ear.
Stelarc’s video is one the more grisly highlights of “Corpus Extremus (LIFE+),” an exhibit about the wonders and horrors of “PostNatural History,” and the ways in which technology is blurring the traditional notions of life, death and identity.
In the gallery of postnatural history, for example, is a goat that has been genetically tinkered with to produce spider silk, useful for fishing line and bulletproof vests, in its milk. Elsewhere you can look through a microscope and see a movie projected on living cells, watch a movie of Russian cosmonauts examining grains of kefir, a yogurtlike drink popular in Russia, to determine the grains’ potential worthiness as “cosmonauts”, or see a mock documentary about an S&M organic farm collective.
“A foundational idea for this show was that we are permanently in a condition of creating, being excited or horrified by our inventions,” said Boryana Rossa, a Bulgarian-born artist and graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
She said it was all right if people were confused and left the gallery wondering whether what they had seen was art or science. The important thing was to start a conversation about what technology could do to us. The artists, she said, have hands-on experience with biology in programs like SymbioticA, a lab at the University of Western Australia where artists and biologists collaborate.
Artists are the antennas of society, but they are not the only ones thinking about these issues.
The progression to postnatural history may be a painful birth if the experience of Stelarc, 62, who splits his time between Brunel University in West London and the University of Western Sydney in Australia, is any example. The body, he says, is obsolete and needs to map its “post-evolutionary strategies.”
To that end, Stelarc has outfitted himself at times with an extra hand (nonsurgically), swallowed a camera that would explore the sculpture of his stomach and hung himself in the air on hooks.
The ear on his arm, he said, is a work in progress that has required a couple of surgeries so far. It took him 12 years to find the doctors and the financing, which was provided by the Discovery Channel as part of a series in experimental surgery, to do the work. The doctors, Stelarc said, were a little dubious that this was art. “They were overheard discussing, though, that perhaps they were really the artists and my body was just the canvas!” he said.
In 2006, as shown in the gallery video, surgeons in Los Angeles installed a porous polyethylene ear-shaped prosthesis in his forearm and then snugged his skin down over it. At the same time, he says, they installed a tiny microphone, which picked up the doctor’s voices even through bandages and a face mask.
Unfortunately the microphone became seriously infected and had to be removed. Stelarc’s own tissues and blood vessels have since grown into the prosthesis, anchoring it permanently. Once the microphone is reinstalled, Stelarc said, anything it “hears” will be wirelessly transmitted to the web. Someone in Paris could log in and hear what Stelarc is up to in Australia – or presumably hear him snoring.