CENTERPIECES



FRACTAL FLESH: STELARC'S AESTHETIC OF PROSTHETICS
by Mark Dery


Stelarc

In The Net, Sandra Bullock laments the increasingly profound effects our bodies of information--the credit histories and medical records floating in corporate and government databases--are having on our physical bodies. "Everyone is stored in there," she despairs; each of us has an "electronic shadow...just begging for somebody to screw with it."

Bullock's nightmare is Stelarc's wet(ware) dream. The Australian cyber-artist has devised an "Internet body upload system that enables audience members to reach out and touch him in ways AT&T never imagined. In Fractal Flesh---Split Body: Voltage-In/Voltage-Out, a performance that took place November 10-11, 1995 at Telepolis, an art and technology festival organized in Luxembourg by the Munich Media Lab, Stelarc plugged himself into muscle-stimulation circuitry controlled by a Mac. The Mac, in turn, was connected, via the Internet, to Paris's Centre Pompidou, Helsinki's Media Lab, and Amsterdam's Doors of Perception conference. By pressing a color-coded 3-D rendering of a human body on a touchscreen, participants at the three sites jolted the artist's (literally) wired body into action. Blipped across the net through a high-speed link to the computer in the performance space, their gestures triggered Stelarc's muscle-stimulators; low-level bursts of voltage, zapping through electrodes attached to his limbs, caused both arms and one leg to jerk involuntarily intoraised or extended positions.

The artist explained, in a pre-performance interview, that he "predetermined that the biceps, for example, are going to be 'hot spots,' so if you touch or click those spots on the computer image of the body, it moves accordingly, displaying a simulation of the movement. Simultaneously, the system is sending signals to the muscle-stimulation circuitry, which initiates a channel of stimulation---zero to 60 volts, depending on the intensity of the stimulation I preset. That goes through electrodes on the skin to the nerve endings in the muscles, and the body moves accordingly. Stelarc attached electrodes to both biceps; the deltoids of the left arm, which lift it; the flexors of the left arm, which bend the wrist and curl the fingers; and the hamstrings and calf muscles of one leg, which bend and lift the leg and extend the foot, respectively. One leg remained under Stelarc's control, leaving him the proverbial leg to stand on.

Participants saw and heard the performance as they choreographed it via the PictureTel teleconferencing system and ISDN connections. "I saw the face of the person who moved me," says Stelarc, "and he or she saw the remote body manifest his or her program." Moreover, sensors on Stelarc's leg, arms, and headenabled audience members to switch between two stationary and one mobile video camera; thus, "remote agents not only moved the body but orchestrated the images, which were directed by two SGI Indigo computers to a web site for live monitoring on the Internet." Superimposed shots of "remot agent" and "involuntary body" (Stelarc's terms) were displayed on a wall of video monitors behind the artist. According to server statistics, websurfers from Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada, and the U.S. visited the "Fractal Flesh" site, jacking into the performance or downloading images of the superimposed agent and body.

Fractal Flesh transformed the artist into history's first teleoperated human (teleoperation being the remote control of robots by human operators.) It also offered a fuzzy premonition of something like the "simstim" technology in William Gibson's Neuromancer, which enables a hacker to inhabit the sensorium of a remote individual. A self-described "evolutionary alchemist" dedicated to "triggering mutations [and] transforming the human landscape," Stelarc is a standard-bearer for McLuhan's vision of the artist as the "antennae of the race" (a phrase McLuhan borrowed from Ezra Pound). In Understanding Media, McLuhan asserts that the artist "picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He, then, builds models...for facing the change that is at hand." Stelarc, whose aesthetic of prosthetics is founded on McLuhan's notion that we are being radically remade---"extended"and "auto-amputated"---by our technology, sees his cyber-body events as R&D for "post-evolutionary" human-machine synergy.

Fractal Flesh, he explains, prefigures practical applications for human teleoperation. "Although we already remote-control robots, it might be advantageous in certain [non-hazardous] situations to complete a remote task by borrowing the arm of another person---especially since that remote, stimulated arm is connected to an intelligent, mobile body," suggests Stelarc. "Obviously, something like remote surgery would be better performed by a precise, nervousness-free robot manipulator, but this would be advantageous for more creative, collaborative actions

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"The Internet is awash in outmoded metaphysical yearnings and far-fetched fantasies of disembodiment. The strategy should be to electronically connect bodies in ways that transform the net from a means of information transmission to a mode of effecting physical action. Consider the body that is directly wired into the net, a body that stirs and is startled by the whispers and twitches of remote agents (agents not as viral codes but as displaced presences). Consider a body with telematic scaling of its senses, perceiving and operating beyond its biology---its human scale andthe local space it now occupies. Consider a body that moves not because it is remotely guided by another, but a body that quiver and oscillates to the ebb and flow of net activity---a body that moves to and manifests the statistical noise of the net, and whose proprioception is net-induced."

On a symbolic level, Fractal Flesh is rich in associations. It gives poetic shape to the human condition in a wired world, inextricably entangled in the global telecommunications web. It dramatizes the ever greater effect our "electronic shadows" are having on our corporeal bodies, and spotlights the meat's increasing subordination to the mind in digital culture. Its shock-treatment subtext evokes Stanley Milgram's infamous (and highly suspect) experiment, Obedience to Authority---a bit of weird science in which subjects who believed they were shocking innocent victims supposedly did so without compunction.

In art-historical terms, it shares cultural DNA with '70s body art; with the French artist Orlan's posthuman plastic surgery art; with the cyber-art genre typified by the Art an dTechnology program at the L.A. County Museum of Art (1967-71); and with cyberpunk performance artists such as D.A. Therrien, whos ehigh-tech exorcisms feature nearly nude actors crucified on mechanical crosses while percussionists play human "drums" with hot-wired sticks.

Most intriguingly, Fractal Flesh turns Stelarc into a posterboy for the poststructuralist cult of the schizophrenic. This philosophical tendency is associated with Deleuze and Guattari, who championed a fragmented, "decentered" self in opposition to the bounded, integrated ego that supposedly anchors the rationalist, capitalist world-view of post-Enlightenment Western culture. "The individual is the product of power," writes Foucault, in his preface to D&G's Anti-Oedipus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. "What is needed is to 'de-individualize' by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations." Later theorists, such as Donna Haraway, have imagined an anti-Oedipal world whose inhabitants are "not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints," as Haraway puts it in her much-quoted "Cyborg Manifesto." Haraway's student Allucquere Rosanne Stone has written a suitably nonlinear (and, as a result, maddeningly haphazard) book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, on the fluidity of on-line identity and, mor ebroadly, "the tensions between individual subjects...and the physical bodies in which they may or may not be grounded." In one chapter, she theorizes MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) as the normative psychology of cyberspace: "sharing a single body with several quasi-independent personalities is emblematic of a fairpercentage of everyday life in the world of virtual systems."

Likewise, Stelarc sees a new, disembodied psychology shadowed forth in his performances. He imagines a future in which humanity resembles a benign version of Star Trek: The Next Generation's bionic race, the Borg---a hive world whose inhabitants are "electronically connected, extruding their intelligence from onebody to another." Such a world, he suggests, would render accepted definitions of the human psyche obsolete. "My awareness would neither be all here in this body nor all there in the body [I'm remote-controlling] but sort of interchangeable," he says. "In Western philosophy, we're human because we're individuals. But one can conceive of a body that is the medium of multiple agencies, a host for a multiplicity of selves remotely collapsed into it viathe net."

My log-on is legion, for I are many.


Mark Dery (markdery@well.com) is a cultural critic. He wrote Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, a critique of fringe computer culture and the techno-politics of cyberpunk art, and edited Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture,a collection of essays on culture and technology.


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