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STELARC AND THE POST HUMAN BODY PERFORMANCE IN

CONTEMPORARY ART

Lidija Fistrek, Author


Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zagreb, Croatia

ABSTRACT: In this paper, I endeavoured to display the performance of the post human body in the
art performances of contemporary artist Stelarc. The post human body is increasingly becoming the
focus of interest in the fields of philosophy, techno-science, art and bio-politics.
The term bio-politics took on a significant role in the wide interdisciplinary field of the humanities at
the beginning of the 21st century. A condensed interpretation of the definition of bio-politics is aimed
at health policies and demographics, ecology and questions regarding the future of humanity.
Foucault’s bio-politics is one of premonitions of cyborg politics - a very open field.
The cyborg is not a subject of Foucault’s bio-politics, but rather, it simulates politics. Because of
science, the body becomes immortal, it changes its status into post human. It exceeds all the limits of
the human mind in an endless search for change and perfection. The body loses its identity, it becomes
a fragmented body as Lacan calls it, and is in the end completely transformed. The metamorphosis that
the body goes through has drastically changed since its very creation and original purpose. However,
these changes exist exclusively within the frame of radical feminism, art, science and philosophy.
When talking about the mechanical body, we imagine a mechanical machine, made from metal or
some other alloy, operated by an engine. The mechanical body I am discussing is the product of
science and technology, in line with the progress of the contemporary era.
Modern medicine is working on uniting the human organism with machines, creating a coded device -
more intimate and powerful than anything else in the history of sexuality.

Keywords: post human body, performance, bio-politics, identity, mechanical body

1 INTRODUCTION

From Duchamp’s identity transformations and up until today, in the ‘performative-conceptual


turn’, we are witnessing a performative rebellion of the body within modern art, according to
Žarko Paić. When discussing the performative-conceptual turn of the body in modern art, we
are talking about the triad of language-speech-body events. Art as language event within body
language becomes more important than the materialised pieces of art such as paintings,
sculptures, text and written music. In its appearance as a lifestyle, the body is already visually
constructed. It has a need for clothing, changing styles, intervention and redesign. Ever since
Aristotle, there has been a dualism of mind and body, the animal and the human, organism
and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women and primitive and
civilised. Friedrich Nietzsche brings out a concept of the body as a “inscribed surface” into
which social institutions are impressed. The body is also seen as a foothold for the
confrontation of active (societal) and reactive (bodily) forces. Michel Foucault takes over
Nietzsche’s concept of the body and defines it a dual body that is both the object and the
means of power. Foucault’s biopolitics is one of premonitions of cyborg politics - a very open
field. The cyborg is not a subject of Foucault’s biopolitics, but rather, it simulates politics.
There are continuous breakthroughs in the field of genetic engineering regarding life
prolongment, selection, reproduction and cloning of humans. Are we on the verge of a post-
human future, one in which technology will enable us to gradually change our essence? In
contemporary fashion, the clothing item is morphed into a completely new identity. The real
body is transformed by clothes, as well as by other forms of the prosthetically extension of the
body (prosthetics, plastic surgery), called human extensions. Such extensions lead the body to
a state of “liquid body”. It is a body “without set limits and identity, body which merges with the
otherness”, where there is no longer a metaphor for
the body. In a study on the Liquid body, Vanni Codeluppi discusses the process of
metamorphing, which is a metaphor for big transformations that define the fashion and the
society’s view of the body in advanced industrial societies in the 1990s. The new borders of
the liquid body are created with collective identities. The manipulated, fragmented and
deformed body can rebel at a certain point, stay vital within itself and gain own free will
devoid of human supervision.
According to Baudrillard, in a simulation that same body is the “metastasized body”.
Caronia discusses the “machinist” understanding of the body created by the rise of the
industrial culture and modern science. Such body is void of the connection between the
human and natural, as was done by magic rituals up to the Middle Ages. In the era of new
media and simulated reality, Baudrillardian states, the body still causes and suffers powerful
consequences. As if the bodies no longer belong to us, but rather become independent
machines. They become other bodies that no longer need us for survival. In this way, the
bodies become duplicated, and so does the identity which is not only less fixed than ever, but
also belongs to everybody and everyone. In the late 20th century, there have been significant
scientific outbreaks in the fields of genetics and technology. The human body takes on a
completely new meaning and form. As complicated as it is, the genetic code can be tested in
the standard, structurally stable form which is not subject to disorders and mutations
(Houellebecq 2004:366).
Intrigued by the biotechnological industry and the politics of freedoms, Francis Fukuyama
deals with the thought of the end of man and our posthuman future. At the same time, in The
Question Concerning Technology Martin Heidegger claims that “the man is not in greatest
danger from potentially deadly machines and technical devices, but from the rule of
conformity (Gestell) with the possibility of being denied creative exploration and with it the
call of the primal truth” (Fukuyama 2003:13).
Due to science, the body becomes immortal, it changes its status into posthuman. It exceeds
all the limits of the human mind in an endless search for change and perfection. Nevertheless,
we should bear in mind the fact stated by Donna Haraway which is: “we are a cyborg, we
determine the limits”.

2 STELARC AND THE POST HUMAN BODY IN CONTEMPORARY ART


“It is no longer a question of perpetuating the human species by reproducing,
but by perfecting the man-woman relationships using the human-machine
interface. The body is obsolete. We are at the end of human philosophy and
human physiology” (Stelarc).
The contemporary artist Stelarc is paradigmatic due to his experience of transcending the
human body. Stelarc performs cybernetic performances using digital technology. What Stelarc
is investigating in his performances can be described as posthuman techno-scientific
philosophy projects. Stelarc sees his work as a modification of the body towards the
posthuman sphere. The limits between the human body and the posthuman virtual identity of
cyborgs in the cybernetic space are this artist’s field of research. In symbiosis with the human
and the non-human, the posthuman body creates a brand new bodily identity within the
virtual-cybernetic network. The virtual transcendence of man is different from its mortal body.
The cybernetic body is a non-human body therefore, it has no soul. The dream of human
immortality, eternal life and transcendence into a new, spiritual life has been present since the
dawn of time. According to Žarko Paić, in contemporary philosophy and art, the question of
soul has been reduced to the imanentism of body as a machine of desire.
Post humanism would enable the technical transition of man into another life. Stelarc’s art of
the cybernetic body in the performative event where the human, the non-human and the
posthuman merge, can also be an attempt at creating a new virtual identity. In his 1996
performance entitled “Ping Body: An Internet actuated and uploads performance”, cyberspace
becomes the new space within the activity of movement takes place. The reactions of the
posthuman body make a symbiosis of the human and the non-human, creating a new bodily
identity as a complex system of a virtual-cybernetic network without organs. The natural or
the biological body is an obstacle in the world of the cybernetic network of life. The
posthuman body is more perfect because it is techno-biological. It has no bodily organization
of cognitive, neurological and physiological structures that verify the human existence within
the mortal body. Therefore, Stelarc’s performance is a radical artistic event of life as a
bodiless art (Paić 2011:113). Stelarc identifies life with the art of event. In his works
„Exoskeleton-Event for extended body and walking machine “(1998) and „ Locomotor: a
hybrid human-machine system “(2001), Stelarc’s performances are directed at exploring the
change of the body in the posthuman condition as a combination of digital technology,
virtuality, electronic music and pneumatic prosthetics in the interface of brain, skin and bodily
implants.
The creation of “mechanical bodies” is simultaneously daunting and astonishing in its
performance. By merging techno-science and the human body, completely new organisms,
creatures, clones and prosthetic extensions are created. The combination of robotics, i.e.
artificial intelligence and the human body, or in this case, with Stelarc’s body, give a hint of a
brand-new generation of posthuman organisms. When I say that these are organisms, I am
referring to the merger of the human body with the technology - a robot that moves by use of
a command board or the power of the human mind. However, can we talk about organisms in
the posthuman era, at all? Stelarc’s performance of the mechanic body is in a way theatrics. In
his performances, Stelarc performs the play of the robot and the human, by creating a show of
some newer era, an era that is to come after humans. In our deliberation on the performance of
the new era, questions such are these come forward: “Can a robotised posthuman body
replace the body of the actor during a performance on the stage of a theatre? Can the director
be replaced by a robot with artificial intelligence who would run the performance?”
When thinking about the performance of the posthuman body, we must not forget the fact that
we need a “new hero” in theatre performances. A new hero is represented by the body of a
human actor, a human being, a body that is not without organs, unlike the posthuman body.
Such “new hero” is placed at the centre of the auditorium and represents the society he
belongs to.
“The man on the stage for us carries a meaning of a societal function, it is not his relationship
towards himself or God that is at the centre of attention, but his relationship towards the
society. When he performs, the class or the echelon he belongs to perform as well” (Petlevski
according to Psicator, 2001:154).
In Stelarc’s example of the posthuman body performance, robot that represents a symbiosis of
the human body and technology is operated by the artist himself, using a control board to
control the extensions, who in this manner combines the role of the director and the “new
hero” of performance. The era that he is now representing is the techno era, the posthuman
era. Gavella defines performance as an event determined by the movement of the actors’
bodies. According to Gavella, the space within which the play is taking place is also a culture
space, the event and the “co-play” created this way are generated at the level of an internal
event “using a hidden need” (Petlevski 2001: 171).
When discussing the space within the “theatre co-play” is taking place, we can imagine a real
and a virtual space. Each of these spaces within which the performance is taking place is
adequate for the body within that space. The real space in today’s time is represented by the
body of the human-actor, while the posthuman body in its performance is found within the
virtual space. Does the cyborg body represent a new hero of a new era in the contemporary
theatre, if the performance is analogue to the era in which it is taking place? If we interpret
Gavella’s definition in this manner, we can conclude that with the posthuman era comes the
posthuman body performing a “new hero” within its cyberspace.
The posthuman combination of a cyborg, a robot and artificial intelligence of an android
create beings that are hyperreal in virtual space.
Stelarc himself calls his works the “bodies of a monster”, such as those dark and divine,
powerful in their destructive beauty. He sees everything as pure technological practice, the
prosthetics of body without organs, esthetical perfecting of what is in a technical sense
efficient as a spiritual machine. Examples such as „The Man with Tree Ears “and „The extra
Ear “(2000) show the possibility of cloning organs into parts of body that weren’t designed
for their use, at least to the best of our knowledge. The possibility of organ, body parts
transplantation, or even, as the author himself puts it “my blood will rush through some other
body-organism” would enable making another body immortal, technologically more perfect,
or, as I would put it, less human. Moving organs from one body to another, or even head
transplants from
body to body, has become a reality. The body seeks other ways of perfecting itself, to be some
other body, a more perfect body, adapted to a new techno era, with unlimited
possibilities of its performance. The performance of such a posthuman body, one that, using
artificial intelligence, mimics the human body in its private function, by its movement, speech
and body in Stelarcs’ performances, reminds of an art without the body. The architecture and
the evolution of the human body as a perfect creation of nature using an interpolation of
science and technology is changing.
The posthuman era represents the opening of other possibilities available to art at the end of
an era. Art without the body, as we can see with Stelarc, is possible.
Stelarc uses the analysis of body transformation in his performances and describes the
necessity of such art, because the body is becoming obsolete in all its necessities. The
technology within the human organism is becoming more and more visible and inevitable. In
the posthuman condition, the art has no future. What used to belong to God, metaphysics and
prophets, is being taken over by science and technology. Life in the techno sphere is
becoming an experimental world without secrets, an art without the body, a painting without
that word (Paić 2011:117).

CONCLUSION
In this paper, I endeavoured to display the performance of the posthuman body in the art
performances of contemporary artist Stelarc. The posthuman body is increasingly becoming
the focus of interest in the fields of philosophy, techno-science, art and biopolitics.
The term biopolitics took on a significant role in the wide interdisciplinary field of the
humanities at the beginning of the 21st century. A condensed interpretation of the definition of
biopolitics is aimed at health policies and demographics, ecology and questions regarding the
future of humanity.
Foucault’s biopolitics is one of premonitions of cyborg politics - a very open field.
The cyborg is not a subject of Foucault’s biopolitics, but rather, it simulates politics. Because
of science,
the body becomes immortal, it changes its status into posthuman. The body transcends all
limits of the human mind in an endless search for change and perfection. It loses its identity, it
becomes a fragmented body as Lacan calls it, and is in the end completely transformed. The
metamorphosis that the body goes through has drastically changed since its very creation and
original purpose. However, these changes exist exclusively within the frame of radical
feminism, art, science and philosophy.
When discussing the mechanical body, we imagine a mechanical machine, made from metal
or some other alloy, operated by an engine. The mechanical body I am discussing is the
product of science and technology, in line with the progress of the contemporary era.
Modern medicine is working on uniting the human organism with machines, creating a coded
device - more intimate and powerful than anything else in the history of sexuality. It is
precisely this type of body that Donna Haraway discusses in her essay Cyborg Manifesto
(1990).
The cyborg is a phenomenon of fiction and lived experience which changes the term of
woman experience at the end of the 20th century, says Haraway (Haraway 1990:167). The
limit between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion, claims Haraway, it is a
life and death struggle. The contemplation on the mechanical body came out of the
postmodern radical feminism. Radical feminism categorizes all women activities as forms of
labour, only if such an activity can be given a sex. The meaning of reproduction was based in
two tendencies; one is rooted in labour and the other in sex. Both tendencies are a
consequence of the domination and poor knowledge of the social and personal reality. The
negation of gender/sex relationships, the merger of the human body with the animal body in
scientific literature, represents a breach of limits between what is scientific and what is
fictional in late 20th century.
At that time, the machines move the limit between the artificial and the natural, the mind and
the body, the self-developing and the externally designed, and many other distinctions which
are
applied to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly alive and we are
disturbingly inert (Haraway 1990:170). The need for combining what is impossible to
combine, i.e. for designing the body, has always been present. We should just thing of the
monsters created for
the purposes of movie industry, such as Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Superman,
Prometheus and other beings with supernatural human powers. A whole generation of super
bodies with superhuman powers was created and brought to life to mimic the characteristics
of gods. In his work The Golden Bow James Frazer (2002) discusses the need for mimicking
the characteristics of gods, where there exists a democracy of beings that exist naturally or
supernaturally in conditions of relative equality. The cognition of own helplessness supports
the notion of the supernatural beings’ power as opposed to nature. The humans feel
insignificant compared to nature and in this way, the supernatural powers are attributed to the
mythical beings - gods.
Cybernetic mergers are monstrous and unacceptable, “in today’s political conditions we can
hardly hope of stronger myths of resistance and merger” (Haraway 1990:172). The cyborg
politics creates a distortion in the communication between men and women and it insists on
the fusion of animals and machines. Such mergers render the men and women as problematic,
turn the structure of desire upside down, change the structure and ways of reproduction,
nature and culture, of the slave and the master, the body and the mind. The cyborg body is not
innocent, created in the way Adam and Eve were in Eden in the Christian religion, it does not
seek a unique identity and it does not create endless dualisms. The intensive pleasure of a
cyborg can be found in skills, mechanical skills, it stops being a sin and becomes an aspect of
embodiment, says
Haraway (Haraway 1990:194). A machine is not something that needs to be entertained,
seduced, adored or dominated. We control the cyborg body, we are responsible for its limits.
At the end, the question we are faced with is: “what is the price we should pay to be a slave to
absolute technology, while accepting the finish of the era of the end of man?”

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