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Changing the meaning of being alive

Cite Magazine
Issue 26 - Summer 2015/16

In the future we’ll need to add metal, carbon fibre and plastics to the flesh-and-blood concept of the human body. In fact, it’s happening already.

Stelarc

If you think you’ve been keeping up with the incredible ways technology is changing people’s lives, have a chat with Professor Stelarc and you’ll probably have to think again.

He may, for example, mention the Italian surgeon who is trying to get ethical approval in the United States to attempt a human head transplant.
Knowledgeable critics say that, with current medical capabilities, the chances of such an operation being successful are virtually nil. But Stelarc takes a different line.

“It may not happen for five or 10 years,” he says, implying that this is a long time in his realm of activity. “And it may not be successful, but no important new surgical procedure usually is at the first attempt.

“It also raises the question of whether you’d have a head transplant or a body transplant. Given the choice, I’d go for both.” He’s joking, of course. Up to a point.

After all, this is a man who had the porous biomaterial scaffold of an ear surgically constructed on the inside of his left forearm nine years ago. It now has tissue ingrowth and its own blood supply. It will never hear in a biological sense like his perfectly good regular ears, but in a few years he’ll insert the electronics that will bring it to life it in any wi-fi hotspot, so people all over the world can listen in to whatever he’s hearing.

The Ear On My Arm project started out as a work of performance art, but now that he’s also the director of Curtin University’s recently established Alternate Anatomies Laboratory, it has become an example – less than at arm’s length, as it were – of the ways technology is tampering with and radically transforming what the human body can do, as well as what we perceive our bodies to be.

Body On Robot Arm. Autronics, Jangebup, 29 September 2015. Programmers: Hayden Brown, James Boyle.

Four years ago in Texas, says Stelarc, doctors tested a twin-turbine artificial heart in the chest of a terminally ill patient. “It circulates the blood continuously, without pulsing. So you could be resting your head on your loved-one’s chest, they’re warm to the touch, they’re breathing, they’re speaking, they’re certainly alive – but they have no heartbeat.

“All of a sudden this one bit of technology forces us to totally re-examine how we operate as a body and what it means to be human and alive.”

The Alternate Anatomies Lab, which is about to complete its first full year of operation, has a broad range of interests encompassing anatomy, prosthetics, robotics, body modification, cognitive science, interactive media, and visual and performance art. It’s part of Curtin’s School of Design and Art, and its interdisciplinary team, comprising Stelarc and research fellows and artists Dr Nina Sellars and Dr Christian Kroos, encourages collaborations with other Curtin departments such as Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science and Architecture.

“We’re interested in innovative ideas and also in trying to actualise those ideas, to personally experience them and thereby have something meaningful to say after that happens. We also examine the aesthetics and ethics of the devices that are created,” says Stelarc.

The lab has helped fourth-year mechanical engineering students develop a silicon-skinned, smartphone-controlled robotic fish and an actuated hand orthosis. It co-supervises such projects and can provide technology including 3D scanning, a 16-micron resolution 3D printer and 6K video equipment.

“The computer-controlled orthosis is like an exoskeleton,” says Stelarc. “A person with paralysis could wear it to open and close their hand. In addition to medical and remote physiotherapy applications, as an artist I’d find it an interesting device for remote-controlling the bionic ambidextrous arm I’m developing in collaboration with the School of Engineering and Design at Brunel University London.

“It used to be that if you were designing an artificial or prosthetic body part, you would try in a rather creepy way to make it look like a human one, with vinyl cosmetic skin. Nowadays people are much happier to have an artificial hand made of shiny stainless steel, carbon fibre and acrylic plastics. There’s a more accepting attitude to technology and the aesthetic appearance of these attachments.”

In a broader sense, there’s also more acceptance of people who are differently enabled or differently embodied, he says.

“We don’t see them as ‘handicapped’ so much. A person in a wheelchair is really a hybrid human machine system. Like Stephen Hawking, they may have a computer-generated, metallic-sounding voice because they can’t speak with their own vocal chords anymore. Or they may have an exoskeleton that enables them to walk even though they are paralysed.

“I haven’t used the ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’ terminology for many years. People can be differently enabled and we are interested in alternate anatomical architectures.”

The lab makes connections with differently enabled people and has had some of them speak at its monthly lecture series. Likewise, people from the body modification community.

“It’s a small subculture,” says Stelarc. “Tongue splitting, incredibly stretched earlobes, scarification, inserting silicon shapes such as horns under the skin … I have friends in the Perth community who have done some of these things. For me, it’s not something unusual.
“But these things are cosmetic, and the lab generally takes a research approach, critiquing what’s happening in a conceptual way. Having said that, people in the body modification community are effectively experimenting on themselves and exemplify a willingness to reconsider the physicality of their bodies, to modify and even redesign them.”

The lab is interested in the postmodern, post-human condition and exposing the problematics of embodiment and agency, he says. “With fellow researchers and the general public, changing people’s perceptions is part of what happens when we generate outcomes and outputs with our projects. Things that might have been ‘on the edge’ or might have appeared unconventional – I think people are increasingly accepting them.”

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