Joanna Zylinska and Gary Hall (2002) ‘Probings: an Interview with Stelarc’ (with G. Hall), in The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age, ed. Joanna Zylinska (London and New York: Continuum), pp. 114-130. [author's self-archived manuscript]


Screener for Stelarc - The Body is Obsolete distributed online worldwide by Contemporary Arts Media


Probings: an Interview with Stelarc


Joanna Zylinska & Gary Hall: There have been a lot of ‘scare stories’ recently concerning developments in technology. We wanted to start by asking you how you felt your work stood in relation to that. For example, to what extent can your art and performances be seen as part of, or as a reaction to, what is often described as a ‘general crisis in the natural’, revealed in debates over genetically modified food, cloning, prosthetics, cybernetics, globalisation, surveillance, video games, technologies of war, etc.?


Stelarc: I started using technology when I was still at art school in the late sixties. I had constructed helmets and goggles that split your binocular perception, and sensory compartments that you plugged your whole body into. The body was immersed in a kinetic environment of images and electronic sounds. So I can’t really say that any of the work is a counterpoint to, or a critique of, these recent issues. For me the body has always been a prosthetic body. Ever since we evolved as hominids and  developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators. We have become creatures that construct tools, artefacts and machines. We’ve always been augmented by our instruments, our technologies. Technology is what constructs our humanity; the trajectory of technology is what has propelled human developments. I’ve never seen the body as purely biological, so to consider technology as a kind of alien other that happens upon us at the end of the millennium is rather simplistic. I don’t see any of these recent controversies as a crisis of the natural, or if there has been a crisis, it’s taken place over a much longer period of time due to all these cultural inscriptions, metaphysical assumptions and philosophies that we’ve been propagating. 


JZ & GH: That’s really interesting. It seems to clear up some of the questions that have been raised in relation to your work, particularly those concerning the idea that you’re constructing some evolutionary narrative of development, from the human to what you call ‘the posthuman’. It’s not that there was once a ‘pure’ body and that this has somehow been contaminated as we have entered the so-called ‘technological age’. Rather, the human here seems to be born out of the relationship with technology.


Stelarc: Yes. I’ve done performances where my body becomes, or is partly, taken over by an external agency. I’ve become very intrigued about identity, the self, free will and agency in these performances. What happens when half of your body is being remotely prompted by a person in another place? It’s strange when you find the other half can collaborate with local agency. From moment to moment your body is performing a movement that you neither have an immediate memory of nor a desire to perform. The more and more performances I do the less and less I think I have a mind of my own - nor any mind at all in the traditional metaphysical sense. What you have here is an obsolete body that seems to have evolved as an absent body and has now been invaded by technology, a body that is hollow, that now performs involuntarily for remote people over the Internet. These alternate and involuntary experiences with technology allow you to question what a body is, what it means to be human. We have a fear of the zombie and an anxiety of the cyborg, but really it’s a fear of what we’ve always been and what we have already become. I’ve always thought that we’ve been simultaneously zombies and cyborgs; we’ve never really had a mind of our own and we’ve never been purely biological entities.


JZ & GH: The ‘zombies’ and ‘cyborgs’ you are talking about  are often associated with the sort of anxiety which is evoked by technology we started by alluding to. However, your work also seems to create another sense of anxiety: that which is played out in critical responses to your art, and particularly your writing. We’re thinking here especially of Keith Ansell Pearson’s decision to turn away from what he regards as the ‘banal’ (231) interpretation that is put forward in your own commentaries on your work, toward your art practice, which Ansell Pearson sees as providing a more interesting and complicated reading of your art. Maybe it’s this anxiety that is urging your interpreters and critics to pin you down and decide: you’re either saying this or that?


Stelarc: I think it’s also a result of my being found wanting between the realm of my production on the one hand and trying to articulate my ideas on the other. If you’re doing performances simply to illustrate your ideas, that doesn’t work! And if you’re trying to justify your actions through a prosthesis of textual analysis, that doesn’t work either. But there is sometimes an uncomfortable feedback loop when your performances start generating ideas, so it’s not always easy to resolve or to evaluate what’s affecting what. Unfortunately, what often happens is that people are critiquing your work more from what you’ve written than what you’re doing. Often they haven’t actually seen a performance. Then you’ve got other issues like ‘art and the audience’, and ‘art and entertainment’. Doing the performance with three hands writing EVOLUTION at the Maki Gallery in 1982 was very tedious for the people who saw that, if we evaluate it as an entertaining action. The idea was that one can simultaneously write with three hands, each hand writing a separate letter at the same time. Not being ambidextrous, this was quite a feat for me. Sometimes one image can encapsulate a whole performance - and that’s what happens with the EVOLUTION event. But that was probably not entertaining for the audience. On the other hand, there’s EXOSKELETON,  the six-legged walking machine. This is a 600 kilogram robot that walks on six legs. It walks backward, forward, sideways, it squats, it lifts, it turns. This performance can’t be captured by one image alone. People are often unamazed because you can see much faster and fancier robots done with digital animation. But what’s interesting for me is not simply going more and more virtual but rather exploring the interface between the actual and the virtual. I’m trying to investigate whether a physical body can function in a virtual immersive environment and whether an intelligent avatar might be able to perform in the real world by possessing a physical body. They are the sorts of issues that are more interesting - rather than moving increasingly into artificial intelligence and virtual reality.


JZ & GH: That seems to tie in with your description of the cyborg more in terms of a ‘speculation’ which we shouldn’t see as ‘a kind of either/or situation’ or ‘a dogmatic formulation of some utopian vision’ (Stelarc non-pag.).  This element of hesitation, pointing to a process rather than a state of events, makes your perception of the cyborg quite different from some essentialist descriptions of cyborgs as people with artificial limbs, pacemakers or implanted corneal lenses.


Stelarc: I’m much more interested in what happens between states, between people: not so much at the boundary but between boundaries. And to question what constitutes boundaries, to undermine them altogether. I want to explore the slippage, the ambiguities, the ambivalences.  I’m talking about redesigning the body because I see the body as an evolutionary architecture for operating an awareness in the world. Modify the biological apparatus and you modify its experience of the world.


JZ & GH: Virilio accused you of eugenics…


Stelarc: Well, speculating about the design of the body in this way does not sanction social engineering. It just confronts the problem of a body that could function in alternate ways. I like Virilio’s writings, but I think his Catholic background allows him to accept the consequences of technologies and the accidents that emanate from them as long as they are seemingly external to the body. He sees the skin as a boundary. On the one side there is the bounded self and on the other there is the world. He found it very disconcerting when I started inserting electronic objects, like the STOMACH SCULPTURE, into the body. The point where technology invades the body is the point where hysteria is usually generated. In the early seventies I filmed three metres of internal space into the stomach, lungs and intestines, so right from the very beginning I was interested in these internal and external probes of the body. For me skin has never been a bounding interface. Of course, skin is the largest organ of our bodies and it contains heat sensors, touch sensors, pain sensors. It’s also a very complex organ which allows us to perceive the world in all sorts of subtlety. But I’ve never considered it as a kind of bounding of the self and this is what Virilio, I believe, finds a little disturbing. All these discussions about redesigning the body are my speculations or probes about what might happen if one was able to redesign the body more radically. In his article included in Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Mark Dery cites a medical doctor who criticises this idea of synthetic skin. Of course, holistically, you can’t just simply alter a part of the body without altering everything else about it. But there is something thought-provoking in speculating about what might happen if we could just simply construct a synthetic skin with several capabilities like, for example, permeability to oxygen and an ability to function in a sophisticated photosynthetic way. There is no practical, medical, surgical way of doing it at the moment. These are meant to be tentative speculations that generate some kind of discourse rather than serious medical proposals to presently alter the body’s makeup. So, in summary, what I’m really interested in is what happens when disruptions and transgressions occur - not devising utopian or social engineering schemes for some kind of dogmatic agenda. And none of my own writings have been anything more than poetic speculations. They’re not elaborated, they are not academically examined, I don’t use extensive citations. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t read Virilio, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida and a lot of other theorists. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t inadvertently appropriated some of their ideas. But these ideas can only be authenticated through the performances that I do and they only have meaning when generated by these performances. So that’s the reason I write the way I do, and don’t academically cite the writings of others.


JZ & GH: Referring to your bodily experiments such as the Movatar and the Stomach Sculpture, you claim that the hollow body becomes a host. Is this kind of intervention based on violence? Or can it be seen as a form of hospitality (i.e. of welcoming ‘the other’ within the self)?


Stelarc: I would hasten to add that it’s more generous than violent; more an opening up of the body. A hollow body can be a better host - either for technology or for remote and virtual agents. A lot of these performances, like the Stomach Sculpture, have been physically difficult. Firstly, the sculpture was about 50 mm in length and 15 mm in diameter. This was the largest rigid object that we could push down the oesophagus without scraping it badly. When it got into the stomach cavity, this object opened to about 50 mm in diameter and 75 mm in length: the size of a small fist. Of course, this object could have been made smaller but I wanted to construct something that filled up the stomach cavity, that had interesting operations, and that could be retrieved afterwards. The sculpture was made of titanium, stainless steel, gold and silver - biocompatible materials that weren’t going to react to the stomach fluids. I got this idea for an internal sculpture when a friend of mine, Tony Figallo, sent a clipping for proposals for the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, whose theme was site-specific works. I’d never contributed to a sculpture triennial before, even though I’d been trained as a sculptor. So I thought, instead of doing a sculpture for a public space why not construct a sculpture for an internal space? This conjured up all sorts of problems: How do I safely insert it into the body? How do I get it out again? How can I make it operational? If it’s got a flashing light and a beeping sound and it moves - how am I actually going to do this? When you’re amplifying body signals and sounds like brain waves, heart beat, blood flow, and you’re hearing them outside your body, your body in a sense morphs from this humanoid space to a gallery space and you have this sensation of emptying out your body. This was my first experience of a hollow body. As it was when I made the video probes. A hollow body is a host body. So in this way the body is not simply a site for a psyche but becomes a host for a sculpture. In the performance FRACTAL FLESH for Telepolis, people in other places could remotely access and actuate a body. People at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Media Lab in Helsinki and the Doors of Perception Conference in Amsterdam were connected to my body located in Luxembourg. We had video screens at either end, so I could always see the face of the person who was programming my body movements and they, in turn, could always see the result of their choreography. These images were always superimposed so we could see each other. That created a kind of intimacy without proximity and it gave you the sense of being ‘possessed’ by that remote agent.  In the other Internet performances PING BODY and PARASITE, issues of telematic scaling of the body were explored. The body is activated, is animated not by people  in other places but by Internet data and images. The Internet becomes a kind of crude external nervous system, optically stimulating and electrically actuating the body. It’s never been an issue of control (actually in most of these performances what is explored is the alternate, the involuntary). That’s another thing that is always brought up in relation to new technologies and, more specifically, my own work: ‘Who is going to control you?’ There’s this kind of Foucauldian focus on control, on constraint. But what is more meaningful is not to see this as a master/slave relationship with issues of control, but rather as issues of access and  of actuation, of hosting and of multiple agency.


JZ & GH: It only works in this scenario when we believe that we control the body beforehand and then technology comes and takes over.


Stelarc: That’s right. But one can look at it not so much as an issue of control but an issue of complexity. What we’re really constructing are more and more feedback loops between the body and other bodies and its environment, whether technological, cultural, social or whatever, and this makes for a much more interesting extended operational system. And that’s another way of seeing the cyborg. Not as a kind of Terminator 2 body, a medical military model, but rather as a system, as a multiplicity of bodies, spatially separated but electronically connected with the Internet as a kind of external nervous system, being able to perform remote functions and transmit images and information in intimate and intense ways. And if we see the issues of the involuntary body and remote stimulation as issues of body complexity rather than body control, then there’s no dilemma. As you said, it’s only a problem if you maintain these very distinct boundaries, if you make these distinctions - and I don’t.


JZ & GH: The metaphor of connectivity seems to be a recurrent motif in your work. It also serves as something of a guiding thread for this book which brings together work on both Orlan and yourself. With this in mind, do you see any points of connection or convergence between Orlan’s performances and those of your own?


Stelarc: What I’ve always admired about Orlan is that she takes the physical consequences for her ideas. That’s the difference between performance and the other 2-dimensional arts. If I wanted to suspend my body, I had to cope with the physical difficulty of inserting hooks into the skin. If I wanted to insert a sculpture inside my body, I had to take the medical consequences of scraping the oesophagus and the uncomfortable feeling and the trauma of transgressing the body in that difficult way. If I wanted to explore six-legged insect-like locomotion, I had to come up with DM75,000 to construct such a machine and then cope with having to navigate this powerful and heavy robot. You have to take the physical consequences of these projects and Orlan does that. I really found the idea of appropriating these archetypal facial features and incorporating them into one physical body seductive. She’s very much a postmodern performance artist, more so than myself. In general, what we have in common, with a lot of other performance artists before us, is that you are dealing on a human scale with the biological body, with its physiology and you have to put up with the physical difficulties involved. But I suspect we make very different metaphysical assumptions on what we mean by the obsolete body. The body is obsolete in form and function. But we cannot operate disembodied. We cannot discard the body. It is not the object manipulated by a subject. I think for Orlan, she speaks of herself as a kind of psyche encapsulated in a physical body. Of course, language makes it difficult to speak without referring to an ‘I’. But when this body speaks as an ‘I’, it understands that the notion ‘I’ in the English language is a simplification of a much more complex relationship between bodies, between the body and its culture and social institutions, between the body and its technologies. Our language tends to reinforce Platonic, Cartesian and Freudian constructs of internal representations, of essences, of egos. I think we have to get away from these notions and try to construct a body that is not simplistically a split mind and brain. This body is not in a kind of Cartesian theatre of ‘I’ as opposed to ‘my physical body’. This body doesn’t simplistically store images and information inside its head. Rather the brain can be seen as a soft neuronal tissue that quivers and communicates with electrical signals. It conjures up images and ideas through a constant feedback of stimulation from its environment and words from other bodies and cultural histories, cultural inscriptions. It’s wrong to talk of the ‘I’ as a kind of essence which possesses information and images of the world, and which navigates its body in order to perform certain actions. I suspect that when Orlan speaks of 'giving her body to art', she’s taking a metaphysical stand that’s somewhat Cartesian. That might be a misrepresentation. But this body considers itself a body without a mind in a traditional metaphysical sense, a hollow body which becomes not only a host for miniaturised technological components but also a body of multiple agencies remotely interacting with it, a body that has a much more fluid sense of self: not so much a split self from a body but rather a self that is extruded. I like the word ‘extruded’ because it visualises the extension into the environment but doesn’t produce a Cartesian split. So, at certain times, this body feels; it intimately exchanges words and emotions. At other times this body communicates remotely; it images itself as an evolutionary object. When I talk about the obsolete body I don’t mean that we should discard bodies altogether, but rather that a body with this form and these functions cannot operate effectively in the technological terrain that it has created. The obsolete body is not about a loathing of the body; it’s not about discarding the body altogether. It’s rather about speculating on how the body has evolved and, in a technological terrain that it has created, how the body has problems coping with the sort of intense information that is really alien to its own sensory apparatus, how it measures bits of information in scales that it can’t experience. And then technology often outperforms the human body and accelerates the body so that it escapes from the gravitational pull of the earth and finds itself in alien environments. So in these ways the body becomes obsolete. The question is not so much whether we discard bodies but rather how to rethink the design of the body: is this an adequate architecture for perpetuating intelligent life in a technological realm and in an extraterrestrial environment? These notions are not about science fiction or a kind of New Age, West Coast wired culture yearning to transcend the body. What irritates me is people who see the Internet and virtual reality systems as strategies of escaping the body. You don’t escape the body; you function differently with the interfaces that produce these immersive and interactive effects. You construct an extended operational system that functions beyond the biology of the body and beyond the local space it inhabits.


JZ & GH: Isn’t this ‘obsolescence of the body’ you speak about also, to some extent, about the end of a certain notion of technology (at least that which positions technology as extrinsic to human nature) as only an instrument of knowledge?


Stelarc: I think we’re constantly reevaluating the notion of what it means to be a body, what constitutes our humanity. An intelligent agent has to be embodied and embedded in the world; you can’t have an intelligent entity without some kind of physical interface to a complex environment. In fact, the recent experiments and research into artificial intelligence are no longer limited to studying artificial intelligence and artificial life as computer models, as entities in a virtual world, because you just can’t model the complexity of the real world in a virtual environment. So what people are doing now is building simple robots, placing them in the real world and then seeing what sort of emergent behaviour occurs. These simple robots might have only three or four sensors such as proximity, touch, and light sensors. What they’re finding is that these artificial life forms with neural nets are capable of basic learning like how to avoid obstacles, how to maximise their life-span and charge their batteries, how to co-operate in gathering tasks. They develop simple social  and flocking behaviours. It’s really important to understand what it means to be an intelligent agent. At the moment we don’t know how a disembodied intelligent agent could interact in any way with images and information that enable it to communicate and to develop social and cultural histories. Now of course how the intelligent agent is embodied might mean that a purely biological entity is inadequate. Perhaps having only a robot body is equally inadequate and that it’s only through the hybridisation of these two operational systems that we can perpetuate intelligent life. But there are also other possibilities, other scenarios. For example, that post-human life may no longer reside in bodies and machines but in intelligent, operational and autonomous images sustained on the Internet. In other words, viral bits of code that morph, mutate, replicate and proliferate on the Internet function in much faster and more complex ways than even human bodies and machines might. But, of course, that’s predicated on the notion that the Internet becomes increasingly a much more complex environment. I think there is no longer a simplistic scenario of machines replacing bodies or becoming totally disembodied within the electronic space of the Internet. What we have are multiple possibilities which are equally interesting as scenarios, and these scenarios enable us to probe what it means to be a body, what it means to have a body, and whether it’s meaningful any more to consider having a mind of our own.


JZ & GH: A number of art reviews of both Orlan’s work and your own have been devoted to ‘determining’ whether this kind of performance ‘deserves’ to be perceived as art. It’s a similar kind of anxiety to that we talked about before, one that seems to be generated by your writing. What is it that these ‘guardians of aesthetic standards’ are most afraid of, or disturbed by, in your work? What kind of challenges do Orlan and yourself pose to the traditional idea of art?


Stelarc: Oh, what determines whether it is art is dependent on a rather complex set of assumptions, expectations and of course what artists produce - whether they be objects or performances. Art already has a tradition of exposing, undermining and developing alternate strategies and aesthetics. Nothing new here in what Orlan or I do. And if my writing does generate uncertainty, anxiety, if it makes these small disruptions and creates these little slippages, that sounds good for me. The performances aren’t meant to be illustrative and self-explanatory. When I go and see a work of art, I want to go away asking questions, not feeling satisfied or entertained.  Art is a means of opening up the world, opening up to the world. It is not about closure, it is not about the comfortable reassurance. A problem about the postmodern is that it becomes incestuous in its discourse through its strategies of appropriation and juxtaposition. It deconstructs, but it does not escape its own self-referentiality. The seductiveness of technology is the seductiveness of providing alternate possibilities, of new strategies in both conceptualising and visualising the arts. With technologies we get the new aesthetics of computer animation, of morphing, of interactive and immersive VR environments, of remotely interacting with other bodies, of the Internet itself as a medium of expression, allowing us to use search engines to construct meta-narratives. This is a very powerful new approach in the arts and it’s able to employ this vast rhizomatic bank of information and images. That’s how I see the seduction of technology. Coming back to Orlan, people have pointed out differences and similarities between us. One is that what Orlan does to her body is pretty much a permanent change: if she does an operation to change the shape of her face, it stays changed. If I put on a third hand, I can detach it; I can in a sense live a normal life outside my performance activity.


JZ & GH: But what about the extra ear?


Stelarc: The EXTRA EAR is different. It is seen as a soft prosthesis. And similarly to Orlan, this will be a permanent construction on my body - a soft prosthesis. And it goes beyond the realm of cosmetic surgery. All my performances explore the notion of the prosthetic body, whether the body has bits of technology attached to it or, as with the Movatar, the body itself becomes a prosthesis for manifesting the behavior of an intelligent avatar in the real world. The six-legged walking machine and the Extra Ear are two different approaches to a prosthesis. The Exoskeleton is the largest prosthetic extension of the body that I’ve been involved with, while the Stomach Sculpture as an insert, is the smallest. The Extra Ear becomes a kind of soft prosthesis constructed from the skin and cartilage from the body. It’ll need to be pinned to the cranium using titanium pins. The Extra Ear has been designed to be a permanent facial feature. In fact, the Third Hand was also originally designed as a semi-permanent attachment to my body; I was supposed to be wearing it as much as I would wear my clothing. The reason why it did not happen was that the hand was never built out of carbon fibre. I had to resort to using aluminium, stainless steel, duralamin and acrylic:  materials that were more easily scratched or damaged or fractured. Also, the electrode gel where the muscle signals were picked up and preamplified irritated the skin and so the Third Hand became then more a performance object. So the notion of permanent prosthetic attachments was always a possibility with my work. The problem of the Extra Ear being a permanent attachment is not thought of as an issue. The difficulty  is that it goes beyond cosmetic surgery. It’s not just a matter of me having enough money to pay for an operation, because this involves more than one kind of medical practitioner. It’s going to involve reconstructive surgery, skin stretching, some orthopaedic work and perhaps some micro-surgery. And because it’s an issue of excess, it becomes more and more a problem of medical ethics. Although cosmetic and plastic surgery is now considered a part of conventional medical practice, to construct extra body parts would just not be allowed ordinarily in a tightly regulated medical profession.


JZ & GH: A lot of your concern, in recent years especially, has been with technology, or technical strategies, that take machinic form, bionics, robotics, etc. - hence your ‘Third Hand’, the six-legged walking machine of ‘Exoskeleton’, etc. Even your ‘Stomach Sculpture/Hollow Body’ performance consisted of the insertion into the body of a sculpture in the form of a machine or device. We know you’ve talked elsewhere about the relation between electronic technology and biotechnology, and the way the one in many ways led to the other as a result of greater programming power (Stelarc non-pag.). But why this concentration on technology in this form as opposed to, say, things at the more micro end of the scale, such as biotechnology, genetics or cloning? Would you consider experimenting with micro-technologies, with genetics, hormones, viruses, bacteria, etc.?


Stelarc: That’s a good question. Having grown up in the late 60s, early 70s, this was a time when people dropped acid, chewed mushrooms and experimented with brain chemistry. Timothy Leary stands for that kind of exploration of body and brain chemistry. I was at Carnegie Mellon University three years ago. They have a good biology department there, and I was really interested in the idea of growing muscle cells and experimenting with involuntary muscle movements, but on a smaller, isolated scale. However, I discovered that even though I could grow muscle cells, they didn’t form actual muscle fibre. There are lots of things that you can’t do yet. For example, with embryonic stem cells, we can now theoretically grow any organ in its full complexity, and steps are being taken to do this. But it probably won’t be for fifty to a hundred years before we can really grow organs. Of course, there are all sorts of ethical issues to begin with there as well. How do you acquire these stem cells? From aborted foetuses? As an artist I want to be able to construct something that’s an actual interface that I can experience directly. So I guess I’ve been more interested in technological augmentation or extension because you can deal with that as a component part rather than in a more fuzzy and uncontrollable way, like taking drugs. Genetic intervention will not radically alter the parameters of the body anyway. I think we are caught up in a period of time when we’re talking about cloning and embryonic stem cells, growing organs and all these sorts of genetic intervention, but in reality we are not going to be able to do this in any meaningful way for a while yet. Other artists, though, like Eduardo Kac, have found ways to incorporate genetic techniques into art.


JZ & GH: When talking about the transformation of the body through the intrusion of nanotechnologies (or microminiaturised robots, as you call them), you say that ‘the body becomes the landscape of machines’ (Stelarc non-pag.). Is the transformation of the body the way you envisage and stage it coupled with the change of its environment?


Stelarc: This is a very significant event in human history. At the same time that we’re landing satellites on other planetary bodies technology is landing on the human body. Initially, technology is seen as external and proliferating in the human landscape, but as technology becomes more and more microminiaturised it is also more and more human in scale. It can then constitute a component of the body, not simply to be attached but also to be implanted. Technology becomes increasingly more biocompatible. With nanotechnology we get to a scale of technology that is even below our sensory level. We may not be able to see or feel these microminiaturised machines, yet we can conceive them recolonising the human body, augmenting our bacterial and viral populations. Biocompatibility that comes from microminiaturised scale is one of the significant events which have occurred in the twentieth century. Instead of containing the body machines now become a component of the body. One can conjecture that a lot of future technology will be invisible because it will be contained inside the body. This kind of flip of the relationship between the body and its machines leads to a possibility of hybridisation we didn’t anticipate before. We thought of the cyborg as the sci-fi version of the body plugged into a robotic superstructure. Here you have a situation where biological bodies might survive with their form and functions but as hosts to microminiaturised machines. Of course, microminiaturised machines might serve medical purposes, surveillance purposes and other operational purposes within the body environment. At the moment the design of the body is deficient in internal surveillance. But maybe in the future we’ll be able to detect cancerous growths or blockages in our circulatory systems or pathological changes in temperature or chemistry early enough with these surveillance systems inside the body. 


JZ & GH: To round off our discussion, perhaps you could say a few words about one of your more recent projects, the Movatar.


Stelarc: Originally I thought of the Movatar as an inverse motion capture system driven by a muscle stimulation interface. The seduction was the idea that an electrical flow would be created from the intelligent avatar into the human body. Muscle stimulation is quite smooth and produces fairly humanlike movements contracting muscles.  I decided instead to go with a motion prosthesis which is a pneumatically operated device with  six degrees of freedom that wraps around the upper torso and arms and actuates the body with giff-like actions. It allows you to perform very precise and fast movements resembling basic computer animation. It will result in a kind of split body situation. It can be thought of as a kind of viral agent. The Movatar stays dormant but when it’s connected to a host body it becomes active and it can actuate the body.  Like a virus it lies dormant but when it’s coupled with the host in the right environment then it can come alive. And so the Movatar is a kind of viral life form which will evolve in its interaction with the body. It doesn’t have its own virtual environment; its environment is this interface with the real world through the physical body. In a limited sense it learns from previous experience. It will have evolutionary or genetic algorithms that allow its behaviour to be modified continuously and independently of the human body. Also, when the physical body moves it will generate the pneumatic sounds of compressed air, of relay switch clicks, of other sampled sounds of the motion prosthesis. These sounds will be fed back, or looped back, into the Movatar’s program. In effect, the Movatar has an ear in the world, it will be affected by the sound the physical body produces, while the sound that’s fed back to the Movatar produces a kind of startle response, so there’s feedback from the real world. We’re thinking also of the vision system that monitors the leg movements instead of sensors and in that case the Movatar would have a kind of eye in the world as well that allows it to process information back from the real world and incorporate it into its evolving program. These visualisations are just 3-D computer simulations indicating how this six degrees of freedom motion prosthesis would function and what kinds of movements it would be able to create.


JZ & GH: It’s interesting to think in what way the Movatar project challenges and pushes the whole problem of agency.


Stelarc: In the Movatar, you blur the distinctions between the virtual and the actual. We’re doing this already with motion capture systems. If I have position/orientation sensors on my body, these allow the computer to monitor and map my movements onto a computer body, onto a virtual entity, and I can choreograph that virtual body from the real world. But here we have an inverse motion capture system, so the opposite occurs. What happens if an avatar, which is imbued with artificial intelligence, which is increasingly autonomous and operational, wants to perform in a real world? It can do so by possessing a physical body. In my previous performances the body had prosthetic bits and pieces attached to or implanted inside it, but here the body itself becomes a prosthesis for the manifestation of a virtual entity’s behaviour. I think it’s an interesting new possibility. And since Movatar will be a VRML entity on a website, theoretically anybody anywhere can log onto it. And, providing they possess such an exoskeleton interface, the Movatar could perform with anybody in any place, either sequentially, one body at a time, or simultaneously with clusters of bodies, spatially separated but electronically connected to it. So you have this virtual choreography of physical bodies, of possessed and performing bodies. I just find that a very beautiful concept.

Works Cited

Ansell Pearson, Keith. ‘Life Becoming Body: On the “Meaning” of Posthuman Evolution.’ Cultural Values 1:2 (1997): 219-240.

Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996.

Stelarc. ‘An Interview by Yiannis Melanitis.’ a-r-c: journal of art research and critical curating,