Seeing Stelarc appear on screen via video call, it is hard to believe that the kindly looking 67-year-old in oversized black-rimmed spectacles is anything but an ordinary professor at Curtin University's School of Design & Art.
However, his unassuming demeanour belies the radical nature of his body-modifying art. In 2006, he underwent elective surgery to implant an ear onto his left arm and, since the mid-1970s, he has suspended himself from hooks which pierce his flesh more than two dozen times.
"I've always been interested in the idea of alternative anatomical architectures, and the idea that the human body in terms of its evolution has now become inadequate and probably profoundly obsolete," says Stelarc, who was born to Greek parents as Stelios Arcadiou. He legally switched to a single moniker in 1972 to give no other reason than that his given name was "too long".
The artist, who is based in Australia, will be in town next month to give a public talk at Lasalle College of the Arts.
To push the boundaries of the human form - and go beyond them - Stelarc's work focuses on how technology can augment physical bodies.
"What interests me is how we can construct or engineer new sorts of interfaces, how can we adjust the architecture of the human body, how robots can become more intelligent, and what are the social and ethical implications of human and robot interaction," he says.
In order to do this, he constructs one-of-a-kind implements, whether it be a six-legged, pneumatically powered machine or an extra hand, and road tests them - often on himself. He explains: "I want to engineer the idea so that I can personally experience it, and thereby have something meaningful to say about it".
Some of his most well-known projects include Ear On Arm, which began in 2006. Then, he underwent two operations to construct an ear on his left arm, which was created out of a porous material which encourages tissue to grow into it, effectively fusing the ear to the body.
He intends to implant a microphone into the structure, to create a working ear.
Another of his projects is Third Hand, a prosthetic augmentation which he completed in 1980. It has the exact same dimensions as the artist's right hand, and can perform a limited set of movements.
Stelarc says that his body-conscious works explore the thin and shifting line between humans and technology. "We're increasingly expected to perform in mixed realities. Sometimes, we're performing as biological bodies, but often and increasingly, we're accelerated, augmented, enhanced by our instruments and machines, and also we have to manage data streams in virtual systems. So in a way, the body now is this contemporary chimera of meat, metal and code."
Stelarc has also paid a physical price for his unwavering dedication to his vision. Several weeks after the second Ear On Arm surgery, a serious infection occurred which necessitated industrial strength antibiotics. He says wryly: "I almost lost the ear and I almost lost an arm for an ear."
While his works might be stomach- turning to some, the practical results are undeniable. After he unveiled Third Hand, he was invited to demonstrate the project at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States.
Underlying all of Sterlac's work is a lingering question of ethics. He says: "As we become increasingly interactive with our machines, not only are we generating 'aliveness' in robots, but we're also simultaneously somewhat automating the human body. So what does it mean when a machine or a robot does a lot of your human activity? And what's the relationship of the human body to the robot?"
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 31, 2014
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