Stelarc and the sum of his parts
by Werner Hammerstingl ©1997


Wait! Is that the sound of falling solders? Is the king in trouble?; is he cornered? Turing's challenge (1)is just getting interesting; his and other human intelligence vs. machine intelligence tests inspired by him will promote a new onslaught of challengers until the crown of chess can finally be placed on a plastic shroud, housing inside it a fearsomely fast and cunning CPU (or more likely a whole colony of CPU's). The crown of chess will be lost from humans for a long time after that day and Garry Kasparov or his successor will be just another statistic. Entry: Last human grand champion in chess, beaten by...(it my even be Deep Blue 2)..... While the highly funded MIT labs are working on another machine and still another in the race to produce an artificial brain which narrows the human-machine gap, actually closing it momentarily until it begins to widen in the opposite direction, we should not overlook Stelarc.

His surgical strikes are pre-empted by loud laughter, but when you look into his dark eyes you see the terminals of a brain that has already succeeded in collapsing the A.I. vs. human intelligence issue from a radically different perspective.

The contrail reminder of Stelarc's "having been there" logically connects the early suspensions with the third hand events, the performances which introduced the industrial robots to the "involuntary muscle stimulation events" via the "stomach sculptures" step with the "now", the point where he has surrendered his body.

Stelarc's leitmotif has been his examination of "the body" (his emphasis). He has explored "the body" from the outside, the inside, as hard body and virtual body, as data, as flesh, as event scape, as a cybernetic device, as a site that locates philosophical, theosophical, political and scientific dimensions of interpretation and debate and finally as one half of an interface whose other half is the machine. He never appears to have wavered from his chosen path, the investigation of the body. He choses to perform this investigation as an artist, not a scientist. Stelarc works with a different rhythm . He is not weighed down by having to evolve competed theorems. He can speculate and slip in and out of a whole banquet of moral, technological, scientific, philosophical and medical dilemmas. With each level of investigation we can witness an increase in confidence, authority and maturity. If at first, Stelarc appeared as something of a martyr for his cause, he has left that outdated model behind. The black-eyed man has moved far ahead. He is presently authoring and orchestrating events which blur the distinction between a body's own intelligence and a body as "object controlled" by communal intelligence.

A meme within that relatively huge operating system which constitutes the "wired" population. Mirroring the intentions of hundreds if not thousands of individuals, mediating the instructions transmitted by a colony of modems, Stelarc's body, an organic and 'in itself intelligent device' is controlled in a very public and visible manner by the invisible minds, desires and signals of all these "wired puppeteers". Mediation and translation take place in front of the audience in the site operating as "the body".

The idea of surrendering one's real or perceived autonomy and authority over "the body" (2) is perhaps a little too foreign to some and downright blasphemous to others. I sense that Stelarc will find more resistance in this terrain of ideas than in that of earlier works. The broader public continues to show a substantial interest in the spectacle and the exotic elements of Stelarcs performances, but the cringe factor has given way to the recognition that his new work and ideas are getting dangerously close to home. Stelarc is empirically demonstrating that the controlled body is physiologically and technologically possible right now, but his philosophical proposals will meet, I fear, the popular reluctance to embrace change. I had never understood this "believe the old, reject the new" attitude until I read Erick Drexler's explanation of the principle (3) on the basis of mental immune systems acting to prevent potentially damaging meme packages infecting our collective or singular brains. The meme package of ideas which Stelarc presents, is so fundamentally challenging to the status quo that he and his memes must be attacked to safeguard the very foundations of our present societal structure. If we eventually succumb to the idea that humanity can extend and share "the body" in life, we must then naturally embrace speculations on what we are likely to do with, and about, the transition the body makes towards death.

Lately I've noticed myself getting interested in chess again, even playing the odd game against my computer. I often win but, then again, my Powermac is no "Deep Blue".


1 I refer here to the Church -Turing Hypothesis which states that a machine can duplicate the functions of a mathematical machine as well as the functions of nature. The "Turing test" as such is based on Turing's proposal in 1950 that: "if a computer could successfully impersonate a human being during a free-form exchange of text messages, then for all practical purposes, the machine should be considered intelligent" see Charles Platt "What does it mean to be human anyway?" in Wired , April 1995 pp 132-137 Alan Turing also wrote the first chess algorithm for use in a calculating machine in 1948.

2 ".....where I can borrow a part of your body and make it perform a task in another space." Stelarc in an interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg "Electronic Voodoo" in 21C Issue 2, 1995, page 48

3 K. Erick Drexler Engines of Change Forth Estate, London, 1990 pp. 37-38

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Postscript

The king of chess (excuse the pun), Kasparov was soundly beaten by "Deep Blue" within less than three hours after this article was e.mailed to the publisher. By Sunday May 7th,7:02 EST, Reuters had reported Kasparov's walking away from the last and deciding game of a six game series against the IBM computer.The Kasparov demise was later analysed to have been caused by a psychological as well as a logical loss. Deep Blue team manager Chung-Jen "CJ" Tan had managed to help his modified "IBM RS/6000 SP" beat the best human in a contest of intelligence and wit. Has he helped towards his own and everyone's eventual obsolescence in the A.I. evolution? By contrast, Stelarc's research seems somehow noble. He is showing the way towards a symbiosis with a technology which is destined to play an ever increasing role in everyone's life. Once again, the artist is the avant garde for humanity.....

Werner Hammerstingl, 1997