American philosopher of technology Don Idhl has written extensively on postphenomenology — the study of the phenomenology of technology. He divided our relationship with technology into three major categories: embodiment as an extension of our bodies (like eyeglasses we forget we’re wearing), hermeneutic as an extension of perception (like the microscope through which we see what would be invisible), and alterity as an expression of other (like when we curse at our computer like it was a person).
The work of Australian performance artist Stelarc explores those concepts through the lens of post-humanism, the idea that our bodies are obsolete and waiting for us to create better ones. He talks about our bodies being made up of new kinds of flesh: circulating flesh (the blood in my veins might end up in another person), fractal flesh (the controlling of a body by impulses from somewhere else), and haptic flesh (senses that are extended beyond the body). Stelarc just isn’t afraid to push those boundaries further than most of us would ever consider.
His early work in the 1960s focused on suspensions — hanging his body from hooks through his flesh, sometimes counter-balanced by weights and then (later) connected to industrial servos that moved his body for him. He’s best known, though, for his technology work: he built a third hand controlled by the muscles of his abdomen capable of independent action from his other two hands and exo-skeletons that held his body and acted as an extension. In 2007, he made news when he had an ear grown from his own cells and implanted in his forearm as a third ear.
Stelarc’s work is deeply rooted in phenomenology, even if he’s pushing that beyond the Uncanny Valley into areas uncomfortable for an audience. In a 2007 interview, Stelarc argued: ”There are no ideas inside my head. There are no images inside my head. There are no memories inside my head. These are generated by my interaction with the world.”
Even if we aren’t ready to stick hooks in our flesh or let our bodies be controlled by alien impulses, Stelarc’s description of his artistic process can still provide us all inspiration: he’s embracing the risky unknown full of emergent possibility. He argues that’s what all artists have always done. “Artistic practice is the realm of exploring, experimenting and exposing,” he wrote. “It is about ambivalence, ambiguity and the slippage between intention and actuality. It is not simplistically an act of affirmation but of generating anxiety and uncertainty. Of accidents and surprises. That’s what artists have always been doing and will continue to do as an integral part of being curious and creative.”