Our body is so obsolete

Stelarc and Insertables: Human-Computer Integration?

April 9, 2017 - 5 minute read -
blog art

Our body is a curious paradox of potential and limitation. On the one hand, human body can experience and express amazing things. We eat, drink, have sex, smoke, dance, draw, fight, go deep into the ocean, and climb high in the mountains. On the other hand, the body is extremely vulnerable and inadequate. Diseases and disabilities haunt us. The best of us can only run at 1/20 the speed of that of a plane. We have terrible memory. And our body breaks down as we age.

So it seems natural that we want to boost the potential and overcome the limitation of the body. However, body modification causes a lot of controversy. There are many degrees of body modification. You can go from the almost harmless ear piercing, to hipster tattoos, and all the way to chips implants under the skin. The world is your oyster.

The most bizarre body modification I’ve seen is that by Stelarc, or more commonly known as, “the man with an ear on his arm”.

Stelarc | Ear on Arm, Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired

Stelarc (b.1946) is an Australian performance artist with a reputation for going to extremes using his own body as the canvas for artistic expression. Since 1980, he conducted at least 26 body suspension performances in different positions, locations, and situations (view images at your own risk). Suspension is a form of body modification, which basically means suspending a human body through hooks pierced through skin. Because the hooks need to support the weight of entire human body without ripping the skin apart, suspension requires a careful study and an acute understanding of human anatomy to determine the number and position of hooks.

Performance art? Really?

I was totally weired out by these suspension performances when I first heard about Stelarc from a friend. “Performance artists,” I rolled my eyes, “they just do weird things to attract attention.” My friend went on to talk about another performance artist, Marina Abramović, about her project The Artist is Present (2010), where she sat at MoMA and offered a minute of silence with each stranger who sat in front of her. Of all places, she picked New York, the city most critiqued by its estrangement and hustle. For three months, she sat there, staring in strangers eyes, for an entire of 736 hours and 30 minutes in silence.

Only then I began to sense that there is something uniquely powerful about performance art. By using body as the medium, performance artists again show us just how powerful human body can be, by provoking us to feel and think.

For example, the project by Stelarc, the Extended Arm (first performed in 2000), prompts us to think about the relationship between technology and body.

Watch Stelarc talk about the Extended Arm project below.


The Extended Arm is a mechanical hand made of stainless steel, aluminum, and acrylic. It functions just like, and in some ways more than a hand (e.g., the finger can split and grad things). In the performance, Stelarc’s right arm was wearing the Extended Arm, and his left arm was controlled by electronic muscle stimulation, moving involuntarily, for four hours. Two arms together combine into movements that are almost dance like.

Research: Insertable Devices

So what is Stelarc trying to say with the Extended Arm? If Stelarc already seems crazy by simply wearing electronic devices, what does it make people who insert stuff under their skin?

Last year at CHI, a paper titled “You Put What, Where?: Hobbyist Use of Insertable Devices.” presented an interview study with 17 people who have inserted magnets or microchips under the skin. Interestingly, these people are not weirdos. According to the authors, Heffernan et al., “participants thought of themselves as ‘normal’, not as radical or alternative.” One participant explained:

In my professional life I am pretty much just a normal dude [who] wears jeans and a t-shirt to meetings. I’m not typically out there. So I guess I was sort of normal, I think, if you can call it that.

In addition, inserting devices into the body, it turns out, can be actually pretty useful. If you are like me–terrible at navigation–inserting a magnet at your fingertip can give the ability to “sense” electromagnetic fields and tell directions apart as the magnet vibrates. If you insert a microchip and set it up to work together with smart locks, you will never need to remember to take the keys with you ever again. The door will automatically unlock as your body approaches.

In the end of the paper, the authors painted a very positive picture of insertable devices–almost calling it the future of Fitbite–and invited interaction designers to seriously consider insertables as a future interaction mode.

We argue that the body is not just a canvas for devices to go on to, but also a platform for devices to go in, if designed to (miniaturization and encasement in bio-inert materials). … With the advent of insertables as an interaction device of choice there is an impetus for interaction designers to begin to offer insertable versions of devices.

Closing Thoughts

If you have read all the way through here, clearly you are crazy (or perhaps bored) enough to consider my following proposition. I invite you to seriously consider what Stelarc is trying to express with his robotic integrations with the body, and what Heffernan et al. paper proposed in the end, to be a future mode of HCI. Not Human-Computer Interaction, but Human-Computer Integration.

Human-Computer Integration isn’t that hard to imagine. We have seen similar technological jumps in prosthetics research. The tipping point was when the robotic limbs exceeded the limitation of human body. Not only can robotic limbs let us run, climb, and dance (see Hugh Herr, MIT Media Lab), but perhaps they can let us run faster, climb in impossible situations, and dance with grace and power that our natural body can never achieve.

If you find that troubling, I will leave you with a even more troubling thought. What happens to social interactions now that everyone’s body is integrated? If Stelarc is a “man with an ear on his arm”, will there be a “woman with a mouth on her leg”?

Here is a screenshot from Heffernan et al. paper, showing two pairs of magnet inserts in the body.

Known as the “lovers’ magnets”, both parties insert two magnets with positions matching each other’s in their hand.

When they hold hands, the inserted magnets make them, quite literally, “click”.


Art + HCI: I’ll be writing a series of articles connecting ideas from art with research in HCI and social computing.

Previously in this series:

Acknowledgment: The amazing Emily Sun pointed me to Heffernan et al. paper.

References

  1. Body modification
  2. The man with an ear on his arm
  3. For extreme artist Stelarc, body mods hint at human’s possible future
  4. Marina Abramović
  5. Heffernan, Kayla J., Frank Vetere, and Shanton Chang. “You Put What, Where?: Hobbyist Use of Insertable Devices.” Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2016.
  6. The new bionics that let us run, climb and dance
  7. Artsy Marina Abramović