THE NAKED ROBOT

FLABBY, balding and naked, a middle-aged man convulses as 30 volts pulse through skin and bone, stimulating his nerve endings and producing an involuntary dance. It looks like torture, but this seemingly barbaric procedure is, in fact, a work of art, played out on the body of Australian performance artist Stelarc.

In an age of plastic surgery, artificial organs, piercings and scarification the idea of body enhancement is not new, but Stelarc's technophilia has carried him further than most people would even wish to imagine. Using existing medical circuitry, robotics and a complex software package, he has patched together a muscle stimulation system that allows his audience to manipulate his movements by computer.

At the recent Teleopolis conference in Luxembourg, Stelarc's "host body" was simultaneously connected to the Pompidou in Paris, the Media Lab in Helsinki and the Doors of Perception conference in Amsterdam. At each site "remote users" were able to choreograph his gestures by fingering a touch-screen. "A movement in their body was displaced across space and time and manifested in mine," he says happily, "creating a more fluid sense of self."

Often the artist's body is divided in two, with voltage input on one side and a controlled output on the other that allows him local control of a prosthetic arm. "A split personality is diagnosed as pathological, but a split body can be seen as an advance. One body can combine remotely guided actions with intuitively improvised ones."

Audiences are repelled or intrigued, in varying degrees; the artist exudes jovial antipodean insouciance. "The electrical stimulus takes a bit of getting used to," he admits with a maniacal laugh, "but it's calibrated so it's not harmful. What is strange is the metaphysical experience of watching your limbs moving on their own. Wittgenstein asked if pure motion was possible, but until now that effect has only been apparent as a symptom of neurological disease."

Born in Cyprus, brought up in Australia and resident in Japan for over 20 years, Stelarc began toying with "body art" in the 1960s. After crude virtual reality helmets came "sensory deprivation events", then naked suspensions, with his body strung up on hooks above international capitals, and filmings of his lungs and colon. In 1975, he began to explore how new technology could be harnessed for DIY body improvements. He has been gleefully "upgrading" his body ever since, designing, among other things, a robotic arm, and a third hand which attracted the interest of NASA.

In his current piece Stelarc amplifies his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood- flow and muscle signals, while interactive lighting flickers and flares to the electronic discharges of his body. After 13 years of muscle stimulation, fortunately, the only discernible side-effects are "a lack of hair - but I think that may be genetic".

What of the future? "It's time to question whether a bipedal body with binocular vision and a 1,400cc brain is an adequate biological form." Happily, it seems this doesn't mean human extinction, but a glittering technotopia. "I don't see people being taken over by cyborgs. It's more likely that the body will swallow the machine."

Whatever happens, Stelarc reckons it's time we all "shed our Frankenstein fear of tampering with the body". But he would say that, wouldn't he? !

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