I had an utterly mind-stretching hour last night listening to Stelarc's tour through the history of his performances, beginning with his astonishing and eye-catching "suspensions" series that had him hovering naked over city and sea, impaled by huge meat hooks attached to wires, and ending with his presentation of a "prosthetic head" -- a five metre high projected image of Stelarc-head, complete with animated facial expressions and eye movements, and ready with witty, ironic, deep, or sometimes just plain silly replies to questions from the audience. It's not hard to get the impression after a quick scan through his website that the main objective of much of Stelarc's performance art has been to draw attention to himself through a series of actions that almost seem to revile living flesh, provoking visceral, head-averting reactions from the audience. At times, it was hard enough to look at the pictures, let alone experience the real thing. But listening to Stelarc's words, ruminating on the thematic threads that run through all of his work, it is hard not to stand in awe of his approach to the delivery of his message. Stelarc's artistic argument is that "the body is obsolete." Technology that delivers instant messages from one place to another has had an enormous impact on how we see and use physical space. In a sense, space as Newton understood it has disappeared. But what Stelarc has done is to find ways to use this effect of modern technology to make clear what he sees as a deep truth about the illusory nature of self-hood. The everyday notion that we human beings are embodied causative agents, he says, is nothing more than a mirage. Things happen. Our bodies, or perhaps just parts of them, participate in these events, but don't cause them. And whatever the nature of this participation might be, it is a mistake, he says, to locate it in our bodies.
To demonstrate the argument, Stelarc finds ways to blur, distort, or reverse the connections between human bodies and the dynamic events taking place in vast, disconnected spaces. By means of muscle stimulators embedded in his arm, he surrenders control of his own body to a foreign operator, either human or computer. By growing a third ear in his forearm using cutting edge cell culture biotechnology, Stelarc turns a part of his body into an auditory portal tuned using Bluetooth to the Internet. Eventually, we will be able to dial up Stelarc's brachial ear on the Internet and listen to what his arm is hearing. Perhaps he will even think of re-inserting the muscle stimulators so that we can tune and direct the ear. If so, then whose body, whose causes, and whose acts?
I wasn't the only audience member to notice Stelarc's peculiar references to himself as "the body", and it reminded me of a year spent sitting in a group with a remarkable Buddhist teacher, who encouraged us to work towards a state of detachment or 'equanimity' from our own minds, the point being, I think, that each of us participated in a vastly complicated nexus of cause and effect that transcended the individual. Just as Stelarc argued last night, personal agency was an illusion.
The sense of self fascinates me. Converging evidence from neuroscience suggests that there are specialized circuits in our brains whose function is to put a sense of self, or personal agency together. Certain pathologies, produced by strokes or other diseases, can fracture self-hood. Even some pathologies of sleep, most likely connected to the same brain areas, can produce peculiar shifts of self-hood, such as the out-of-body experience. Imaging studies are suggesting that experienced meditators may have found ways to 'quiet' or alter this part of their brains.
In our laboratory, and following the leads of some others, we have begun to experiment with virtual reality methods to encourage the breakdown of the sense of self. This can be done by having someone wear virtual reality goggles which are connected to cameras showing a remote view of themselves. People see themselves move and act from a remote perspective, and we stand by, ready to mix and remix the connections between the actions they see and the effects they expect. We're doing this to try to understand more about where selves come from and how they locate themselves, but Stelarc's talk last night reminded me of the bigger picture, that such questions lie at the root of much human philosophy, religion, and art.
The years immediately ahead of us, where the interests of scientists, artists, and other thinkers converge to produce striking new views of the connections between minds and spaces, may well produce some of the defining moments of our evolution as a self-reflecting species.