Stelarc's Amplified Body
Stelarc’s Amplified Body was a performance with “industrial robot, medical devices and virtual reality support” that took place during the opening of the V2 building in the centre of Rotterdam in 1994. In my re-enactment, the specialist devices used in the original work will be replaced by their contemporary consumer technology-equivalents: an entertainment robot for home-use produced by a French start-up (Keecker), an anal electrode with EMG sensor for domestic treatment of faecal incontinence (Anuform & Peritone®), and a consumer-grade VR system (HTC Vive).
Amplified Body was made in the context of Stelarc’s futurist claim that ‘the body is obsolete’ and should therefore be enhanced with advanced technological components to endure ‘extra-terrestrial environments’ (see Stelarc’s article “Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies” in Leonardo, 24 (5), 1991). This is reflected in the work’s focus on what were state-of-the-art specialist technologies at the time, and arguably in the sound generated in the work, which is dominated by digital synths that are often reminiscent of Futurist noise machines (see my article “Sounds like Superman? On the Representation of Bodies in Biosignal Performance” in Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture, 1 (1), 2011). In the context of the increasing prominence over the past decades of debates around the politics of the body and the social shaping of technology in digital culture, Stelarc’s claim that ‘the body is obsolete’ and its implicit suggestion of the existence of a universal neutral body have become somewhat uneasy. Also, the saturation of everyday life with advanced digital devices has changed the way our enthusiasm about technologization of the everyday is experienced (see e.g. Russell Davies, 2009): advanced digital technologies are now increasingly taken-for-granted, mundane items, rather than the mystical harbingers of a sci-fi future as which they were still often perceived in the last decades of the 20th century.
The re-enactment of Amplified Body will respond to these changes. Instead of specialist devices, it will feature consumer technologies. Rather than suggesting a technologization and ‘hardening’ of a supposedly universal, neutral body, it aims at foregrounding bodily fragility and the embeddedness of bodies in culture. In this, I will draw from my practice-based PhD thesis, Sonified Freaks and Sounding Prostheses: Sonic representation of bodies in performance art (University of Sussex, 2013) in which I have engaged extensively with Stelarc’s sound-based work from a cultural critical perspective, as well as developed new practical approaches to sensor-based performance art with sound. The sensor interface with anal electrode, which I will use in the re-enactment, was developed as part of my thesis.
The re-enactment will involve the following main components:
1. Where Stelarc’s Amplified Body used medical EMG sensors on the arms, legs and abdomen, I will sonify the contractions of my sphincter muscle using a widely available anal electrode with a hacked sensor interface. The device I use is now a commonly available consumer appliance for faecal incontinence treatment in the privacy of your home (Anuform & Peritone®). Through the use of this technology, which is commonly associated with bodily failure, ageing and shame, the implication of my body in cultural frameworks of health, gender and race is foregrounded.
Anuform(r) anal electrode; hacked Peritone(r) sensor; hacked sensor used in a performance
2. The place of the large industrial arm in Stelarc’s performance will be taken by a Keecker domestic consumer robot (www.keecker.com; I collaborate with the Paris-based start-up who developed the robot). Through the replacement of the large industrial machine with a cute domestic gadget, the work will shift its references from the realm of labour and ideas of industrial progress to the shared and – potentially – intimate aspects of the home in digital culture.
Keecker domestic robot
3. The VR component of the work will consist of a consumer grade headset (HTC Vive) that will display real-time content generated with a contemporary gaming engine (Unity), which will be mixed with 360 video footage from the robot camera. This footage will affect my performance and will also be projected onto a large video screen so it’s visible for the audience. The recognizable and somewhat cliché aesthetic of digital environments made with the Unity game engine will embed the suggested high-tech-ness of the work into what have by now become commonplace representations of digital environments.
example of a 'typical' Unity game aesthetic
4. The sound of the 1994 version of Amplified Body is dominated by electronic synths that evoke a sci-fi atmosphere, which are triggered by Stelarc’s muscle contractions and other biosignals. The re-enactment will mainly draw from samples of direct recordings of bodily processes (e.g. heartbeat, blood flow, muscle contractions). Thus, the sound of the work will focus more on the wetness and fleshy-ness of human bodies in their interaction with technological devices