One Thought From: Stelarc

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Published:  July 3, 2015
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Australian performance artist Stelarc, whose work explores mixed and augmented realities, gives One Thought on the possibilities of creative machines producing aesthetic experiences.

All words by Stelarc.

Portrait by Swedish illustrator Sara Andreasson.

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It seems that artistic activity is a very important part of being human, both historically and socially. We only have to look at our archiving of artistic production, at our cultural artefacts and at our number of museums. Going by history, art is an essential activity, and it’s something that characterises what it is to be human. What constitutes the human, however, has become problematic. The body has been manipulated and modulated, augmented, amplified and extended by machines, instruments and computational systems. The capabilities of the human body, and the trajectory of human civilisation, are primarily determined by our technology.

We now operate not only in physical spaces, but also in virtual spaces. We seamlessly slip between the two. We have also become extended operational systems, functioning not only in proximity to local spaces but also remotely between places. Certainly, artistic production is a symptom of being human, but just as the notion of the human changes, the notion of what constitutes art changes as well.

What’s interesting about art is the particular, peculiar and individual ideas that artists generate – ideas that are unexpected. Alternative possibilities. Iterations that lead not to better solutions but rather to a multiplicity of new problems.

Art is not about aims, methodologies and outcomes. Art can be messy, hazardous, sometimes dangerous.

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Portrait of Stelarc’s Ear on Arm by Sara Andreasson

In addition to traditional modes of artistic production like welding, casting and carving, we can now 3D print with precision and complexity. Not only with a multiplicity of inert materials, but also with biomaterials and even with living cells. These new kinds of artworks can be produced by automated machines, but also by autonomous robots.

If machine art can produce surprising aesthetic outcomes, then why can’t we assert that a machine is creative? Why not code creativity algorithms? We are learning to better automate bodies at the same time as we are animating and humanising our machines. Robots producing art is not an implausible idea. If a robot can sense and respond effectively, if a robot becomes interactive and somewhat autonomous, if it has feedback loops that lead to reflective thinking, if it is imbued with an ‘I’, then why shouldn’t a machine become curious and creative and produce aesthetic experiences?

What’s interesting is that only a small vocabulary of behaviour will generate a sense of aliveness: biomimicked robots are uncanny with an insect or mammalian gait. A robot may seemingly move with agency, but it is only sensor driven; it is only responding to the complexity of the world it inhabits. It is effectively displaying interesting behaviour because it inhabits a complex world of interacting situations, experiences and other objects.

Similarly with humans. What is important is not merely what happens in you or me, but what happens between us in the language we use to communicate, in the culture by which we’ve been conditioned, in the institutions in which we operate – in this point in our history. That’s what indicates our aliveness and intelligence.

I think artists generate contestable futures. It’s not about creating a Utopian blueprint, but about generating possibilities that can be interrogated, that can be evaluated – that may be appropriated, but most often will be discarded. I’ve never been convinced without interrogating the technology that we simplistically adapt. And I’ve never been part of that idea that all new technology is about enabling the body, that every new gadget gives us a new capability. This sort of affirmation of the human that sometimes we attribute to technology is not well thought through.

Technology produces unexpected information and images about the body and its world. This is the reason technology is not simplistically enabling, but rather fundamentally destabilising, and I think the agenda of art is to contribute to this uncertainty, ambivalence and anxiety.

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Stelarc explores mixed and augmented realities. He is surgically constructing and stem-cell growing an ear on his arm that will be internet enabled. Publications include Stelarc: The Monograph (MIT Press 2005).

In 1996, he was made an Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh and in 2002 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Monash University, Melbourne. In 2010, he received the Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts Prize. He has recently been awarded the Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Emerging and Experimental Arts. Stelarc is currently a Distinguished Research Fellow and director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab, School of Design and Art (SODA) at Curtin University. His artwork is represented by the Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne.

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This piece first appeared in the June+July /networked issue of desktopClick here to subscribe to the mag.

 

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