PERTH, Australia — It’s gruesomely fascinating and strangely beautiful, but is an ear on an arm art?
Stelarc, the award-winning Australian performance artist who has grown a third ear on his arm for art’s sake, believes it is. And as he pursues further surgeries to install a Wi-Fi connected microphone that will allow people anywhere in the world to listen to what he hears, he hopes he can convince others of his vision.
“It’s when art is surprising that it becomes interesting,” Stelarc, told CNN. “Because it’s generating that anxiety, that uncertainty and that ambivalence and reaction that makes the body re-examine the world.”
Part surgical, part human, Stelarc’s ear was first constructed using a frame made out of biocompatible material that’s commonly used in plastic surgery. Once securely transplanted into his arm, the artist’s own tissue and blood vessels morphed with the material and the ear is now a living, feeling, functioning part of his body.
Although it can’t yet hear, Stelarc now plans to use his own stem cells to develop a proper external ear lobe before implanting a Wi-Fi enabled microphone. Once connected, this microphone will be permanently activated so people across the globe will be able to ‘tune in’ to him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“This ear is not for me, I’ve got two good ears to hear with. So wherever you are and wherever I am in the world you’ll be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing,” he said.
“I never imagined this having an on-off switch,” he added. “For me the project is not interesting until the ear is electronically augmented.”
An ear for art’s sake
Stelarc, who legally changed his name from Stelios Arcadiou 45 years ago, is also director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.
He has long used his own body to explore people’s changing relationship with technology, from putting cameras in his lungs, colon and stomach, performing with a third hand and having himself hung naked from a ceiling with hooks.
As he explained it, the third ear is just a natural extension of this work, which is all in the name of art.
“As a performance artist I am particularly interested in that idea of the post-human, that idea of the cyborg,” he said. “What it means to be human will not be determined any longer merely by your biological structure but perhaps also determined largely by all of the technology that’s plugged or inserted into you.”
Building a connection
Described as feeling harder than cartilage but still soft to the touch, Stelarc first started working on his prosthetic ear project in 1996.
It took him 10 years to find the three European plastic surgeons willing to work on his ear, as well as to arrange funding for the project. Eventually paid for by a London-based production company for a Discovery U.S. television show called “Medical Mavericks,” Stelarc said he understands the skepticism and ethical concerns some people may have about his art.
“The medical community is essentially a very conservative community and medical practice is about curing people and repairing damage,” he said. “It seems trivial and unethical, in the sense of a waste of time and effort, to construct an extra ear on the arm of an artist who is perfectly healthy.”
His family, none of whom have an artistic background, also initially found it hard to understand his motivation.
However, he said the surgeons who built his ear are now close friends who are willing to continue working with him to fulfill his artistic vision. His family has also come to better understand his intentions and motivations over time.
Well known for his art overseas, the local Australian artistic community have also come to appreciate Stelarc’s work and in March this year he was awarded an Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Emerging and Experimental Arts.
“Sometimes when what I’m doing is criticized, it’s an unfair criticism I think because it’s a criticism that doesn’t realize the value of our poetry, of our philosophy, of our artistic practice,” he said.
“But I’ve found there’s a lot of goodwill from people who ordinarily would not have contact with an artist, and ordinarily would not see the reason for wasting time and money and their expertise on doing something like this, and that’s heartening.”