Body modification may be as old as known civilizations, but it remains an ever-evolving subculture. Where once it was a world confined to ink guns, scalpels and primitive surgical techniques, recent advancements in new technologies have brought the body mod scene and the scientific world together through an exploration of cybernetics. Robotic limbs, microchip implants and the harnessing of magnetic field frequencies via inserted magnets are only just the beginning.
Now, as science fiction becomes science, white-coated doctors, professors and academics may, excitingly enough, find themselves working on collaborations with select leftfield body mod artists and practitioners.
The performance artist with an ear on the future
Cyprus-born, Australia-based Stelarc’s a renowned, respected artist who, in his own words, “has used medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, virtual reality systems and the internet to explore alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body.” For more than 40 years, this pioneer of suspensions has performed all over the world, using creations such as a third hand, a virtual arm and a prosthetic head. He’s held a number of academic and artist-in-residence positions, and continues to explore the limits of the body via a range of projects that combine art and science.
When did you first become interested in the capabilities of the human body?
I’ve always been envious of dancers and gymnasts because they use their bodies as their medium of expression, coupling experience of the body and expression with the body.
Experimenting on yourself must present risks.
As a performance artist, you have to take the physical consequences of your ideas. Suspending your body, inserting a sculpture inside your body or engineering an ear onto your arm means the body undergoes dangerous and difficult performances and projects.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of?
Each project has its moment. The Stomach Sculpture – a capsule I swallowed that opened inside me – was challenging: to design a simple, reliable, operational object that could be inserted inside the soft, vulnerable and wet body. Blender was the inverse. Here a machine installation had become the host for a liquid body. This was a collaboration with artist Nina Sellars; we had surgical procedures such as liposuction to extract 4.6 litres of biomaterial – blood, fat and tissue. This was then placed in the Blender installation; every five minutes, compressed air made the blender blades move.
Given that the human body is organic, which project was the most problematic?
The Extra Ear project has taken the longest to realise. I first had the idea in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I had the first surgical procedures to construct the ear on my arm.
How does one grow an extra ear?
A skin expander was implanted in my forearm. By injecting saline solution, the silicone implant stretched the skin, forming excess skin that was then used to construct the ear. I then had a second surgery to insert a tissue-reconstruction scaffold and the skin was suctioned over it. Over six months, cell growth occurs in the porous scaffold, fixing it in place. The third surgical procedure will lift the helix of the ear, construct a soft ear lobe and inject stem cells for better definition. The final procedure will implant a miniature microphone that, with a Bluetooth transmitter, allows a wireless connection to the internet, making the ear a remote listening device.
What are the most exciting steps in body mods and cybernetics?
‘Organ printing’, which is a hybrid of rapid prototyping techniques and tissue engineering. Instead of printing an image with cartridges of coloured ink, you’re able to print an organ, layer upon layer, using cartridges of living cells. So as a computer can be provided with the data of the 3-D structure of an organ, in principle we’ll be able to print organs and other body parts.
What are the implications of this?
We’ll no longer be an age of bodies without organs, but rather an age of organs awaiting bodies.
Do you think the body will be able to transcend death or, is, as you put it, the body obsolete?
When I say ‘the body is obsolete’ I mean this body with this form and with these functions. An intelligent agent needs to be both embodied and embedded in the world. To increase a body’s longevity significantly might mean engineering a body that does not have to breathe and whose heart does not have to beat. A synthetic skin permeable to oxygen would be a start. The body will not need lungs to breathe, a stomach to ingest nor a circularity system to convey oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. We could hollow out a human body. And a hollow body would be a better host for all the technology we could plug into it, ha, ha!
SAMPPA VON CYBORG
The performer and body modder vibrating with ideas
Piercing pioneer, jewellery designer and Psycho Cyborg founder, Samppa Von Cyborg’s interest in body modification encompasses the development of new possibilities – most notably a vibrating penis implant.
What can you tell us about your vibrating penis implant?
It works on the same principle as a vibrating mobile phone. The major obstacle so far has been the power supply. We started by using kinetic energy, then we moved onto something powered by a thermal generator: an implant fuelled by the human body. And now we’ve created a wireless implant with a range of 10m. So if you walk into the same room as the transmitter, your penis will vibrate. My colleague on this is studying cybernetics under Professor Kevin Warwick (see right).
Do you want to manufacture and sell these implants in the future?
I want to keep them for myself at first, really. These things need many years of testing before they can be declared safe, so I want to keep these ideas within a small group of people. The implant’s actually pretty cheap but as there’s only one company in the world that makes them, and since demand is still very small, it isn’t very cost-effective at this stage to mass-produce.
What else have you worked on?
Three years ago I had the idea to get a (London Underground) Oyster card chip implanted in my skin, because an Oyster card is just a blank microchip that the user activates. I actually approached London Underground about taking such a chip and putting it under my skin. And though they said they didn’t want to be involved in this experiment – it’s pretty controversial – I’ve heard about a small group of people who are already testing a similar device.
In what other directions do you see body modification heading?
There’ll always be people like me who modify their bodies for their own purposes, but there’s a whole world of cybernetics going on too. Think about how things have changed since the 1950s, then imagine what things will be like in 50 years’ time. I think that things that we now class as body modification – or indeed, certain aspects of science fiction – will, in 10 or 15 years, be commonplace. For example, I think we’ll soon be able to have mobile phones under our skin. I’ve also heard about a bionic contact lens that sits on the eye and can work with handheld devices such as GPS. We’re talking about highly functional body modifications. Technology’s moving very fast!
PROFESSOR KEVIN WARWICK
An artificial intelligence egghead who isn’t afraid to experiment
As professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, Kevin Warwick is at the forefront of developing artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical engineering. He has carried out experiments where’s he’s implanted devices linking the nervous system to computers, set up the first electronic communication between two human nervous systems, and has created numerous cyborgs.
Which project, experiment or invention are you most proud of? In 2002 I had an implant consisting of 100 electrodes (pins) fired into my nervous system by surgeons. With that in place I was able to control a robot arm directly from my brain signals via the internet, and to experience a new ultrasonic sense – like a bat. Best of all, though, was when my wife had electrodes inserted in her nervous system and we communicated electronically for the first time in the world – directly between our nervous systems. It was a new telegraphy.
What’s the most exciting or significant new development in the world of cybernetics?
What I really find exciting is growing new brains from rat brain cells and enabling them to live in a robot body, so that the robot has a biological brain. It won’t be too long before human brain cells are used for this instead. Are there any people working in cybernetics or body modification who you admire?
I admire the digital artist Stelarc (see previous pages). He’s carried out some amazing stunts, but right now he’s growing a third ear on his arm. He challenges the scientific world as much as the artistic one. Will the human body ever transcend death? We are really our brains – our bodies are mainly a life-support mechanism for them.
So for me, the main questions here are: ‘Can we keep a human brain alive outside its present biological body? Can we replace brain cells before they die off so that our personality, memory, etc, remain essentially intact?’ I believe that with stem cells, the answer to the latter question will
be yes – in, say, 20 years. That still leaves the first question though – whether we can keep a brain alive outside its body. And I can’t see that happening in the next 20 years. But in the next century? Well... you never know!