World-renowned Australian artist Stelarc -- perhaps best known for having an artificial ear construction inserted into his arm -- is visiting for the New Zealand International Science Festival in Dunedin. In other tech-infused works, the 70-year-old, based at Curtin University in Western Australia, has worn an attached mechanical hand and a 3D printed arm with rubber muscles. Science reporter Jamie Morton chatted with him about the bridge between art and science.
Q. You seem to live in this nexus between art and science. Why have you always had a relationship between the two?
A. Science and technology continues to generate unexpected information -- new images of the body and the world -- so it's seductive for artists, because here are realms of activity that just generate bits of information.
On the other hand, I've always maintained that artists mess with technology and don't often apply scientific methodologies.
So it's not so much that artists are close to science, but rather, that artists use scientific instruments, medical imaging techniques or displays, and use them in unexpected ways.
So I'm uneasy about the "sci-art paradigm" -- some people are not so unhappy about that but that's where I stand, partly because of the fact institutions like to validate art by associating it with scientific pursuits.
If art is messy, pornographic, dangerous sometimes, are institutions going to validate that kind of artistic practice?
Research, in terms of scientific methodologies, is a particularly pertinent approach to experimentation, to processing information, to making certain conclusions.
And being a part of an institution now, I realise now that institutions are more interested in peer-reviewed publications rather than artistic practice.
Q. When you were growing up, did you have this fascination and curiosity that you do now?
A. As an adolescent I had a pretty normal existence.
Yes, I was interested in art, but as a kid, you have a very conventional idea of what artistic practice is.
But the more I read, the more I did things, the more I learned about what other artists were doing, then you realise art is more about exploring the human condition.
It doesn't matter how you do it or whether you use technology or retro materials, and it doesn't matter if someone else makes the artwork for you.
That traditional idea of the artist as a skilled craftsman -- that's an outmoded definition of what an artist might be.
So the more I did, the more I thought what was important was to use contemporary technology as modes of artist expression.
Q. You might argue that a lot of art that goes into science and technology. An innovator might consider themselves just as creative as an artist. What's your view?
A. I think context is important.
[Mathematician Benoit] Mandelbrot insisted that he was also an artist because he made these beautiful fractal images.
They are beautiful images but I would hardly describe them as artworks because there is no contextual basis for reading them as works of art.
That's not to say they're not interesting -- it's a kind of data visualisation that is very seductive.
You can say scientists are creative and so are artists, and you can say artists experiment and so do scientists.
It's using words in such a loose way that it's a meaningless comparison.
So when we talk about experiments in science, we are taking about very particular, methodical, reductive processes -- and there's nothing wrong with being reductive -- it's just the way of doing most science.
That's not to say that scientists can be sometimes very holistic in their approach and something can happen out of that.
Q. So what do you feel are the biggest misconceptions that people have about yourself and your art?
A. I think one of the problems people have in talking or writing about my art is they expect you to be skilled in particular medium.
I've oscillated between using my full body, to using robotic technology, to using biotechnology, to using the internet.
For me, a particular medium isn't important in itself, whereas again, artists claim a particular territory and become skilled in that particular medium and then that's how they assert their artistic authority, in a way.
Q. Last month, there was an interesting paper published by Australian evolution experts who argued the rapid uptake of technology was putting humans on the path to becoming cyborgs. What's your take on the future of humans?
A. I've been kind of doing that since the early 1970s but I think any idea should be contestable.
In other words, artists are in the business of generating contestable futures.
So anything that you can't provide alternatives for, it just becomes some kind of dogmatic or political discourse.
For example, the singularity idea is very seductive -- you know, by 2050, or something, all of a sudden, machines take over right?
[US futurist Raymond] Kurzweil argues this very cleverly and if you look linearly into the supposed future, then there's this exponential growth in computational power, and in increasing sensor-driven robotic systems, and so on.
But I think if there is a future, it's by definition unpredictable, otherwise it would not be a future.
Who would have known or guessed the developments in nanotechnology 70 or 80 years ago?
That's provided a completely unexpected direction.
So we've always imagined in a Manga, medical, military construct that bodies in the future would be massively augmented by exoskeletons.
In 2000 years your body might look exactly the same -- soft and squishy -- but the difference might be that you'll be inhabited by these nano-sensors.
But, as an artist, I'm not interested in predicting the future -- I'm interested in engineering something and personally experiencing it, and thereby have something meaningful to articulate afterwards.