The Prosthetic Experience Between Body and Technology: Investigating 'Second Nature' in Experimental Art Practices


Dr. Morten Søndergaard
Associated Professor and Curator, Interactive Media Art
Aalborg University, Copenhagen, DK
Email: mortenson@hum.aau.d
Web: http://www.sondergart.dk
Reference this essay: Søndergaard, Morten. “The Prosthetic Experience Between Body and Technology: Investigating 'Second Nature' in Experimental Art Practices.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 2, edited by Senior Editor Lanfranco Aceti, and Editors Candice Bancheri, Ashley Daugherty, and Michael Spicher. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: January 15, 2018
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: Forthcoming
https://contemporaryarts.mit.edu/pub/prosthetic-experience


Abstract

In this paper, I argue that a prosthetic aesthetic instigated by experimental art practices operates with a ‘second nature’—in between science and art. Drawing on theories from Dewey, Edelman, and examples from Da Vinci, Brancusi, Man Ray, Dalí, and Stelarc, I am calling for an experience-based analysis of experimental practices operating between body and technology. Rather than falling into the category of science fiction or horror cinema as recent critique from post-human studies would have it, these practices are pointing toward a genealogy of prosthetic experience in art, which is performing a complex redesign of (the idea and representation of) technology and the body.

Keywords

Design, bio-art, prosthetic aesthetics, experience-based, Stelarc, second nature, art and science


Introduction: A Brief Genealogy of the Prosthetic Experience

Leonardo da Vinci was most likely among the first to write about a prosthetic element in art—and use it in his own practice. His ideas of the Omnithopter (1487) and other 'flying aggregates' are well-known examples of this. Since da Vinci was also looking to enhance the human body, either for purposes in medicine or war, a certain artistic temperament and aesthetic vision that did not previously exist emerged from his research. I argue that this is perhaps the emergence of a prosthetic aesthetic, where the measuring of the inner and outer elements of the human body was for the first time operationalized into a new vision and sensibility that looked to understand and represent the human body. Da Vinci’s vision consisted of the multiplicity, movement, temporality, perspective, and ‘mechanics’ of the human body; and how to ‘re-design’ the human body in art and by applying technology. 

There exists a genealogy from Da Vinci’s original vision to 500 years later in the beginning of the twentieth century where prosthetic culture resulted from two world wars. The vision drastically changed purpose and scope. Brancusi is one of the first artists in the twentieth century to react on this transformation of the idea of the body emerging from this war-generated, scientific, and technological prosthetic culture.

 

Figure 1 - Prometheus, Brancusi. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.
Figure 1 - Prometheus, Brancusi. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.


In his sculptural object, Prometheus, the classicistic references are exchanged with a messy ‘modern’ vision. ‘Something’ is penetrating the perfect surface of the golden remnant of a (Prometheus) body—something very much like an ear, even though the reference to Prometheus would suggest a liver plucked out of the body. Whatever it is, it is an opening towards something different—it is a reference to antiquity, but it is also a visual score of a world that is reshaped on replaced bodies and body parts. It is a world literally resurrected from the wasteland of technological and scientific destruction of the body. The prosthesis is implied, but missing. What is left is what the prosthesis originated from: the imperfect body.

Salvador Dalí had a different re-vision of the prosthetic when he replaced the ear and nose on a classical sculpture. Here, the surrealist notion of the subconscious is playing tricks on the representation of reality. The idea of representation itself becomes the target of Dalí’s prostheticism, replacing the classicist vision of Venus with something completely different. The body is not imperfect but re-perfect, opening up toward an alternative idea (or dream) of a synesthetic beauty in which the senses are not pre-assigned to any specific body part.

Rather, they are fluid parts inside the artistic practice focused on rebuilding beauty and re-perfecting realities outside rational control. The ear (on the nose of Venus) is a prosthetic ear aimed at re-visioning the relational complexity of the body and the real.

 

Figure 2 - Venus, Salvador Dalí. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.
Figure 2 - Venus, Salvador Dalí. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.


This briefly outlined genealogy of the prosthetic experience reveals the implications and consequences of having to deal with second nature in between art and science as a 'reality.’ It is postulating, at the very least, representation as a prosthetic of the body-reality continuum.

 

Figure 3 - Stelarc’s The Internet Ear in my office in Copenhagen before fitting it with technology. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.
Figure 3 - Stelarc’s The Internet Ear in my office in Copenhagen before fitting it with technology. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.


From da Vinci, Brancusi, and Dalí a synthetic practice emerges involving the re-visioning of the human body and a reiteration of the human consciousness and nature. Edward E. Shanken describes the impact of “synthetic practice” (with a specific reference to Roy Ascott) as “the process of cultural formation,” which “depends on an interrelated exchange of ideas across disciplines.” [1] Gradually throughout the twentieth century, ideas and concepts are transformed into new bodily re-visions emerging from the cross sections of different fields of media and  technology into art. As the notions of consciousness and nature are being reshaped, the aesthetic experience is also reimagined.

 

The Prosthetic Experience

“By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an aesthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to the theory about them.” [2] This quote comes from John Dewey’s Art as Experience. It comes to mind as one reads through some of the reception of Stelarc’s work. A more recent book entitled, The Prosthetic Impulse, [3] may serve as a good example of the reception of Stelarc’s work, as he is mentioned in the introduction. Here, he is mainly used as a contrasting example to what the anthology aimed to do: take a step back from the “more conventional answer to the question: what is ‘the prosthetic impulse?’’’ Stelarc is paralleled to science fiction, horror cinema, and the French body-artist Orlán; all of the above were, together, seen as part of a techno-utopic/dystopic tendency in art and thinking.

This was completely different than I expected, and a bit surprising given the topic of the prosthetic (and the otherwise very high quality of the anthology). The presumption that Stelarc is part of a techno-utopic, even dystopic, tendency that should not be considered as part of the field of study of the prosthetic is far from how I understand and experience his practice. This made me pause and ask the following question: what is the prosthetic experience, and how does it affect aesthetics? More precisely, how may prosthetic aesthetics be formulated based on Stelarc’s practice?

As there is no analysis of Stelarc’s works to be found in the aforementioned anthology, one may only speculate that the analysis (because there could not have been more than one) took place before the book was written—and, consequently, that this analysis is feeding on a series of hasty, or perhaps unfounded, presumptions about Stelarc. As I will argue in the following, it misses completely the drive toward a ‘second nature’ in his prosthetic aesthetic. However, there are other, more complex reasons for these presumptions by the authors of the prosthetic book. And they lead to an interesting, albeit hidden (in the prosthetic book and elsewhere), discussion of media-technology as prosthetics of our senses and bodies. The microphone, for instance, is a prosthetic ear, the camera a prosthetic eye, and so forth. They are what might best be termed as ‘second senses,’ and all play an integral part in analyzing the prosthetic in art. As such, the prosthetic might be viewed as part of a genealogy of alternative visions for art and how it interacts with the minds of the audience (I will return to this point later in the article). Other, more radical elements than mere technological ‘enhancements’ of the senses are at play in Stelarc’s vision of the prosthetic aesthetic—as such, they are part of the ‘experience’ of the body as a prosthetic element of the human mind and human biological life. Here, the very center of prosthetic aesthetic is called into question—the body and the things that are associated with it: the mind, awareness, and experience.

An experience-based analysis of Stelarc’s practice is called for. In other words, I want to take a fresh look at Stelarc; I want to look beyond the mere surface of works and their open use of the relatively newly founded relationship of technology and art as a framing of aesthetic experience that was not possible just a few decades ago.

This is, of course, exposing my own presumptions that tend to flower around Stelarc as an artist, performer, and critic working in the relational and dynamic field of art, technology, and science. All of this is meant to show that Stelarc’s practice is to be understood as a prosthetic aesthetic experience.

Whereas the editors of The Prosthetic Impulse claim to deal with “what it means to be human in a pervasively mechanical world,” [3] without addressing the aesthetic experience at all, I would claim Stelarc is in fact doing precisely that. The scholarly premise of the study of the prostheses is to “attend to the ways that prostheses, both material and metaphorical, have the potential to form an integral part of certain speculations on the corporeal surface, the psyche, and the interior and exterior limits of the body and to the ways that these efforts to renegotiate discourses on ‘the human’ might attend to the edges between these material and immaterial surfaces and limits.” [3]

The experience of prosthetic aesthetic offers us the ironic perversity of actually obstructing the theories of the prosthetic impulse. The way Stelarc does this is somewhat surprising, perhaps, but far from having a precedence. He plays the role of the artist scientist, a ‘prosthetic oracle’ of sorts, disguised in pseudonymous shapes and identities like ‘the prosthetic head.’

The prosthetic head is “an automated, animated and reasonably informed artificial head that speaks to the person who interrogates it,” as Stelarc describes it. Furthermore, it is not to be understood as “an illustration of a disembodied intelligence. Rather, notions of awareness, identity, agency, and embodiment become problematic.” [4]

This is an artistic vision asking questions about what constitutes human consciousness and nature. In effect, it is reminiscent of neurological brain science. To bring its relationship to science into the perspective of this article and to further deepen the link to the theory of Dewey, I want to bring Gerald M. Edelman’s notion of ‘second nature’ into my argument. [5] Dewey, like Edelman, follows in the “footsteps of William James, who pointed out that consciousness is process whose function is knowing.” [5]  Second nature is processual and based on a dynamic relationship between human nature and nature. Apart from pointing out that we interact with nature all the time without noticing, the concept of ‘second nature’ supports the argument that “thoughts often float free of our realistic descriptions of nature.” [5] According to Edelman, it is necessary to choose a different path from that of the reductionist sciences or speculative humanities: that of neuro-darwinism. This, Edelman argues, provides “grounds for understanding the complexity, the irreversibility, and the historical contingency of our phenomenal experience.” [5] The genealogy of prosthetic experience suggests that experimental artistic practice involving the body and technology may be operating with and within a ‘second nature.’

 

Prosthetic Aesthetics

This brings us back to the investigation of the prosthetic experience at play in Stelarc’s practice. The body is the centerpiece of attention in Stelarc’s investigation of second nature. According to Stelarc, the body is not ‘itself.’ It is not useful as a general reference framework for understanding the world. The body is obsolete, and Stelarc argues several times that as a static entity in a body and soul dichotomy, without paradoxical implications and (self) relationships, the body is antiquated. It becomes the prosthesis of excess. [6] If the body is obsolete, in the sense that Stelarc is prophesying, what does this mean in terms of aesthetic paradigms? In one sense, aesthetic paradigms are perhaps obsolete as well; or harbingers of obsoleteness? What does this mean?

Stelarc, perhaps surprisingly, echoes the central argument of Edelman. It is necessary to find ways to include the domains that are normally excluded from traditional epistemology into the way we think about consciousness and ‘second nature’ and make those domains active in between human nature and nature.

Stelarc insists that there are no dichotomies when it comes to the body. The body is not something we can relate to exclusively as 'outside' (or ‘inside,' for that matter). This is because we are bodies, which again means the perception of the body suggests we are both ‘meat’ and ‘idea.’ Hence, he speaks about the body as a 'physical experience of ideas'—here understood as a kind of natural conception process. Therefore, the prosthetic experience begins with the ideal of the human body as obsolete. This echoes the argument Edelman makes that the thinker both needs to move away from scientific reductionism and speculative humanities, which are both harbingers of a Cartesian dualist worldview. What is needed are thinkers and a new kind of science/human researcher, operating between these two extremes.

In the sense of Edelman, Stelarc is a science/human researcher and his practice generates the empirical vision needed to ask questions that could not be asked otherwise. For instance, what may substitute the obsoleteness of (the dualist) body?Or rather, what the body 'is' or 'means'? The example I cite is The Ear on Arm and its transformation into The Internet Ear. By means of a lengthy surgical process, the artist had an artificial human ear implanted in his forearm. A subsequent operation then installed microscopic electronic equipment in this third ear giving it the capability to both transmit and receive sound. Because of the danger of possible infection it was impossible to give the ear a technological 'sense of hearing' and the equipment was removed. The ear is still attached to Stelarc’s arm.

 

Figure 4 - Stelarc and his Third Ear, 2010. Photograph by unknown. Permission of use given by the artist.
Figure 4 - Stelarc and his Third Ear, 2010. Photograph by unknown. Permission of use given by the artist.


Brian Massumi argues that the body in this case becomes Stelarc’s “medium” and a “sentient concept,” a way to think about the body and technology together. The challenge, then, becomes to write the rejoining of body and thought that Stelarc performs. This requires the willingness to revisit some of our most basic notions of what a body is and does as an acting, perceiving, thinking, and feeling thing. [7]

Stelarc is addressing the same issues as da Vinci, Brancusi, and Dalí of the transforming body and how that in turn is transforming the human imagination into a prosthetic experience. Therefore, whereas the body, in a performative way and situation, is a sentient concept, I claim that, as the product of a synthetic artistic practice, the prosthetic ear is implying a ‘second nature.’

The prosthetic ear, in its most basic form, is a microphone. This technologically generated listening device is in fact one of the first widely distributed pieces of technology. When this prosthetic ear is inserted into human flesh it plays on the same idea of synthetic practice as witnessed in da Vinci, Brancusi, and Dalí. Only this time it is not Prometheus or Venus, it is not a figure from antiquity, but the artist himself—his own nature—which is being reshaped or, perhaps, exposed. So, the dialogue is between the artist’s two bodies, as it were: the physical and the prosthetic. It is from this active dialogue, or agency of artistic practice, that Stelarc claims a ‘second nature’ emerges. This is evident throughout Stelarc’s many projects spanning more than four decades, such as The Third Hand project (1980) and The Internet Ear (2010/12). [8]

 

Figure 5 - Internet Ear, installation view from the exhibition Biotopia - Art in the Wet Zone, 2010. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.
Figure 5 - Internet Ear, installation view from the exhibition Biotopia - Art in the Wet Zone, 2010. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.


In the words of Stelarc, The Third Hand “has come to stand for a body of work that explored intimate interface of technology and prosthetic augmentation.” [9] This prosthetic augmentation is, in fact, the way that Stelarc investigates the ‘second nature’ of the prosthetic body. Because, as he further states, the third hand is “not as a replacement but rather […] an addition to the body” making it possible to experience, in effect, the prosthetic as “a symptom of excess.” [9]

This investigation may be witnessed in all of Stelarc’s projects—from the early suspension pieces to the Prosthetic Head, Ear on Arm, and Internet Ear.

In all of these projects it appears that the artist is relying on his previous practices, taking them even deeper into the genealogy of the prosthetic aesthetic. The Internet Ear is a continuation of Prosthetic Ear and Ear on Arm on two levels. Several copies of the 'prosthetic ear' (the copy of Stelarc’s arm) are distributed to multiple gallery locations worldwide, underlining the symptom of excess at the heart of the prosthetic aesthetic; and, furthermore, it is connecting each copy of the ear to the Internet. Through speech recognition software, Stelarc establishes communication between the ears. They become hubs of excessive experience, and since the speech recognition software used is limited in a number of ways this experience is bordering the nonsensical. Not without references to Samuel Beckett, it is a ‘non-sense’ experience that nevertheless makes sense— rather, the distributed ears make sensations. They direct our attention toward second nature and awareness of a non-dualist epistemology.

This is also very evident in the Ear on Arm Suspension project (2012). Stelarc writes about this project as he explains, “the suspensions are experiments in bodily sensation […] they are sites of indifference and states of erasure. The body is empty, absent to its own agency and obsolete.” [10] The ways that Stelarc is addressing the body and senses points us toward a complex set of states, movements, and a synthetic practice—of the body, of awareness, and of sensations.

 

Figure 6 - Stelarc’s The Internet Ear in my office in Copenhagen before fitting it with technology. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.
Figure 6 - Stelarc’s The Internet Ear in my office in Copenhagen before fitting it with technology. Photograph by Morten Søndergaard. Used with permission.

 

The prosthetic aesthetic is the artist-scientist methodology aimed at moving ‘second nature’ center stage into a reality being experienced and sensed, whereby it is the intention that a non-dualist epistemology emerges. This is the real prosthetic impulse at play in Stelarc’s practice—the drive to renegotiate the dynamic relationship between the body and the mind from the complex, irreducible, and contingent premise of a prosthetic aesthetic and experience.

 

Reference and Notes

[1] Edward Shanken, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness by Roy Ascott (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 3. 

[2] John Dewey, The Philosophy of John Dewey (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 1981), 2558.

[3] Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, eds., The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007)-7.

[4] Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head,” the website of the artist, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20241 (accessed November 1, 204).

[5] Gerald M. Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006)6-57.

[6] Stelarc, the website of the artist, http://stelarc.org (accessed November 1, 014).

[7] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual. Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 200 45-46. 

[8] Stelarc, the website of the artist.

[9] Stelarc, “Third Hand,” the website of the artist, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20265  (accessed November 2014).

[10] Stelarc, “Ear on Arm Suspension,” the website of the artist, http://stelarc.org/?catID=20325 (accessed November 1, 2014).

 

Author Biography

Morten Søndergaard is associate professor and curator of Interactive Media Art at Aalborg University Copenhagen (DK). International coordinator of the ERASMUS master of excellence in Media Arts Cultures; founder and general chair of IMAC - Interactive Media Arts Conference; co-founder and head of board of ISACS - International Sound Art Curating Conference Series; member of curatorial board at DIAS Art Space, Copenhagen; head of research for The Unheard Avant-Garde Project at the LARM audio archive infrastructure (2010–2015); contributing editor at LEA (2011); board member of OCR (2013–present); editor at Mediekultur, DK (2013–present); curator and deputy director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde (1999–2008); head of advisory board of Kulturnet Denmark, The Danish Ministry of Culture, DK (2004–2008); senior curator at the renew festival of digital arts—www.re-new.org—in Copenhagen (2009–2012). In 2010, he commissioned Stelarc’s Internet Ear Project for the exhibition Biotopia - Art in the Wet Zone (2010–11); curator of The Unheard Avant-Garde in the Scandinavia section at the Sound Art - Sound as Medium for Art exhibition at ZKM, Karlsruhe (2012–2013). He has published widely on curating, art & science, sound and media art in English and Danish.