Award-winning Australian performance artist Stelarc is doing something utterly bizarre in the name of art – he’s growing a third ear, on his arm!
Is that even possible, you ask? Well, turns out that it can be done through a complicated surgery. The ear itself was constructed using a frame made of biocompatible material commonly used in plastic surgery. It was transplanted into his arm, under his skin, and within six months, his tissue and blood vessels managed to morph with the material. The ear can’t hear yet, but it definitely is a feeling, functional part of his body.
“I guess I’ve always got something up my sleeve, but often my sleeve is rolled down,” Stelarc joked. “The ear is pretty much now a part of my arm, it’s fixed to my arm and it has its own blood supply. People’s reactions range from bemusement to bewilderment to curiosity, but you don’t really expect people to understand the art component of all of this.”
Stelarc is not done experimenting with his third ear. In the future, he plans to make it more three-dimensional by using his own stem cells to develop a proper external ear lobe. Then, he wants to implant a Wi-Fi enabled microphone in it. The mic will be permanently activated, so people from around the world can ‘tune in’ to him and listen to whatever he’s hearing.
“This ear is not for me,” The 45-year-old explained. “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. I never imagined this having an on-off switch. For me this project is not interesting until the ear is electronically augmented. If I’m not in a wi-fi hotspot or I switch off my home modem, then perhaps I’ll be offline, but the idea actually is to try to keep the ear online all the time.”
Photo: Curtin University
Stelarc, who was born Stelios Arcadiou, is no stranger to the idea of marrying technology and human physiology. Apart from being the director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at Curtin University, Perth, he’s also used his body in lots of other bizarre experiments. He’s had cameras installed in his lungs, colon, and stomach. He has performed with a third hand, and had himself hung naked from a ceiling with hooks. So the third ear is only a natural extension of his work.
“As a performance artist, I am particularly interested in that idea of the post-human, that idea of the cyborg,” he said, speaking to CNN’s Style magazine. “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 interested in you.”
Photo: Flux Media
“Increasingly now, people are becoming internet portals of experience … imagine if I could hear with the ears of someone in New York, imagine if I at the same time could see with the eyes of someone in London,” he added.
Stelarc first started working on the prosthetic ear in 1996 – it took him 10 years to gather sufficient funds and find doctors who were willing to help him. Stelarc described the medical community as rather conservative – most doctors were focussed on curing illnesses rather than construct an extra ear for a perfectly healthy artist. Eventually, he did find three European plastic surgeons who agreed to work on the ear. A London-based production company provided the funds.
The surgeons are now close friends of Stelarc, and he says his family also understands better what he’s trying to achieve. The Australian artistic community is now beginning to appreciate his work – in March, he received 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 realise the value of our poetry, of our philosophy, of our artistic practice,” Stelarc 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.”
“It’s when art is surprising that it becomes interesting,” he added. “Because it’s generating that anxiety, that uncertainty and that ambivalence and reaction that makes the body re-examine the world.”