I just read in a press release that i was one of the 20.000 visitors of the sixth edition of STRP in Eindhoven. The yearly festival is now a biennial but the formula hasn't changed much: 10 days of science&tech-infused art and of electronic music.
The theme of this year's exhibition is City of Cyborgs. Not the city of androids, clunky clones and man/machines contraptions but the city we are already walking through, smartphones in our pockets, implants in our bodies for some and ready to get our hands on Google glasses. City of Cyborgs in STRP speak means animatronics, opera for prehistoric creatures, a forest of interactive lasers, tapas made from edible solar cells, absurd mega machines and lots of dance. The high tech, the low tech, the digital, the organic and everything in between and beyond.
This year, STRP provided me this with a good excuse to catch up with and reflect on today's cyborg scenery and with the opportunity to discover artists and works i had never encountered so far.
I might be late to the party but i've just added the name of Ief Spincemaille to my list of young artists t follow. Sadly, I didn't manage to get my hands on his Reverse Blinking goggles. All i can say is that people kept telling me "Have you tried it? Have you?! it's brilliant! Brilliant!' Since i've missed the fun, i'll just copy/paste the description:
Imagine being caught with your head inside a photo camera. It's completely dark. Only when the shutter opens for a very brief moment, you perceive a flash of the world. You see people as static figures, entire street scenes as moments frozen in time. Everything you lay your eyes on seems to acquire the characteristics of a photograph. The shutter moves so fast that it leaves no space for movement. The plates move up and down causing your eyes to make a reverse blinking movement: the plates are generally shut off, and only open and close quickly and briefly. The spectators can open and close the shutter themselves with a button, allowing them to determine the frequency, but not the speed (shutter time).
I did however, have a go at the other work that the artist was showing: the Chain driven 3D mirror which makes it possible to walk around your own head and view it as if it belonged to somebody else. The most remarkable aspect of the work is that it doesn't involves any digital technology but relies entirely on mechanical components: a chain, sprocket and motor.
I actually found it more interesting to watch visitors trying on the apparatus. They seemed to hover between the fascination to watch their own head under every possible angle and the self-conscious feeling that people around them are watching them. I wish i had a better photo of the installation but i stupidly deleted mine and the ones provided by the festival focus more on the near-orgasmic expressions of the visitors than on the artworks themselves.
Paul Granjon's modified Robotic Perception Kits were available for a test-run in the exhibition space but they were so much in demand that yet again, i didn't manage to get them on. The goggles and ear sets allow users to experience the world as is if you were a robot.
I'm going to hop right into the performances programme. Because you cannot curate a cyborg-themed festival without including Stelarc, one of the opening night performances saw him manipulating his now legendary Exoskeleton. The beastly machine has been touring festivals and exhibition for several years and it still has the power to knock out and turn us into a collectively gasping crowd. I for one was very impressed.
That same night saw a performance by Daito Manabe. The artist has gained fame over the past few years by sitting solemnly in front of a table while the muscles of his face are controlling the tones and rhythms of his musical performances.
Back to the exhibition and to contraptions i wouldn't be seen dead wearing: Guo Cheng's The Mouth Factory is made of drills and lathes designed to be operated with the user's jaw and mouth.
A couple more works you might or might not have heard about already:
Valerie, My Crystal Sister is a crystal chandelier that hides a moving story: the attempt by designer Lucas Maassen to create an object that would be, genetically speaking, the sister that he never had. The chandelier is not only a visualization of the basic code of life, it also asks whether it is possible to use the biological process that created Maassen as a design process to create an object. The designer first crystallized synthetic DNA fragments taken from his parents and then produced a magnified version of this crystal also out of crystal. Finally, Maassen assembled one thousand such pieces to form the chandelier exhibited at STRP.
Jordi Puig's A-ME is an 'emotional memory recall device.' The installation allows visitors to upload memories to an artificial brain. They can also navigate the brain and listen to the memories that other people have stored in A-ME.
Waterfall Swing. The name says it all.
More images on STRP's flickr set.
I finally went to the Wellcome Collection to see Superhuman - An exhibition exploring human enhancement.
Glasses, lipstick, false teeth, the contraceptive pill and even your mobile phone - we take for granted how commonplace human enhancements are. Current scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health.
Superhuman takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be. Items on display range from an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to a packet of Viagra, alongside contributions from artists such as Matthew Barney and scientists, ethicists and commentators working at the cutting edge of this most exciting, and feared, area of modern science.
Yes! Superhuman is all of the above and much more. In fact, the exhibition gives visitors a lot to chew on. In no particular order, Super human discusses: The definition of enhancement (is the smart phone an enhancement of our body and brain?) Missing body parts that get replaced -even if their function is forever lost- in an attempt to 'normalize' a body. Man and Machine and the perspective of becoming cyborgs. The Superheroes that anticipate transhumanism. A future of humanity timeline. And of course a focus on Sport.
It's not all RoboCop and Spider-Man though. The exhibition opens on a warning: a statue of Icarus that reminds us that every attempt to improve our bodies and brains comes with its own set of pitfalls and ethical questions. High heel shoes elevate us but too high, they make walking a challenge. Tom Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon after having been doped with strychnine mixed with brandy (performance-enhancing drugs were allowed at the beginning of the 20th century.) He collapsed on the line.
Prosthetic limbs are a particularly striking case of the perils and advantages of enhancements.
Aimee Mullins, the double-amputee model and Paralympian, sees her condition as an opportunity. With each new set of legs comes new powers, new function and a new identity.
More questions arise if we look beyond the case of Pistorius: Will the distinction between Olympics and Paralympics be erased one day? Or will prosthetics become so advanced that they will be seen as an advantage over the 'natural' body?
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the prosthetic limbs whose sole function was cosmetic. They provided no relief nor aid. Such were the prostheses designed for the "Thalidomide babies", these artificial limbs were so bulky and unhelpful that many children eventually abandoned them.
Thalidomide was a sedative drug given to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. It was sold from 1957 until 1961, when it was withdrawn after being found that the drug interfered with the development of a baby's limbs. During that short period, 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide use.
The government funded the design of prostheses for children affected by thalidomide in order to make them look 'normal'. The experimental arm and leg prostheses had to be custom-made but they were clunky and uncomfortable. They replicated the aspect of the limb but were not able to reproduce its function. Many children refused to wear them.
Both Mullins' experience as well as the history of the Thalidomide babies makes us realize that the role of prostheses nowadays is not so much to give a sense of 'normality' (at the detriment sometimes of the wearer's comfort) but to accommodate a difference and allow the wearer to embrace a new identity.
Speaking of prosthetic limbs. I found these images of elegant women showing their wooden leg but not their face extremely moving. The legs were crafted by James Gillingham (1839-1924), a shoemaker based in Chard, Somerset. Gillingham first started making artificial limbs after a local man lost an arm firing a cannon for a celebratory salute in 1863.
One of the most pertinent points developed in the exhibition is the shift in perception: what was regarded as exceptional is now ordinary. IVF treatment which made the covers of newspapers not so long ago is now a relatively routine procedure (in 2009, 12 714 babies were born in the UK through IVF.) False teeth and contraceptive pills are now so common we don't see them as enhancements anymore.
Would someone from the 19th century regard us as superhuman? What will the 'normal' people of tomorrow be like? Look like? What will they be able to do better and faster than us?
Quick round-up of the stories, images and ideas i discovered in the exhibition:
The set of teeth above were known as Waterloo Teeth. Replacement teeth were traditionally made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus or elephant). However such teeth deteriorated faster than real teeth. The best set of dentures in the early 19th century were made with real human teeth set on an ivory base. Some of these teeth were scavenged from dead soldiers on battlefields.
The Whizzinator kit was originally marketed as a way to fraudulently defeat drug tests. The kit comes with dried urine and syringe, heater packs (to keep the urine at body temperature) and a false penis (available in several skin tones). The manufacturers were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the US government; the device is now sold as a sex toy. Should you be interested...
Artist Donald Rodney was born with sickle-cell anaemia, a debilitating disease of the blood. Psalms is a wheelchair programmed to explore the floor space of the gallery and symbolises the presence of the artist when he was too sick to attend the opening of his own exhibitions.
Legend has it that Charles Atlas used to be mocked for being skinny. He went on to change his body and develop a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program that, allegedly, enabled weaklings to turn themselves into fit, strong men. He advertised his method in comic books from the 1940s and the campaign is regarded as one of the most longest-lasting ad campaigns of all time.
The image above shows one page of a correspondence course sent out in early 1939 giving instructions in how "in just 7 days YOU can have a body like mine" by using his Dynamic Tension program. The leaflet includes numerous photographs of Charles Atlas posing in leopardskin trunks and flexing his muscles.
For Routine, the artist Francesca Steele transformed her physique over a year through adoption of bodybuilding training and diet.
This artificial toe is one of only a few examples found on or buried with Egyptian mummies. It was initially thought to complete the body after death, essential for successfully passing over to the afterlife. However, signs of wear and repair suggest it may also have been used in life. Tests using a replica found it was possible for a volunteer who had lost their right big toe to walk successfully while wearing it, with the toe itself withstanding the pressure of use.
Many comic-book heroes seem to anticipate 'transhumanism' - the application of technology to humans to enhance their abilities. Iron Man is a cyborg who will die without his artificial heart and whose power comes from his high-tech suit. Spider-Man's special abilities come from his artificially altered biology. And life imitates art: scientists are now developing powered exoskeleton suits to allow paraplegics to walk, while spider silk is providing the basis for new biomaterials used to repair knee cartilage.
Yves Gellie toured the scientific research laboratories dedicated to the development of humanoid robots.
Also in the exhibition: The Immortal, life-support machines keeping each other alive. The machines are turned on daily but only for one hour (from 12.30 to 1.30 if i remember correctly.)
Evening Standard has photos of the opening.
Superhuman is at the Wellcome Collection until October 16, 2012.
Wow! That was a fantastic talk. I wish more artists could talk about their work with so much passion and sense of humour. The talk of Australian performance artist Stelarc, titled Fractal Flesh - Prototyped, printed and phantom bodies, presented his work in a thematic way.
He explained how his performances explore the body as an evolving architecture. In our era, bodies can be extended in different ways: plastination enables us to conserve corpses and the advance of medicine allow for the life of a comatose patient to be extended for a long time.
The Suspension performances where his naked body was suspended in the air by inserting fishhooks into his skin were done 27 times over a period of 13 years and each time at a different location. He called it a "posture of indifference": the body's awareness is extruded and its operation is extended into the realm of the absent, the involuntary, the alien. In a performance in Copenhagen (video), the body of the artist (he actually talks about himself as "the artist") was suspended 60 meters high using a crane from street level. Heartbeat and blood flow were amplified with multi sound sensors to produce a soundscape. As he got gradually exhausted from the performance the heartbeat quickened, breath shortened and so the soundscape evolved.
The rock suspension of the body was counterbalance by the wreath of rocks, one rock for each insertion point. The body was gently swaying from side to side, setting up random oscillations in the rocks. Stelarc decided to stop the performance when he heard a phone ring in the gallery. They did it anyway. His body was rolled out of the window of a building. After 5 minutes he could see the police cars arriving. Police then erupted in the apartment and asked for his ID which given his situation at the time was rather difficult to produce!
In an abandoned space in Brisbane, he made a more complex performance using a control box that allowed him to choreograph his body movement through the space. He could hoist his body up and down travel in any direction. He could also propel it forward, turning his body into a kind of projectile in the space. Also by starting and stopping the body suddenly he could get the body to swing from side to side. The performance was about 30 minutes. There was hardly any bleeding. You just have to avoid to insert the hook into the muscles.
At an abandoned monorail station in Japan, he did a suspension with the third hand attached and controlled using his muscle signals (abdominal electrodes allow independent movements of the third hand.). He could control the up and down movements of his body. The sounds of the third hand and the body signals were amplified to produce a soundscape.
These performance were usually done without an audience, only people who happen to pass in the area by chance would see him naked, hooked and suspended. In NYc and Copenhagen, however, the performances were financed by galleries and festivals so they had to be public.
In 1993, he participated to the Australia Sculpture Trienalle. The theme was: site-specific works. As ususally he went for the extreme and had a Stomach Sculpture specially-designed for and inserted into the body (video). The sculpture was inserted approximately 40 centimeters inside the stomach cavity. The sculpture was a very simple mechanism driven by a plexidriver cable to a servo motor and a logitech circuit outside the body (not all the parts were small enough to be inserted inside the body). The body became the host of the art work. Instead of a sculpture for a public space, he made one for a private physiological space. Instead of having the technology attached to the body (cf. Third Hand), technology was invading the body. It was inserted into the body not for some medical necessity, but simply through some artistic choice.
The sculpture had a flashing light and a beating sound. It is about 15 mm in length and 15 millimeters in diameter but fully opened it is about 50 mm in diameter and about 75mm long. The video was done using an endoscope.
The Third Hand was attached to his body. It is controlled by abdominal electrodes, that allow independent movements of the apparatus.
Completed back in 1980, the new extended arm manipulator has wrist rotation, thumb rotation, individual finger flexion and each finger opens and closes. So each finger can be a gripper in itself. This time the body is extended with a new manipulator. In a performance he used his three hands to write the word "Evolution." Was quite tricky especially as he had to learn how to write back to front because he was writing the word on a glass panel in front of the audience.
A 1995 work was using a touch screen interface that allowed people at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, at the Media Lab in Helsinki and at the conference Doors of Perception in Amsterdam to access his body in Luxembourg and by touching the muscles on the computer model program the choreography of his remote body. He could see the face of the person who was moving him, and they could see his body movements or their choreography. The body became a kind of host for a remote agent. People in the three cities were able to access and move the body over a period of three days. Only his right leg could not be activated (he needed it to stand on!)
The Ping Body performance used the ping internet protocol to activate the body through internet data. During the performance he would ping 40 global sites. The signals were mapped to the body muscles and the body thus became a crude barometer of internet activity. The body moved according to the internet activity.
The Exoskeleton was inspired by insects. It is a six legs walking machine that translates body movements into machine legs motions.
The Walking Head: an autonomous robot with an LCD screen and a computer whose facial behaviour depends on the movements around. As visitors enter a dark room, the eyes of the face open and starts to communicate with the person and the robot moves. It then sits down, closes its eyes and waits for the next person to enter the room (images).
Talking about robots, he showed us a video of a fantastic robot developed at the University of Cleveland. It uses both wheels and legs to move superfast, it can tumble down the stairs without any damage and it can move equally well on either side.
He presented a rather weird work called Blender. He met Nina Stellar one day at the morgue, she was carrying a human arm. Her job is to cut up body parts for medical students. Both artists had content of their body removed (blood, subcutaneous fat, nerves, connective tissues). It was actually very difficult to obtain the body liquids. As soon as body content are outside your own body they are labelled as "bio-hazardous material". The installation was human high, it was composed of a blender and four oxygen tanks. The material removed from the artists was mixed every 5 minutes. After that the protein would go back to the bottom of the glass bowl and the fat would sit at the top. It's the opposite of the Stomach Sculpture, as this time it's the machine that contains bits of human body.
The Extra Ear project dates back to 1996 so it took him nearly 10 years to find surgical assistance to realize the project as the process goes beyond cosmetic surgery. He was first planning to place the ear on his cheeck, next to his actual ear because the jawbone contains too many facial nerves which made it too risky (he could have half of his face paralysed) and ridiculous (the extra ear would wiggle each time Stelarc would speak or chew.) The idea is to construct an ear using skin cartilage taken from his thorax. Together with SymbioticA and Tissue Culture & Art Project they deided to grow a small replica of the ear using cells. They made a cast of the ear, scalled it down, used scaffold to give the cell and ear shape, put it inside a rotating bio-reactor and fed the growing ear with nutrients regularly.
The ear was seeded in Perth but at some point it had to travel. The trick was to keep it constantly at body temperature so they put it in the underwear of the person who was carrying it. There was fortunately no body check at the airport.
Beginning of last year he got the opportunity to get funding for the project and attached the ear on the forearm of the artist. The operation requested 3 surgeons on 2 and a half hours. He first had a microphone implanted in it but had to be removed temporarily because of infection.
The idea is to have the microphone connected to a bluetooth wireless transmitter. When they first tested it at the hospital, it was working quite smoothly even if the ear was wrapped in bandage. The system would allow people in remote place to hear what the extra ear is listening to. If you phone him with your mobile phone, Stelarc could speak to you through his extra ear. Speaker and receiver would be placed in a gap between his teeth: when his mouth is closed, only he would hear the phone conversation; with the mouth open, the voice of the caller could be heard through Stelarc's mouth.
Images from Stelarc's talk at Transmediale.
In the near future, most of us will be implanted with some kind of artificial body part.
Metalosis Maligna is a fictitious documentary, by Floris Kaayk , about a spectacular yet viciously "disabling disease which affects patients who have been fittedwith medical implants. Sourcing from such implants a wild metal growth ultimately transforms human patients into mechanical looking constructions."
This way to the video
Via next nature.
Australian performance artist Stelarc is to present three of his latest works Partial Head, Walking Head & Extra Ear on Saturday 13 at Trondheim Matchmaking, a festival for electronic arts and new technology to be held next week in Norway.
The EXTRA EAR, a work developed in collaboration with the Tissue Culture & Art Project, has now been added on the artist's left arm. Excess skin was created with an implanted skin expander in the forearm. By injecting saline solution into a subcutaneous port, the silicon implant stretched the skin, forming a pocket of excess skin that was used in surgically constructing the ear.
When electronically complete the ear will form part of a distributed bluetooth headset, enabling Stelarc to speak to the remote person through the Extra Ear. I'll quote the artist's text as i'm not sure to understand what's going on here: "I will hear the sound of the person speaking to me in my mouth. If my mouth is closed only I will be able to hear them. If I open my mouth and someone is close by, they will hear the sound of the remote person from within my mouth."
Have a look at the festival's page to know more about the other projects, all of them aim to explore alternate anatomical architectures that incorporate physiologically plausible structures and re-wirings. They also postulate hybrids of biology and technology and actual-virtual chimeras. Operational and living systems as mixed and augmented realities.
Thanks to Ken Rinaldo for letting me know about the festival.
Seiji Uchida, an architect who was left unable to use his arms or legs after a car crash 22 years ago, plans to reach the top of Switzerland's 13,740ft Breithorn mountain, testing an a pair of robotic limbs.
Accompanied by alpinist Ken Noguchi, Mr Uchida will take a cable car to within 950ft of the summit before being strapped to Mr Noguchi's back for the final push.
The hybrid assistive limb (HAL), which increases the average weight a person can carry from 100kg to 180kg, will be attached as an outer framework to the able-bodied climber's legs, allowing him to bear his companion to the top.
"We started research work on the initial HAL project in 1992 but we have come a long way in that time and we are hoping to release a version of the robot limb on the open market in the near future," said inventor Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, of Tsukuba University, north of Tokyo.
Sensors attached to the surface of the skin detect faint electric signals transmitted by the brain to the limbs. The artificial limb helps the weakened human limb complete that order.