Luckily for us, the Australian performance artist known as Stelarc, formerly Stelios Arcadiou, is not prone to sensationalism.
He only wants to transform his body into a portal on the Internet. Which is why visitors to Exit Art, a gallery in Midtown Manhattan, are being treated to a video of Stelarc’s left arm being cut up like a rare tenderloin to implant what will eventually be a Bluetooth-enabled artificial ear.
Stelarc’s video is one the more grisly highlights of Corpus Extremus (LIFE+), an exhibit about the wonders and horrors of PostNatural History, and the ways in which technology is blurring the traditional notions of life, death and identity.
In the gallery of post-natural history, for example, is a goat that has been genetically tinkered with to produce spider silk, useful for fishing line and bulletproof vests, in its milk. Elsewhere you can look through a microscope and see a movie projected on living cells, watch a movie of Russian cosmonauts examining grains of kefir, a yogurtlike drink popular in Russia, to determine the grains’ potential worthiness as “cosmonauts,” or see a mock documentary about an S&M organic farm collective.
In the early days of the show you could walk through a forest of poles wired with antennas transmitting signals of your presence to a vat of neurons at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Signals back from the neurons would activate pen recorders to run up and down the poles and inscribe them with stripes.
Silent Barrage, as it is called, is dormant now, the connection to the neurons having been turned off. But if this gadget was alive while it was awake, could running around in it too much make it crazy and constitute abuse?
Art or science?
Nine years ago, when Exit Art presented an earlier show about genetics, the burning debate was about whether genes and life forms could be patented. Ownership of our genes might be at stake, but not our humanity or our identities as trees or people, dead or alive and machine or animate. I remember wandering around that show, Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution, marveling at the dedication and the scientific acumen of the artists, who had done things like raise photosensitive grass and clone trees.
Now it’s all up for grabs, and paradise has gotten a lot darker.
“A foundational idea for this show was that we are permanently in a condition of creating, being excited or horrified by our inventions,” said Boryana Rossa, a Bulgarian-born artist and graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
She said it was all right if people were confused and left the gallery wondering whether what they had seen was art or science. The important thing was to start a conversation about what technology could do to us. The artists, she said, have hands-on experience with biology in programs like SymbioticA, a lab at the University of Western Australia where artists and biologists collaborate.
Artists are the antennas of society, but they are not the only ones thinking about these issues.
Some thinkers, including Freeman Dyson, the physicist and futurist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, have suggested that the Darwinian interlude of 3 billion years of evolution by means of mutations passing down through species is coming to an end. In its place would be a technologically enabled swapping of genes across species. Carl Woese, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has theorized that such horizontal gene transfer prevailed in the primordial soup before cells got locked in species. We will be fine with it, Dyson has said, when children start breeding miniature dinosaurs with rabbit ears and other exotic creatures for science fairs the way horticulturists turn out new breeds of tomatoes.