Explore the relationship between the body and technology in the work of Orlan and Stelarc
A performer is essentially composed of two entities: the self and the representation of the self. The human body is the physical manifestation of this represented self and is interpreted by the observer depending on its gender, age, colour, attractiveness, adornment and perceived disabilities (these perceptions often being culture-bound as well). In addition to this, the performer uses make-up and costume, and interactions with the performance space to affect the interpretation. For the focus of a performance space, what better place to start with than this powerful physical signifier?
In performance, there is a tendency to perceive the actor and the body as a very separate entity to the concrete, technological elements of the stage. Orlan and Stelarc, contemporary performance artists, challenge this perception – Mcclellan (1994, para.14) describes them as “the post-human Adam and Eve”, suggesting that they are heralding in a new breed’ of performer, inextricably related to, and even created by, technology. This certainly reflects the role of the body and technology in current Western society – medical technology can create life in vitro and, defying nature, can alter its intrinsic genetic makeup, and internet technologies can allow a person to project a fabricated disembodied persona onto the net’ to interact with others over vast distances. Orlan and Stelarc embrace technological integration as a prerequisite to their work – the questions lie in what it means to the self if the way in which it is represented (the body) is altered.
In combining aspects of endurance and durational performance art, Orlan presented the alteration of her own body in the surgical theatre. The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ is her most well-known piece of work, begun in 1990. However, she did begin performing in the 1960s when, even then, she demonstrated a subversive attitude towards the body. In 1964 she used her own body as “a unit of measurement (Orlan-corps’)” to measure public buildings (Flande ed., Biography’, www.orlan.net). This project continued into the late 1970s. The reduction of her body to a tool of measurement was the less extreme forerunner to the reduction of it as a canvas in The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’. In both pieces, she objectifies her body, however in The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’, the implications on herself and her audiences are far more controversial.
A surgical textbook defines ideal beauty as “that of a white woman whose face is perfectly symmetrical in line and profile” (Balsamo cited in Auslander, 1997, p.129). Ethnocentric definitions such as this one inevitably affect the way in which beauty is idealised in fine art. These idealisations were the inspiration for ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’. The project was a series of officially nine surgical operations, undertaken with the intention of altering parts of Orlan’s body to imitate those of iconic images of female beauty including Renaissance works such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’ and Botticellis’ The Birth of Venus’. In the self-consciously ironic attempt to recreate perfect beauty, Orlan turns a Western canon of images against itself and effectively undermines it.
Orlan herself describes her work as “Carnal Art – that which is self-portraiture in the classical sense but made by means of today’s technology” (www.orlan.net). Orlan suggests that, by undergoing surgery, she is creating a work of art which is classical’ in that it presents an idealised aesthetic; however, she uses herself as the raw material. Cosmetic surgeons operate on her body and face whilst Orlan is under a local anaesthetic. Her mundane actions of reclining and reading a book (see appendix 1: Fourth Surgery-Performance’) are performative in that they are deliberated to create juxtaposition with her mutilated body. The audience would expect surgery to normally be performed under general anaesthetic and therefore, for a conscious person to express feelings of pain and discomfort – Orlan, however, remains calm throughout. If she were to remain unconscious and passive, it would be more comfortable for the audience to observe the operation; Orlan’s conscious involvement creates a disparity between how the audience expect the human body to react to surgery and her seeming indifference. Her status is raised as she is as active as the other performers – the surgeons. Orlan’s performative self is therefore disengaged with her body, which functions as an artistic medium, rather than as a mode of direct expression. Her body being subjected to medical technology does not seem to affect Orlan herself.
The desired outcome of the surgery is specified by Orlan in the form of a wall hanging in the background of the stage; (see appendix 1) the hanging is of the face of Botticelli’s Venus. From a contemporary point of view, this puts the observer in mind of before and after’ pictures paraded on television programmes such as Extreme Makeover’, first broadcast in September 2003 (News You Can Use’, www.abc.com). Orlan’s work was strangely prophetic in that she exposed how easy and mechanical it could be to prescribe a desired form for the body and to fulfil it. The popularity and growth of the cosmetic surgery industry has now permeated Western society to the point where it is used as a form of entertainment – something that Orlan had, in a sense, already done by theatricalising the process. The use of the images is also suggestive of media advertising. Physical environments constantly remind individuals of what they should be aspiring to, in television, cinema, bill boards and, more recently, on the internet. The hangings in her performances reinforce the importance of the ideal image and the desire to achieve it.
The before and after’ aspect of the work was explored further in Orlans’ installation project Omnipresence’ (1994). Orlan uses digital technology to superimpose images of herself with those of famous representations of Greek goddesses such as Venus, Europe, and Diana. These images are displayed alongside photos of her recovery from the operation of the same title (Seventh Surgery-Performance, Omnipresence’, 21st November 1993). Obviously, the gruesome reality of the body as a work in progress is nowhere near the computerised image (see appendix 2, Omnipresence’). The contrast of the lower row of artistic brushed images with the upper row of photographs present the body as fragile, and slow to heal and change. The digital images on the other hand, provide clean, idealised images, that are as near as possible to the proposed results. Technology is presented as reliable and accurate, fulfilling the aesthetic expectations of the artist, whereas the body is presented as unreliable, imperfect and not as susceptible to successful change. This, of course, reflects the some of the feelings associated with undergoing cosmetic surgery – that the body is imperfect and must be changed in order to present the image desired by the self. As previously mentioned, the Western canons of fine art were the beginnings of this and their legacy is carried on into contemporary media and art. The body is now a commodity to be invested in and updated according to what is attractive by society’s standards.
Orlan does not advocate cosmetic surgery herself – she sees it as a means to create a “modified body which becomes the subject of public debate” (Orlan, Carnal Art’, www.orlan.net). Considering this statement, her aim has most certainly been fulfilled. The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ has been met with reactions from “sick” (unknown cited in McClellan, 1994, para.4) to “a living essay” (Searle, 1999, para. 7). Her work is at the extreme of Postmodernity – not only does she blur the boundaries of taste and art but also those of real life’ and art. Orlan theatricalises what is usually carried out as a discreet procedure. In the past, society has mentally censored the pain and recovery process of cosmetic surgery and, instead, has had more concern for the outcome. Orlan has herself been met with refusals to carry out work from surgeons who wish to “retain a surgical mystery and only reveal the body once it’s perfect” (Orlan cited in McClellan, 1994, para.18)). The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ and the Omnipresence’ installation expose this medical technology in the arena of the theatre in order to question why and how people (and women in particular) alter their image.
The irony in Orlan’s work is that while she uncovers the fact that women endure suffering for beauty, she herself suffers for her art, if not during the procedures themselves then certainly during recovery and in the occasional scathing criticisms that follow. Auslander suggests that her categorical denial that she experiences pain is “strategic” (1997, p.132); she draws attention away from the pain, as if refusing to admit that suffering is intrinsic to the surgical process and, perhaps, the female condition. If Orlan avoids the identification of pain with the female pursuit of beauty, she maybe suggests that her work should resist criticism on the basis of gender. It is, indeed, possible to take a more objective view of her work, especially as there is increasing pressure on men to also fulfil a bodily ideal. She has stated herself that her art simply “takes an interest in questioning the status of the body and posing ethical problems” (Orlan, Carnal Art’, www.orlan.net).
This questioning is an aspect of Orlan’s work that is definitely shared with Australian performance artist Stelarc (formerly Stelios Arcadiou). He has worked on a number of projects with the aim to create “human-machine interfaces” (Stelarc, www.stelarc.va.com.au), also using his own body to explore its functionality in relation to technology. Unlike Orlan, Stelarc’s work explores bodily improvement by impermanent experimentations – with prosthetics, robotics and the internet. Both performance artists have their own websites (another example of their obvious embrace of technology) and Stelarc uses his almost as fully as possible, including his own texts and accounts of his work accompanied by video clips, images, photographs and animation. In this way, Stelarc achieves a wider audience for his work; even without having witnessed a live performance, it is possible to gain an accurate impression of them through the video and animation. This is one of the less obvious advantages of using technology in performance.
It cannot be said of Stelarc that his work itself is not explicitly concerned with technology. He intends to “re-engineer the body” (Mizrach, 1992, para.1) and improve it, exploring mobility in particular in Muscle Machine’ (2003). Stelarc constructs and performs within the Muscle Machine which is a “six-legged walking robot, five metres in diameter” (Stelarc, Muscle Machine’, www.stelarc.va.com.au) (see appendix 3). Unlike Orlan, he is total control of the whole process, explaining on his website how the construction is made and animated using pneumatics and rubber muscles’. Stelarc performs solo and demonstrates his own work. Orlan however, risks appearing passive in the transformation of her body and overcomes this with the use of the local anaesthetic and performative reading. It could be argued, therefore, that Orlan is the more radical artist as, not only does she subject herself to permanent change, but she hands over control to surgeons (this is, of course, a matter of practicality, too.)
Stelarc’s Muscle Machine is also very obviously technological. It is clear to see from appendix 3 that the components are not only exposed, but dominate the body. Stelarc draws attention to the difference between the organic and the mechanical, whereas Orlan is more concerned with the influence of technology upon the body and the processes that it undergoes. Stelarc’s use of technological equipment can be explained in his many texts on the body, also found on his website. He describes the body as “neither a very efficient nor very durable structure” (Stelarc, Obsolete Body’, www.stelarc.va.com.au). According to Stelarc, the body is becoming outdone by technology as our capabilities and knowledge increase. He refers also to the body as a hindrance to philosophy and exploration (Stelarc, Absent Bodies, www.stelarc.va.com.au). He removes the self from the body not because he is questioning its aesthetic, but because he is questioning its very existence and practicality. These philosophies may have resulted from the explorations of bodily endurance in his site-specific Suspension’ pieces, where he suspended his body from steel hooks and cable (see appendix 4). These could have been interpreted as testament to the strength and endurance of the body; however, Stelarc’s current judgments of the body as weak and unreliable suggest that he may have seen the work as exposing the body’s fragility. Indeed, they are quite painful to observe, like the images of Orlan undergoing her surgery-performances.
Stelarc demonstrates the body’s controllability in the face of technology in Fractal Flesh’ (1995). His body is connected to the internet via computer-interfaced muscle stimulators. These are activated by the audience on the web. Like Orlan, Stelarc objectifies the body by removing it from the control of the self. He hands over control to the audience through technology, hoping that the effect will be like “electronic voodoo” (Stelarc cited in Shurman, 1994, para.2). Considering this statement, and when comparing Suspension’ to nineteenth century Native American Sundance’ rituals, it seems that Stelarc unintentionally evokes a spiritual side to his work. The involvement of the audience in Fractal Flesh’ is similar to that of communal rituals and religious which were at the roots of modern performance. In some senses, the performative self has always been separated from the body through spiritual beliefs, before the advent of technology. The body in Fractal Flesh’ becomes a vehicle, perhaps not for the gods, but for the members of the audience who themselves are physically removed from the space primarily by the internet and also by physical distance. In this instance, Stelarc hands over control to the audience where Orlan’s audience experience no such luxury as they bear uncomfortable witness to her performances. This, again, demonstrates Orlan’s choice to make her body endure technology for art’s sake, where Stelarc simply wants to show that the body can be altered in its functionality.
One of Stelarc’s pieces which does not necessarily work to this aim is Stomach Sculpture’ (1999). It is more comparable to The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ in that it explores the body as a vehicle for art and image, and involves more physical endurance on the part of the artist. Stelarc starves and distends his stomach before inserting a five by seven centimetre capsule, composed of surgical quality metals and which emits light and sound. The aim of the piece is for the body to become “a host, not for a self or a soul but simply for a sculpture” (Stelarc, Hollow Body/Hollow Space’, www.stelarc.va.com.au). Again, Stelarc reduces the status of the body to a piece of equipment, in fact, a stage – just as Orlan reduces hers to a canvas. In this bizarre site-specific art, the performance space and subject have been reversed. The video images of the stomach, like Orlan’s surgery, become uncomfortable to view because the audience are not used to watching endoscopies as an art form. The innermost parts of the human body are exposed and mechanised, again separating them from the subjectivity of the self. This performance itself however, was problematic precisely for the reasons that Stelarc outlines himself – that the body is not as reliable as technology. The performance was cut short on three occasions due to “excess saliva” and “for medical reasons” the video imaging was not entirely successful (Stelarc, Hollow Body/Hollow Space’, www.stelarc.va.com.au).
Overall, Stelarc represents technology in his work as an aid to the human body, although some of his robotics work, such as Third Hand’ has been described as “pretty phallic” (Griffin, 1996, para.3). This is at least a possible reading but unfounded when considering his repeated belief that “the body is obsolete” (Stelarc, www.stelac.va.com.au) – the same belief shared exactly by Orlan (cited in Mcclellan, 1994, para.11). Unlike Orlan exploring canonical image, he is not confronting issues which may be gender-bound, but which affect all humanity. For him, image enhancement is not even an issue but rather “the signs of a desperate obsolete body at the end stage of its evolutionary development” (cited in Mcclellan, 1994, para. 14). Stelarc uses technology for technology’s sake – he is suggesting that humans have advanced so far in their manipulation of technology that it now surpasses the natural mechanism of evolution. The next inevitable step is to combine the two.
In a sense, Orlan agrees with this. Despite the fact that her work may be read as a feminist critique of cosmetic surgery, in Carnal Art’ she decries the “agony of childbirth as anachronistic and ridiculous” (Orlan, www.orlan.net). She suggests that something as seemingly natural as the pain of childbirth need not be seen as an inevitable part of being female as it can now be overcome by medical technology.