Art and the AI Dream: Stelarc’s Avatar with No Organs

By lilym

The Australian performance artist Stelarc is a bit of an oddity in the contemporary art scene. Employing biocybernetic concepts and processes to his work, he is well-versed in creating hybridized forms that speak to ideas of human agency, informational interfaces, and digital capabilities in the modern world. His work primarily focuses on exploring “alternative anatomical architectures”[1] that touch on the psychological and physical limitations of the body and and technology. By means of video manipulation, surgical intervention, and robotic automation, the body becomes a medium of experimentation and an interface of interaction.

Stelarc conceives of his Prosthetic Head (Fig. 1) in such terms. The Head involves a digitally-rendered projection of the artist’s face programmed to interact with gallery visitors who talk to it via a central keyboard. Stelarc admits that he had envisioned the Head having speech and visual recognition capabilities, but technological limitations prevented these from being realized.[2]

head-animation-on-white

Fig. 1. Stelarc, Prosthetic Head, 2003.

Instead of referring to the Head as an “Autonomous Agent”, Stelarc refers to it as an “Embodied Conversational Agent.”[3] While at first glance the head would seem to be firmly rooted in AI tradition, Stelarc does not create (nor intend to create) an independent subject. He has instead set up the digital architecture of his agent through ALICE (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity) technology. Utilizing AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language) the digitally-rendered bot formulates automatic responses based on user inputs.[4] Relying on the input of the user, Stelarc’s Head is less autonomous than it is reflective; as the artist himself has remarked, “the Prosthetic Head is only as intelligent as the person who is interrogating it.”[5]

The user’s textual interface with the Prosthetic Head is important here. The words typed out on the screen are only audible by the Head’s reiteration. Thinking in terms of Marcia Bates’s fundamental forms of information, this sets up an odd relational model. The user’s expressed information, following Bates, becomes embedded in the agent’s short-term database of information. Since the Head and the user are, after all, having a “conversation,” this information is reflected back onto the user, making our subjective experience of this information more apparent.[6] Marking an exterior focal interface, the reflection the user is faced with is something strange and alien yet, at the same time, familiar. According to Stelarc,

the human then is not something considered in-itself, but rather it it’s exteriority.[…]What is important is not essences and identities, but overlaps and interfaces. In this shift from essence to interface, we need to construct identity and awareness as external.[…]Self and subjectivity then is primarily an experience continuously being constructed externally, and remains open to change, inconsistency and contradiction. The subject does not define itself, but rather is defined by something outside of itself.[7]

The disembodied head becomes the prosthetic, digital embodiment of the user’s mind.

Stelarc attempts to find a new relational schema of the body and consciousness in this unfixed and undefined postmodern realm. He is essentially exploring the limits and potential of the human body, technology, and digital data. The Prosthetic Head is a bit different from previous projects, however, in that the physical body is completely eliminated, constructing this Head as a “body without organs.” Borrowing a concept from Gilles Deleuze, the body quite literally becomes a screen–a surface of random interplays and interactions that redefines the subject as more of a flowing process than a defined product.   In some ways, the user’s body becomes an extension (a prostheses) of the digital entity.

Stelarc takes a classical AI form that is “representational, rational, and disembodied”, but makes it function within a “reactive, situated, and embodied” subjectivity presupposed by Alternative AI.[8] The glaring deficiencies of the Head’s rational and automated aspects serves to devalue AI’s traditional hollow models of the human. However, in a point of departure from Sengers’s neatly laid out system, Stelarc downplays the importance of physical embodiment, therefore straying from some of postmodern AI’s conceptions that Sengers discusses.[9]

His artistic program as a whole revolves around the “post human.” Stelarc’s Prothesthetic Head explains that “the realm of the post human may not be in the realm of bodies and machines, but rather in the realm of autonomous and intelligent images, viral entities sustained in electronic media and the web.”[10] The human and mechanical body both perform within a context that constantly degrades them, and are therefore insufficient in expressing and performing essential functions. Gravity and friction break down the physical mechanisms of organic life, whereas electronic images and interfaces are not constrained by such physical processes.

The Prosthetic Head functions on the premise that human interaction is generally automated and unconscious. Its automated responses to user input may give the illusion of meaningful human-computer interaction, but this illusion is shattered in moments of disjunction, repetition, and outright weirdness. According to Julie Clark “Stelarc alludes to our self-controlled and regulated internal system as well as behavioral aspects that we remain unaware of which allows us to operate effectively as conscious beings, directed to the external environment.”[11] Discomfort and peculiarity in the interaction with this expressive image reminds the user that this “intelligent” agent is maybe not so intelligent after all.

Sengers mentions that “[o]ne of the dreams of AI is the construction of autonomous agents, independent artificial beings.[…]Autonomous agents would be more than useful machinery, they would be independent subjects.”[12] Although Stelarc’s project falls short of this dream (and this in itself problematizes the Classical AI that Sengers criticizes),  it does provide an interesting commentary on agency and identity in the context of omnipresent technology. It can even extend this line of thinking, showing the potential not for “living” machines, but for machines that reflect the “living,” mind back onto us, making us conscious of our unconscious modes of informational formation and transfer.

  1. Marco Donnarumma, “Fractal Flesh–Alternate Anatomical Architectures: Interview with Stelarc.” http://econtact.ca/14_2/donnarumma_stelarc.html.
  2. Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head: Intelligence, Awareness and Agency.” http://www.neme.org/252/prosthetic-head.
  3. Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head.” http://stelarc.org/?catID=20241.
  4. Artificial Intelligence Foundation, “An Introduction to A.L.I.C.E., the Alicebot engine, and AIML.” http://www.alicebot.org/about.html.
  5. Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head: Intelligence, Awareness and Agency.” http://www.neme.org/252/prosthetic-head.
  6. Marcia Bates, “Fundamental forms of information, ” in Journal of the American Society for Information and Technology 57(8): 2006, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/bates/articles/NatRep_info_11m_050514.html.
  7. Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head.” http://stelarc.org/?catID=20241.
  8. Phoebe Sengers, “Practices for a Machine Culture: A Case Study of Integrating Cultural Theory and Artificial Intelligence” Surfaces VIII: 1999, 20.
  9. Ibid., 18.
  10. “Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head on the Subject of the Post Human,” YouTube video. Posted by Pyewacket Kazyanenko, December 7, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nym8hfNI9Gg.
  11. Julie Clark, “Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head. ”http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=491.
  12. Phoebe Sengers, “Practices for a Machine Culture: A Case Study of Integrating Cultural Theory and Artificial Intelligence” Surfaces VIII: 1999, 10.

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