It took Professor Stelarc 20 years to find someone who would surgically implant an ear on his body. In 2007, he made his idea a reality, attaching a cell-cultivated ear to his left forearm.
He’s worked in academia, he’s worked in performance art, but it’s the crossover point that will blow your mind. It’s in the places where science and technology mix with human biology that Stelarc is most interested.
Why would he grow an ear on his arm? As much as I loathe answering a question with a question (not to mention how much I loathe self-interviewing writers) there is only one answer to this one. Why not?
To understand why a man might grow an ear on his arm, especially when he has two perfectly good ears, it helps to know the man.
Stelarc started life in Cypress, but his parents raised him in Sydney. Those facts are interesting but less important than his work. He’s a performance artist who mixes science with his art.
Other than the Ear on Arm Project, he’s known mostly for suspension performances. Borrowing from native practices of hanging from hooks inserted below the skin,
Stelarc has completed 26 suspension performances. Each performance he plotted and planned, suspending more than one body in most cases. His goal has always been to push the human body beyond normal usage, to see what we can do.
Apart from suspension, he’s also performed with various prosthetic limbs.
In one performance, he appeared on stage with a third hand, which biomechanically mimicked his right one. In another, he used an extended arm on the same arm, and a utilized a virtual arm in another. In yet another performance he operated a massive six-legged exoskeleton.
For his efforts, he’s received fellowships, degrees, doctorates and awards from prestigious universities for his work. Carnegie Mellon once appointed him an honorary professor of arts and robotics.
He’s even worked as a visiting Artist at the MARCS Lab, University of Western Sydney, Australia and been the Chair of Performance Art at the School of Arts, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK.
For a weirdo, Stelarc gets a lot of love.
Ear on Arm Project
The idea to grow an ear on his arm first presented itself as growing another ear behind his existing ear. That was how he imagined it.
As he researched the idea, professionals warned him that his head was not a wise location for cultivation. There were risks to his facial neurology and jaw. It also might not have worked.
Instead, they suggested the forearm. The skin is the closest to the nature of ear skin. It would grow without risk and if he wanted, they could transplant the ear to a hear.
That wasn’t his plan at all. Stelarc’s ear would have all the necessary parts to transplant, but he would keep it, installing a listening device below the skin.
That device would eventually connect to the internet, so others could listen in on Stelarc’s ambient sound whenever he allowed it.
In 2007, doctors inserted a scaffolding under his skin, and the ear grew as expected. He installed the microphone, which worked as planned, but the surgery site festered with infection so he had to remove it.
I was unable to find out if he tried again, but from his site, it seems not.
The first question one must ask is, why on Earth would a man grow an ear on his arm? There is little use for advancing human performance via extra organs on the body.
For Stelarc the reason was simple. It was interesting. The concept pushes our relationship with the body. It’s like a mental a pry bar.
If one considers the simple act of piercing the earlobe, which was once considered savage, it’s easy to see where this goes. Today people punch one-inch holes through their ears and faces.
Stelarc’s ear project was a stepping stone on the path to humans seeing the infinite possibilities of transforming the body as we see fit, especially as science affords us new opportunities.
For his ear, Stelarc wanted to build an earlobe. Because the lobe is fatty tissue, it doesn’t form from the scaffold. He would need to leverage nascent stem cell science to build it.
This minor tweak to his project says a lot about the man, about his mission. The stem cells, he admits, may create a cauliflower ear effect, what happens when a wrestler “breaks” his ear. It could, in effect, destroy his creation.
Stelarc doesn’t see it that way. Where most people would be afraid or at best protective of their creation, he’s excited about the prospect of an unknowable outcome. It will be something new no matter what.
That is his secret sauce. Stelarc tips the scales of our perceptions towards accepting biohacking in different terms.
For the biohacking community, we can all swim in the wake of Professor Stelarc’s ship. How do we define strange in a world where people grow ears on their arms?