Google the artist Stelarc and you’ll see immediately why he might be placed at the extreme end of the so-called BioArt movement, in which art is created by the manipulation of living tissues, organisms and life itself. Here he is, a short balding man—with an extra ear. On his arm. It’s not some kind of trick photography, neither is it an elaborate latex special effect. The ear is made of living tissue (cartilage), and it was surgically grafted to his arm in 2007.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a cheap shock tactic. At the time, Stelarc’s third ear was declared “offensive” by someone who had begun plastic surgery to construct an ear that she was born without. “It [the BioArtwork] could cause some people distress,” one surgeon was quoted as saying.
It’s a shame no one at that time spoke to Stelarc himself. Once you get over his rather disconcerting laugh (frequently deployed), you find he is not some shallow, shock-mongering self-publicist from the cynical side of the contemporary art scene. He is a modest, genial and eloquent man who is deeply interested in mankind’s relationship with our bodies and with the limitations of the human physique. He points out that technology is already generating “alternative anatomical constructs” thanks to tissue engineering and transplantation. His interest, he says, is in “post-evolutionary strategies for the body”—new ways of remaking ourselves.
In this respect, Stelarc’s works fulfil one of art’s vital functions: exploring cultural boundaries where consensus values have not yet been agreed. It is precisely because there are difficult ethical questions about reconstructive and plastic surgery, ownership of body tissues (see, for example, the story of Henrietta Lacks) and human enhancement, that we urgently need art to explore it. In this instance, if Stelarc’s third ear (now long gone from his anatomy) was indeed offensive, then it was usefully, rather than gratuitously, so.
The same can be said for the work of SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory at the University of Western Australia that aims to improve cultural understanding of scientific ideas and foster informed debate about biotechnology. SymbioticA trains artists to use the techniques of “wet biology,” such as cell culture and genetic manipulation. The fruits of these efforts…