An interview with Stelarc

Rainer Linz

This interview first appeared in NMA10 magazine. In it, Stelarc and Linz discuss aspects of sound creation for the amplified body performances.

R.L: Could we begin with an overview of how you started to use sound in your early performances?

Stelarc: When I first started performance work after leaving art school, it was always disconcerting that I had to either use someone else's music to accompany my images, or else ask a musician friend to compose something especially. I'd always had an interest in sound, but it became a question of who could help out, who could do the sound for this particular set of images. I found this increasingly difficult to cope with, firstly because there was often a collaborative problem, and secondly it wasn't possible to develop the ideas on my own.

R.L: How did this work in practice? Who's music were you interested in during those days?

Stelarc: My very first performances were essentially multimedia events, involving for instance triple screen projections, choreography and so on. I started using tape music from people such as Terry Reilly, Stockhausen and John Cage, who I admired very much.

R.L: So this predates the amplified body and third hand performances.

Stelarc: Yes. My work at this time also involved making helmets and goggles that altered binocular vision, and compartments that the body was `plugged in' to - 9 foot high and 9 foot diameter compartments with the upper part a mechanised rotating dome, the body would rotate inside this compartment. For those environments I used electronic music or musique concrete, and similar sound sources. At that stage it wasn't that I was making my own sound but essentially working with accompanied images. This was in about 1968, and generally I wasn't involved in these performances directly - it was more that I conceived and designed and choreographed them for other performers. So there was a general interest in experimental sound at that time, and I thought it appropriate to use this music for the performances that I organised.

R.L: I wasn't aware that you'd worked in this way. Did you see yourself as a choreographer then?

Stelarc: Not so much a choreographer; I was more interested in the use of the body as a direct medium of expression - as opposed to painting and sculpture for instance, or the production of artifacts. I conceived of actions within a multimedia or multimodal approach, using sound, light, multiscreen images and so on.

R.L: Who was influential in your work at that time?

Stelarc: At that stage I was interested in the work of people like Ostoja-Kotkowski, the South Australian artist who was a pioneer of electronic art in Australia. The late sixties were more a time of Kaprow's happenings, Rauschenberg's multimedia performances, Andy Warhol's films, Oldenberg's soft sculptures, John Cage's books - which I read with great interest as they seemed to drift out of the purely musical realm and into other facets of life - and so on. That's the sort of environment I grew up in.

R.L: Did the suspension events involve sound in any way?

Stelarc: Oh yes. There's an in-between period here, between 1970 and 1975 where I did a series of suspension events using ropes and harnesses. All of those performances used amplified body sounds. For example in 1972 I returned from Japan for a performance at Pinacotheca gallery in Melbourne, where the visual elements consisted of a suspended body, an uprooted tree propped up in the space, and an area of suspended rocks. The gallery is a large space divided into three sections, and a hole was drilled through the walls and a laser beam shot through the holes providing a horizon line, over which the body and rocks were suspended.
In retrospect there was a kind of Platonic hierarchy of images: inanimate matter, plant, human and spirit. In that event a full range of amplified body signals was used. At that stage I was using needle electrodes for the muscle signals, so I had 1.5 - 2cm electrodes inserted into the muscles. I also used amplified brainwave signals, heartbeat and so on. I was able to speed up my heart rate considerably by using amyl nitrite capsules which were hung around my neck! (laughs) So that was a major piece in 1972 in which all the sound elements of my current performances were present, and there were attempts - by hook or by crook - to alter those signals.

R.L: We've jumped now from where you were working with other peoples' music in your performances, to where you're using a full range of amplified body signals. I'm trying to pinpoint when you first became interested in using body signals, and how you came across the idea.

Stelarc: I guess the idea of amplifying body signals came about in two ways. Firstly I was increasingly unhappy about collaboration in general, and secondly having to use sounds that were external to the structure of the performance. It became a problem of reconciling the actions with the acoustical results. I wanted sounds that were intrinsic to the movement, and so gradually it occurred to me to use body signals. Remember too that in the late `60s there was a lot of interest in biofeedback mechanisms, so these things in combination focussed me on the idea of amplifying the body signals. It was a question of relating the various elements of the performance. Also, as the body became the focus of expression and experience, it was necessary to situate these elements within it. Although I wasn't really interested in using the voice in this respect, I did do a series of performances using voice and body signals, which other people subsequently performed as well. These involved reciting poetry that I had written.

R.L: Can you elaborate a little on the relationship between the sound and action? It seems to me sound and movement are related. Some kinds of music theatre work on this.

Stelarc: It is a very simple relationship, and for me there was a desire to make sound as part of a body's motion. It wasn't a case of making the piece more dramatic through the use of sound, but rather that I'd always taken a multisensory approach to art. The premise of amplifying the body sounds was to articulate what's happening inside the body, and the possibility of monitoring these signals enabled a kind of structural relationship.

R.L: Were there any performances in which sound took on a major role, where perhaps the idea came from the sound possibilities rather than the visual?

Stelarc: Well actually, no. Right from the very beginning I was interested in structuring images, and determining sounds that were intrinsic to the actions in the piece. If anything there was a bias to the visual, but all of the elements were structured together in a multisensory framework. Having said that, I recently worked on a collaborative piece with the Japanese percussionist Midori Takada, and I guess this would be regarded as primarily a musical piece. I must say that of all musical instruments, I feel closest to the percussion because of their strong visual elements, both in terms of the actual instruments, and in the way they are played.

R.L: I guess another common point is rhythm: would you categorise the various sounds that you use in terms of their rhythmic or melodic characteristics?

Stelarc: Well, not being a musician, nor having the terminology to describe sounds in the same way that a musician might, I guess I tend to think of them in simple descriptive ways. To me they're either rhythmic, such as the heartbeat or brainwaves, random, such as stomach sounds, or triggered sounds such as the muscle signals. I would describe the sounds as buzzing, beeping, clicking, thumping and whooshing sounds.

R.L: Do you prefer any types of sounds?

Stelarc: I guess the more triggered, percussive ones like EMG. When you trigger a muscle, if you contract it just a little, you can get only a single cell firing, and produce a single percussive sound. If you tense a little harder you can get a cluster of these sounds. So these can be triggered or if you continue to contract and spread the contraction up and down your arm, then you get a much more unpredictable group of firings. So, percussive sounds for me are much more interesting. I've always thought of the blood flow sound as a kind of whooshing, wind type of sound which works well with percussive sounds, a kind of underlying activity which provides rhythm or continuity as a counterpoint to the more triggered percussion of the muscle signals. So, I do think of these things in combination, I guess like any musician might think of an orchestra, where there are different sounds coming from different instruments, and how these can be combined.

R.L: Do you think of it as music? Do you think of it as sound?

Stelarc: Well I don't really think of it as music, although in the past I've had pieces released on tape and CD as part of an experimental music series. But I've always thought of it as signals that can become sound sources in terms of an integrated performance. So for me the important thing is not whether I categorise it as music or sound, but rather that the body is a medium of expression. You move, you contract something, and that can be a sound. You bend a leg... anything really, and acoustically accompany the visual performance of the body.
I've never actually said to myself, what I am doing is music, although perhaps people have encouraged me to think of it in that way. It's not a big thing for me. In the early performances there was a kind of `wonderment' in simply amplifying the signals; then there was a period where I thought, if I wanted the sounds to vary in any way I should only do this through physiological techniques - to slow my breathing, relax and so on. I guess this was an influence of biofeedback. In recent performances it's become more and more a question of how one can orchestrate, control, interweave the sounds, given that there are various artifacts in the signals.
For instance, anyone will tell you that to make a proper EEG recording you really need to be sitting or lying down in a relaxed state. In a performance situation it's inevitable that there will be some artifacts. Initially this was disconcerting to me, but then I gradually accepted the fact and it became part of the performance; part of the fact that I'm standing, straining, twisting, bending over backwards or whatever. Of course, even blinking the eyes produces a muscle artifact which will mask the EEG signal. So initially I was very careful to avoid these artifacts, but as the raison d'etre became the total performance rather than some kind of purist rationale for monitoring signals, I became less worried and actively used them.

R.L: This is the point I was coming to, that you actively use these artifacts as part of a general `performance technique'.

Stelarc: Yes. The EEG is an obvious example, where blinking the eyes for instance will result in the signal being modified. If I tense my chest or contract the muscles around my heart area, I can disrupt the heartbeat signal and get an irregular `flutter' occurring. Initially these things were accidental and I tried to avoid them, then gradually I accepted their inevitability and began to use them to break the monotonous rhythm of the heartbeat or brainwaves.

R.L: Do you use any other types of control over your physiological processes? For instance, heart rate is a measure of general metabolism.

Stelarc: The earlier performances had a greater focus on this, where I would begin the performance with only the brainwaves for instance, and would try to get to a point where the signals were noticeably slower - I'd get some bursts of alpha. The same with the heartbeat. Now, this would take some time, maybe five or ten minutes. There are other physical things like the ultrasound transducer on the radial artery of the wrist. If I do nothing, a continuous `whooshing' type of sound is picked up. If I constrict the artery, the flow of blood is not as smooth, and the sound becomes more discontinuous. If I then relax the wrist, the blood rushes through again unimpeded and the sound resumes its continuous rhythmic flow.
Even here, various artifacts are possible because the angle and exact position of the transducer is very critical, it's possible to get a stronger or weaker sound of the blood flow. So I can get some kind of `creative artifact' occurring. The muscles behave in a more digital way, in that they can be tensed or relaxed quite easily. I can produce any specified rhythmic sequence by contracting and releasing the muscles. And what's interesting for me is that it's possible to trigger individual sounds by this means, or a type of cluster of sounds in which more or less unpredictable things can happen. I also use mercury switches for position indicators, a kind of `acoustical register' which reflects the movement of the arms, legs or head by turning a sound on or off.

R.L: To what extent do these become performance techniques? From a position where you at first tried to avoid artifacts, they now seem actual techniques of performance.

Stelarc: To a certain degree they have become techniques, or a strategy if you like, but I've never really systematised them in terms of my approach. Again, the way I think of them is that the body is plugged into a fairly complex technological system, with interactive light and sound and video and whatever, which provides certain parameters in which the body can operationally or aesthetically function. Within that there is a kind of improvisation which occurs. I produce a general flow chart of what I'd like to happen, but within that the details are more opportunistic or improvisational, depending on what kind of information is feeding back. Ideally, I'd like to be in total control of all the parameters of sound, but technically this isn't possible.

R.L: I think if you were to systematise the types of control, it would bring you too close to the idea of music, or theatre. Is that right?

Stelarc: I'm suspicious of the performances becoming just that. Although there is motion, light and sound, I would not subscribe to a description of the events as theatrical. One needs to be careful in the use of language here because the performances are not scripted, rehearsed or dealing with illusion. The body is plugged into a live and somewhat unpredictable situation. There is no pretense in the performance and often they are physically difficult to realise. The muscle stimulators jerking the arm up and down involuntarily is a painful experience. Last year's Ars Electronic event in Linz - titled Hollow Body/Video Probe - incorporated live internal images of the artist's stomach. Sensors on the limbs allowed the body to interactively switch from external to internal images. The TISEA performance for `Virtual Arm, Scanning Robot and Third Hand' was a physically exhausting interplay of video, virtual and robot images. In fact, I had to sign a waiver taking full responsibility for situating the body within the industrial robot's task envelope. So although the events are structured, they shouldn't be described as theatrical...

R.L: Your performances are often divided into sections, and there is a time scale at play. A while ago the sections had a 15 or 20 minute duration, more recently this has become 12 minutes: is this determined by anything in particular?

Stelarc: For a long time I felt that I couldn't sustain anything much over 30 minutes, both in terms of how I felt I was controlling it and the feeling I was getting in terms of a response. Also, the performance situation will have some bearing on this, for instance at the Melbourne Festival in 1991 we had a transient audience and I didn't feel we could work on a time scale greater than 15 minutes. I guess the preferable mode of operating is where people are coming in to a gallery space while we are testing the various channels, and this then gradually becomes the performance. I'm much happier with this than a kind of theatrical beginning or end, although not being a musician I've often resorted to a simple strategy of a kind of narrative development and climax for a beginning and end. In certain performances I've tried to get around that, and with feedback from yourself and Nathan Thompson, the lighting designer, we have varied it. So yes, the performances have been structured in different ways at different times but mostly as a result of the situation of performance.

R.L: A question that comes back to your preferences, given that a heartbeat or EMG signal is a fairly abstract thing that can be converted into almost any sound through a synthesiser, you seem to prefer particular sounds for these signals. Is this a case of how they combine in performance?

Stelarc: Well firstly I think there are some pragmatic considerations. One is that I'm not particularly interested in using the signals to trigger sampled sounds, where the heartbeat could be made to sound like a chime, for instance.

R.L: Although earlier in the year at the Aix en Provence performance...

Stelarc: Yes, but here it was a matter of trying to approximate the analogue sounds by digital means. I tried to describe the kind of sounds that would convey the function of the signals, and that's probably the key to it. Of course, there is a subjective realm - of choosing this modulation as opposed to that, this pitch rather than that one, this noise and not that one, and so on. But generally it's a case of reflecting the body activity rather than using an action to trigger chimes...

R.L: After you've had a chance to hear briefly the types of sounds that will come from the various channels, how do you arrive at the basic structure of a performance?

Stelarc: Again, the considerations are fairly simple. I consider what the body will be doing at any time: I may not want to use the third hand immediately because that's visually interesting, it doesn't require anything to focus attention to it. But my left arm may be involuntarily moving up and down from the beginning, and since there will be a mercury switch attached to this arm I know what the acoustical result will be. That being the case I might think that the muscle signals will work well with this, and perhaps develop a percussive interplay between these two signals.

R.L: So at this stage you are mainly thinking in terms of the sound?

Stelarc: Well I'm always thinking of what I will be doing, whether lifting my arm or bending my leg, where later on I may want to be lifting my arm up a lot because this movement will trigger the cameras... So there's always this consideration of what the movements will be and what sounds will result from these through the technical setup. But then once it's established that a certain movement will result in a particular sound, it becomes a question of what other sounds are available to complement this. So there is an oscillation between image and sound considerations. Also, how dense the fabric of sound is - typically we begin with individual, simple groupings of sounds and move to denser combinations, then varying the volumes of particular sounds, or grouping them according to their percussive characteristics for instance. So there is an awareness of playing with individual sounds, to orchestrating groups of sounds, to engaging rhythmically with certain body and machine activities. I guess these are the general parameters I'm thinking about.

R.L: Could you describe in more detail the instrumentation that you use, ie the technical setup (for the amplified body performances).

Stelarc: We can distinguish between different types of signals and the ways they are monitored. There's the EEG (electroencephalogram, or brainwave signal), EMG (electromyogram or muscle signal) and ECG (electrocardiogram, or heartbeat signal). These are electrical signals picked up by electrodes typically attached to the skin, preamplified by means of a medical monitoring instrument, and used to modulate an analogue synthesiser.
Then there are the ultrasound transducers, which can pick up the radial artery blood flow of the wrist, or of the heart valve by holding a pencil-like transducer. I've favoured the wrist transducer recently because I can tape it to my wrist and allow my three hands total freedom, whereas I would have to hold the pencil transducer. Ultrasound works on the doppler shift.
Then there's the plethysmogram, which is a photoelectric transducer, and that's typically attached to the finger, the earlobe, or even the bridge of the nose. It picks up the pulse signal, but is different to the heart beat.
There are devices like a kinetic angle transducer - primarily a potentiometer positioned at the knee which calibrates the bending motion of the leg. Again this provides an excuse for moving in a certain way. I don't appropriate gestures or movements from dance and incorporate them in a symbolic sense, rather it's a case of having this technology on me and if I want to make a sound I have to bend my leg, or move my arm, blink my eye, or whatever.
We've also used mercury switches as a kind of position indicator; so there is a sound register to the movement. These aren't of course strictly body signals and sounds, but here sound is used to register a particular position or posture.
I have used acoustic mikes for the heartbeat, I've swallowed microphones to transmit stomach sounds directly, and also used contact mikes to pick up sounds on the larynx. There's the contact mike on the third hand, which is controlled by muscle signals from the abdomen and legs. To me the third hand is a symbiotic appendage to the body, and in amplifying it I'm not just amplifying motor sounds but indicating another symbiotic activity that's generated from the EMG of the abdomen and thigh muscles. I've normally used a digital delay with this sound, again as a kind of counterpoint to other rhythmic body sounds like the heartbeat or the brainwaves.

R.L: Your performances are often associated with so-called high technology, how do you feel about using analogue synths in performance, given that they are basically from the `70s?

Stelarc: It doesn't worry me at all; in fact my aim has never been to use technology for its own sake, or to necessarily even use the latest technology. There's an underlying conceptual reason for doing these things, a general intrigue with human/machine interface, a general realisation of the obsolescence of the body as simply a carbon chemistry creature. So I use whatever technology I can get which is appropriate.
If there's a means of using the digital technology to do what I want, then I'll use it. In the last performance we used a virtual arm driven by data gloves, which is state of the art technology, and simultaneously we used an analogue synthesiser. But I think the totality was an expression of the human/machine interface, and that's what's important. And of course in Australia, I have to be hard wired with fairly bulky cables to equipment that's only a meter away from the body, but in Japan I'd be using a telemetry system the size of a cigarette box with eight channels plugged into it. Everything is much more delicate and better-designed for the body, and in some ways it generates a different aesthetic to the kind of bulky, hard wired approach we have to take in Australia. So sometimes the aesthetics vary depending upon the availability of certain equipment.

R.L: On that point, the performances you've done here have seen you more or less rooted to the spot, partly because of all the cables. If you had access to the telemetry equipment, could you see yourself moving more in space?

Stelarc: Well not really. Although the channels of body signals would be telemetered there would be some cables still connecting the body, such as the third hand contact mike and from the mercury switches which act as position indicators on the limbs. The optic fibre flexion sensors and the polhemus position/orientation sensors on the data gloves for the virtual arm need to be physically plugged into the interface equipment and Iris Crimson VGX-T host computer. Nonetheless the performance is not about freedom of movement for the body but how, in its interface and interplay it can function beyond the capabilities of its mere physiology and simultaneously and interactively can be operational with virtual limbs. The body, with its array of electronic technologies, operates in alternate, extended parameters. So, although the body is pacified, it is intriguing that it can generate all these acoustical, video and virtual events. There's almost a classical greek feeling in that the body is poised but it never degenerates into excessive movement - there's a certain austerity about the visual motion. Body movement is due to structural necessity rather than symbolic choice...

R.L: Are there any new developments in your performances?

Stelarc: At present, the virtual arm has only extended visual capabilities. With its gesture command language it has stretch, graft, replicate and mutate functions. With the assistance of the RMIT Advanced Computer Graphics Centre at CITRI, we are now ascribing sounds to the various functions - effectively giving the virtual arm virtual muscle signals. We are also programming sound spots in the arm's virtual space which it would activate as it moved. The other project for the next Sculpture Triennial is a stomach sculpture - a fist-sized strut and membrane structure that would be collapsed, swallowed and then extended and arranged in the stomach. It will be self-illuminated and sound emitting! (laughs)

© 2001 NMA Publications.

Composer and performer Rainer Linz has designed sound and interactive systems for many of Stelarc's performances since 1987, including those at Ars Electronica, the Fukui Biennale, TISEA and Melbourne International festivals. His own work includes an opera, as well as numerous chamber and electronic pieces intended for concert performance.

See also the Fractal Flesh audio recording.