The Materiality of Politics: Reading the Works of ORLAN and Stelarc
With the advancement of technology, the discourse on body and mind and consequently the ‘self’ has changed. The future holds the writing of the self as something entirely under erasure. The self, as it is, cannot be defined. It exists in the exterior, outside the body. It is known only in the employment of the artifice (technology) that constitutes it, but which keeps changing with time. The present work studies two artists whose performances come to be using technology: ORLAN and Stelarc. While much of the study done on their work raises questions about human/non, this study is an inquiry into the aesthetics of their projects.
ORLAN is a French artist who takes the material body as a medium and an end in her performance. Her acts aim to subvert society’s dominant beauty standards with the help of technology, such as the predominant use of plastic surgery in her artwork. In her own words, she describes her aim as to “question the status of the body in society through all the cultural, traditional, religious and political pressures that are inscribed in bodies, in flesh, and especially in women’s flesh” (Pires et al.).
The use of technology as not just an extension but as an inscription of the body, which was once known to be natural, is also the work of another artist, Stelarc. Stelarc is a performance artist based in Australia who uses various prosthetic arrangements to transform the body and extend its limits. In an interview, he defined his work as a “machinic choreography inside the human body.” Both artists essentially live by the Stieglerian argument that a human is a “prosthetic animal”. In relating the two, Cathay Smith writes, “whereas ORLAN works towards the challenging of discursive constructions of beauty, Stelarc attempts through his various projects to explore and extend the discursive boundaries of the body” (Smith 70). Jane Goodall has also written a paper that focuses on the anti-Darwinian stance the two artists take in their artwork. She points toward the triumph of the power of human will and creativity over the mechanisms of evolution. It is the same Idea reflected in the works of Bernard Stiegler, who has deemed the present condition of ‘human’ as one of ‘adopt over adapt.’
In their works, video installations also play a part in the performance. In Stelarc’s case, for example, in the Exoskeleton (1999), there are cameras placed at various angles (one coming from behind to the top, over his head), which captures his movement and displays it in real-time on the screen as and when he is performing. The audience sees the performance simultaneously in its presence and absence. ORLAN is also seen filming the process of her surgery occurring in the medical room, making it thus a part of her performance. The two artists use the body as a site of experimentation. But does that make the artist a commodity? In Dissensus (2010), Jacques Rancière explains the case concerning avant-garde art. Rancière, in response to the dilemma of the de-aestheticization of art, puts forth a second response where one is “reasserting the power of ‘heterogeneous sensible’” (Rancière 129). The response argues the need to separate the aesthetics of art from the aesthetics of everyday life. He goes on to explain that a heteronomy underpins the autonomy of art: “in order to denounce the capitalist division of labour and the adornments of commodification, it has to take that division of labour yet further, to be still more technical, more ‘inhuman’ than the products of capitalist mass production” (129). Aesthetic art, according to Rancière, is characterised by an opposite conclusion. It is not the separation between pure art and everyday life but precisely their dialectic. Art escapes its commodification by building within it an element of the ‘inhuman’ — this ‘inhuman’ element is seen in the gap that the two artists set to transgress. In the act of Third Ear, Stelarc surgically implants the third ear in his arm, near which he would install a microphone which would then be connected to the internet allowing access for people to listen to it as and when he allowed it. Stelarc conceives of the body as an open field susceptible to infinite possibilities through which we can transform the body. ORLAN, too, describes her experiments as a way “to go beyond the innate limits of the body and create an aesthetic that is not in line with the canons of beauty” (Pires et al.). To get a better overview of this, we can take inspiration from Artaud and the concept of ‘Body without Organs.’ Artaud insists on the body’s ontology as the ‘becoming-machine’ of an organism; the body is not what it is but what it can do.
In Artaudian theatre, the concept (definiteness) of the organism is replaced by the indefinability (infiniteness) of the BwO. Organism here refers to the ‘organisation of the organs.’ Artaud was against the specific articulation of the organism. When Artaud begrudgingly states: “I have no life! I have no life!” (Gorelick 263), he means that his body has been organ-ised; it has been grammatised by forces of thought. BwO is, therefore, the de-articulation and re-articulation of the organism. It is an opposition to any stable articulation that takes place in discourse. In the text Deleuze and Performance, Cull cites the writing of Artaud: “I don’t have an ego . . . what I am is without differentiation nor possible opposition, it is the absolute intrusion of my body, everywhere” (Cull 37). The Theatre of Cruelty, in the words of Artaud, “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten” (Gorelick 265). In the intrusion of the ‘inhuman’ (cruelty), art is also a struggle for emancipation. In both ORLAN as well as Stelarc, the need is to create an aesthetic (possible only through the inhuman) that could push the limits of the body and also one that can liberate it from the current form of humanity.
In another chapter of the same work, Rancière asserts: “Art is politics.” That is to say, in the ‘inhuman,’ there is an element of resistance in art. To understand this, Rancière brings to light the Kantian distinction between the aesthetic regime of art and the representation in art. In the modern aesthetic regime, art suspends the determination of art belonging to the tastes of men of high culture and brings it to a commonplace. In the aesthetic regime, the ‘beautiful’ corresponds to that which resists both “conceptual determination and the lure of consumable goods” (Rancière 173). In the same interview mentioned earlier, ORLAN says that the two implants on her cheekbones are meant not to bring about beauty but, as she maintains, a “monstrosity, the so-called ugliness.” Her work, in her thought, resembles resistance to the dominant ideology or modes of conception prominent in the society, a resistance to the lure of consumable goods. Art’s aesthetic regime emphasizes the aisthesis separate from the representational regime, which focuses on the laws of sensory experience. Aristotelian mimesis, which obeys the laws of sensory experience, is an agreement between a productive nature — a poeisis — and a receptive nature — aesthesis. It is a three-way argument that connects with human nature. The Kantian argument is a break from this concept of representation in art, and his formulation of aesthetic experience is what lies between nature and humanity. Rancière mentions that it is this problem that runs throughout Deleuze’s texts and writes, “from one humanity to another, [or from one nature to another], the path can only be forged by inhumanity” (174). The new art form owes its allegiance to a sensorium different from the common everyday experience. The work of art is a promise of a new humanity. In its aesthetics, it projects its being in the future: “The work is the extended metaphor of the inconsistent difference which makes it into both the present of art and the future of a people” (179). In another of his text, The Future of the Image (2019), Rancière goes through a similar transition from one regime of imageness to another.
In the representational regime, the image carried a particular alteration of resemblance in its relation between sayable and visible or between the visible and the invisible. The image had different functions, each with a different meaning. Words might describe what an eye can see or not see; visual forms yield a sense to be construed — in such ways, each image has a different operation. The ‘alteration of resemblance’ refers to the production of image functions. Against this regime, in the aesthetic regime, Rancière maintains, the image “is no longer the codified expression of a thought or a feeling” (Rancière 13). In the absence of thought or a concept-less idea, art manifests in the lack of a will to make art. The artwork comes to be in the possibility of it being something other than art. In an interview with Stelarc, when asked to what he would attribute the peace of mind that comes when viewing his projects, he replied: “Doing the performances with a certain indifference. An indifference that allows you to remain open to possibilities- rather than doing them with expectation…” (Sandall). It is this ‘indifference’ in the repertoire of Stelarc that reflects on the absence of the artist’s will and proves his work to be made with the intention of it being something other than art.
In the aesthetic regime, the image engages in a ‘silent speech.’ In a sense, the picture speaks in its silence — a meaning decoded from the inscription on the body, or the image is an ‘obstinate silence’ — the non-signifying naked presence. It is akin to Barthes’ account of the photograph in Camera Lucida (1981). In his text, Barthes’ use of studium/punctum is also incorporated by Rancière. The contrast between the two is established in the unity of the image that moves or displaces us. In the photograph, one can see the movement of the image between various signifying elements and the naked unified presence of the picture, which is a whole more than the mere sum of its parts. In writing about the photographic image of his mother, Barthes’ writes,
“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” (Barthes 96)
The photograph carries a moment of truth — simultaneously with the presence, the inevitable absence of the subject in the picture (his mother). Rancière, reflecting on this text, writes: “In order to preserve for photography the purity of an affect unsullied by any signification offered up to the semiologist or any artifice of art, Barthes erases the very genealogy of the that was” (Rancière 15). Such is the imageness of the aesthetic regime.
But how does one envision the relationship between aesthetics and politics?
I will take the same text of Rancière I began with, Dissensus. In the chapter Monument and its Confidences, Rancière brings in a Deleuzian argument where he cites a passage from him, the first few lines of which read: “The writer twists language, makes it vibrate, embraces and rends it in order to wrest the percept from perceptions, the affect from affections, the sensation from opinion – In view, one hopes, of the still-missing people… This is, precisely, the task of all art …” (Rancière 170). Towards the end of the passage, Deleuze describes the monument as consisting of blocs of vibrations that project a struggle into the future; new people, new sensations, new affects — all form blocs of vibration. Each unique stone, a metonym for the vibration bloc, contributes to the ‘monument-in-becoming.’ The blocs of vibration are a language part of a revolutionary struggle such that, as Rancière notes, “the monument must become the revolution and the revolution again become a monument” (172). In Rancière’s work, one can see the inseparability of art and politics. It is very evident in the statement: “If art is to be art, it must be politics; if it is to be politics, the monument must speak twice-over: as a resume of human effort and as a resume of the power of the inhuman separating the human from itself” (172). In this way, the two artists’ works are political in that they lay down a bridge to a new humanity.
Their efforts, although possibly an outcome of indifference, is an exteriority that develops on the shoulders of human will and strength exhibited in the monolith of technology. The image is the ‘unthought.’ The political ontology, therefore, is acting out the difference. It is experimentation. The following quote by Artaud sums up what the Theatre of Cruelty can do: “The task of the Theater of Cruelty is thus at once terrifying and urgent, and the struggle to awaken the sleeping intensity of life will be a struggle between art and work, experience and representation, impossibility and reality” (Gorelick 274). The form of politics existing in the aesthetic regime of art, as Artaud described, is between “experience [experiment] and representation.” It is the same dialectic I used at the beginning of the paper, which reappears here in Artaud. Aesthetic art is characterised by a dialectic between ‘art for art’s sake’ (modernism) and a common everyday experience.
A political ontology is envisioned in the silent image, in the difference that speaks. To get a better grasp of the silent image and its opposition to representation, Deleuze makes a comparison in the Introduction to Difference and Repetition, where he writes: “The theatre of representation is opposed to the theatre of repetition … In the theatre of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space … with a language which speaks before words, with gestures which develop before organized bodies, with masks before faces, with spectres and phantoms before characters …” (Deleuze 12). The image is unthought. It is pure repetition. Repetition, in contrast to law, appears as a singularity. While a general rule includes a statement that applies to everyone coming under it (such as with the case of the representationalist regime), repetition is what escapes any resemblance such that there is seen a difference in each articulation of the image. In each articulation of the image, a different meaning is obtained. Repetition is in the silent image speaking itself.
It thus can be said that the two artists are producers of images. The images are blocs of vibration carrying a particular affect. The images are the language of the monument that becomes an ear to the future. It is in the connection between the two humanities — the present and the future — the new regime of images is necessarily political.
Pires Isabel, et al. “Interview with ORLAN.” Excel, 20 April 2020, Interview with ORLAN — EXCEL (excelproject.eu).
Smith, Kathy. “Abject Bodies Beckett, ORLAN, Stelarc and the politics of contemporary performance.” Performance Research 12.1 (2007): 66-76.
Goodall, Jane. “An order of pure decision: Un-natural selection in the work of Stelarc and ORLAN.” Body & Society 5.2-3 (1999): 149-170.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.
Gorelick, Nathan. “Life in excess: insurrection and expenditure in Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty.” Discourse 33.2 (2011): 263-279.
Cull, Laura, ed. Deleuze and performance. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Rancière, Jacques. The future of the image. Verso, 2019.
Sandall, Simon. “Performance artist Stelarc interviewed.” Reader’s Voice, 8 April 2003, Performance artist Stelarc interviewed | readersvoice.com.
Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. Macmillan, 1981.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and repetition. Columbia University Press, 1994.