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Explore the relationship between the body and technology in the work of Orlan and Stelarc

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A performer is essentially composed of two entities: the self and the representation of the self. The human body is the physical manifestation of this represented self and is interpreted by the observer depending on its gender, age, colour, attractiveness, adornment and perceived disabilities (these perceptions often being culture-bound as well). In addition to this, the performer uses make-up and costume, and interactions with the performance space to affect the interpretation. For the focus of a performance space, what better place to start with than this powerful physical signifier?

In performance, there is a tendency to perceive the actor and the body as a very separate entity to the concrete, technological elements of the stage. Orlan and Stelarc, contemporary performance artists, challenge this perception – Mcclellan (1994, para.14) describes them as “the post-human Adam and Eve”, suggesting that they are heralding in a new ‘breed’ of performer, inextricably related to, and even created by, technology. This certainly reflects the role of the body and technology in current Western society – medical technology can create life in vitro and, defying nature, can alter its intrinsic genetic makeup, and internet technologies can allow a person to project a fabricated disembodied persona onto the ‘net’ to interact with others over vast distances. Orlan and Stelarc embrace technological integration as a prerequisite to their work – the questions lie in what it means to the self if the way in which it is represented (the body) is altered.

In combining aspects of endurance and durational performance art, Orlan presented the alteration of her own body in the surgical theatre. ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ is her most well-known piece of work, begun in 1990. However, she did begin performing in the 1960s when, even then, she demonstrated a subversive attitude towards the body. In 1964 she used her own body as ”a unit of measurement (‘Orlan-corps’)” to measure public buildings (Flande [ed.], ‘Biography’, www.orlan.net). This project continued into the late 1970s. The reduction of her body to a tool of measurement was the less extreme forerunner to the reduction of it as a canvas in ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’. In both pieces, she objectifies her body, however in ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’, the implications on herself and her audiences are far more controversial.

A surgical textbook defines ideal beauty as “[that] of a white woman whose face is perfectly symmetrical in line and profile” (Balsamo cited in Auslander, 1997, p.

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