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Hands Writing: One Word with Three Hands Simultaneously

The performative body and the cyborgian body are continuous in Stelarc’s oeuvre and both are inextricable from the mediation of human intelligence and volition. In some of his performances, such as Hands Writing: One Word with Three Hands Simultaneously (1982), the artist retains full control of robotic devices. By contrast, in Ping Body (first performed in Sydney, 1996), Stelarc subjected his body to the control of the ebb and flow of amorphous data on the Internet, which triggered involuntary physiological responses (ill. 041). Both of these performances incorporate The Third Hand, a robotic device that functions as a cybernetic extension of the human body. As Stelarc explains, “The Third Hand is a human-like manipulator attached to the right arm as an extra hand. It is made to the dimensions of the real right hand and … is controlled by EMG signals from the abdominal and leg muscles…. By contracting the appropriate muscles you can activate the desired mechanical hand motion…. to operate The Third Hand intuitively and immediately, without effort and not needing to consciously focus.”[1]

To perform Hands Writing, the artist trained himself to write the word “EVOLUTION” simultaneously with three hands: two human hands, plus The Third Hand. In other words, for the first sequence of letters, as the left hand is writing “E,” the right hand is writing “L,” and The Third Hand—controlled by abdominal and leg muscles—is writing “I,” and so on. If this were not challenging enough, the word was written on a sheet of Plexiglas, to be read by the audience viewing from the other side, so the three hands were simultaneously writing in reverse, from right to left!

As he has written, “Our actions and ideas are essentially determined by our physiology. We are at the limits of philosophy, not only because we are at the limits of language. Philosophy is fundamentally grounded in our physiology.” As a result, Stelarc proposes that “it is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated.” Claiming that “the body is obsolete,” Stelarc reasons that we must expand our bodies in order to expand our minds.[1] Hands Writing is a step in that direction.

[1] Stelarc, “The Involuntary, The Alien & The Automated: Choreographing Bodies, Robots & Phantoms,” n.d.,  Cited March 19, 2005 but no longer available online. Reprinted as part of “The Body Is Obsolete” in Edward Shanken, Art and Electronic Media (London: Phaidon, 2009): 251-2.