2002-03-09 10:45:55 -- When the organizers of the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennale in Melbourne asked Australian performance artist Stelarc to submit a proposal for a site-specific installation, he came up with a novel location in which to situate the work: his stomach.
After fasting for eight hours, Stelarc ingested a 15-mm by 5-cm capsule made of titanium, stainless steel, silver and gold. The capsule was tethered to a cable, which was linked to a control box outside his body. The stomach had to be inflated with air before this metallic lozenge slithered its way into Stelarc's abdomen. Once there, the capsule unfurled to its full dimensions of 5 cm by 7 cm and began beeping and emitting flashes of light.
Stelarc is a living example of the strange and surprising ways technology is getting onto — and under — our skin. Researchers in Europe, America and Japan are implanting electrodes into the bodies of patients to restore vision, treat brain disorders and help victims of paralysis regain motor function, while engineers are creating hybrid prosthetic body parts such as ankles, legs and knees in which silicon chips are melded with living tissue. Computers are moving off the desktop — and making our bodies bionic.
During one 1998 performance, Stelarc wired himself up directly to the Internet. His body was dotted with electrodes — on his deltoids, biceps, flexors, hamstrings and calf muscles — that delivered gentle electric shocks, just enough to nudge the muscles into involuntary contractions. The electrodes were connected to a computer, which was in turn linked via the Internet to computers in Paris, Helsinki and Amsterdam. By pressing various parts of a rendering of a human body on a touch screen, participants at all three sites could make Stelarc do whatever they wished.
Stelarc believes this kind of merger between man and machine will soon make its way from performance art venues into our living rooms. "Just as the Internet provides interactive ways of displaying information," he says, "it may allow unexpected ways of accessing the body itself. What will be interesting is when we can miniaturize these technologies and implant them directly into the body."
What Stelarc, who began his career in the 1960s as a "failed painter," is doing out of artistic choice, Brian Holgersen, a 30-year-old Danish tetraplegic, is doing out of physical necessity. For Holgersen, technology has already become a part of his body. Eight years ago, on a motorcycle trip to the U.K. to visit his sister, he was in an accident and broke his neck. Except for some minor movement in his shoulders, left arm and left hand, he was paralyzed below the neck. Holgersen underwent an experimental surgical procedure to implant a neural prosthesis — an interface between an electronic device and the human nervous system — to bypass the damaged stretches of his spinal cord and restore some movement to his limbs.
Paralysis results from neck and spinal cord injuries because the neural traffic that moves between the brain and the muscles is severed or blocked. Like a kink in a garden hose, spinal trauma cuts off the flow of information that travels along afferent nerves, which send signals from the body to the brain, and efferent nerves, which carry instructions from the brain to the body's musculature. In many cases of paralysis, though, the motor and sensory nerves below the level of the lesion remain intact and could function again.
To restore basic function to his left arm, Holgersen uses the Freehand System, a device that restores the ability to grasp, hold and release objects. During a seven-hour operation, surgeons at Denmark's National Hospital made incisions in Holgersen's upper left arm, forearm and chest. Eight flexible cuff electrodes, each about the size of a small coin, were attached to the muscles in his arm and hand that control grasping. These electrodes were then connected by ultrathin wires to a stimulator — a kind of pacemaker for the nervous system — implanted in his chest. The stimulator was in turn linked to a position-sensing unit attached to Holgersen's right shoulder, over which he retains some motor control.
When Holgersen wants to pick up a glass, he moves his right shoulder upward. This movement sends an electrical signal from the position sensor, which is worn under his clothing, to the stimulator in his chest, which amplifies it and passes it along to the appropriate muscles in his arm and hand. In response, the muscles contract and his left hand closes. When he wants to release the glass, he moves his right shoulder downward and his left hand opens.
"It's strange when you first use it," Holgersen says of the device. "I move my right shoulder and see my left hand move. But I quickly got used to it, and now it feels very natural. I don't even think about it. It has become part of me and made me more independent." Thanks to the Freehand implant, Holgersen can now hold a cup, lift a fork and grasp a pen, actions he was previously unable to perform.
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