The Human Body as Multimedia

Eric Paulos


mul.ti.me.dia adj (1962): using, involving, or encompassing several media (a ~ approach to learning) -- multimedia n


The assignment is to review a piece of multimedia. However, this raises a more immediate question, "What is multimedia?" Certainly CD-ROM's and interactive sites on the World Wide Web come to mind. However, is television multimedia? After all it incorporates elements more than one medium, namely audio and video. Most would argue that multimedia must in some sense be interactive. But how interactive? In this review I focus on the work of Stelarc, an Australia performance artist, and his use of the human body. Furthermore, I claim that his performances meet and in some sense exceed the definition of "multimedia."

Multimedia is defined as "using, involving, or encompassing several media" and a medium is "a channel of communication; especially a means of disseminating ideas or advertising." In essence, anything that produces some form of communication using any means is by definition, multimedia. That covers every known communication device, every article ever written, every word spoken, in fact most things are by this definition multimedia. This is because almost everything expressed involves more than one media of presentation. Modern news stores are delivered to us as text via the newspaper, audio via the radio, and video from television (and audio). From the definition it becomes clear that television is in fact multimedia. All of this discussion is ludicrous you claim? On the contrary, I argue that keeping a handle on so many of the current tech-buzz-hype words is of the utmost importance. To be fair this paper will narrow the focus and restrict the discussion of multimedia to what is technically defined as: interactive multimedia.

Interactive multimedia is defined as, "any computer-delivered electronic system that allows the user to control, combine, and manipulate different types of media, such as text, sound, video, computer graphics, and animation." Furthermore, interactive multimedia "shifts the user's role from observer to participant." It is this shift that is arguably the most vital element in what we think of as multimedia since it is the element most involved in drawing the person into the object, piece, or performance. It some sense it is what allows a person to escape their "local-ordinary-reality" and immerse themselves into a "technologically-constructed-reality." The term "local-ordinary-reality" refers to the everyday sensations and media that inhabits our world while "technologically-constructed-reality" refers to any alternate reality that is intentionally or accidentally created away from the "local-ordinary-reality." It is very important to remember that a "technologically-constructed-reality" does not have to be virtual nor must it present a computer as its primary interface layer (only that it must be "a computer delivered electronic system."

Stelarc is an Australia born performance artist that has recently developed what he calls "Ping Body: An Internet Actuated and Uploaded Performance." For a typical performance Stelarc, attaches a collection of electric muscle simulators to his body, each capable of delivering jolts of up to 60 volts, and interfaces them directly to the natural ebb and flow of the internet via the low level internet ping protocol. The ping protocol sents out electronic pings, much as a submarine sents out pings in the water, and measures the round trip time until a response is heard back from a particular machine connected to the internet. Stelarc then spends up to several hours with almost all control of his body given up to the net. What little body control he maintains is wired directly to various mechanical body enhancements. Fed up with what he calls "the obsolete body," Stelarc has added a third arm which is controlled from his chest muscles. During each performance, internet traffic manifests itself before the audience as his entire "enhanced" body spasms. The network finally takes its toll and by the end of the performance he is often unable to even walk. In a more relaxed off-line setting Stelarc explains, "The Ping Body performance produces a powerful inversion of the usual interface of the body to the net. Instead of collective bodies determining the operation of the internet, the collective internet activity moves the body." In a sense Stelarc has provided a channel for the net to physically thrash and kick back at us for all of the traffic and abuse we throw at it every day.


Body amplification System

Ping Body is certainly a "computer-delivered electronic system" since it involves no less than three computers each involved in a specific task. An Apple Macintosh LC630 and Linux based 486 computer are used to run the main Ping Body software which pings various sites on the internet and, depending on the value, activate the appropriate performance/stimulation animation sequence and generates the signals that are output the muscle stimulation device.

By definition an interactive multimedia system must also "allow the user to control, combine, and manipulate different types of media, such as text, sound, video, computer graphics, and animation." During a performance, Stelarc typically incorporates several video sources and audio feeds. Stelarc's own body movements directly and indirectly controlled by the internet are fed to a vision switcher and then to the a mixer which in turn create the final images and sound sent to the main video projector. In essence, Stelarc has created a form of ultimate user interface. However, remember that he is not even directly in control of his own body. It is the typical everyday internet users that are unwittingly driving him to control his body and as a result creating the resulting performance. It is arguable that the control of the media is in the hands of a large collective of uses spanning large distances of the world.


Stelarc and his Third Hand

Finally, there is another computer system solely assigned the task of digitizing and uploading samples from the main video mix to the Ping Body performance web site. This allows any remote viewer to actively view the performance which is both controlled and mixed by the internet itself. Since performance are limited in time and space, it is often through this method that most viewers observe a performance. Although in this sense a viewer has a highly indirect interaction with the media. That is, a user is creating some internet traffic in viewing the live performance feed, thus affecting delays in the internet ping protocol which translates into physical body motions of Stelarc. To make the connection more direct Stelarc has developed "Stimbod" where users can actively select portions of Stelarc's body which they wish to stimulate from a computer screen. Essentially, the screen interfaces to multiple muscle stimulatory and allows his body movements to be programmed by touching the muscle-sites on the computer model.


Stelarc intentionally creates an ambiguity about control. One issue at the center of the discussion of interactive multimedia, the ability of the user to control the system, is completely unclear in a Stelarc performance. In addition recall the importance of shifting the user's role from observer to participant in an interactive multimedia system. For Stelarc this shift is not only blurred but in fact completely inverted. Clearly the user is participating in causing the involuntary motions of Stelarc. However, more interestingly the participant, Stelarc, de-evolves during the course of the show to a meager observer of his own actions. In a sense he is driven out of his own body by the push and shove of others on the internet.

Hopefully, we will tire of the tedium of the dated keyboard and mouse interface and adopt new methods to interact with technology. Stelarc typifies one such example of human body interaction with machine. While we wait for the adoption of such new systems, we can contemplate the multimedia performance of his "enhanced" human body.


Stelarc has already performed "Ping Body" several times throughout Europe this past summer. Local San Franciscans can view him in his less formal unwired state in early November at an event presented by blasthaus, a San Francisco gallery devoted to artists using technology.


Acknowledgments and Credits

All definitions from Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994 and Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Stelarc information from personal discussions. Images from the Stelarc WWW site.