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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Artist seeks internet-enabled third ear
By Lakshmi Sandhana

Imagine sprouting an extra ear on your arm that whispers sweet nothings to someone else.

Ear, TCA
The current ear is quarter-scale
While prosthetic surgery is generally thought of in the terms of replacing a missing or defective body part, a group of artists is looking at prosthetics as a means of enhancing the body's form and functions.

The Australian-based Tissue Culture and Art (TCA) project is growing a third ear fashioned out of the skin and cartilage of Stelarc, a performer who plans to implant it on his forearm.

This is the latest undertaking of UK-based Stelarc, whose many projects and performances explore prosthetic augmentation of the body.

At the heart of all his work is the artist's belief that the body has become obsolete and seriously needs to be re-engineered.

Long search

"We've constructed machines that outperform the body in speed, precision and power," says Stelarc. "Also, technology accelerates the body to attain planetary escape velocity.

Selarc, Stelarc
Alter the architecture and you adjust the body's operation and awareness
"The body off the Earth can't cope with the extremes of environments, gravitational pressures, etc. and requires technological life-support systems to function in these new spaces," he told BBC News Online.

"The body can only be considered relevant now as a component of extended operational systems."

Not simply a wearable prosthesis, but one constructed to be a permanent addition, the new ear has so far been grown to quarter-scale; a half-scale version will be built later this year.

Though surgical techniques for ear reconstruction have been around for quite a while, the artist has spent close to six years trying to get reconstructive surgeons to help.

He finally struck gold with the TCA; the group agreed to grow a tissue-engineered ear, which should eventually be grafted on to his arm.

Joking aside

"We can make a direct reference to one of the most striking images of the late 20th Century - that of the ear on the back of the mouse," says Oron Catts, who leads the TCA team.

Mouse ear, BBC
Icon: The techniques were developed to treat victims of disease or accident
"Our traditional concepts of life need revision. The ear really focuses attention to the notion of partial life."

While the chosen position initially was in front of and beside the right ear, this was discarded as being unsafe.

It will initially be implanted under the skin of the forearm and will be "sculpted" after the cartilage fully grows with an ear lobe being cosmetically added.

"Constructing the ear on the arm also means I'll always have something up my sleeve," says Stelarc with a grin.

Future being

While it cannot hear, with an implanted sound chip and a proximity sensor, the ear will be able to speak to anyone who gets close to it.

The artist also has plans to couple it with a modem and a wearable computer so that it doubles as an internet antenna, able to broadcast RealAudio sounds to supplement the local sounds that the actual ears hear, thus scaling up the body's senses.

Ear, TCA
The final ear will go on the arm
Why do it at all? "I see the body as an evolutionary architecture for operation and awareness in the world," says Stelarc.

"Alter the architecture and you adjust the body's operation and awareness.

"It's not so much about enhancing the body but rather constructing, experiencing and being able to articulate alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with technology - ultimately exploring alternate kinds of embodiment."

Stelarc is a principal research fellow in the Performance Arts Digital Research Unit at the Nottingham Trent University, UK.

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