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Ear on Arm

Engineering Internet Organ

I have always been intrigued about engineering a soft prosthesis using my own skin, as a permanent modification of the body architecture. The assumption being that if the body was altered it might mean adjusting its awareness. Engineering an alternate anatomical architecture, one that also performs telematically. Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body's identity, but its connectivity- not its mobility or location, but its interface. In these projects and performances, a prosthesis is not seen as a sign of lack but rather as a symptom of excess. As technology proliferates and microminiaturizes it becomes biocompatible in both scale and substance and is incorporated as a component of the body. These prosthetic attachments and implants are not simply replacements for a part of the body that has been traumatized or has been amputated. These are prosthetic objects that augment the body's architecture, engineering extended operational systems of bodies and bits of bodies, spatially separated but electronically connected. Having constructed a Third Hand (actuated by EMG signals) and a Virtual Arm (driven by sensor gloves), there was a desire to engineer an additional ear (that would be speak to the person who came close to it). The project over the last 12 years has unfolded in several ways. The EXTRA EAR was first imaged as an ear on the side of the head. THE 1/4 SCALE EAR involved growing small replicas of my ear using living cells. And recently, THE EAR ON ARM which began the surgical construction of a full-sized ear on my forearm, one that would transmit the sounds it hears.

All photos in slideshow above: Nina Sellars

The EAR ON ARM has required 2 surgeries thus far. An extra ear is presently being constructed on my forearm: A left ear on a left arm. An ear that not only hears but also transmits. A facial feature has been replicated, relocated and will now be rewired for alternate capabilities. Excess skin was created with an implanted skin expander in the forearm. By injecting saline solution into a subcutaneous port, the kidney shaped silicon implant stretched the skin, forming a pocket of excess skin that could be used in surgically constructing the ear. The body is a living system which isn't easy to surgically sculpt. And recovery time is needed after the surgical procedures. There were several serious problems that occurred: a necrosis during the skin expansion process necessitated excising it and rotating the position of the ear around the arm. Ironically, this proved to be the original site that the 3D model and animation was visualized. Anyway, the inner forearm was anatomically a good site for the ear construction. The skin is thin and smooth there, and ergonomically locating it on the inner forearm minimizes the inadvertent knocking or scraping of the ear. A second surgery inserted a Medpor scaffold and the skin being suctioned over it. The Medpor implant is a porous, biocompatible polyethylene material, with pore sizes ranging from 100-250 micrometers. This can be shaped into several parts and sutured together to form the ear shape. Because it has a pore structure that is interconnected and omnidirectional it encourages fibrovascular ingrowth, becoming integrated with my arm at the inserted site, not allowing any shifting of the scaffold. We had originally considered mounting the ear scaffold onto a Medpor plate thinking that this might elevate it more, and position it more robustly to the arm. But this wasn't the case and this solution was abandoned after being tested during surgery. Now, implanting a custom made silastic ridge along the helical rim would certainly increase helical definition but also would make room for later replacement of that ridge with cartilage grown from my own tissues. The helix would need to be lifted enabling the formation of a conch and make the ear a more 3D structure. The ear lobe will most likely be formed by creating a cutaneous 'bag' that will be filled with adipoderived stem cells and mature adipocytes. In other words the ear lobe would be partly grown using my own adult stem cells. Such a procedure is not legal in the USA, so it will be done in Europe. It's still somewhat experimental with no guarantee that the stem cells will grow evenly and smoothly - but it does provide the opportunity of sculpturally growing more parts of the ear- and possibly resulting in a cauliflower ear! During the second procedure a miniature microphone was positioned inside the ear. At the end of the surgery, the inserted microphone was tested successfully. Even supported with a partial plaster cast, the arm fully wrapped and the surgeon speaking with his face mask on, the voice was clearly heard and wirelessly transmitted. Unfortunately it had to be removed. The infection caused by the implanted microphone several weeks later proved to serious and heroic efforts were undertaken to save the scaffold, after the microphone was surgically extracted. The final procedure will re-implant a miniature microphone to enable a wireless connection to the Internet, making the ear a remote listening device for people in other places. For example, someone in Venice could listen to what my ear is hearing in Melbourne. This project has been about replicating a bodily structure, relocating it and now re-wiring it for alternate functions. It manifests both a desire to deconstruct our evolutionary architecture and to integrate microminiaturized electronics inside the body. We have evolved soft internal organs to better operate and interact with the world. Now we can engineer additional and external organs to better function in the technological and media terrain we now inhabit. It also sees the body as an extended operational system- extruding its awareness and experience. Another alternate functionality, aside from this remote listening, is the idea of the ear as part of an extended and distributed Bluetooth system - where the receiver and speaker are positioned inside my mouth. If you telephone me on your mobile phone I could speak to you through my ear, but I would hear your voice 'inside' my head. If I keep my mouth closed only I will be able to hear your voice. If someone is close to me and I open my mouth, that person will hear the voice of the other coming from this body, as an acoustical presence of another body from somewhere else. This additional and enabled EAR ON ARM effectively becomes an Internet organ for the body.


Ear on ArmThe body now performs beyond the boundaries of its skin and beyond the local space that it occupies. It can project its physical presence elsewhere. So the notion of single agency is undermined, or at least made more problematic. The body becomes a nexus or a node of collaborating agents that are not simply separated or excluded because of the boundary of our skin, or of having to be in proximity. So we can experience remote bodies, and we can have these remote bodies invading, inhabiting and emanating from the architecture of our bodies, expressed by the movements and sounds prompted by remote agents. What is being generated and experienced is not the biological other - but an excessive technological other, a third other. A remote and phantom presence manifested by a locally situated body. And with the increasing proliferation of haptic devices on the Internet it will be possible to generate more potent phantom presences. Not only is there FRACTAL FLESH (bodies and bits of bodies, spatially separated but electronically connected, generating similar patterns of recurring activity at different scales); there is now PHANTOM FLESH(Phantom not as in phantasm, but as in phantom limb. Haptic technologies generating tactile and force-feedback that results in a more potent presence of remote bodies). The biological body is not well organ-ized. The body needs to be Internet enabled in more intimate ways. THE EAR ON ARM project suggests an alternate anatomical architecture - the engineering of a new organ for the body: an available, accessible and mobile organ for other bodies in other places, enabling people to locate and listen in to another body elsewhere.

Image above: "Model of Ear On Arm" - Photo:Polixeni Papapetrou


SURGICAL TEAM:Malcolm A. Lesavoy, MD, Sean Bidic, MD and J. William Futrell, MD
POST-OPERATIVE TREATMENT:Supervised by Wayne A. Morrison, MD
PROJECT COORDINATION:Jeremy Taylor, October Films, London
PROJECT FUNDING:Discovery US for the documentary series 'Medical Mavericks'
3D MODEL & ANIMATION:The Spatial Information Architecture Lab, RMIT, Melbourne
SURGERY PHOTOGRAPHER:Nina Sellars, with funding from the Australia Council

A SERIES OF SURGICAL IMAGES BY NINA SELLARS WERE SHOWN AT THE GUILDFORD LANE GALLERY FROM AUGUST 1- SEPTEMBER 28, 2008. THE EXHIBITION WAS TITLED 'OBLIQUE: IMAGES FROM STELARC'S EXTRA EAR SURGERY'. This was accompanied by a catalogue article by Joanna Zylinska 'The Cut of the Artist: Sellars' Anatomy Lesson'. The exhibition was also featured in the December 08 PHOTOFILE issue 85- Oblique Strategies: Nina Sellars by Ashley Crawford