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The Americans Who Stick Gadgets Under Their Skin

'Grinders,' a new photo book from Hannes Wiedemann, gives a behind-the-scenes look at American biohackers.

by Dyllan Furness
Jun 14 2017, 4:07pm

A grinder has a magnet implanted into his ear as others watch. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016​.

This article contains graphic images that may be unsuitable for some readers.

A grinder has a magnet implanted into his ear as others watch. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016.

Bloody ears and fleshy cross-sections in makeshift operating rooms around the United States weren't enough to phase Berlin-based photographer Hannes Wiedemann. In the last few months of 2015, he met with members of the American biohacking community, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Tehachapi, California. They invited him into their DIY labs—converted basements or garages—where he took snapshots of their surgeries. He recently published the photos in Grinders, a book that documents a small but growing group of individuals who slice open their own skin, slide gadgets in, and stitch themselves back up for fun.

A grinder after receiving a magnet implant in her ear. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016

Grinders have their roots in science fiction, but their real-world origins are with people like Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics, who first implanted a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip into his body nearly 20 years ago. Unlike Warwick, today's grinders don't use anesthesia, nor do they have professional medical teams on-hand. Some have medical training but the majority are skilled amateurs with a hacker's openness and an open-source mindset.

RFIDs are now one of the most common implants—people use them to access smartphones, turn on lights, and unlock doors to offices in Stockholm—and Warwick inspired future grinders to experiment even further. Today they stick magnets into their fingers to sense electrical currents, put cell phone-sized devices into their forearms to monitor body temperature, and insert LED pucks into the backs of their hands because it looks cool.

Grindhouse Wetware co-founder, Shawn Sarver. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016

"These elements of technology, skin, and tissue are coming together is a new visual world for many people," Wiedemann tells Creators. "People sometimes react strongly to it."

When it comes to this visual world, Wiedemann admits he isn't like most other Germans, who see the body as practically sacrosanct. "Germany is very cautious [with technology]," he says. "When I feature my work in Germany I get much stronger reactions than in the US. There's quite a cultural difference."

A man gets a North Star implant, which lights up under the skin. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016

That's exactly the idea he decided to explore in Grinders.

"From a photography perspective it is a meta interest in conceptions of human body and nature," Wiedemann explains. "Particularly in Europe, a more essentialist conception of nature very much prevails, so it is very interesting to confront various audiences with different backgrounds with this kind of footage."

Although he's more open to extreme modification than most of his countrymen, Wiedemann isn't necessarily interested in getting his own implant. Instead he says he's fascinated by the process by which grinders constantly develop and revise their devices, inserting one gadget and removing another.

Not confined to body modifications, a group of grinders create plasma between an orange, an electrode, and a microwave oven transformer. Hannes Wiedemann, Grinders, 2016

There also tends to be an end goal to all this experimentation: Grinders strive to be cyborgs. In fact, many insist they already are. In the end they want to weave flesh and tech into a tapestry in order to unify humans and machines.

Though some of these aims seem farfetched, they'll nonetheless influence the next generation of medical devices. Tim Cannon, co-founder of biohacking startup Grindhouse Wetware, developed a device called Circadia, which can measure his temperature and transmit readings to a computer via Bluetooth. Other biohackers are developing devices that can monitor blood oxygen and glucose levels. In the future, it may not be uncommon to have an implant monitor your biometrics and transmit them straight to your physician.

From Wiedemann's perspective, the main role of grinders is to test and progress this kind of technology, to innovate in the face of medical device manufacturers.

"I think the only reasonable real life application of this kind of tech is challenging the medical industry with sophisticated open source stuff to make solutions more widely available and more affordable," he says.

See more of Hannes Wiedemann's work on his website.

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