Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Eduardo Kac, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962, is best known for his transgenic art projects. This avant-garde artist often engages breakthrough technologies to stimulate discourse about their potential benefits and drawbacks. Often criticized for the sensationalism of his works, Kac uses the media attention his art generates to stimulate discussion about new technologies and heighten people’s awareness of their potential. In the extreme, as in the case of the famous GFP Bunny project, Kac is accused of creating blatant media spectacles to promote himself and his art. The photograph above, featuring Kac and the fluorescent bunny, is one of the main visual documents of this controversial art project. Undoubtedly, placing oneself squarely in the center of media attention can be viewed as shameless self-promotion. At the same time it is hard to deny, that in a project aiming to generate global debate, media attention is absolutely crucial. Many of Kac’s harshest critics seem to be offended by his presence in the aforementioned picture, finding it uncouth for an artist to soak up the lime lights meant for his artworks. However, even before his GFP Bunny was created, Kac clearly stated in his Transgenic art manifesto that one of the main goals of this project was to show that transgenic animals could, and should, be integrated into the fabric of society. The GFP Bunny was brought to life to serve as a catalyst for the global debate about genetic engineering, but also to become Kac’s household pet. Despite all of the criticism they endure, I believe, Kac’s works satisfy all of the artist’s aspirations and are ultimately successful in stimulating critical discourse about new technologies and examining the impact these new technologies have on contemporary society. Engaging issues ranging from the information revolution to genetic engineering, Kac seeks to expose and reconsider the ideological structures guiding our society. According to Kac, technological criticism is one of the most important responsibilities of contemporary artists. He believes that technology cannot be left behind in art and that it’s the artist’s duty to raise questions about contemporary life through the use of new media. Kac proclaims, “Our new era needs a new kind of art. It makes no sense to paint as we did in the caves.” The artist proposes transgenic art as his own unique contribution to the new art forms of the 21st century. According to Kac’s definition, this new art form is based on artist’s appropriation of genetic engineering technology to create new and unique living beings.

Overall, the concept of merging the process of genetic alteration with art is not new. Burnham claims that throughout most of the western history, art practice “sought to break down the psychic and psychical barriers between art and living reality”. If we believe that merging art with life is one of the principal goals of modern art practice then art world’s fascination with genetic technology seems inevitable. Genetic engineering is unique as an art form in that it offers unlimited possibilities for the creation of aestheticised living organisms and thus allows the artist to conflate the realms of art and life.

The first genetically altered organisms presented in the museum context were Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums. In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New York agreed to host an exhibition of the artist’s flowers. Steichen altered the genetic makeup of his delphiniums through the careful use of selective breeding. This longstanding technology of modifying DNA for the purpose of intensifying desirable traits in both animals and plants has been known and used by man for many centuries. Steichen’s innovation resided in his daring elevation of genetic alteration to the status of art. Thus instigated genetic art discourse was however quickly silenced by the eruption of the Second World War and rendered taboo by the Nazi eugenics movement. The art world did not return to Steichen’s proposition of genetically engineered artwork until 1988, when George Gessert exhibited his Iris Project at New Langton Arts in San Francisco.

Since then a number of artists joined the genetic art movement, bringing into the world, among other things, cloned trees, new types of plants and unique strains of e-coli bacterium. This ever growing group of artists includes Rosalind Franklin, Dennis Ashbaugh, Susanne Anker, Kevin Clarke, David Kremers and Keith Cottingam, to name just a few. Most of them focus on the visual possibilities offered by the DNA sequence, shying away from actually altering living organisms. One of the few art projects that use genetic engineering technology to create new beings was created by Natalie Jeremijenko’s in 1998. The One Trees project consisted of cloning one thousand genetically identical trees, planting them in variety of public sites in the San Francisco Bay area and documenting the developmental differences caused by their disparate environments. Jeremijenko’s work is an example of a very beautiful and subtle commentary on genetic engendering, but it fails to generate enough public attention. I believe that by pushing his experimental works to uncomfortable extremes, Eduardo Kac generates enough media attention to alert large groups of people to the possibilities of genetic engineering technology and its potential horrifying uses. Genetic Art that is more subtle and less controversial than the works of Eduardo Kac often fails to deliver its message to the world. His art is successful precisely because of the scandal it generates. The part 2 of this podcast will examine the two most notorious works of Eduardo Kac: the GFP K-9 and the GFP Bunny.

In his 1998 manifesto on Transgenic Art, Eduardo Kac proposed his first genetic art project, the never realized GFP K-9. The letters GFP standing for Green Fluorescent Protein, the substance which allows northwest pacific jelly fish to glow under phosphorescent light. According to Kac, the nature of this transgenic art project was supposed to be defined not only by the creation of a new organism, but most importantly by its relationship with the artist and the general public. The new Fluorescent dog was meant to become a member of Kac’s family, interact with humans and other dogs and potentially even become a founder of a “new transgenic lineage”. As the artist pointed out “From the perspective of interspecies communication, transgenic art calls for a dialogical relationship between artist, creature/artwork, and those who come in contact with it.” This proposed social experiment of introducing a transgenic dog to humans and other canines was never realized due to technological obstacles. At the time of Kac’s manifesto scientists were far from mapping dog genome and the means for precision work on canine morphology did not exist. There was however precedence of injecting laboratory rabbits with the GFP; the protein often being used to track specific hereditary traits or the development of diseases.

The GFP Bunny was born in the year 2000, at the INRA Institute in France. The transgenic rabbit was brought to life through the collaborative efforts of Eduardo Kac, Louis Bec, Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet. Lacking the necessary scientific knowledge the artist could instigate the creation of a transgenic animal, but for obvious reasons could not personally carry it out. After the eruption of the GFP Bunny controversy, Kac was often criticized for claiming the creation of genetic engineers as his own art. However, according to Kac’s original statement, the bunny itself was not the artwork, but merely a part of a larger artistic project. The artist did not seek to create an art object but instead wanted to recontextualize a genetically engineered animal. The GFP Bunny was an attempt to look into the future by bridging the gap between the world of scientific research and everyday domestic life.

According to the artist’s essay titled "Glow in the family", the GFP Bunny project was expected to have three phases. Phase one of the project was the creation and birth of the transgenic bunny. Phase two was the initiation of an international debate about the nature and future of genetic technology, and phase three was supposed to be the integration of the transgenic bunny into Kac’s family and its life as a pet. In anticipation of its arrival, Kac’s together with his family named the bunny “Alba” meaning dawn in Spanish. However, upsetting Kac’s original plans, Paul Vial, the director of the INRA institute were Alba was created, refused to discharge the bunny to the artist. He claimed that the rabbit belonged to the research institution, and that Kac had nothing to do with the development of what he called the “research object”. Vial’s classification of the GFP Bunny as a research object is somewhat peculiar, since from the scientific point of view it is utterly irrelevant. The fact that the entire bunny glows under a certain kind of blue light is of no use to scientific research. The trait might render it aesthetically more appealing or visually stimulating, but these considerations belong to the arena of art, not science.

Kac’s failed attempt to turn a laboratory rabbit into a house pet helps to highlight some of the problems surrounding genetic research. What the artist sees as a potential pet, the scientific establishment regards as an inert “research object” or a packet of DNA to be experimented upon. In one of his essays, Kac stated that he has no interest in crafting genetic art objects, but is instead interested in sharing social space with transgenic individuals. This duality of approach points to a very telling ideological problem. If animal bodies are considered to be mere bundles of DNA information, exposed to the exploitation of genetic science, then one must wonder if there is anything protecting the human side of the equation from equal exploitation?

Kac points out: “Every living organism has a genetic code that can be manipulated, and the recombinant DNA can be passed on to the next generations. The artist literally becomes a genetic programmer who can create life forms by writing or altering this code.” Could this signal the human body’s transition from being the focus of art work into the medium of art itself?

Kac has high hopes for the critical capabilities of his new art form. The artist believes that “Transgenic art imparts a cognitive change regarding the way we feel about and understand the very notion of life, considering it at the crossroads between belief systems, economic principles, legal parameters, political directives, cultural constructs, and scientific laws.” Kac’s GFP Bunny project was successful in engaging most of the aforementioned issues. It managed to increase public awareness of genetic technologies and generated some much-needed critical discourse. The enhancement of collective understanding of the genetic technology, did not however, translate into increased control over the direction of genetic research. The power over the "Flesh machine" has long since slipped out of the hands of general populace.

Phase three of the GFP Bunny project was eventually replaced by a number of works protesting INRA’s censorship. Kac decided to mark Alba’s absence with an Alba Flag, which continually flies in front of his home. In 2003 he published a book titled “It’s not easy being green!” containing the many responses the GFP Bunny project received around the world. The “Alba Guestbook”, installed on Kac’s website in October 2000, has served as a repository for comments and expressions of support to the cause of freeing the transgenic bunny.

One year before Alba’s birth Kac’s other transgenic project Genesis premiered at Arts Electronica in Australia and on the Internet. While the GFP Bunny project focused on the issues of interaction between transgenic organisms and society, the Genesis focused on discrediting the notion of divinely sanctioned supremacy of the human race. The famous sentence from the book of Genesis “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” served as the starting point for Kac’s new genetic experiment. The artist first translated the sentence into the dashes and dots of the Morse code, and then systematically converted them into a digital system of 0 and 1s. Using the digital values for the letters A, G, C and T, which stand for the four bases of a DNA molecule, he converted the information into a genome notation. Finally he commissioned the creation of a synthetic gene constructed according to the blueprint he devised. Kac named the resulting product “the artist’s gene” and had it combined with the DNA of e-coli bacterium. The e-coli specimens carrying his “artist’s gene were also enhanced with the GFP genes, giving them the tattletale green glow. These genetically engineered bacteria were then placed in a petri dish alongside a strain of E. coli that glowed yellow under the ultraviolet light and did not carry the genesis gene. The Internet guests of the Genesis exhibit were given the power to turn on the ultraviolet light by clicking a button, thus facilitating the mutation of the genetically altered bacteria. The temptation to alter the destiny of the microorganisms was akin to the temptation of the Eden’s serpent. A visitor to the exhibit was offered deceivingly easy power, but then was faced with the ethical dilemma of either accepting it or turning it down. As the artist remarked, “If you don’t click, you are basically choosing not to participate in the process of rewriting that passage of the Bible. If you choose to click, again, you are then quite easily changing the genetic structure of a living organism with the same ease you send an e-mail to a loved one or buy a book on Amazon”.

Steve Tomasula, who had a chance to experience the Genesis exhibit in person describes his reactions as follows: “Looking down upon this microcosm, finger on the button, it’s hard to not want to alter the bacterial garden if for no other reason than to see what will happen. Understanding that changing the bodies of the bacteria also changes the message they carry, we realize that the seduction of Genesis is also the seduction of science—word and body, art and world—all intimately linked.”

The Genesis explores the notion that biological processes are now programmable and can be reconfigured. The original text of our bodies can be rewritten to represent new ideas and concepts. At the end of the exhibit Kac translated the DNA code back into Morse code and then into English. The altered message now read: “Let aan have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that ioves ua eon the earth.”

Kac continued with the notion of reprogrammable life in his last transgenic exhibition titled The Eight Day, which he unveiled in 2001 at the Arizona State University. This installation, once again drawing on Biblical metaphors, presents the viewer with Kac’s vision of the next day of creation. Here, a new ecology of fluorescent creatures is showcased inside a four-foot diameter Plexiglas dome. Bringing together many different species used for genetic research in laboratories, Kac constructs a futuristic vision of the genetically altered world. GFP plants, GFP amoeba, GFP fish, GFP mice and a biobot occupy this fluorescent habitat. The biobot is a peculiar mixture of biology and technology, as it is outfitted with a colony of amoeba for its “brain cells”. Changes in the amoebal activity cause it to go up and down are move around the bioluminescent environment. The biobot also functions as the avatar for online participants, who are able to control its audiovisual feedback with a pan-tilt option. Though the biobot’s mediation the visitors are able to experience the fluorescent habitat from the first person perspective. An overhead camera, recording a more complete view of the “Eight Day” activities, also monitors the entire habitat.

One of the goals of the Eight Day exhibit is to bring attention to the fact that a transgenic ecology is already in place. According to Kac “Selective breeding and mutation are two key evolutionary forces, so The Eight Day literally touches on the question of transgenic evolution”. With this installation Kac prophesizes a future dominated by transgenic nature, and points out that in many ways the future is already here.

Eduardo Kac’s works emphasize the urgency of creating a critical and well-informed response to the technogical advancements taking place around us. The outward sensationalism of his works serves to draw attention to the important issues explored by Kac’s art and forces international debate about the implications of genetic engineering. By not taking a stand either for, or against genetic alteration, the artist invites us to explore the complexity of issues at hand. The general message of Kac’s art is that of concern. His works seek to remind us that humanity has to take responsibility for its actions and creations.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Andrews, Lori. The clone age: adventures in the new world of reproductive technology. New York : Henry Holt, 2000.

Anker, Suzanne and Nelkin, Dorothy. The molecular gaze: art in the genetic age. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004.

Ippolito Jon and Blais, Joline. At the edge of art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Kac, Eduardo. Telepresence & bio art: networking humans, rabbits, & robots. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: A History. New York: Knopf, 2001.

For a list of internet sources please scroll down to the bottom of the page.