GENETICS IN ART: A GLOWING CONTROVERSY?
By ANNE RUETER
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Alba in ordinary light looks like millions of other white albino rabbits.
But she's a bit of a jellyfish too.
Thanks to a modified jellyfish gene inserted in her genetic code, she
appears a shocking green under ultraviolet light. But the real shock lies
not in the science ? scientists have inserted the same or similar
fluorescence genes in many plants and creatures including mammals. Rather,
it's Alba's highly unusual mission: art object.
In the unfolding revolution in genetics, Eduardo Kac sees artists as key
generators of needed public debate.
"We have always talked about art as life," he says. "It's a literal
embodiment of this figure of speech."
Kac, who lives in Chicago, had French scientists produce Alba to hop along
a controversial science frontier, bringing tough issues raised by genetic
advances into sharp relief with his proverbial artist's brush. Kac produces
what he terms transgenic art ? art that uses the tools of genetic
engineering to produce new life forms. He and other artists increasingly
seek to e'plore the marvels and ethical dilemmas of emerging genetic
On Friday on the University of Michigan central campus, Kac will give a
talk, free and open to the public, on "Telepresence, Biotelematics,
Transgenic Art," followed by a panel discussion with two U-M scientists (see
related story) and a question-and-answer period for the audience.
Art professor Michael Rodemer says he proposed bringing Kac as a lecturer in
the art school's Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series "because
he's doing some of the most innovative art work in the world." The U-M Life
Sciences Values and Society Program and the Arts of Citizenship Program are
also sponsoring the talk and panel discussion.
There's little doubt that Kac's foray into genetics makes some people
uncomfortable. "What he's done so far in my view is harmless," says Rodemer.
"Some people think it's not OK and is frivolous and a waste of the
"I think it raises issues about what do we do with our technology, and what
should we do with it?" Artist ventures into genetics like Kac's will be
rare, Rodemer believes, because the work is e'pensive and difficult.
Art can raise public awareness of what it means to live with transgenic
animals, in use in science labs and agriculture for more than a decade, and
what it may mean to be transgenic ourselves through gene therapy, says Kac.
"Right now the discussion on genetics is very technocratic. But it's
obviously in the level of our personal space that we're go to e'perience
In his 20-year career Kac has e'plored what he calls "telepresence," the
coupling of telerobotics with telecommunications, and has focused on the
implications of many electronics advances.
When he turned a few years ago to genetic engineering to create art, he
sought public debate, and he has gotten it. In Paris, his rabbit led to
public discussions with a monk and a scientist. In the United States, his
work has drawn out scientists and the public to ponder the implications of
new genetic knowledge.
"This is a very important part of the project for me," he says.
The genes transferred into a living being to create a new one can be
synthetic, designed by the artist. In an earlier transgenic art work titled
"Genesis," Kac took the biblical verse " 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," converted it to Morse code and then a DNA sequence
which he had synthesized in a lab. The sequence was then incorporated in
bacteria, now on display in a Pittsburgh gallery. Kac intends the e'hibit to
symbolize that the verse's premise of dominion is dubious and mutable in
Through a link from his Web site, people anywhere can interact with the
colony of bacteria and influence its future genetic makeup by activating
ultraviolet light in the gallery.
The work, he says, is about "using technology to e'plore notions of
For a second transgenic project, Kac contracted with French scientists to
create Alba by inserting a modified jellyfish fluorescence gene into a
fertilized rabbit egg. Implanted in a surrogate mother, the transgenic
rabbit was born early last year.
The way Kac proposed to use the rabbit was unorthodo'. He conceived the GFP
Bunny project, (named for the green fluorescent protein used in Alba) with
three facets: First, he would create Alba, then use the rabbit as a catalyst
for public debate on ethical issues in genetic engineering, then demonstrate
responsible care of transgenic beings by bringing her home to live with his
He's now in the public phase, giving talks at Berkeley, UCLA, U-M and other
stops, though he's unable to have his transgenic rabbit physically present.
"The debate becomes part of the work," he says. At his Web site,
www.ekac.org, Kac has an Alba guest book where visitors can register their
His plans to bring Alba before audiences ran amok when an administrator at
the institute in Avignon where she was created decided not to allow Kac to
take her to talks or later to his home as planned. Through talks and
interviews in France, he continues to press for permission to bring the
rabbit to public audiences and ultimately demonstrate the care he says
humans should give their transgenic creations.
"The idea is to transform us from consumers of these genetic concepts to
producers of discourse," Kac says.
Back to Kac Web