Originally published in Activa, N. 8, December 2000, Milan, pp. 104-111.

Art and Genetics

Simone Menegoi

If you were to see a phosphorescent green rabbit, what would your reaction be? And more specifically: would you think you were observing a work of art? Whatever may be the response (probably negative...), the question is not futile. And for two reasons. The first is that such a rabbit does indeed exist. It is a female named “Alba” that was born in a genetics laboratory in Jouy-en-Josas (France) last February. Under normal lighting conditions Alba looks like a common white rabbit with pink eyes. However, when Alba is placed under a blue lamp she radiates a green fluorescence. The other reason that makes the question pertinent lies in the fact that the complex scientific operation that led to the birth of Alba was commissioned by an American artist of Brazilian origins, Eduardo Kac (1962) who recently presented his “work” at an exhibition focusing on art, technology and society, the Ars Electronica of Linz (September 2 through 7, 2000).
In reality, Alba’s existence had been announced before the Linz show. Kac had spoken about her for the first time on May 14 in San Francisco at the “Planet Work” exhibition. However, the news abtained worldwide coverage only last September when it got to the first page of the Boston Globe (on the 17th) and when Peter Jennings spoke about her on his ABC TV programme (on the 18th). It was at this point that the fundamental terms of the issue were revealed.

Alba is a genetically modified organism whose DNA has been enriched by a gene that can produce EGFP (Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein), an enhanced version of the substance that confers luminescence to the medusas of the Pacific Aequorea Victoria). It is disquieting to know that this manipulation is not new in genetics: since many years there are bacteria, plants and even mice that have been artificially endowed with this fluorescence. Alba is simply the largest and most complex mammal having this characteristic. And, of course, the only one to be a work of art.

If the Case of the Green Rabbit has had such a wide resonance the reason also lies in this fact. In commenting Alba, Kac in fact spoke about “Transgenic Art”, a very new discipline of which the cute rodent is arguably the most impressive result but definitely not the first (as we will see) nor certainly the last. And the clamour is perfectly understandable. The serious and well-founded concerns over the recent developments in genetic biology are combined in this case with a radical doubt relating to the objectives set. Whoever assesses the risks of genetic experimentation and the objections moved against also very carefully weighs the advantages that may arise, especially in the areas of therapy and food. But in this case there does not appear to be any advantages whatsoever: the advantages are replaced by a dubious and controversial aesthetic finality.
The “GFP Bunny” project, however, is more complex than how it appears at first glance. The intentions, at least, may be more acceptable. First of all, Kac assures that the genetic modification does not jeopardise the rabbit’s health nor does it affect its longevity or its ability to interact with other members of its species, as has been amply testified by in-depth experiments on other species. (It should be noted that these experiments, however, have not been specifically commissioned by the artist). Kac, in addition, denies that he had set a purely “aesthetic” finality as it is currently understood. In other words, his aim was not to create an object belonging to the domain of art by virtue of its beauty. The artist explained that this objective was not particularly original: it has been pursued since times immemorial with traditional means such hybridisation and selective breeding in order to obtain very familiar ornamental plants or domestic animals. Today, with the biotech means available, a similar approach could lead to a eugenic drift whose effects cause concern also to Kac himself.
On the contrary, the objective, as the artist claims, was to create a transgenic subject with whom a concrete and ideal relationship could be established - a relationship that could modify the way we conceive genetics. The birth of Alba is but the beginning of an artistic project that includes her adoption as a pet in the Kac household and the fostering of a discussion around this topic (and with success too, as this article proves).

In this debate Kac does not present himself as a champion of biotechnology. He simply does not refuse a priori its utilisation, at the same time, generating a strong awareness around its theoretical and practical consequences. One of these, for example, is the necessity to critically reconsider the concepts behind the idea of “artificial” and “natural”. Alba, of course, is not a “natural” creature but then again, nor are albino rabbits, for only selective breeding or rearing in protected conditions have allowed this spontaneous genetic variation to prosper. Albino rabbits - explains Kac - could not survive in nature, for the lack of pigmentation would make them an easy prey for predators. Though the difference between selective breeding and genetic manipulation is enormous, the example forcefully clarifies how wrong it is to elevate to mythical status the idea of “uncontaminated nature” considered as an environment - flora and fauna - that man over the centuries has modified to suit his requirements.

Even the idea that genetic legacy is the decisive factor for the destiny of a living creature, regardless of the concrete circumstances that are around it, has come under discussion.
Alba, in fact, suggests that a green rabbit - a monster according to common sense - that grows up as a pampered pet will arguably have a more harmonious, “natural”, existence than a common, non-transgenic, animal that grows up in an industrial farm.

Kac says that he had chosen chromatic modification because it is ambiguous. In fact, under normal conditions the modification is invisible, thus it is at the same time drastic and minimal, radical and non-influential. By sweeping away alarmist expectations, this modification beckons more subtle considerations regarding genetic “normality”, its alteration and consequences.

To conclude, Kac stressed that the absence of economic calculation is a fundamental aspect of his art. If the dangers arising from bio-engineering derive from its indiscriminate utilisation for profit making ventures - as amply testified by the bitter controversy over transgenic agriculture - its use for non-profit initiatives, conducted as an innocuous quest for knowledge, could turn out to be if not the example at least the hope for a possible alternative.

Fine, then. But are we assured? I don’t think so, and, I guess, not even Kac pretends it. Everything he says is backed by a solid scientific and philosophical preparation (the artist writes for “Leonardo” the US magazine that focuses on the relationship between science and art) and opens out doubts, contradictions and paradoxes.

And a paradox it most certainly is when he sustains the necessity to drastically re-think the relationship between the animal man with other animals, to liberate him from the anthropocentric hypothesis and to do so with biotechnology, by far the most potent tool ever devised by man to modify nature to his will. Genetic engineering, affirms the artist, by transferring human genes in animals - already a reality and not science fiction - expands the sphere of what we consider as “human”, forces us to consider them as being similar to us and thus to change our attitude towards them. But we know that the experiments he refers to are primarily carried out to create transplant organs for humans: the animals that are thus modified are considered simply as organ producers. (And by the way, there is strong suspicion that these organs may actually produce mutant viruses with unpredictable consequences...).

And naturally all this without in the least stating the question that interest us most: let us admit that Kac’s green rabbit is a work of art, but can we affirm that it is interesting?

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