If a rabbit could talk, what would it say to you?
In year 2000, artist Eduardo Kac created his beloved GFP Bunny, Alba. Since regarded as a classic of transgenic art, Alba was produced via genetic engineering techniques that transferred EGFP, a synthetic mutation of the wild-type fluorescent gene found in a jellyfish, into a rabbit egg. The result was a nonpigmented albino bunny – distinctly white with soft, pink eyes – who glowed fluorescent green under the correct blue light. As photogenic as she was transgenic, Alba was an icon, and instigated debate the world over.
In neon contrast to much institutional, academic or even mainstream response to art, however, this GFP debate had a very particular character. Alba was referenced by figures such as Michael Crichton, creator of Jurassic Park, and Margaret Atwood, of Oryx and Crake fame, was in tabloid newspapers, and appeared on television shows like The Big Bang Theory; people across ages, professions and persuasions responded to Alba. Kac had always identified three stages to his GFP Bunny project: the birth, in collaboration with zoosystemicians and scientists, of Alba in Jouy-en-Josas, France; the scientific and media debate that Alba provoked; and his and his family's experience of living with Alba. Yet discursive response to the GFP Bunny had exploded beyond expectation: the transgenic rabbit was a celebrity. Residing in Paris in the mid-2000s, Kac was confronted with a question. How might Alba, vicariously, participate in this debate?
The Lagoglyph Series became his answer – a suite of artworks developed since 2006 in which Kac, feeding back into this ongoing media discourse, has created, with Alba, a “rabbitographic” form of communication. (“Rabbitographic” is aportmanteau typical of the artist, who believes that new ideas merit new terms in turn.) Four strains can so far be identified in this series.
The first of these “leporimorphic” artworks (another Kacism) are Lagoglyphs: The Bunny Variations (2007). Forming the pictographic basis of the lagolyphs, these are strictly comprised of one green (fluorescent under the right light) and one black component that overlay to form an image of Alba. Appearing like rabbit runes, or a postnuclear graffiti, they were developed from a suite of 800 initial hand-painted designs produced by Kac between 2006 and 2007. Silkscreened onto paper in clusters of 12 to make The Bunny Variations, they are editions of 50, reminiscent of pages of script. Yet this is a script postulating an inverted, warped and artfully expressionistic language. Language, in everyday use, is predicated on a fixed series of signs (26, in the case of the ISO basic Latin alphabet) which produce an endless semantic field – a single alphabet allows us to say almost anything. The Bunny Variations work oppositely. They refer always to Alba – an inversely singular semantic field – yet do so via a range of infinite, eternally mutable, signs.
Perhaps then they do a better job representing the inherent flux of language than conventional alphabets – though any stasis in “conventional” language is fiction: think emoticon, kaomoji, emoji; language, even on a material level, is always changing. Such mutability is reiterated by Kac in Lagoglyph Animation (2009). Constituting a custom software that operates in real time, Lagoglyph Animation takes Kac’s 800 original lagoglyph designs as the basis for a parametric animation. Never repeating itself, parametric animations blend existing animations together to create something new. As Lagoglyph Animation's parameters can be changed while it runs, nothing is fixed; it evolves continuously. Like a constantly cycling and morphing vernacular, it suggests a boundlessness to language – grounded in transgenic experimentation rather than the anthropocentric essentialism of the Enlightenment.
In 2010 the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Although relatively small for volcanic eruptions, the event nonetheless caused widespread disruption, with air travel infrastructure paralysed from Europe outwards. Stranded overseas, Kac was struck by the mediated character of this natural event, as a local explosion was amplified to have massive global consequences. As an experience that dwarfed any individual human action in scale, Kac found the fallout of Eyjafjallajökull to be humbling, and, perhaps looking to occupy himself before he could travel again, began work on the Volcano Paintings (2010). Hybrid combinations of digital and analogue techniques, these erupted the rabbitographic lagoglyphs into the shape of an explosion. On one level direct celebrations of ink on paper, they represent only the 'lava' of the explosion, with volcanic landscape absent. They are parables that recognize media as something measured by effect as much as by initial form, that is to say, as something that is quintessentially “trans-” (“across” or “beyond') rather than pertaining to static or unchanging form. They translate Alba from 'rabbit' into new, generative, and molten matter.
The Lagoglyph Series is a lively example, perhaps, of what critic Brian Droitcour terms “liquid poetry,” defined as language that “appears through a network over time as a flow rather than in the discrete increments required by print.” Yet what of lava, and language alike, when it solidifies into the concrete? Is hard condensed matter a teleological endpoint of form, or another transitionary stage? Forming the fourth (but not final) permutation of the Lagoglyph Series is Lagoglyph Porcelain (2011), with which the series emerges into three-dimensional space. Comprised of black and handmixed-green layers making up Alba's rabbit outline, they are rendered in highly fragile porcelain. Porcelain is usually put through a kiln once; these were fired four times to account for their being comprised primarily of holes. Though three-dimensional, they embody a quantum precarity not unlike that of a liquid: they are at once matter and air, as if threatening to revert to dust or pure idea.
Where do we end, then, traveling across and beyond Kac's lagolyphs? Playfully recursive, the lagolyphs emerge from Kac's own GFP Bunny, both feeding back into and outgrowing their origin story. Along the way they provide a blithe commentary on the movement and mutability of language—although to an extent we depend heavily on the continuity of tools like the page or the alphabet, these are by no means static forms, but rather specific contestations of matter and discourse (something Kac is well positioned to comment on through his longstanding overlap in interest between experimental art and experimental poetry). Just as genome transfers might question interspecies boundaries within fields of art, ethics and science, so might experimentation with the presentation of language break similar ground within semantic fields.
Language is a rabbit hole; Alba a rabbit, whole.
Harry Burke is a writer and is Assistant Curator at Artists Space, New York.