ART -- WEIRD SCIENCE
When certain men get drunk they see little green men. Even sober Eduardo Kac dreams about a little green bunny. Kac -- an artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- is leading a movement using genetic technologies to create art. For his latest work, GFP Bunny, he created a living green rabbit. With the assistance of French scientists, Kac used genetic engineering to inject a rabbit zygote with the green fluorescent protein gene --hence the work's name -- that exists in jellyfish. The result: a lovable bunny named Alba, whose fur -- under optimum frequency blue light -- glows green.
As the first artist to tinker with the development of a mammal, the 38-year-old Kac has sparked an international controversy about whether his actions were ethical, and even whether Alba should be considered art at all. The conflict bothers Kac. His goal is to stimulate public debate about biotechnology. "If artists ignore these issues," he says, "if we don't take charge and use these technological media to raise questions about contemporary life, who is going to do that?"
Kac boasts an impressive body of work that is both a tribute to and a criticism of technology He has experimented with holography, computers, robotics, the Internet and medical procedures in his exhibitions. His works are part of the collections at the Museum of Modem Art in New York, the Museum of Holography in Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, among others. Last year, he won a prestigious Japanese art award, the Inter-Communication Center Biennale Award.
While Kac is the first artist to create a genetically altered mammal, he is not alone in his passion for genetic art. Last September in Linz, Austria, hundreds of artists from around the world gathered with internationally renowned scientists, historians, philosophers, and ethicists to learn about genetic technologies and their social impact. While in Linz, Kac mounted a controversial exhibition called Genesis. He took a sentence from Genesis in the Bible: "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." He then translated it into Morse code, which gave him four characters -- dots, dashes, letter spaces, and word spaces. Next he converted each of the Morse code characters in the quotation into one of the four letters of the genetic code.
Then, with the help of a Chicago geneticist, Charles Strom, he had a biotech company actually make the gene. In the Linz exhibition, the bacteria containing the gene in a petri dish were projected by video onto a wall. Viewers from around the world could log onto the Internet and, by clicking their mouse, cause ultraviolet light to flash on the gene, causing it to mutate. The exhibition underscored how easy it was for anyone to get access to the building blocks of life, with no questions asked. But that is exactly one of Kac's goals -- to force the viewer to think about the current Alice in Wonderland world of unregulated biotechnology.
Finding a scientist to help him with his next project, the genetically modified rabbit, was not easy. He e-mailed researchers around the world until Louis-Marie Houdebine, a well-known animal researcher from a prestigious French institute, agreed to produce the bunny for him. "I will never forget the moment when I first held [Alba] in my arms," says Kac. "She immediately awoke in me a strong and urgent sense of responsibility for her well-being." He intends to make the bunny a part of his family, living in Oak Park with them after her initial exhibit as a work of art. His wife, Ruth, and four-year-old daughter, Miriam, helped name her.
Animal and human rights activists and religious groups protest that it is unethical for scientists or artists to play god by inserting the genes from one species into another. Kac responds that he has merely taken a step further in what has long been acceptable genetic manipulation. For centuries man has bred animals -- such as dogs -- for aesthetic traits, he argues. Monks in the sixth century bred rabbits to create certain colors and qualities in their fur. Kac also claims the procedure used to create Alba was safe. After all, he maintains, genes from other species are added to mice and rabbits all the time in medical research, without apparent ill effect on the animals.
The opposition to his work came to a head this summer. GFP Bunny was due to appear in June at an arts festival in Avignon, France, where Kac planned to put Alba on exhibition in the city's cultural center. There, he had transformed an exhibition space into a cozy living room, including a couch, where he would live with Alba for a week. By doing so, he hoped to convey the idea that biotechnologies are on their way to entering our lives at the most basic level: in our private homes. Shortly before the exhibition date, though, the head of the institute where Alba had been engineered refused to let the rabbit leave, perhaps fearing the public protest and the scrutiny of genetic engineering that such a show would ignite.
"Many molecular biologists do their work in private and pretend it does not have social impact, yet the technologies they develop -- such as genetic engineering -- will eventually enter the entire society," says Kac. "By denying Alba presence in the exhibit, the institute director is trying to keep everything in the lab under wraps and impede debate."
This is not the first time genetic art has been censored. In the 1930s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited plants that had been bred especially for aesthetic qualities. In 1936, they mounted an exhibition of delphiniums bred by the photographer Edward Steichen. The Nazi eugenics movement -- the attempt to breed people like plants or animals --put a stop to museums interest in the use of genetic concepts by artists. Museums did not want to glorify selective breeding, or appear to be endorsing anything like eugenics.
Similar concerns are raised about Kac's work. Will it help foster a new eugenics, where all of biology becomes a set of tinkertoys? Kac acknowledges the controversial elements of his art, but his immediate concern is to try to liberate Alba. "I believe that bringing her out in the public is the best way to stimulate the sort of intense, emotionally charged discussion that is necessary about genetic technologies," says Kac. If his negotiations with the French research institute succeed, he will bring Alba to Chicago for an exhibition at Chicago-Kent College of Law on September 18th, with a panel discussion in the afternoon. Then the greenglowing bunny will retire from public life and join her new family in Oak Park.
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