Kac, Eduardo. Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, and Rabbits. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005. Pp. 317, ISBN 0-472-06810-5, Paperback, Price $ 27.95
Pramod K. Nayar
University of Hyderabad, India
When artists begin to theorize about their (or other’s) art we often end up with manifestoes. Eduardo Kac carefully avoids prescriptive comments in his collection of essays, preferring, instead, to focus on the history of techno-art and his own work. Kac begins with an essay on aesthetics and telecommunications. Moving from the futurists to the 1990s, Kac demonstrates how non-linear, multidirectional communication systems alter the role of the ‘observer’ when viewing an artifact. He argues that telematics and art can be mutually constitutive, and the very nature of the interaction between artist and observer has been altered. The Internet has radically redefined communication and social interaction. Kac shows, in his next essay, how this ‘new social space’ (59) provides a new example of public art itself, and extends the concept and practice of ‘mail art’ (a mode dating back to the Futurists). Virtual worlds especially those created by artists like Marcus Novak and Kac himself push the limits of social relationships and the act of ‘viewing’ because of greater (some might argue, lesser) degrees of interaction through networks. Virtual reality immersion artwork, made famous first by Char Davies’ Osmose, provided a different experience of the art object: viewers now participants moved through the virtual environment. A-Volve (1994, where anonymous viewers generated digital images that exhibited lifelike behaviour) asked viewers to be responsible for the organisms they create, thereby making the viewer as responsible for the artifact as the artist. In fact, as Kac demonstrates, the viewer is the artist. Most Internet art, argues Kac, is dialogical. While many art forms today are interactive, they are not always dialogical. Dialogical art seeks collaborative artwork. Shared Dolor (2000) had two participants navigating a virtual world together, holding hands. virtual environments enable such a dialogism and makes the sender-receiver system of communication irrelevant, argues Kac. Dialogic electronic art also redefines the issue of boundaries: between self and other, human and machine, sender and receiver. Self and other are increasingly complementary in such art works, argues Kac.
This is especially the case with what Kac calls ‘telepresence art’ (chapters Five and Six), where the participant, with no direct access to the remote environment ‘structures’ the space of the art object. Telepresence, defined more accurately as ‘the union of telematics and elements of remote physical action, 193) art is a whole new communication system and experience. It erases distance, creates a new kind of shared, ‘public space’ and produces a different ‘level’ of reality that calls for new forms of perception itself. Kac describes it as ‘change of place miraculously executed in extended space’ (148). Time and space two crucial components of human communication are being rendered insignificant, argues Kac. Through a study of virtual reality artworks like his own Ornitorrinco (1993), Kac posits a ‘subjective cartography’ (152), where the participant explores an alien environment through samples gathered randomly by a robot. Each participant obtains a different conception of the space as a result. In Rara Avis (1996) participants perceived a telerobotic macaw, often perceiving space from the perspective of the macaw. With such experiments using robotics (in use since the 1940s, as Kac’s history shows, 170-175), what is at stake is the issue of human cognition, human-robotic interaction and the autonomy of the robot. It also proposes a whole new way of interacting with other mammals, animals, plants and artificial beings in what Kac calls ‘net ecology’.
Developments in bioinformatics links biology with information technology, and influence much of Kac’s own recent work. Like Stelarc, whose work with robotics and computer technology has redefined ‘body art’, Kac argues that biotelematics and biorobotics enable us to expand the limits of the human form and body. Kac’s own (controversial) work in GFP Bunny, Genesisi, The Eighth Day and other ‘transgenic art’ is the subject of the last essays in the collection. Kac’s use of synthetic genes into an organism to create special characteristics (the famous ‘glowing’ rabbit, for instance) creates ‘chimeras’ traditionally imaginary creatures that are now created in laboratories through genetic engineering. Kac argues that such art calls for new forms of intersubjectivity, new definitions of ‘nature’ and new notions of ‘otherness’.
Contemporary art in people like Eduardo Kac revives the etymology of ‘technology’: ‘technē’, which meant ‘craft’ before splitting along the lines of ‘technology’ and ‘art’. Kac’s work with transgenic art and telematics has often explored the limits of cognition, alterity (where does the self end and the other begin?), nature and communication. Using art to interrogate notions of the body, skin, communication (sometimes quite literally, as Stelarc and the French cosmetic surgery artist, Orlan) Kac redefines ‘aesthetics’ itself, for new forms of art and new forms of perceiving art require new aesthetics. Issues of scale from molecules and genes to the Martian surface and deep space inform our perceptions, and it is scale that comes in for some drastic reordering in such art, as Kac’s essays demonstrate. Curiously, Kac has little to say on that most subjective of human experiences: pain. Elaine Scarry (1985) has shown how pain is the ‘limit experience’ of the human. Feminist work on the body (Bordo 1993, Davis 1995) has often pointed to this critical component of ‘being human’, even when involved in transcending the body. Others like Cornelia Hesse-Honegger (2001) have explored genetic mutations and art while asking significant questions about the painful, pain-giving, reordering of nature. Many of the telematic and telepresence art forms require hooks, wiring and implantations. While it may alter cognition and our subjective response to the world, this is preceded by the most unshareable unless one wants to print out pain as a graph of (cognitive) experiences, pain. It is ironic that Stelarc, Orlan and others choose to omit discussions of this important aspect of our life. Kac, while being careful to address ethical questions, especially in his discussion of transgenic art, also embodies this same fault.
The book, however, remains a useful history (and partially, a defence) of telematic art and cutting-edge experimentation with bodies, forms and technology. Kac’s linear narrative surely an ironic ordering, considering that he is exploring multi-layered and random ‘sequences’! provides a lucid introduction to the technology, art, and critical thinking on what is surely one of the most radical miscegenations in human history: of biology and informational science, with both being recast in art.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Davis, Kathy. Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Hesse-Honegger, Cornelia. Heteroptera, The beautiful and the Other, or, Images of a Mutating World. Tr. Christine Luisi, ed. Liz Jobey. Zurich and New York: Scalo, 2001.
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