FLOW, 07.06.01 <http://flow.electrolyte.net/takeover/sub_kac.html>

"You know, I would like to glow" - transgenic art from Euduardo Kac ::

Andreas Hirsch

With his transgenic art projects Eduardo Kac closely touches on many sensitive issues around genetic engineering and sparks discussions with his glowing bunny "Alba".

When Brazilian-born and Chicago-based conceptual artist Eduardo Kac presents his transgenic art projects - among which he has animals genetically engineered so that they glow in the dark - it may happen that he afterwards is
approached by people telling him: "You know, I would like to glow."

While Alba - that is the rabbit made to glow in 2000 as part of the project GFP BUNNY - probably didn't express that wish, it has meanwhile become quite notorious in the middle of a heated discussion on genetic engineering.

Eduardo Kac - a Ph.D. research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at the University of Wales, Newport/United Kingdom and Assistant Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago - is an artist who investigates the philosophical and political dimensions of communications processes. For instance in his 1997 project "Time Capsule" he had an identification chip injected in his leg, which he claims is still there. Equally concerned with the aesthetic and the social aspects of verbal and non-verbal interaction, in his work Kac examines linguistic systems, dialogic exchanges, and interspecies communication. He works with electronic and photonic media, including telepresence, holography, computers, video, robotics and the Internet, as well as biological
systems such as animals, plants, bacteria, and organic tissue.

The actual story of the "glowing creatures" reaches further back to the project "Genesis" that Eduardo Kac presented in the context of Ars Electronica 1999, which was devoted to "Life Science". "Genesis" explored the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics and the Internet. The point of
departure was an artist's gene, a synthetic gene which does not exist in nature. Kac took a quote from the book of Genesis (hence the name): "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." This line was then translated into Morse Code, which was then translated into DNA base pairs. The cloning of the synthetic gene in plasmides, subsequently feeding them into bacteria, and the retranslation of the verse back into English at the end of the exhibition provided a glimpse into the processes of transgenic interbacterial communication. The boundaries between carbon-based life and digital data thus were shown becoming as thin as a cell membrane.

In october 1999 Tom Abate with his article "Artist Proposes Using Jellyfish Genes to Create Glow-in-the-Dark Dogs" in the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE sparked a debate in the rhizome-maiLing-list, where the the feeling prevailed, that Kac was crossing territory artists hadn't crossed before, and participants showed concern about art now moving on from digital art to the next hip thing that would then be transgenic art. By that step, art would be going too far, using living beings like a "medium" in their art. The discussion clearly showed the importance of the issues and - as one participant
noted - the fear of the post-biological being as replacing the fear of the machine.

Kac himself previously had stated in the Ars Electronica festival magazine, that "since the early 1960s we have been discussing the social impact of computer technology and since the early 1980s we have been living the digital revolution. Now, as we move into the twenty-first century, we realize the importance of biological processes for both art and technology. The field of biological studies is changing from a life science into an information science. Biosemiotics, for example, is an interdisciplinary science that studies communication and signification in living systems. Biotechnologies are introducing complex ethical issues, such as the patenting and sale of genes from foreign peoples. Genetic engineering is transforming forever how society approaches the notion of 'life'. The use of genetics in art
offers a reflection on these new developments from a social and ethical point of view. It foregrounds related relevant issues such as the domestic and social integration of transgenic animals, arbitrary delineation of the concept of
"normalcy" through genetic testing, enhancement and therapy, and the serious dangers of eugenics.

The use of genetics in art also opens up a whole new world of possibilities to artists committed to the investigation of the cultural impact of new technologies. Transgenic art, I propose, is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings."

In the meantime the story of Alba has developed further, as Christopher Dickey in his article "I Love My Glow Bunny" in WIRED magazine this spring tried to explore. Dickey also shed light on certain differences between the US and Europe in relation to the discussions held on genetic engineering and the public's mind - also in the light of BSE, CJD - on the issues involved.

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