Excerpted from:
Ziarek, Krzysztof. The Force of Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 60-102.

Aesthetics, power, and poiesis in Eduardo Kac's work: The intrinsic possibility of a turn

Among the most recent developments in technologically facilitated and inspired artworks, it is the transgenic art of Eduardo Kac that explicitly renders visible, plays with, and questions the increasingly thin and problematic boundary between art and technology.  While most discussion of Kac’s recent work has focused on the social and ethical implications of genetic manipulation, what is most significant about his projects from the point of view of aesthetics is his exploration of the fluctuating, sometimes vanishing, boundary between art and technology.  At the same time that some of his works appear to fuse art and technology, to erase the border between aesthetics and science, they also, on other levels, reopen this very debate and remark all the more forcefully the significance of this difference.  At its most “extreme,” Kac’s art renounces the ideas of representation and mimesis and moves toward associating artistic with biological creation.  In fact, Kac goes so far as to end his essay describing the parameters and goals of his GFP Bunny  by equating the creativity of the new art with the literal creation of life:  “At last, transgenic art can contribute to the field of aesthetics by opening up the new symbolic and pragmatic dimension of art as the literal creation of and responsibility for life.”36   

The “artistic” production of Alba, Kac’s green fluorescent protein bunny,” genetically engineered through transfer of the gene responsible for fluorescence from a jellyfish into an albino rabbit, therefore seems (notwithstanding Kac’s insistence that the key element of the artwork is the important social and ethical discussion generated by Alba’s creation) indistinguishable from the scientific, technological deployment of the powers of genetic engineeering in the service of creating new, transspecies forms of life.  The social, ethical, and aesthetic issues raised by transgenic art are far too numerous and complex to address here;  there has already been a flood of essays, articles, and responses to Kac’s provocative works and statements, both in artistic journals and in the popular media.  The discussion so far does indeed testify to the importance, innovation, and suggestive character of Kac’s GFP Bunny, but it is quite telling that most of it has centered on ethical and social questions regarding integration of and respect for new, transgenic forms of life, as opened up by the breeding of a unique, fluorescent rabbit.  That is, the “aesthetic” question - the question of whether and how GFP Bunny is (or is not) a work of art - has been relegated to the background instead of occupying a central place.  One could also ask whether art is actually needed in order to generate the kind of discussion, no doubt crucial and imperative, that has been going on around Kac’s work, or whether those questions do not in fact arise from the very premises, objectives, and capabilities of genetic technology.  Kac’s work has clearly energized and accelerated the pace of such discussion, and it has contributed new insights that the scientific community itself perhaps would not have provided, but this in itself does not make GFP Bunny a work of art.  Where GFP Bunny remains indisputably critical is in its manifestation of the fragility of the boundary between technology and art, between technoscientific and artistic powers.  In a way, Alba is a new icon for the possibility (inevitability?) of art’s fusion with technology, which was already tantalizing the Italian Futurists almost a century ago.

In the context of this thinning boundary, it seems legitimate and necessary to ask whether and to what extent transgenic art is complicit with the manipulative flows of power or whether, on the contrary, it exposes, complicates, or perhaps even contests them.  In Aesthetic Theory and otheer writings, Adorno analyzed the complicity with and contestation of commodification by modernist art.  Now that art has moved directly onto the level of genetic manipulation, the question of its complicity/contestation has been transferred into the heart, so to speak, of contemporary technical manifestations of power.  Is the awareness of the uniqueness of the “created” animal, the context of its social needs, a complication or a contestation of the very manipulation the artist used to create Alba?  To make the engineering marvel into an artwork, is it enough to debate, in the context of GFP Bunny, the significance of interconnections, social acceptability, and intersubjectivity?37  Is the rapprochement between art and science/technology in Kac’s work dissimilar from the momentum of Duchamp’s ready-mades?  Obviously, the technology is notably different - from mass-produced objects to the possibility of mass production of engineered/altered life forms - and so are the ethical and political dilemmas associated with it.  Yet, aesthetically speaking, are we not still within the horizon of avant-garde questioning about whether the forcework at stake in art - in spite of, or perhaps because of, art’s fascination with modern technology - remains different from and critical of the technological deployment of power that is regulative of modern life?  Without adjudicating these questions, I would like to focus the discussion on the boundary between art and technology, and on the possible turn within technicity intimated by Kac’s work.  Kac’s art remains critically important here because, even beyond the explicit intentions stated in his texts on GFP Bunny and Genesis (discussed below), it keeps this question open and thus keeps technicity in question by pointing to the intrinsic possibility of a turn within it.

This questioning, as already suggested, is evident in Genesis, another of Kac’s transgenic artworks.38  Genesis uses a constructed “art” gene to interfere with and literally illuminate the process and the powers at work in genetic engineering.  To “create” his “art gene,” Kac took the famous statement from the biblical book of Genesis about human domination over the world - “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all creatures that crawl upon the land” - and translated it through a double processs into a DNA sequence.  First he transposed the sentence into Morse code, and then, converting the Morse code into its equivalents in the genetic alphabet of Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine, he retranslated the passage into a DNA sequence.  The “art gene” was then inserted into fluorescent E. coli bacteria living in a petri dish, whose mutation was further influenced by Internet users who could turn on and off a light source illuminating the dish.   The dish was then placed in an art gallery, with its magnified projection on one wall, the DNA sequence of the “art gene” displayed on another, and the biblical passage quoted on a third.39  An Adornian question posed to Kac’s Genesis would probably read like this:  does the “art gene” create/mutate in a way that undoes the domination and manipulation at the very basis of genetic technology?  No doubt Kac’s gene, much like the techniques of genetic  engineering itself, “creates” a new being, but in its manner of creation it also discloses technoscientific manipulation and even calls it into question.

Since the “art” gene is produced from the biblical quotation that gives humans the directive to control, manipulate, and exploit “nature,” Kac’s Genesis begins to function as a parody of the anthropocentric conception of being, with the manipulative power placed at the center of existence.

Moreover, Kac’s gene cannot help recall Tristan Tzara’s idea, from his Dada manifestos, that Dada is a virgin microbe.  For Tzara, Dada was the invasion of a radical avant-garde poiesis into  rationality and logic, an outbreak of a-logicality which called Enlightenment rationality into question, interacted with it, and transformed it beyond recognition, thus “freeing” life from its organic disease”- logic.  Kac’s “art gene’ is art literally inserted into genetic material, “illuminating” it (through the fluorescence of the bacteria and the projected lighting) and transposing it from within. 

While Dadaism tried to alter the very momentum of relationality, transforming the overly “logical” and “rational” charge of experience, Genesis literally “manipulates” and modifies the technnological manipulation of being.  It  demonstrates and enacts the extreme closeness between the power of information technologies and genetic engineering, on the one hand, and artistic power, on the other.  At the same time, the “art gene” not only lays bare but also, using literal genetic transposition as its conduit, alters the very modality of power that makes possible and operates in genetic engineering, giving genetic power a different momentum.  In a way, the power is still the same - it is the power to transfer genes and engineer transgenic life forms - and yet its momentum appears to be different:  geared no longer just to manipulation, that is, to further intensification of the reach of power into the microelements of being, but rather to the possibility of a different, “artistic” disposition of forces. 

 The most important and interesting aspect of Kac’s work is this constant highlighting/erasure of the boundary between artistic and technical techné, between genetic engineering and the “art gene”. Beyond the celebration, excitement,  and fears brought about by the information and genetic “revolutions,” in the midst of their modern, seemingly limitless, deployments of power, Kac's work keeps alive - literally, in the case of Genesis and GFP Bunny - the possibility of a critical turning.

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