She keeps glowing and glowing...
Sunday, October 1, 2000
A Chicago artist recently conceived of the most controversial piece on the art scene a rabbit injected with a jellyfish gene while still an embryo in a French laboratory making it glow an eerie green.
Eduardo Kac, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, entitled
his creation GFP Bunny.
He envisions taking the rabbit, named Alba, home to his wife and daughter as a kind of
performance-art pet whose every cell glows green when under a blue or ultra-violet light.
"The day that this happens will be magical. I'm so looking forward to it," the 38-year-old
Argentine-born Kac said. "Her temperament is quite docile and gentle."
While an embryo, French scientists inserted the jellyfish gene that produces Green
Fluorescent Protein (GFP) to make Alba glow.
Because of the highly experimental nature of the procedure, the reunion may not take place,
and should not, according to many within the scientific community.
"While (Alba) raises interesting questions, I think it steps over a line. I don't think we should
be manipulating complex organisms in the name of art," said New York Medical College
biologist Arthur Newman, a member of the U.S. Council for Responsible Genetics.
In a jellyfish, the gene instructs cells to produce the green-glowing protein that serves as a
mode of communication in the darkness of the deep ocean. But when inserted into the
one-celled rabbit embryo that grew into Alba, it could have had unknown disruptive effects,
No responsible laboratory would release Alba to an individual as a pet, he added.
Concept Originally a Glowing Dog
Kac first proposed the idea before a gathering of hundreds of colleagues at the international
assemblage Ars Electronica in Austria as a genetically engineered, glowing dog called
"The audience was silent," Kac told the San Francisco Chronicle.
However, some fellow artists found Kac's idea intriguing, such as Staci Boris, a curator at
Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
"I was sort of blown away by the idea, but I didn't expect it to come to fruition," Boris said.
"(Kac) liked the idea of it being different and familiar at the same time."
"I believe he is an artist," Boris added. "Ten years ago there wasn't anything called Web art
using a computer. Now people accept it as art. He's pushing the boundaries between art and
life, where art is life."
While not the first artist to employ live animals in his work Boris cited a 1960s-era
exhibition of live pigs by Chinese artist Xu Bing Kac is at the forefront of this particular
aspect of science and aesthetics, she said.
"People go to extremes to create something provocative, but a lot of scientists are blind to the
effect of progress," she said. "Kac is involved in the discussion. He's a unique presence in the
Artist Desires Neither Animosity Nor Publicity
Kac is eager to discuss the philosophical and scientific undertones of his work indeed he
considers encouraging such discussion his goal although he insists that nothing could be
further from his intentions than to start a media frenzy.
Eduardo Kac with Alba; the bunny only
glows green under blue or ultra-violet light.
"My goal is not to create some kind of social animosity for publicity's sake. I want to know
what it's like to live with a transgenic being," Kac said, adding he was surprised that GFP
Bunny had created such a media furor.
For 20 years, Kac said he has examined how art and viewer communicate with interactive,
often jarring works.
In another of his pieces entitled Genesis, which is on display in a New York gallery, Kac
took a sentence from the Old Testament, translated it into Morse Code, transposed that into
DNA, had the DNA inserted into fluorescent bacteria, then shone an ultra-violet light on the
bacteria that is lit when someone hits its Web site, which in turn mutates the bacteria.
"The biblical passage is loaded historically, politically, socially," Kac said. "When we
collectively mutate the text, we're saying we don't accept the baggage that it represents. But we
don't know what that change will be. The whole thing is a snapshot of where we are culturally
that we have this long historical baggage and we set out collectively to change it.
"One of things that artwork can do is make people aware," he said. "An artist shapes particles.
I'm interested in creating a different area of space."
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote scathingly in The New Yorker of the "biomania" embraced
by Kac and other artists exhibiting at New York's Exit Art gallery, calling it at best "clever,"
part of a "hot trend" with the "shelf life of milk."
"Art used to crown civilization. Now it skitters through seams and around corners, eagerly
parasitic," Schjeldahl wrote, terming the trend "discouraging."
Among other pieces in the "Paradise Now" show are photographs of children with puppy dog
eyes, breeding frogs and storage tanks of frozen sperm.
Kac: Little New About a Glowing Bunny
Still, his works were not the unscientific meddling of a mad artist, Kac insisted. He wants
them to stir discussion of the ethical questions raised by genetic engineering, not as reminders
of the horrific history of eugenics.
"My work is not an experiment. There's nothing new here" about GFP Bunny scientifically,
he said. "The work is done with enormous care. In no way would I have done anything like
this if anything would have happened to Alba."
Kac's original concept, GFP-K9, was to
turn a dog green with the jellyfish gene
Controversy over Alba may have frightened the French laboratory, the National Institute of
Agronomic Research, into keeping her under wraps. Kac said he hoped a new institute
director would let Alba go.
However, scientists routinely transfer the jellyfish gene that makes Alba glow to keep track of
living matter, according to Kac.
The artist does admit that no one knows whether Alba's glow gene is recessive or if the trait
would be inherited by any offspring.
Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan said Kac's works were a reminder to scientists to watch what
they do and to discuss the ramifications of their inventions.
"When rabbits glow, it should remind us that you can make small changes and have big
results," said Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Genetic engineering could be used for all kinds of strange purposes," he added, including a
future of genetically altered humans. "You could have kids going from school that glow to
prevent them from getting hit by cars.
"My point being, what modifications are acceptable and what aren't? There aren't any
guidelines, any rules. For the love of art isn't enough."
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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