Interview with Eduardo Kac
Shona Reed, organizer
Eduardo Kac responds to the questions submitted by the Genolog community.
Alba the bunny was born in Jouy-en-Josas, France in February 2000. She is part of Eduardo Kac's transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny", which also includes the process of integrating her socially (Kac's desire to bring her home and welcome her as part of his family) and the dialogue the project has generated, which includes lectures, symposia, radio, print, and television media, in the USA and abroad. The story of Alba reached international proportions after it was the front-page headlines in the newspaper Boston Globe (September 17, 2000) and the national television broadcast by Peter Jennings on ABC (September 18, 2000). Transgenic art uses synthetic or natural genetic material to create new forms of life. Normally transgenic animals are "objects" of scientific inquiry. Kac describes Alba not as an art object but as a transgenic social subject.
GFP (green fluorescent protein) is a bioluminescent substance which is found in Pacific Northwest jellyfish. Scientists have isolated the gene sequence that codes for GFP and since 1995 have been expressing it in the embryos of frogs and mice. Kac's intervention is based on an established and harmless procedure. Kac worked together with the French zoosystemician Louis Bec and scientists Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunnet. The GFP is expressed in each cell of the bunny.
Kac seeks to engage the mind of a transgenic individual and create a shared space with a transgenic social subject. Rabbits can interact with their kind and with humans, think and play. As he wrote in his essay entitled "GFP Bunny" (http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html), Kac's other objectives include the "expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of art making to incorporate life invention" and the consideration of "a non-semiotic notion of communication as the sharing of genetic material across traditional species barriers".
He proposes "GFP Bunny" as a future form of interactive art. "GFP Bunny", he wrote, "gives continuation to my focus on the creation, in art, of what Martin Buber called dialogical relationship, what Mikhail Batkhin called dialogic sphere of existence, what Emile Benveniste called intersubjectivty and what Humberto Maturana calls consensual domains : shared spheres of perception, cognition and agency in which two or more sentient beings (human or otherwise) can negotiate their experience dialogically."
In an earlier work entitled "Genesis" Kac created a fantasy gene by translating a sentence from the book of Genesis into Morse code and then translating that code into DNA base pairs using a conversion technique specially developed for the work. The sentence, which was expressed in bacteria and mutated with UV light on the Internet, was then translated back into English: "LET AAN HAVE DOMINION OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA AND OVER THE FOWL OF THE AIR AND OVER EVERY LIVING THING THAT IOVES UA EON THE EARTH"
Kac views the debate around the cultural and ethical implications of genetics as being very polarized. The bio-tech companies themselves are not engaging in any serious dialogue, neither are the people at the other end of the spectrum who remain only seriously opposed.
In a lecture in Vancouver on June 2, 2000, Kac said: "Artists are citizens who do not come from a technocratic background and they are not focused on extracting specific commercial benefits from the inventions of genetic engineering, so artists can offer important alternatives to the polarized debate."
What of Kac's own view on genetic engineering? "I'm not against biotechnology in principle, but at the same time I do not agree with many practices, such as the patenting of life."
In response to the artwork "GFP Bunny", the Genolog community submitted a series of questions for the artitst behind the project Eduardo Kac. Read the full interview here.
Q: Could you summarize why creating a transgenic life form using established techniques of genetic engineering should be viewed as art? Is Alba art because she was not created for a specific useful purpose (well, neither is science necessarily utilitarian). Or is the socialization of Alba with her environment, as you envision it, the membrane between science and art?
Kac: In art, seeing is never, purely and simply, a matter of typical optical activity. In art "seeing" is completely implicated in a world view, which, to be meaningful, must be shared and negotiated. In art "seeing" is a self-aware process. This is to say that what we know -- what we discover, invent, or learn -- affects what we can see and vice-versa. Artworks are never just the physical entity before my eyes, a hammer with which I can push nails into the wall. Even when a monochromatic non-referential painting claims to be another object in the world, it is that and something else as well: a statement, an intervention. Artworks are always the physical entity and more: they are the manifested, deliberate, self-conscious presentation of ideas. Since they must be experienced by others, they are presented in a given context and elicit in viewers particular cognitive and emotional responses, which are circumscribed historically. These factors play a crucial role. The most successful artworks are not the ones that just express the author's view with competence. The real significant artworks are the ones that are able to connect the viewer or participant with his or her own intelligence and creativity.
Q: How do you see the boundary between art and science in this case?
Kac: The boundary between science and art cannot be defined by media, processes, and systems. Today this is more the case than ever before, since so many artists work with the very same tools employed by scientists worldwide. Needless to say, computers and the Internet are a case in point. The boundaries between science and art can only be defined by several factors and their complex interplay: the intention of the artist or scientist, the context in which a given work is presented, the rhetorical strategies employed by the artist or scientist, and the reception given to them by the public. Naturally, these elements can change in time, and their meaning can be reconsidered accordingly (as when a ritual mask is recontextualized in a museum hundreds of years after its creation and use, for example). One of the key differences between science and art rests on their conceptual and pragmatic approach to tropes: while science erases the origins of its metaphors and metonyms ("gene", for example, is a metonym: the part stands for the whole; "genetic code" is a metaphor first coined in analogy with how Morse encodes messages), art presents a high level of awareness of metaphors, metonyms and other tropes -- its very material.
Q: Using your definition of transgenic art and your emphasis on social context that is dominant over the genetic one, would you consider Dolly art, especially if, like Alba, that sheep is adopted by a good family, socialized with other sheep and humans, and well taken care of?
Kac: Quite clearly, this is a hypothetical question, since Dolly has not been created in the context of art and has not been adopted by a family. From a strictly scientific perspective, Dolly is a clone, not a transgenic sheep. Soon after Dolly (1996), the Roslin Institute announced the birth of Polly (1997), a transgenic lamb also produced by nuclear transfer. Earlier in 2000, Whitehead Institute and University of Hawaii researchers announced the birth of the mouse named Tetley, a transgenic clone. Transgenic clones will also become an integral part of our environment. I mention these cases to convey that even the apparent barrier between cloning and transgenetics has been crossed, rendering the technical distinction I initially made above irrelevant. Which takes me back to your question. I do object to treating an animal as an object, be it an art object or an object of any kind. Therefore, I would object to the idea of Dolly *herself* as an artwork. If Dolly had been created, presented, and discussed not purely in the context of science but in the context of art, and if other emotional and cognitive factors played a role to enable this hypothetical artwork to go beyond the technical process and its applicability, in principle I do not have a conceptual objection to the possibility that Dolly might have been part of an artwork. Again, this is a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question.
Q: You discuss animal domestication and genetic engineering as a continuum in your writings. Although this may link them in western societies, new knowledge and biotechnologies have caused a sharp discontinuity in both ways of dealing with and thinking about life. Even the terminology used--such as genetic engineering (despite the inaccuracy in such terms), indicate a shift from the reciprocal relationship of domestication that you mention to one of inventor and invention, a relationship of author to inscribed (genetic) text, where the creator has the power and rights and the subject is intellectual property, without any kind of dialog between the two. This raises a number of questions about the artists role in this dynamic. Can the artist add anything to the discussion by reproducing what has already been done in the scientific arena? Does the artist simply continue the previous relationship (by being seen as artist-as-author, creator of things)? Could the artist perhaps even weaken the discussion?
Kac: The artist makes it evident for the general public that molecular biology is not a rarefied language spoken by experts beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. The work of the artist is a stimulus for layperson debate. Through accessible visual means, the work of the artist assists the general public in understanding how close the consequences of the biotech revolution are to the individual. In this sense, the artist reinforces the discussion. In art the question is not "what has already been done in the scientific arena", because the emphasis is not on a given process and its result. In art the key gesture is one of cognitive intervention at a symbolic, not practical, level. It is precisely because corporate genetic engineering leads us and non-human animals towards "a relationship of author to inscribed (genetic) text", as you said, that it becomes urgent to conceptualize and experience other, more dignified relationships with our transgenic other. "GFP Bunny" addresses this need by bringing the transgenic mammal into society, into the domestic space, into a sphere of personal relationships.
Q: Did you intentionally exclude the discussion of aesthetic choices in your definition of transgenic art and its goals?
Kac: The key here is what one means by "aesthetic choices". When I speak of aesthetics in the context of transgenic art, I do not mean *morphological traits*. To do so would take us back to parameters associated with nineteenth century aesthetics, and dangerously close to the question of Eugenics. I have no interest in crafting genetic art objects; I am interested in sharing social space with transgenic individuals, i.e., in establishing dialogic interaction with transgenic beings. I use genetics as a reflection on how close we are to other fellow mammals. The presence of a human gene in a pig, for example, is evidence that we are much closer to other mammals than we thought. Understanding this serves as a powerful reminder that differences among humans are truly minimal. Transgenic art does open a new practical horizon for artmaking, but perhaps its most important contributions are made elsewhere. Transgenic art imparts a cognitive change regarding the way we feel about and understand the very notion of life, considering it at the crossroads between belief systems, economic principles, legal parameters, political directives, cultural constructs, and scientific laws. Transgenic art brings out a debate on important social issues surrounding genetics that are affecting and will affect everyone's lives decades to come (if not forever). Art is philosophy in the wild, an inquiry about the world that takes the form of perceptible phenomena (as distinct from purely verbal discourse, as in literary philosophy). Aesthetics, in the case of transgenic art, is directly connected to the social dimension of art.
Q: Do you think that by insisting a priori that transgenic art is completely harmless to animals, you are putting your art into an ethical and moral straightjacket, which ultimately with stifle development and experimentation in transgenic art?
Kac: I do not wish to create, neither do I condone, work that harms animals. This is my personal position, not meant to prescribe what other artists should do or to arbitrate how far art can go. My work in transgenic art is not experimental in its modus operandi; it relies on well-known, established processes. As you know, transgenic work is carried out at the level of the individual reproductive cell (before fusion), and not at the level of the already developed organism. In other words, you do not modify an existing animal. The animal is not born yet when you do the work, i.e., there are only individual reproductive cells. While I remain open to the idea that transgenic art could lead to the creation of completely unprecedented life forms, I am also committed to ensuring, should this ever become a reality, that these new life forms are healthy and capable of forming their own *umwelt* (Uexkull's term for the the phenomenal world that surrounds every creature), in their own way. And, of course, that they would not cause an ecological disaster. Responsibility is key. In the process of creating my transgenic art, I have studied these issues extensively. I continue to do so. I work with skilled and specialized scientists. I discuss these questions with professionals from multiple disciplines regularly, always open to different points of view. My objective is to consider all variables and to be in a position to make informed decisions.
Q: Is it legitimate to subject art to an ethical (rather than a purely aesthetic) system, however well-intentioned or politically correct?
Kac: It is not ethical to subject art to a purely aesthetic system, for art's legitimacy lies in its ability to constantly reinvent itself. Art benefits greatly from being in firm contact with other disciplines. Inasmuch as I truly admire the paintings of Velasquez, we no longer make art as he did, simply because the world has changed. Good intentions or political correctedness are no warranty that an artwork will be of merit, neither do they constitute, in themselves, an obstacle to the creation of interesting art. We must keep in mind that (more often than not) art is made by humans for humans and, as Levinas pointed out, "proximity, difference which is non-indifference, is responsibility."
Q: You have said that the artwork is the whole social event. Do you also include the probability that Alba's unique formative experience would socialize her in a different way from other rabbits? For example, she may become more outgoing (or more paranoid) than other rabbits as a result of the public attention. In other words, do you care what she eventually becomes: just like other rabbits, unique but accepted, a social outcast, or a new species unable to interbreed with other rabbits.
Kac: I certainly do care enormously about what she will become. I expect that she will become an adult rabbit comfortable with her familial surroundings, living a fulfilling life. There's no evidence that transgenic animals socialize in a way that is different from non-transgenic animals. In the wild and in domestic settings rabbits have many different colors. Fortunately, they do not discriminate against rabbits of other colors. The notion that transgenic animals are perceived by their fellow animals to be particularly different is a myth. Alba is a white albino rabbit. She only glows if exposed to regular blue light. She does not glow spontaneously. No rabbit is identical to any other rabbit, just like no human is identical to any other human. Difference is all there is, and it is precisely through difference that identity emerges (although it is through shared elements, such as language, that it sustains itself). The notion of "genetic difference" is one of the issues I wish to address with the "GFP Bunny" artwork. Alba is a healthy and gentle mammal. Contrary to popular notions of the alleged monstrosity of genetically engineered organisms, her body shape and coloration are exactly of the same kind we ordinarily find in albino rabbits. Unaware that Alba has the ability to glow, it is impossible for anyone to notice anything unusual about her. Therefore Alba undermines any ascription of alterity. It is precisely this productive ambiguity that sets her apart: being at once same and different.
Q: You call Alba a Chimera (not in a sense of it being a true hybrid, but in the sense of it being an imaginary creature). Can you reconcile it with the fact that Alba is real in every sense, physically modified. What is imaginary about it?
Kac: Different cultural traditions have offered us countless imaginary creatures: the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse; the Amazonian Curupira; the Nordic Troll; the Greek Chimera; the Jewish Golem; the Hindu Vishnu, often represented as a blue man with four arms; the Aztec feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl; the Chinese deity called Land My, which has the body of a tiger with nine tails, feline claws and nine human heads; the Persian three-headed dragon called Azhi Dahaka; the Mesopotamian winged bull. Alba is imaginary in the sense that she emerged not from a typical mating process, but from human imagination. She is also imaginary in the sense that her uniqueness stimulates our imagination to cognize her both as an ordinary physical being and a fantastic individual: what is Alba like?, or, what is it like to be Alba?. This peculiar situation, the materialization of an imaginary being, produces an unprecedented ambiguity. In this ambiguity the physical and the imaginary are reconciled in their ceaseless interplay.
Q: In your earlier work you investigated the socio-political aspects of communication processes. Do you see any parallel between your earlier linguistic work and your current interest in transgenic art?
Kac: Yes. Transgenic art is also an investigation of socio-political aspects of communication processes. With "Genesis", for example, a synthetic gene was created by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria. The ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it. With "GFP Bunny" the question of communication is shifted from natural language to interspecies communication.
Q: Your work "Genesis" addresses the Judeo-Christian world view that is shared by even western secular humanists and permeates western science, which has been used to justify any kind of manipulation or use of other organisms. By re-contextualizing the discourse of science, does the artist risk distraction from the important social, moral, economic and religious questions that are already raised by what is being done by scientists? If the artist instead adds another layer to that preexisting discussion, what does (s)he add?
Kac: "Genesis" conflates several societal forces into one element -- the synthetic gene -- to clearly expose the fact that the gene is a site of plastic manipulation, of social invention, of meaning construction, and not a "master molecule" that holds the final secret of life from which there is no escape. We are not robots at the mercy of our genes, as scientists like Dawkins would want us to believe. In saying this I am not downplaying the significance of one's genetic inheritance, but highlighting that there is always an ongoing relationship between genetics, organism, and environment. Consider the starting point of "Genesis", the translation commissioned by King James and used by him as a weapon of conquest and domination. The selected biblical passage is translated to Morse Code. Samuel Morse was a xenophobe and supported slavery. The first transmitted words -- "What hath God wrought?" -- started the age of global communication which, in its current form, has replaced imperialism with "globalization". Morse Code was the key metaphor that anchored Schroedinger's analogy between genetics and linguistics, supporting the application of principles of Physics to Biology and, as a result, assisting in the birth of molecular biology. Religion, Communication, Science, Economy, Ideology -- all are now condensed in the gene. It is an urgent project to unpack this dangerous fusion and reveal the vectors that inform the cultural and ideological production of the "gene". In his book "Biology as Ideology", Richard Lewontin demonstrates how science is influenced by dominant social views of a given period. Art that appropriates the methods of science is useful in revealing that the place of science is culture, that science is one among several social agents, and that there is no "truth", only functional models. This is not an attack on science; rather, it is a call for a science more acutely aware of the social processes through which it creates meaning.
Q: Do you agree with Maturana who views "languaging" as a biological, evolutionary process?
Kac: Yes. For Maturana, the term "languaging" emphasizes the dynamic relational character of language. At the "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conference, in April 2000, Tucson, I had the opportunity to ask Francisco Varela, a close collaborator of Maturana, if he had read Bakhtin, and if Bakhtin's ideas had any bearing on his own work. (He said he had read Bakhtin but that he does not use Bakhtin's writings). I mention this conversation because I find the work developed by Maturana and Varela directly related to dialogical philosophy, as exemplified by Buber and Bakhtin. As I have sought to investigate in my work, both previous and current, communication is a necessary condition of life. "Communication" must be clearly understood not as pragmatic transmission of information, but rather as constitutive of relational interaction, of dialogical communion -- or in Maturana's terminology, of "consensual domains".
Q: You say that transgenic life forms may compensate for the extinction of species and declining biodiversity. As an artist, would you feel responsible for the unpredictable effects that such new species may have on the global ecosystem? One has to only look at the damage caused by introduced biological invaders on the endemic species and ecosystems throughout the world.
Kac: Undoubtedly, ecological balance is a delicate matter and one should take into account its complexity. At the same time, we cannot seriously sustain the idea of not changing the environment, as most creatures on this planet who are capable of movement do change their environment in one way or another. The question is in what way should we change our environment. To corroborate the concern expressed in your question, and to stay in the domain of rabbits, take the well-known case of rabbits in Australia, where they are considered a "pest", constantly threatening to outbreak to "plague" proportions in response to beneficial climatic and other environmental changes. The rabbit was first introduced into Australia in 1859 by Thomas Austin of Winchelsea, Victoria. He released the 24 animals he had brought from England onto his property for sport hunting. Rabbits are declared pests in all States and Territories of Australia. Today, Australia has a program to modify the myxoma virus so that it sterilizes rabbits and provides a long term solution to their "rabbit problem". Having agreed with you on the seriousness of this issue, I must also say that, given the existing body of knowledge in this area, an artist could conceive of a new life form that would adapt to a particular environment without damaging local ecosystems. Going a step further we can envision that, based on the discovery and study of "extremophiles" (microbes living in harsh conditions previously believed not capable of supporting life), an artist could conceive of (and create) new life forms capable of thriving on Mars.
Q: As part of your project "Time Capsule" you inserted a microchip with an identification number into your ankle in front of photographs taken of family members during the 1930's in Europe. This seemed to me a very powerful juxtaposition, possibly alluding to the identification numbers given to concentration camp victims during World War II. Can you comment on the nature of this juxtaposition?
Kac: This juxtaposition resonates with personal meanings; at the same time, it remains open enough to produce personal responses in the public as well. World War II stands as a reminder of the nightmare of Eugenics and persecution grounded on intolerance for difference, genetic or otherwise. The identification numbers engraved on the arms of concentration camp victims were one more instrument of dehumanization, another agent in the process of their elimination and of erasure of their memories. Concentration camp guards shot photographs. It was another way of shooting inmates, of robbing them of their dignity. In a free society photographs are joyous mementos. The gesturing of taking a photograph is intrinsically bound up by the need to preserve the moment, to arrest it for posterity. "Time Capsule" collapses the two gestures. Their memories are brought out not as victims, but as ordinary people whose life was abruptly interrupted by the cataclysm of the war. The number, formerly an instrument of erasure, is recontextualized as a vehicle for remembrance.
Q: Given the Nazi regime allowed Mengele to perform genetic experimentation on concentration camp victims, does this provide an intellectual and historical link between "Time Capsule" and "GFP Bunny", and more importantly a connection to your family of which Alba will become a member?
Kac: What Mengele did was not "genetic" experimentation; it was sadistic criminal torturing of human beings. I disavow any suggestion, no matter how remote, of scientific or medical legitimacy to his methods or intentions. His experiments are nothing but agonizing horror, therefore I see them outside any socially acceptable scientific practice: outside of the science of genetics. His criminal practice stands as an emblem of the perils of Eugenics in the context of a totalitarian regime with a genocidal agenda. You are correct in observing an intellectual and historical link between "Time Capsule" and "GFP Bunny". Both works are linked through their social concerns. While "Time Capsule" raised the specter of loss of individuality by the implant of digital memory in the human body, "GFP Bunny" introduces a new individual created through molecular biology. If "Time Capsule" manifested the fear that subjectivity and agency might be compromised in a world where the skin no longer separates us from the matrix of cyberspace, "GFP Bunny" points out that a transgenic mammal is equally endowed with subjectivity and agency, and that its existence does not constitute an ethical or an ontological crisis. The "family" in both works is as much my own as it is, symbolically, anyone's. Irrespective of specific associations and relationships, "family" does not represent a biologically-circumscribed structure; it represents a social organization informed by close relationships, by personal history, by genetic diversity, by continuation in time. Together, "Time Capsule" and "GFP Bunny" reinstate what we already know intuitively, i.e., that past and future are intertwined, as in a double helix.
Q: Any artwork which utilizes genetic engineering, or for that matter, any kind of biotechnology, inevitably runs the risk of being read as an uncritical advocate of genetic engineering, the biotechnology industry, and the world view that justifies such actions; work involving the genetic manipulation of organisms is especially likely to be read in this way, as the unequal power relationship in inscribing this genetic text on the development and body of the altered organism embodies that justifying world view. What do you do to move the artwork away from this kind of reading? Do you think it is possible to make a work involving genetic manipulation that doesn't, at least in some way, endorse or support this world view?
Kac: Art must acknowledge, reflect, and negotiate complexity through equally complex means, and this is incompatible with, for example, the simplism of anti-biotechnology inflammatory discourse. An artwork which utilizes genetic engineering only runs the risk of being read as an uncritical advocate of genetic engineering if it fails to reflect and manifest this complexity. Artists who wish to offer a reflection on the social and cultural implications of biotechnology, myself included, find this risk worth taking, since the issues are too relevant to be met by illustrative or detached commentary. This is the same as saying that a language changes when multiple speakers make it say and do things that were not there when they started to use this language. So what an artist does is create work that engages genetic engineering but not as presented and interpreted by the industry. "GFP Bunny" operates the passage from subject-object (i.e., human-cell) to subject-subject (i.e., human-rabbit). In so doing, symbolically and practically "GFP Bunny" emphasizes the mutuality of the relationship. By placing the subject-subject relationship in the larger social context, "GFP Bunny" opens this relationship to the multilogue of public debate. You ask if it is possible to make a work involving genetic manipulation that doesn't endorse or support the world view of genetic engineering. This phrasing may suggest that one either supports or condemns biotechnology, a position that I deem unsustainable, precisely because it simplifies what, in reality, is full of subtexts. The urgent task is to unpack the implicit meanings of the biotechnology revolution and, through direct material negotiation, such as artmaking, contribute to alternative views, thus expanding the cryptic language of genetics to make it more accessible and inclusive.
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