Originally published in The Independent, Durham, November 15, 2000 (http://www.indyweek.com/durham/2000-11-15/ae.html).

Contextualize This

A Brazilian-born artist brings his transgenic bunny to Duke


I've been thrashing around at my keyboard for two days, banging out sentences and
deleting them, trying to get to the core of what I think about GFP Bunny in 1,000 words
or less. GFP Bunny is the project with the green-glowing genetically altered rabbit that
Eduardo Kac believes is art. Kac, a Brazilian-born artist (for lack of a more precise term)
who lives in Chicago, convinced some French scientists to create a "transgenic" animal
for him. They used what is now a standard process in research, inserting the gene for
green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish into chromosome material for an albino
rabbit. When the embryo grew to maturity, the result was a rabbit Kac named Alba.
Under blue light she fluoresces bright green, even her eyes. Scientists use this process to
make animals that help them study various things; Kac wants to use--in fact, is
using--Alba in what he calls his "dialogic art."

This project has caused a stir worldwide, with most of the
discussion centering on the ethics, or lack thereof, of
engineering and using an animal for nonscientific
purposes. My questions, however, are: Where's the art? Is
it any good? Alba, apparently, is not the art--the art was to occur when Kac took Alba and
lived with her in a gallery for a month, then took her home and socialized her as part of
his family. This intent has been thwarted by the French lab's refusal to release Alba to
Kac. So now the art, if it is anywhere, is entirely conceptual and virtual--or maybe in the

Kac was in Durham Nov. 6 for a symposium
organized by Eddie Shanken, a doctoral candidate
in art history at Duke. Kac gave a presentation
about his work, culminating with the GFP
Bunny project; there were also four respondents
from Duke's religion, ethics, medicine and
genetics faculties. Shanken told the large crowd
in the Levine Science Research Center's
auditorium that Kac "problemitizes science,
making it more approachable," and that he
"pushes the boundaries of aesthetics." (My notes
here say, "Who's not aware of science's
problems?" and "No shit!") Shanken declared
that Alba "demands a personal response, not a
distanced observation," and asserted that "a
primary goal of GFP Bunny is to provoke
questions and dialogue." He promised us an
evening filled with "a highly nuanced exchange of
ideas." The questions and dialogue we got, but I
wouldn't say that the ideas were particularly
nuanced. Kac's ideas are simple and often rather
simplistic; the mind games and the technology
that support them are complicated.

Basically, Kac is interested in the continuum of
life, from bacterial to human, and the continuum
of human intellectual pursuits, from philosophy,
art and science, to sociology, politics and religion.
He holds art up as an investigative system parallel
to that of science. In relation to animals, he
believes we have been behaving badly, that we
have "misguided perceptions that deny animals' consciousness," and that "we need to
recognize the cognitive and emotional life of transgenic animals." This seems both
arrogant and disingenuous, considering how willing he is to use animals for his own
purposes. It's also the sheerest hyperbole, since he structures his works--despite
Shanken's assertion--in such a way as to nearly preclude emotional response in the

Kac says that with his "dialogic art" he attempts to "get away from the idea of the artist as
one who embeds meaning in material, or who alters materials and then presents them for
contemplation." He wants "shared experience, shared response, shared responsibility
through transformative experience." The artist, he says, is not so much in control of
content, but is the creator of context. In his highly technical computerized telemedia
"network ecology" pieces involving interrelated biological and virtual processes, the
viewer is also the viewed--for Kac, this "fluidity of subject positions" is very important.

"The key issue," he says of GFP Bunny and his other works, "is imagining yourself in
the world in a presence not your own." Well, duh. This is one of the primary reasons for
art. It is not a new idea. If it seems fresh to contemporary aesthetic philosophers, that can
only indicate a terrible aridity of thought along art's leading conceptual edge. And
however well Kac's over-obvious constructs and the distancing technology work for the
viewer's mental grasp of his concepts, they work against empathetic imagining of another
life. Kac wants his art to have "a direct, real, physical intervention in what we call ordinary
life." Again, isn't this what art does? I look up from my keyboard and see half a dozen
artworks that intervene in my life--and do it differently--every day.

I have a bias toward the made object, the art object that serves as analog and metaphor for
life, and whose maker, the artist, reflects the distant, omnipotent, unknowable creative
force of the universe. Probably from the beginning of time, and certainly since
Michelangelo, artists have made their godlike position clear. But is it godlike to have
technicians make a green rabbit? I don't particularly like the artist being so
literal--abandoning, as Kac says science has done, his metaphors and becoming them.
Godlike surely comprises not just power and cleverness and control, but wisdom and
kindness and joy. Those last seem missing from Kac's work.

I like artwork that holds still so that your mind can rove around it in contemplation. I
think that too often "performative" or interactive artwork detracts from the possibility of
contemplating or feeling deeply in your own time--you are subject to the pace of the
artist--and if the work is ephemeral, are its ideas, too? Meaning matters; the
"communication beyond the idea of clarity" that Kac touts is merely noise. I believe that
to fritter away the visceral and emotional capabilities of art is purely sad.

In short, I find Kac's work distasteful, wasteful and worse: boring. But where is the place
in our overpopulated centerless global village for the discussion of ideas and values, if not
in art?

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