Irish Times, Dublin, 07 Jul 2007.

Art infiltrates life

Karlin Lillington

A live, genetically manipulated rabbit that glows in fluorescent green; bacteria whose DNA  reflects a line of Biblical scripture;  online artworks that are owned by private collectors but must remain publicity accessible in order to be the works they are - such is the controversial and challenging work of Eduardo Kac (pronounced Katz).

If that annoys, infuriates, intrigues; if that seems to cross the borders of what is ethical, of what is meaningful, of what is Art with a capital A, then Kac, a deliberately provocative artist, is getting exactly the response he hopes for.

 Kac was in Dublin this week and gave a fascinating talk at the Chester Beatty Library on some of his science anad technology-based work.  You can view some of it on his website at

 Kac describes much of what he does as Bio Art, an art form that emerged in the mid to late-1990s (largely pioneered by Kac, who is also its best known proponent).

 Bio Art “involves the idea of working ‘in vivo’ - and that is not a metaphor.  “What he means is that whereas the term is applied at times to working from life, Kac actually works in and with life as the very materials of his art.

 Most famously - and controversially - he took a jellyfish gene for fluorescence and had a laboratory place it into the DNA of a rabbit (the fluorescent gene can be easily purchased with a credit card over the internet, he notes - the background contribution of modern, accessible technology also becoming an integral part of the evolving “work”).

 In 2000, the result, Alba, was born.  In regular light, she looked like a perfectly normal white rabbit, but when placed under a (rather expensive) blue light, she fluoresced green.

 This “work” met with a predictable storm of controversy and more was generated when the lab that produced her refused to hand her over to Kac - his “Free Alba” protest in turn became another work.

 The controversy was a deliberate part of the work:  “You cannot reduce this living being to the level of a painting or a sculpture.  There’s an ethical element,” he says.

 He has also created a work called Genesis by taking a line from scripture, creating a schema to convert letters and spaces to the four constituent elements of DNA, then - again, by credit card and over the net - ordering the DNA from a laboratory.

 This was then incorporated into living bacteria that grew in a petri dish, which could be viewed on the internet and manipulated by online viewers, who could click their mouse to turn on a light that would cause the bacteria to grow and mutate.

 The mutated bacteria then had its DNA analysed and this was transcribed back to form an altered piece of scripture.

 He also has a green plant in Kansas, viewable on the net, that can be grown by giving light from live webcams placed in three other places around the world.

 And he has worked extensively with remotely manipulable robots, anad a variety of telecommunications tools from tthe internet to fax machines and phones.

 Are there any limits to what he would do in the name of art, he was asked?  Kac says he doesn’t “see moral absolutes in that sense” because ideas of moral beauty or moral right “have been proven again and again to have specific contexts” - such contexts change and are often culturally based.

 But the creation of a human being would, he supposes, be the absolute limit of his work because it would create an independent thinking being and he would, in essence, become its father with all the incumbent responsibilities.

 He noted ongoing research on the human genome, which shows that human DNA itself incorporates elements that include mutations caused by bacteria.  Thus, humans are already, and naturally, merged with totally independent organisms, or naturally “transgenic” living chimeras.

 He therefore feels his work, far from being monstrous, actually forces a confrontation with our own real selves and poses challenges for us to deal with as we face a future in which deliberate genetic manipulation becomes a possibility and even a norm.


 After the talk I had a chance to linger and view the extraordinary Leicester Codex, the Leonardo da Vinci treatise on all aspects of water, loaned to the Beatty by Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

 It was both a contrast to the earlier talk but also a complement to it.  There was the indirect role of the explosion of modern technology having generated the fortune that bought the manuscript and brought it here.

And then, Leonardo’s views on the vast age of fossils and the impossibility of their being deposited in mountains within Biblical time, after the Biblical flood, would have been outrageous in his time, challenging the very structure of society.

 I think Leonardo, genius in art, science and technology, might have viewed Kac’s work, and some of the reaction to it, with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.


 (c) 2007 The Irish Times

 (c) 2007

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