Aglow Over Genetic Art
By Janet Smith
The man who created Alba--a living, breathing, glow-in-the-dark white bunny--is not a magician, a geneticist, or a mad scientist. Eduardo Kac is an artist, or, more specifically, a transgenic artist.
Instead of using paintbrushes or chisels, the Brazilian-born and Chicago-based artist wields new genetic-engineering techniques to create unique living creatures. As shocking as it sounds, this is not a conceptual pursuit: Kac is literally bringing new life forms into existence, prodding his viewers to discuss today's warp-speed advances in biotechnology and undoubtedly provoking the ire of people who think he's playing God. While Kac is taking the issue to extremes, he's just one in a growing group of people who are interested in the area where biotechnology and art converge: he's coming to Vancouver to speak at SFU Harbour Centre on Friday (June 2) as part of the new-media arts group Digital eARTH's Zero Degree Monstrosities: A Theme Park of Electronic Culture.
In the case of Alba, Kac worked with French zoosystemician Louis Bec and scientists Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunnet to synthesize a green fluorescent protein (isolated from a Pacific Northwest jellyfish) and transfer it to the rabbit. Alba was born in February of this year in France and expresses that fluorescent protein in every cell, meaning she is illuminated with a greenish sci-fi glow in even a slightly darkened room. Kac will live with and care for the rabbit in an exhibit that looks like a living room from June 15 to 25 at the Grenier à Sel gallery in Avignon, France. The final step of his art project, called GFP Bunny, will be to take his bunny home to Chicago to live with his family.
So what makes this experiment art? Speaking from his office at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is an assistant professor of art and technology, Kac stresses that the rabbit itself is not the equivalent of a sculpture or painting. "I'm going to be living with Alba in the gallery because I don't want people to come and find her as an object," he explains. "The artwork is the whole, complex social event that involves bringing her into the world, integrating her socially in this case into family life, and the conversations that this whole project creates." From Dolly the lamb to modified foods, the creation of genetic mutations so far has been based in health research or for economic gain. Kac is shaking things up by inventing a new creature for reasons not much different than those behind breeding a unique species of dog. "The key to this transgenic animal--which stands symbolically for all transgenic animals and for even a future transgenic human--is that there's nothing different because she is genetically modified: she is unique, but so are you and so am I, and irrespective of how she came into the world, she needs to be respected, loved, and nurtured as an individual."
The idea of a glow-in-the-dark rabbit may seem trivial or ironic, but Kac is dead serious about the social implications of genetic engineering. "Humour is not my intention, frankly. My intention is to shift the discussion around transgenics from objects that are used for a purpose to an appreciation of the perceptual and cognitive life of that individual transgenic animal. The point is then to highlight the uniqueness of that individual and also to shed some light on the question of purity, because as we start to breed animals--which has been a practice that has been with us for millennia--we are talking about the notion of pure race, which is very problematic, to say the least. And here's a transgenic animal that challenges the notion of purity."
While Kac seems to be on the cutting edge of a brand-new area of art and science, he insists transgenic art can be traced back as far as artist and photographer Edward Steichen's 1936 exhibition of plants at the Museum of Modern Art. For the show, Steichen bred dozens of delphiniums that did not occur in nature.
Kac himself has always been in the vanguard of new technology: he was one of the pioneers in holographic art in the '80s, jumped onto the information superhighway almost as soon as it opened, and about 10 years ago started work in biotelematics--art that integrates biological processes into computer-based telecommunications. For his 1998-99 work Genesis, he created a gene by first translating a sentence from the biblical Book of Genesis into Morse code and then converting that code into DNA base pairs; it can be viewed, amid his writings, at his Web site (www.ekac.org).
If the science behind his work is difficult for a lay audience to understand, the amount of technical knowledge Kac himself has had to absorb is almost beyond comprehension. But he feels passionately that it is imperative for not just artists, but society as a whole to try to grasp the scientific advances that could have such drastic effects.
"The importance for artists to participate is manifold," he says. "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. On the one hand you have the people that hype genetic engineering and on the other hand you have those who oppose and condemn any kind of genetic research. There is no space in between for dialogue. And I think art can contribute to that space."
To Randy Lee Cutler, one of the organizers of Zero Degree Monstrosities, an involvement in genetic science is not such a leap for digital artists--of whom there are a growing number in Vancouver. "Those artists interested in media arts or digital technology need a high level of knowledge to do their work, so they're already moving into a more scientific or technical method of making their work," she says. The link between digital interests and genetic coding is an obvious one, she adds: "They would never have been able to map the human genome without digital technology."
Kac's fluorescent bunny seems to fit well into ZDM's theme-park idea. "A theme park subverts norms," Cutler explains. "The idea is of a parade of tolerated differences--creating pavilions of subversive science." Of course, no other artists who are participating in the festival, which will be held at various venues throughout the next two months, are experimenting with biotechnology as directly as Kac. But they are exploring similar ideas: in a show called Soft, at the Access Gallery, Rodney Sanches has imagined an advertising campaign for such genetically modified creatures as a cat/cellphone; via www.digitalearth.org, starting on June 24, Sara Diamond's CodeZebra.net.version1 explores "research and development strategies" of artists and scientists, and shows the similarities between the pursuits of both; and in Misplaced Methodologies (which has its opening party tonight [June 1] at 405 Railway Street), artists Lorna Brown and Diana Burgoyne look at the relationship between society, technology, and the environment using sound and handmade objects.
As for Kac, he says his experiments in creating hybrid life forms will not stop with Alba. He is in the midst of GFP-K9--an attempt to transfer the same fluorescent attributes to a pet dog--but its creation will have to wait until the canine genome is mapped. When the pooch is finally born, it will undoubtedly raise the same questions as the fluorescent rabbit: Is it scientific tampering? Is it more akin to a freak show? Is it art? The only sure thing is that those issues should make for a heated discussion at his lecture at Harbour Centre on Friday night (June 2).
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