YYZ's zine, YYZ Artists' Outlet, Toronto, Canada, 2003.
On Eduardo Kac's Genesis
Sometime back in the twentieth century, Jasper Johns made a
now-famous quip about the nature of artmaking: "It's simple, you just
take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it.
Keep doing this, and pretty soon you've got something". As a premise for
thinking about and producing conceptual art in particular, Johns's adage
is astonishingly succinct.
The something with which one starts, however, continues to be a
determinant of responses to the resulting something. In the case of
Eduardo Kac's 1999 work Genesis, the something on both ends of the
equation is the very stuff of life, regardless of the source of life in
which one may believe. Kac's originary source material is the biblical
book of Genesis (chapter 1, verse 26) -- in English, of course, a language
of translation rather than of origin -- which speaks to the creation of
the world according to the Judaeo-Christian cosmology. This system of
belief governs modern notions of ethical behaviour on the premise of
human dominion over all other creatures of this planet; as an overriding
system of ethics, could this not be read as inherently flawed?
Kac seems to think so, forming these translated words into DNA by way of
Morse code, literally fabricating the material of life from the concept
which has been used to guide it. As an abstraction made manifest, we
become forced to consider Kac's degree of artistic and ethical
manipulation alongside questions of evolution and biological determinism.
It is uncomfortable to know that a gene can be made to order, further
dis-easing the sense of authority with which we operate as humans in the
natural and biological universe.
What surprises is the degree of trauma into which we are psychically
thrown by the creation of this gene and the action (sometimes read as
violence) that we do to it as viewers by the activation of an ultraviolet
light which speeds its mutation. If this work questions, in Kac's words,
the "dubious nature of divinely sanctioned humanity's supremacy over
nature", why then does our sense of a "scientific" supremacy over
nature remain so unsettling? Where can we draw the line of
noninterference according to the natural law of either religious
fundamentalism or scientific dogmatism? What other forms of authority do
we take for granted with such facility?
The ability to cause mutation and to understand it as conceptually
(though minutely and nonsensically) feeding back into language through
retranslation is altogether symbolic; we need not fear that our changes
to Kac's "artist's gene" will directly effect larger change in the world.
But to interrogate at this most basic level our large-scale interference
in the evolution of the natural world -- and the evolution of knowledge
and communication structures and means vis-à-vis the lack of evolution of
orthodox belief structures -- is the principle upon which this work is so
unsettlingly and fascinatingly based.
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