Eduardo Kac: Life, Light & Language / Eduardo Kac: La vie, la lumière & le langage (Enghien-les-Bains, France: Enghien-les-Bains Art Center, 2011) [exhibition catalogue].

Fifty questions for Eduardo Kac: an interview

by Dominique Moulon

Since 1980, Eduardo Kac has conceived and developed a number of unique art forms. He created interactive and telepresence works before launching transgenic art in 1998. He is also the author of various poetic works, both as a pioneer of digital poetry and as the inventor of biological and holographic poetry. On the occasion of his solo exhibition “Light, Life and Language” at the Enghien-les-Bains Art Center, I pursued a protean correspondence with the artist in the form of text, image, and sound. We communicated for over six months between Paris and Chicago. My goal: to explore in fifty questions the way in which Kac’s work explores our relationship with the “other,” be it biological or nonbiological, human or nonhuman. 


Q01: Your transgenic works are well known, yet you have also developed a singular style of poetry over the last thirty years. In 2007, you were the first poet-in-residence at the Biennial of poets in Val-de-Marne, which published your book “Hodibis Potax” (2007), an anthology of your poetic, holographic, digital, biological, and spatial works. Looking at your latest transgenic works, is “Cypher” (2009) a poem that uses an enigmatic format and meaning?


A01. “Cypher” is also a do-it-yourself transgenic kit, so it’s an artwork that is many things at the same time. When you first encounter it, you see a slipcase, and you pull an item from it. The slipcase is made of stainless steel. You see the engraving on it with the title of the work. You open up this object that is three-dimensional, therefore sculptural, and opens up like a book with hinges on one side. So it has this implied book-like quality; you can open it flat on the table. But what you actually see is this finely crafted, handmade artwork that has objects within made of glass, metal, and rubber (everything is handmade), and what you actually have is a nomadic, portable laboratory. This laboratory has all the items necessary for you, the viewer/reader/participant, to give life to the artwork.
But how does this work? I wrote a poem specifically for this piece with a high statistical incidence of the four letters that name the chemical bases of DNA: as we know, C, T, G, and A. So the poem is written in English with a high incidence of these letters, and then the letters in the poem that are not C, T, G, and A are converted to C, T, G, and A through a code that I wrote specifically for this work. There is a booklet within the stainless steel object, and this booklet provides the protocol to allow the viewer/participant to give life to the work, but it also provides the code. So in the end, the poem is the English text and the code, because the reader/participant will eventually discover that in addition to the horizontal coding that transforms the non-chemical bases into chemical bases, there is also a vertical code that allows you to read another piece of English writing that provides the key and complements what you originally thought was the poem by itself. So the two together—code and text—form, finally, the poem. And it is the job of the viewer/reader/participant to use the tools (petri dishes, agar, loops, and other elements), inside “Cypher” to activate the synthetic DNA, because now this text is actually synthetic DNA available within the kit. It is the job of the viewer/reader/participant to use all these elements that are provided to literally give life to the poem. And when you do that, you will see that the pale bacteria provided now glow with a red light. The text is written in red and the bacteria glow in red, so it comes full circle. You see that as a result of your effort, you have this visual, bioluminescent marker that allows you to see you have successfully given literal, biological life to the poem.


Q02: You have practiced visual poetry since the early eighties, and your poem “Pictogram Sonnet” in particular features eerily designed characters. You seem especially fond of enigma, even in the titles of some of your artworks.

A02. I’m not necessarily interested in enigma, per se; what I am not interested in is banality. Creative writing is different from journalism or other modalities of writing, and even though, obviously, there are no rules, when I read I am interested in writings that engage my sense of curiosity, my intelligence, my imagination—not writing that predigests the experience for me. In other words, writing that stimulates innate capabilities that we have. So when I write, I seek to create unique experiences for the reader. And if something with an enigmatic characteristic occasionally plays a role in the writing, it’s because that particular piece of writing calls for that particular type of experience. The work that you have just mentioned, “Pictogram Sonnet,” is not so enigmatic, because the pictograms are readily recognizable. The pictograms are not invented; they exist in the urban landscape. What is unique in this work is that pictograms are not usually organized in the form of a sonnet, and even less so with visual rhyme. In this poem, each line of pictograms rhymes, but because they rhyme, you notice that there’s something special about the rhyme. And it’s interesting, in fact, that you mention “Pictogram Sonnet” (from the early eighties) right after “Cypher,” which is a very recent work. When you look at the visual rhyme in “Pictogram Sonnet”, you are scanning it vertically, and you realize that it’s that vertical sequence of rhymes that provides the code, or the key, to comprehend what this poem is all about. So, in reality, there is an interesting development from the early 1980s with “Pictogram Sonnet,” to “Cypher,” that is a recent transgenic work. Both involve this vertical code-within-a-code.
Q03: In Rio de Janeiro from 1980 to 1982, you created works that link body and poetry. What was the context in which you carried out these works? In your performances with “The Pink Miniskirt,” as well as in your “photoperformances” of the series “Pornograms,” is there a desire to cross the barrier between men and women? And did this lead you, later on, to cross the barrier between species?

A03. Yes. We could say that from the transgender work of the early 1980s to the transgenic work of the late 1990s there is always a search to go beyond received, given boundaries that are imposed by the status quo, and that do not correspond to the dynamics of culture, as culture rejuvenates and renews itself, and discovers new possibilities for creative expression and invention. So we are, in fact, talking about entirely different contexts in space and time. In Rio de Janeiro, in the early 1980s, we’re talking about a place that was still under a military dictatorship, and a country that, contrary to popular belief, was rather conservative. To create these events wearing “The Pink Miniskirt” on the street, in the supermarket, in theaters, on beaches, during performances, and also during daily life (with the occasional red lipstick and other items), represented a defiance of gender boundaries, a challenge to an imposition of order that was not only political, but also quite clearly translated into people’s individual lives. In time political activity has expanded from the transformative engines of the past, such as the “revolutionary masses,” to social movements such as civil rights and feminism, to finally focus on the individual. So, in Rio in the early 1980s, by transforming my own life, I converted the ordinariness of daily life into a site of resistance and change. I wore “The Pink Miniskirt” in ordinary contexts as well as in public performances of the porn-poetry work, but with the “Pornograms” it’s different. The attempt here is to literally use the body itself as a writing medium. In some cases that is literal. For example, when I perform upside down and naked, repeating the letter “U”… the letter U is the phonetic unit for the sound of booing. So when you see that repetition and you see that face laughing back at you, the form of the body and what it’s doing, it produces a tension, an apparent contradiction, but in reality it is expanding, multiplying meanings. So the intent of the “Pornograms” was to use the body as language, as a writing medium—to use space as the environment in which the text is inscribed, and to use the photograph as the medium for publication. So, in analogy with the book, you have a situation in which the body is the text, the space is the page, and the photo is the publishing equivalent to a book. It’s a way to allow the “Pornograms” to circulate, to materialize a different linguistic economy than that of the book, a way to effectively use the body as a writing instrument—my ultimate goal, then as now, was to embody liberating alternatives to received practices that are passed on as inevitable.
There is a direct relationship between the “Pornograms” and the events in “The Pink Miniskirt,” in the sense that the former was a continuation of the latter. The transgender events that I pursued with “The Pink Miniskirt” find echo and development—a formalization, an articulation of a syntax—within the “Pornogram” series, some of which were published at the time. Some have remained unpublished but the whole series was shown together, having not been seen for thirty years, in my solo exhibition at Laura Marsiaj Gallery in Rio in January 2010. Even though we’re talking about a time span of thirty years, if you connect that early work to the transgenic work, I think you’re right in observing that the desire to continuously expand the possibilities of art and writing has been a driving force for me over the course of three decades.


Q04: You were a pioneer when you conceived your first digital poem in 1982, and then your first holographic poem in 1983. What kind of relationship do you maintain with these two poetry forms, taking into account that these practices didn’t exist in the early 1980s?   

A04. When I wrote my first digital poem in 1982, I didn’t have the immediate means to execute it. I did not have direct access to any electronic device. But I wrote that poem specifically for a digital environment, specifically for an LED screen. Later, I started to write for other kinds of digital environments, but that very first one I wrote for an LED screen. I wrote it thinking about the rectangular form of the screen, but not thinking of it as a flat space; I thought of it more as a circular space. And given the fact that at every point you only apprehend one block of text, I decided that my compositional unit would be a text block. So I removed the spaces, and every single text block occupied the LED screen entirely at one point in time. It would then exit the stage, so to speak, disappear from the screen, and an equivalent block of silence would take its place. Then the next text block would enter the space and then another block of silence would take its place, as if the text were circulating behind the LED screen, as if it made a circle. That syntax forced the reader to engage with the text no longer as discrete verbal units in the form of words, but as blocks of text, so that the reader had to use that moment of silence to connect the blocks. It’s an invented syntax that is not meant to allude to anything specifically, but rather to produce an experience that is unique to that environment.
In the context of poetry, I have never been interested in how to take an existing text and adapt it to new media. Just as a composer will write for piano, or for violin, there is a specific and irreducible materiality, or rather immateriality—because in the realm of the digital, and in the realm of light (as in holographic poetry), we are truly talking about the immaterial. There is an irreducible specificity to these media. Writing for them implies understanding them, not simply using them as they were conceived by those who manufacture them, understanding their true potential and unleashing that potential by going beyond their standard, ordinary use.
That has always been my way of working. In 1983, when I invented holographic poetry, I used the same logic, because a holographic poem is not three-dimensional, it’s four-dimensional. The reader must move in front of the poem to apprehend it. If the poem is mass-produced (which is difficult because it is expensive), then you could move the supporting device on which the poem is affixed. For instance, if the holographic poem is seen on the page, as I did for the catalog of my Holopoetry solo show in New York in 1990, then you can move the book itself. But in both cases, it is always a kinesthetic experience because even if you’re moving your arms, you’re still going to be engaging your perceptual and optical faculties, in conjunction with your upper body activity, as you explore that reading environment. And if the poem is hung in the gallery, then your whole body is co-opted and engaged in the readerly experience. Which means that the experience of the poem is a temporal event.
Of course, any poem implies a temporal reading experience; you can take Shakespeare and read it from top to bottom, and time passes as you do that. But that is not what I mean in the case of the holographic poem. First of all, with Shakespeare the experience is linear because you are going from the first line to the second line to the third, etc. So one aspect of the holographic poem is that the syntax is definitely nonlinear. The poem is created with what I call a discontinuous syntax, so that you can have these quantum leaps. You see a text fragment here, and there is no transition necessarily to the next one, there might be empty space before you experience another text fragment, which could move or morph. You explore the Holopoem this way: bending your knees, stretching your leg, standing on your toes, moving sideways. You perform almost a dance in front of the Holopoem to discover these multiple text fragments that are written to be experienced in this continuous form in time. Not only that, but the textual units themselves might change. They might dissolve, disappear, or transform into something else. All of this orchestrates the three dimensions of space and time together; this four-dimensional syntax, in the end, is unique to the Holographic poem. The fact that I started to make this work in the early 1980s is a clear sign that, when this didn’t exist at all in a larger literary context, my engagement with creative writing and poetry deliberately doesn’t cater to existing mainstream tastes; rather, it establishes a repertoire that is not currently available in the mainstream, and forges a new path. I understood that in the early 1980s we were in the beginning of a new culture (which today we largely describe as digital culture), and the question that I posed myself back then was not “how do we translate previous texts to new media?” but rather “what is the native, genuine, new kind of poetry to be invented for this new culture?” That is the task I have given myself since then.


Q05: In the 1980s and 1990s, you produced telecommunication artworks in which you explored the logic of symbolic exchanges resulting in the use of multiple nonverbal languages. In 2009, you created “Lagoogleglyph,” a hybrid work designed for Google Earth, inconceivable before the 21st century. In what ways did your telecommunication series anticipate the globally interconnected world we live in today?

A05. When I started to work with telecommunications, there wasn’t a global network in place that you could conceive your work for. There was no permanent, stable international system where you could present or enable an event to unfold. So these early telecommunication works—in which I used live television, slow scan, modems, videophones, fax machines, and other telecommunication devices—were created by setting up ephemeral nomadic networks. In other words, there was no distinction between the work and the network itself, because there is no specific outcome that you look for in a telecommunications event. The telecommunications event itself is the work. This was a world in which networking implied the dissemination of radio and television signals to a large buying audience. When you connect individuals and you empower them to speak freely and to connect with each other and exchange text, sound, image, and modify each others’ utterances, it is equivalent to a global jam session. Instead of having musicians coming together with their instruments, you have artists coming together with their videophones and fax machines. They create this collective mind in which nothing belongs to anybody and the exchanges are not about transmission but rather what’s received, transformed, and sent back, pretty much like in a human dialogue, except that you’re not using words, and you are transferring the logic of human conversation to multimedia, to images and sound. So nothing is final, nothing is finite, there is no specific attempt to produce a song or produce a sequence of images, but it is the exchange and transformation of text, sound, and image that constitutes the very nature of the telecommunications event.
You are right in pointing out how I pursued my desire to transform the telecommunications landscape in the context of art. I wished to transform it from an environment in which very few control the information and most of us only receive it, into a multi-directional, free-flowing, multi-connected social space that in a way has a direct relationship to modalities of global interaction as we see unfolding from email to SMS, from social networking to skype. There is indeed a clear link between what I have pursued as an art medium and the kind of interconnected society that we have today. 


Q06: Have you often had to fabricate from scratch the media required to make these artworks, as you had to do with “RC Robot”?

A06. Yes. Not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I had to. In the context of the telecommunications events, I did use fax machines and videophones, and these were devices that in those days were difficult to get, but they existed. Now, when I wanted to invent Telepresence art by coupling a telerobot to a telecommunications system, it wasn’t just difficult, it was impossible. There was nothing to buy anywhere. So the invention of Telepresence art is completely disconnected from the existence of any kind of device in the marketplace or in the social realm. It’s an aesthetic problem that I created, for which I then pursued a technical solution.
I had developed and was involved in a few telecommunications events, and found them fascinating and continued to pursue them. But I also felt that, in the end, the screen didn’t really represent the kind of interface that would convey a sensation of remote presence. I wanted the sensation of remote presence to be embodied, to actually have a physical manifestation at the other location, so that my interlocutors wouldn’t simply receive a verbal, visual, or acoustic utterance from me. I would actually exert a direct, physical manifestation in the other place, and they would too. They would have a physical avatar, an actual, tangible body in the space, which manifested their remote presence. Then I had the idea of creating telerobots, that is, robots connected to a telecommunications system. These robots would be invented specifically for each artwork. But because it was impossible to find this anywhere, I had to engage in the production of these robots. The first robot was created in 1986, and that started a series of robots that continued until 1999.  Seen together, they form an interesting genealogy.


Q07: Your second robot is called “Ornitorrinco [Platypus] (1989-1996), and was designed in collaboration with Ed Bennett in 1989. There is a fundamental difference between your first two robots: one is anthropomorphic and the other is not. Doesn’t this difference correspond to two completely different visions of telerobotics?   

A07. Yes. The first robot was anthropomorphic, and the second represents a dramatic shift from that, a clear evolution in my interests. The second robot doesn’t really resemble anything that we know. It’s a complete invention. It has one eye, and the point of view of the robot is very close to the ground. The robot used the telephone, which was at that time the most ubiquitous telecommunications device, to send motion commands and receive sound and pictures from the eye of the robot. The telephone is connected to a videophone so that you can see the images that are coming back, and you use the keyboard of the telephone as a navigation device. So the number two means “move forward”, number one means “make a left turn”, and so on and so forth. What I’ve done is taken the telephone keyboard that everyone is familiar with and converted it into a spatial grid. By pressing the keys on the grid you can make the robot move in space.
The key in the middle retrieves images. So every time you press that key, you stop the robot and retrieve an image. That way you can use a telephone, which is available all over the world, and navigate from anywhere. This was not the case with the first one, which was radio-controlled. So the second robot is native to the network, in the sense that you can couple it to the network (you could already do that in 1989). Anywhere in the world that had a phone, the robot would be operational. So it was truly ubiquitous in design, created specifically for the network. Not only that, but it is the size of a small animal, and its point of view is closer to the ground, which means that when you are in the body of this robot through the network, when you find yourself in a distant location and you’re looking through its eye, you are seeing the space in a way that is analogous to an animal’s point’ of view. You have a dramatic shift in viewpoint; in other words, telepresence is not about simulation, it’s about stimulation: the participant doesn’t just imagine what it’s like to “be there”, but rather experiences new modalities of presence, something that is unlike his or her ordinary sense of presence.
You are remotely present. You are in a body that is halfway around the world. And you don’t know what this body looks like and you have to discover the space as you discover and experience your body for the first time. Sometimes I had mirrors in the space. Since you don’t know your body, you might look at the mirror and think it’s a space ahead of you, but when you actually try to go there and hit a wall, you realize it’s a mirror. It’s like a child or maybe a chimpanzee discovering itself in the mirror, a true discovery. You see your body for the first time. All of this is unique to Telepresence, to a body like “Ornitorrinco” that is a non-anthropomorphic and a non-zoomorphic body.


Q08: The term “dialogue” appears frequently in your work, for example in your “Dialogical Drawing” (1994), composed of two identical parts that are exhibited in two separate locations. When the viewer sees them, she eventually realizes that she can speak to another viewer through them. At that point, the artwork disappears and is replaced by communication between remote participants. In a sense, the experience of the work escapes you once the public takes over. Is the opening of this channel, in a museum context, anticipatory of our contemporary need to be in constant contact with others?          

A08. You could say so, because the world has changed dramatically since the early 1990s when I created “Dialogical Drawing.” With this work I was interested in further expanding my interests for dialogical interaction.
Specifically, we can identify in my trajectory a series of events with telecommunications media, in which there is no distinction between the work and the network, because I had to design and set up a real telecommunications network between the participants in order to produce a certain kind of intersubjective interaction that was unique to each piece. With “Dialogical Drawing,” I take the question of interconnectedness and move it to the gallery and the museum space. In other words, how do you make work that is predicated on connecting subjects in real time in a world where this is not technically possible?
In 1994, when I made this work, we didn’t have the web as we have it today. The web browser was announced late in 1993, and in 1994 everybody was slowly beginning to discover it. To give you an idea, it was significant the fact that in 1993 over 200 HTTP servers were known to exist. By 1995 the rest of the world had finally started to hear about the web, as it appeared featured on the cover of both Newsweek and Art In America. Perhaps, in retrospect, we could think of “Dialogical Drawing” as a work that prefigures the kind of interconnectivity we experience today, with one-to-one remote conversations taking place in public spaces.
“Dialogical Drawing” is what I call a spatial-temporal diptych, in the sense that it is composed of two interconnected identical pieces displayed remotely from one another. One individual in one location sees it hanging on the wall without any visible wire, and another individual in a remote location sees the exact same object hanging on the wall. They are unaware of the fact that halfway around the world there is somebody else doing the exact same thing. So they approach the work, and they make comments, or they have a conversation about something else in front of the work. Any type of verbal interaction they have will be heard by the other party.
When a person views a piece of art, there is what we call “the cone of vision,” a triangle between the extremities of the piece and the eye of the viewer. The viewer’s distance from the piece establishes the ideal position for the viewer to see that particular work. Of course, if the piece is small, that distance will be closer, if the piece is large, you will move farther away from it. Well, you approach “Dialogical Drawing” and you find what you consider your ideal position to see it. But when you perceive there are sounds coming from it, you get close to it. As you get close to it, you’re listening and no longer looking at it, and the cone of vision disappears. If you’re curious enough, you might say something. “Is anybody there?” And then the other person might be startled and say, “Yes!” and now you are talking, and you are engaged in a dialogical interaction with someone halfway around the world. The ‘drawing’ is not necessarily what you find on the surface of the work, but rather the vectors of this dialogical interaction as they unfold in space and time.
That conical vision, the contemplation, disappears, and true dialogical interaction unfolds in a surprising, unexpected way. So this sense of pleasure in discovery, curiosity, and surprise that characterizes this work is unique to it and may not be necessarily characteristic of social networking, per se, where other things are at stake. But it does represent a move away from a purely screen-based approach to networking issues, and a more bodily engagement of spaces that are now a hybrid of public and private, as museums often are.


Q09: The same year, with “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” you set up an even more improbable dialogue between two different species, a canary and a philodendron. The title of this work refers to John Locke’s treatise; what is the title’s relationship to the artwork?

A09. One of the questions that I started to ask myself in the early 1990s, in part as a consequence of having created telerobots, has to do with shifting points of view. Let me clarify this. “Ornitorrinco” enabled the participant to experience the world from an entirely new perspective by being close to the ground. Your experience of the world was not unlike the way a child or a small mammal sees the world. And I started to ask myself questions about points of view, about the centrality of the human point of view in art. So I wondered what art would be like if it was not created necessarily by humans and for humans.
What does this mean? It would be a truism to say that the entire history of art, from cave painting onwards, has been made by humans for humans. But if we unpack this statement a little more, we realize that art operates within very limited visual and acoustic spectrums. It operates within that small fragment of the sensory world that we humans possess. But the world is a much richer place, with lots of other sounds, colors, images, smells, and kinesthetic experiences. We don’t perceive these because our sensory world is circumscribed by these fixed unchangeable parameters. So I asked myself what would art look like if, on the one hand, we recognized the aesthetic experiences of non-humans, and on the other, made art for non-humans, and also made art for humans trying to go beyond the established sensorial limits that humans comfortably accept and work with.
In the early 1990s when I asked these questions, I was met mostly with laughter, but interspecies communication has since become recognized as a serious topic of study, as an important aspect of human and non-human experience alike, and also as an art medium. This work was the first in which I created an art piece fundamentally for non-humans. The piece places a bird in a large comfortable cage in one location, and a plant in another remote location. The bird sings, the song travels through the network, the plant is exposed to the song of the bird, and the electrical fluctuation of the plant triggers sounds that travel back to the bird, creating a relationship through the network between two different forms of life, plant and bird. The plant has no vocal apparatus, but through the system they interact acoustically and produce an interspecies dialogue.
The reference to Locke is also a reference to the western philosophical canon, emblematic of a particular way of looking at non-humanity. Locke, like many others who came before and after him, believed that animals lacked the power of abstract thought and therefore lacked the ability to produce language, and that this was the fundamental difference between humans and animals. But, since the 1980s, cognitive ethology has been demonstrating that animals do think, and have innate abilities that we are unfamiliar with, such as the creation of tools. The assumption that they do not use language is misleading in trying to understand non-humans, because it is predicated on a human-centered form of language that suits human needs.
I wanted to signal my commitment to expanding ideas of what art can be by creating this first work, conceived entirely for the non-human. Of course, to use Richard Ryder’s term, I am not a ‘specieist’, so I will not discriminate against the human. Humans can come and see the work, but the work was not made for them, it was not created for their sensorial universe. It was created for the sensorial world of a bird and a plant. 


Q10: Local audiences and Internet users experiencing the work “Rara Avis” (1996) can embody a robotic macaw located inside an aviary that also contains real birds. The participant is outside the cage and, through the use of a special headset, is able to see through the macaw’s point of view. Does this telepresence experience allow people to virtually transcend their bodies and, for the duration of the experience, live among another species?

A10. Yes. There is an aspect of “Rara Avis” that has to do with interspecies communication. When you find yourself in the body of this telerobotic parrot, your presence inside the cage is very different from what your presence would be if you physically entered the cage as a human being. Even though the cage is very big, and very comfortable in that way, when you physically enter the cage the little birds do not want to be near you; they detect that you are human, they know you are human, and they fly away and they seek the highest point available in the cage to perch. However, the telerobotic macaw is perched, static, on the corner of the cage (the cage has a triangular shape). And the birds, in fact, are not afraid of it. They even perch on it themselves. But when you move or speak, either outside the cage or through the Internet, the telerobotic parrot mimics your motion and sounds. The real, living birds respond to the actions of the telerobotic parrot.
So there is a direct relationship between local and remote human action, and the activity of the birds in space. Humans hear and respond to the birds and vice-versa. The coupling of the living with the robotic, the merging of the local and the remote, the connection between the human and the nonhuman—all of this produces an experience that is unlike anything else, a unique characteristic of “Rara Avis.”


Q11: This work is relatively complex in the sense that it can be accessed in many different ways. Would you say that this characteristic is meant to draw our attention to the expansion and diversification of communication media, the effect of which is to increase the digital divide between those who can afford such media and those who can’t?

A11.  Yes, that is one important aspect of this work. Back in 1996, when I presented “Rara Avis” and it was first shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Atlanta, museums had telephones and occasionally fax machines, and that was it. Because the Internet was absolutely indispensable to the realization of this work, I had to physically bring the Internet to the museum myself. I brought the cables and routers and I physically wired the museum to the Internet. The servers were located inside my piece. I served directly from the museum itself. Today we can expect this kind of infrastructure, but back in those days, if you wanted to make a piece like that in the museum, you had to do it yourself.
Even today, the kind of access that you have affects, in a very direct way, the experience that you have, so the Internet is a very different place for different people. If you have a fast computer and if you have broadband, the Internet is one space for you. If you have a narrow band, and a slow computer, then the Internet is an entirely different space. If you have access to mobile devices and wifi, then the Internet is still a different environment for you. What I wanted to do with the way that I created and produced the network of “Rara Avis” was to manifest the very nature of the participant’s experience, the fact that the Internet, contrary to what we are often told, is not an egalitarian commons. The Internet fundamentally reflects the inequalities that exist in the world at large.
So I created a network that had different layers, from the most accessible and the most popular to the most rarified and the most inaccessible. By designing a network like this and making the public aware of this structure, the public also became aware that the web is not the same for everyone.


Q12 : The amount of light a plant receives depends on its geographical location and the changing of the seasons. In Teleporting An Unknown State” (1994-1996), you placed a seed in complete darkness and allowed remote Internet participants to send to the plant sunlight from all over the world. The plant’s photosynthesis is no longer dependent on seasonal change or physical location, because you have given an online audience the power to keep the plant alive.  In this sense, is there a connection between this work and “Cypher”?

A12. Yeah, it is interesting to establish a relationship between “Teleporting an Unknown State” and “Cypher.” In “Teleporting an Unknown State” the plant’s life quite literally depends on direct engagement of the Internet participant.  But with “Cypher”, although the logic of enabling life is related, the difference is that we are not enabling the life of an organism that is already there, but rather we are creating new bacteria. With this DNA, you’re not only giving life to the poem, but you are genetically creating a life form that never existed with these genetic characteristics in the world before. So yes, there is a relationship. One involves nurturing and a gesture that is familiar: the smallest kinesthetic unit, the smallest little click, which we use to send emails or buy items on the Internet, that one gesture is sufficient to keep another life form alive. “Cypher” on the other hand, requires a protocol, requires you to follow a series of procedures, and what you are actually bringing into the world is a life form that never existed before as such. They both conjure up new kinds of relationship to nonhuman life.


Q13: I remember one day we were walking together on boulevard du Montparnasse, and I connected to “Teleporting An Unknown State” with my cell phone. I could see the sky of Paris simultaneously on the screen and above me. Because it was dark in Paris, I decided to send sunlight from Tokyo to the plant, located in Overland Park, Kansas. Internet communities formed around this plant a long time before the emergence of social networks. According to Walter Benjamin, “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” Is this the case in “Teleporting an Unknown State”

A13. This is a very interesting comparison, because I remember in the early 1990s already thinking about the fact that I could find myself in a server downloading or uploading or browsing, and be completely unaware of the presence of other people in that same server; not only would I not know if there were people there, but I would not know if there was any other activity happening simultaneously. And this didn’t make any sense to me. Based on my previous Telepresence work, I wanted to use the web not just as a space in which you upload or download things or browse websites, but also as a space in which there would be mutual awareness and there would be a sense of connectivity between what happens in the digital realm and what happens in the physical realm.
I never subscribed to the metaphysical leanings that many implied were characteristic of the Internet. I always believed that this new culture would evolve through the interplay between relationships and transactions as they happen both virtually and in the tangible world, so that there would be an interplay between these two realms.
“Teleporting in a Known State,” conceived in 1994 and presented in 1996, was created specifically with this in mind. In this work, you are invited to click on different sky-facing webcams located in different parts of the world. There is a plant in the dark space. The viewer/participant is invited to click on the names of these cities, and to transmit light from the sky of different parts of the world to this plant, so the plant can do photosynthesis and grow. This horizon of possibilities creates a liminal state between life and death. If participants do send light, the plant will do photosynthesis and we will see that it lives. If participants decide not to send light, then we will see the plant dying before our very eyes. There’s a sense, therefore, of responsibility. It’s a connectivity that literally helps another life form survive. There is a sense of collective action and responsibility.


Q14: Your telepresence works also enabled you to address the notion of controlling the “other”. One example of this is “The Telepresence Garment,” which you presented in 1996 during the fourth Saint Petersburg biennial. While wearing this garment, you could neither see nor feel your environment, so you were entirely dependent on the participant who remotely controlled your body. Is this work, which deals with the remote control of a human, similar to “RC Robot” and “Ornitorrinco [Platypus],” which deal with the remote control of robots?  

A14. The question for me is not remote control, but embodiment and point of view. So, yes and no. Yes in the sense that “Telepresence Garment” continues my work towards the development of an aesthetic of Telepresence by coupling telecommunications to a remotely operated entity, usually robots, to produce a point of view, an experience of presence, that is not the one we are accustomed to. To create a new modality of presence.
No in the sense that, whereas with “RC Robot” and “Ornitorrinco” I invited the viewer/participant to experience the world from the perspective of the robot, here I invite the same viewer in a sense to become the robot, so I’m basically invoking the inversion of perspective.
“Telepresence Garment” is not a piece that is meant as a performance. It is meant as interactive, to enable the participant to actually wear it, to actually find himself or herself inside the garment. The person cannot see or speak. The person receives instructions in real time through a wireless audio link, and somebody else sees through the eye of the participant. The participant is then guided by this other person, and hosts the cognitive processes of another person. So in this case the human takes the place of the robot.
Your body is completely constrained by the garment: you have very little mobility, the fabric is not very elastic, it forces you on all fours, you move and breathe with difficulty, you cannot see or speak. You become the conduit for the desires, the explorations, the volition, the curiosity of another person. Once you come out of this confinement, all of your senses reawaken, and what used to be an ordinary space becomes rich and enlivened and rewarding; you reconnect with the sensuality of what we otherwise would call the ordinary world.


Q15:Darker than Night” (1999) is similar to “Rara Avis.” It includes a headset that enables the participant to embody a robotic bat (or “batbot”), which resembles the real bats that cohabit the space. The batbot emits ultrasound, just like a living bat. Does this work aim at initiating interspecies dialogue and, consequently, encourage us to reconsider our relationship with nonhuman species?     

15. Yes, that is one important aspect of this work. The relationship between “Darker Than Night” and “Rara Avis” is clear in one aspect: you, the participant, take the point of view of the animal. In the case of “Rara Avis” it’s a parrot, and in the case of “Darker Than Night” it’s a bat. But while the parrot is a bird, the bat is a mammal, therefore closer to us in the community of life.
Bats aren’t blind, as most people think, but they navigate primarily through echolocation, through emission of ultrasound, which produces a three-dimensional acoustic image or sense of the space in their mind. So it is a mammal, but one that operates very differently than us. We echolocate as well; we don’t emit ultrasound, but we form a mental image of our environment based on acoustic return. Because we are primarily visual creatures, we repress our ability to navigate the space acoustically. Those who have their vision system compromised develop that ability.
I was interested in bringing the viewer/participant into that other world, and allowing them to imagine themselves as bats, or have an experience that would be as close as possible to what it might feel like to be a bat. The attempt here is not at simulation, not to explain how it feels to be a bat, but through art and imagination and creativity, to stimulate the imagination of the viewer.
So one important difference is that “Rara Avis” actually allowed the visitor to see video through the eye of the parrot; in the case of the bat there is no video, only the emission of ultrasound. What the viewer/participant sees instead is a graphic representation of the movement of sounds that emanate from their body (that is, the body of the robotic bat) and travel in space. And when a living bat flies within that field of ultrasound, then there is a representation of that bat in that field. Which is to say, you have a graphic representation of that moment of encounter in your ultrasound visualization.
So there is going to be a mutual ultrasound awareness between you (i.e., the robotic bat) and the actual flying bat in the cave where the piece is located. This work produces a dialogical interaction between different species through the medium of this batbot that I created, where human and bat meet.  


Q16: Would you say that your telepresence works and your telerobots embody a genealogy that goes from human to nonhuman? 

A16. Yes. Absolutely. My first telepresence robot, “RC Robot” from 1986, was anthropomorphic. It was a little bit taller than myself, and humanoid, therefore it created a sense of empathy to those first audiences, who were still unaccustomed to the very idea of Telepresence. I subsequently created “Ornitorrinco” which has the name of an animal, but doesn’t look like one. I chose this name (platypus, in English) because this animal is popularly thought of as a hybrid of, say, a duck and a beaver. As a mammal, it occupies a unique branch in the history of evolution.
However, what I wanted with that name was not to represent the platypus but to signal the idea of uniqueness and hybridity. So the telerobot “Ornitorrinco” doesn’t look like anything in particular. It is its own thing, it’s an invented body with an invented sensorial system, its own modalities of interface and adaptability to networks. Each “Ornitorrinco” event had different interfaces and different networks, created specifically for that particular piece.
So from that point on, you see that my robots began to change. The next in line, “Rara Avis” from 1996, is perched on a branch. The next robot was the “Batbot” from early 1999, which is attached to one point, hanging upside down like a bat. The next one, “Uirapuru,” is a free-flying robot that actually flies in three-dimensional space, close to the ceiling of the gallery, and it’s in the shape of a fish. Viewers/participants are invited to occupy that point of view, to be present in the body of this flying fish and to see the world from its perspective.
So you see that in the course of approximately thirteen years, my robots started out anthropomorphic, then became very close to the ground with the point of view of a small mammal, then moved up to a perch, then hung upside down, and then, in a sense, flew away.


Q17: A-positive” (1997) is the first of your works that combines biology and art. The blood you exchange with the robot, which you call a “biobot”, sets up an interdependent relationship between you and the machine. Is this why you realized this performance, to encourage us to reconsider our relationship with robots that are usually made to serve us?

A17. In reality, it was not a performance. The work was conceived as an interactive piece, it was meant to enable the local audience to interact with it.
So you’d come into the room, and you’d find a robot and a very comfortable armchair. You would sit; the phlebotomist would actually introduce a needle into each arm. So there are two needles. It’s an intravenous interface. One needle takes blood from you and automatically moves it into the robot, and the robot monitors the amount of blood that is going into its glass heart. Once it reaches the recommended maximum amount of blood, the robot extracts oxygen from your blood and uses it to ignite a small flame inside its glass heart. While this is happening, the robot has raised its arm and is donating dextrose to you through the other needle, so that you can be nourished and recover from the blood that you have donated.
So this was meant as an interactive piece, not a performance. When this piece was unveiled, the room was full of people. There was a medical doctor and everyone was offered the opportunity to have the experience, and because nobody volunteered, I did it. But it’s not a performance. It’s an interactive work that is open to everyone who wants to have this interaction with the robot and see the flame they produce in the heart of the robot.
Thus, “A-positive” was and was not my first biological work for several reasons. It was not my first biological work because with “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” from 1994, I had already created a work of art that was a piece of interspecies communication designed specifically for non-humans. I did that by wiring a plant to a computer, which was connected to the network, and enabled it to communicate with a bird at a distance through sounds. So that, in a sense, was the first work that involved biology directly.
In 1997, a unique year in my trajectory, I created two works: “A-positive” and “Time Capsule”. In a sense they represent two sides of a coin. In “Time Capsule,” we see technology migrating inside the living body; with “A-positive”, we see living tissue migrating inside the robotic body.


Q18:Time Capsule” (1997) integrates a variety of media, including the database, in a rather unusual way. The RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip that you implanted in your own ankle has a number, which you then entered into an online database of domestic pets. In the database, your number appeared as both pet and pet owner. But “Time Capsule” also includes a series of photographs. What do these photographs represent, and what is their function in the work? 

A18. “Time Capsule” has multiple elements that come together around the ‘time capsule’ itself, which is this microchip that I implanted live on TV and on the web. I implanted this microchip in front of seven sepia-toned photographs. These are the actual photographs taken in Poland before 1939 by my grandmother and her family. They are of her siblings and friends, all of whom were killed in the war, so these images represent—with the exception of my grandmother—those who did not survive.
There’s absolutely no explanation anywhere of the content of these images, because my intent was not to make the viewer think about my personal family history, but rather to identify a certain atmosphere that is common to most families in the western hemisphere. Most of us have sepia-toned photographs in our family albums, and they remind us of grandparents and aunts and uncles and others who have come before us who lived in another place and time. So rather than make the viewer think about my personal family history, I want the pictures to trigger the viewer’s own memories, recollections, and family histories.
In any case, the main point is that these sepia-toned photographs allude very directly to the fact that, at some point, there were individuals standing directly in front of this camera, and their image was captured, and that image was then externalized, preserved, and manifested materially on this physical surface, the paper, the object. We, by our turn, look at these images and internalize them, because they helps us develop a sense of personal identity, they provide us with a sense of historical context for our families and ourselves. This analog memory goes through a process of externalization and subsequent internalization.
I implanted the memory microchip in front of these images in order to establish a contrast that elucidates the condition of memory in the digital age. This digital memory, this microchip, which contains a sequence of numbers, becomes internalized by crossing the boundary of the skin and resting underneath the skin. Therefore it’s a time capsule buried not in the earth but under the skin.
The content of this embedded microchip was then externalized on the web in the third section of the TV program. Remote participants could retrieve the content of the microchip through a webscanning device in the art gallery; it all happened live both on television and online. They retrieved the actual content of the microchip without making physical contact with my body, just by sending a signal through the air and activating the microchip, which then fired back the content of the chip itself. It’s a different kind of process in which memory is internalized (by literally being placed inside the body) and also a different way in which memory is externalized (through the network and the webscanning apparatus).
If a computer has digital memory, and so does a human body, what does that say about the boundaries between humans and machines in the future? If the human is a walking node of the network, if the human contains digital information just like a computer, and if we can retrieve digital information from inside the human body through the network, what does that say about the future condition of the human in a globally connected information society?


Q19: In 1997, you coined the term “bio art” to define “A-positive” and “Time Capsule”. The following year, you published a theoretical text in the Leonardo Electronic Almanac that could be read as a manifesto, in which you also laid the foundation for transgenic art.  Could you give us more details about this artistic trend you initiated in 1998?

A19. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, digital art developed in very enriching ways. And of course, the development of the web browser, around 1993, provided an impetus to this development. But another side effect of this growth and development was the fact that around 1997, digital art began to lose a little bit of its edge and its true experimental nature. As a result, it started to become more accepted, more mainstream. It became somewhat repetitive, and evolved to embrace an excessive virtuality. At that time, we heard ideas of disembodiment and the uploading of consciousness; ideas that, in my view, erroneously disregard embodied subjectivity.
I have always been interested in this transition and continuity between the virtual and physical realms. So in order to bring about a visceral turn within digital practice, in 1997 I envisioned these two complimentary works, “A-positive” and “Time Capsule,” that would begin, clearly and unambiguously, to shift the vector away from the purely digital, and into a realm in which the living would be central to the development of a new art.
Therefore, because there was no name for this new art, in 1997 I coined the term “bio art.” In 1998 I wrote the text “Transgenic Art,” in which I articulated my specific program of development within this new area more clearly. And in 1999, I presented “Genesis,” my first transgenic artwork.


Q20: At the core of the transgenic work “Genesis” (1999) is what you call the “artist’s gene.” To produce it, you translated into Morse Code the sentence “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” from The Book of Genesis. Then you converted the Morse into DNA base pairs according to a code you conceived specifically for this work. You have a unique poetic trajectory. You have also developed communications-based artworks, from telepresence to interspecies exchanges. Are your human and nonhuman linguistic correspondences linked to those of Baudelaire?   

A20. When Baudelaire wrote his sonnet on correspondences, he was alluding to synesthesia, to sensorial correspondence. Granted, Baudelaire experimented physically with hashish but he was not a synesthete himself and the poem fundamentally makes reference to the intermingling of the senses. The types of relationships that I am interested in exploring are less in the realm of allusion as Baudelaire pursued, and more in the realm of a physical sensorial phenomenon that is experienced directly by the participant, be it human or non human. There is a fundamental difference between using language to allude to a sensorial phenomenon and creating a work of art that is itself a sensorial phenomenon. I created a code for “Genesis” that allows me to translate a statement written in English to the binary system of Morse code, and then to DNA. (Of course, when I refer to Morse as “binary” I don’t mean to say it is a binary system of the kind found in computers; I simply mean it is composed of two things.) When you mention “Genesis” in relation to this idea of correspondences, which in this particular case is actually encoding, there is no Baudelarian correspondence between the senses, but there is a process in which the system of natural language gets encoded into a binary system, Morse, which is encoded into the four chemical bases of DNA. This DNA is then fully operational within a living body. When this DNA is actually physically manufactured, synthesized, and produced, it exists just like anything else in the physical world, and it actually functions inside of a cell. That encoded text is now an integral part of the body of the bacteria.
Thus we have the Genesis bacteria, a new life form that did not exist on planet earth before the creation of this artwork. We have come a long way from the Baudelarian correspondences, the “ecstasies of the mind and senses,” and we have entered the realm of creation of life.


Q21: The synthetic gene, which is central to “Genesis,” is spliced together with the GFP gene, which causes the bacteria to glow. The audience can choose to turn on an ultraviolet light that provokes mutation, and, as a consequence, alters the biblical statement; they can also choose to abstain and leave the statement intact. What do you think of this biblical command? As a viewer, would you support those who trigger the ultraviolet light and mutate the bacteria to alter the message inside?

A21.  Yes, I would, as a participant/viewer. I would click and cause the mutation and alter the meaning of the biblical statement in the body of the bacteria. Because my point with this statement, my point in creating this opportunity for the viewer/participant, to choose—to click or not to click, that is the question—is motivated by the fact that whether or not one deliberately chooses to participate in the process, one is automatically implicated in that process. Any action, even inaction, has a direct bearing on the outcome of life. If you do not click, you contribute to the preservation of the biblical statement. You enable that statement to continue to affirm human supremacy over all other life forms. If you do click, you cause a mutation in it. You change it, you disfigure it. But you do not control the new meanings that might emerge. So you change, you interfere, you cause noise, you mutate the biblical statement, you prevent it from continuing to state human supremacy, but you do that by actually changing the DNA of a living organism.
On the other hand, if you do not want to change the DNA of a living organism, you remove yourself from the work, and in this case you contribute to preserving the semantic status quo present in the bacteria. One way or another, you are implicated in what happens with that statement.
So yes, I would choose to mutate, because in life, as we always experience it, whether we know it or not, we are constantly altering the environment. When you shake somebody’s hand, you are swapping or killing bacteria and making cells fall from your hand. Even the slightest gesture has a direct implication. Your dietary choices have an impact on the behavior and life cycle of the symbiotic bacteria that inhabit the human gut. This idea that humans somehow constitute an isolated, distinct, separate entity from other life forms is simply false. We live in symbiosis; we live as a network interconnected with other life forms. The new emerging model is to consider the ‘human’ not an entity in itself but rather a ‘supraorganism’ whose characteristics integrate human and microbial metabolism. In other words, the ‘human’ genetic landscape is composed of both the human genome and the genomes of our microbes, our endosymbionts.


Q22: Let’s talk now about your fluorescent rabbit, Alba. “GFP Bunny” (2000) was created in a laboratory using a fluorescent gene from the Aequorea Victoria jellyfish, and glows green only under a certain blue light. The scientists who discovered the protein, now commonly used as a genetic marker, were awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 2008, and one of them even mentioned “GFP Bunny” in his official acceptance speech. Do you, through GFP Bunny, shed light on what it means for a new life form to emerge?

A22. Absolutely. Yes. Because for me, bio art is, above all, an ontological art form. More specifically, I am not interested in genetic objects, I am not interested in genetic machines; I am interested in the creation of new life forms, in the way they exist socially, and in what happens to humans and nonhumans when a new life form comes into existence as a result of the imagination of the artist—when the art form exists not as a drawing or a painting or a photo, but as a living, breathing, metabolizing individual just like you and I.
What happens when this life form is physically in the world? It expands the community of life, it calls for an intersubjective engagement, it demands our response (in many cases our responsibility), and the very fact of its existence owes nothing to anything external to itself, just like you and I; it is a phenomenon that, in my view, constitutes the fundamental aspect of bio art.


Q23: In 2000, the general public was already well acquainted with the web. As a result, they very quickly learned about the green bunny affair. “GFP Bunny” went viral, as a quick Google search will verify. The public appropriated Alba as an icon, and some people even used her image on their Facebook profiles. This work escapes all attempts to control it, doesn’t it?

A23. Yes, it does—but it was never my intention to control it. In reality, it has started a process that I call “generative reception.” When an artist creates a work of art, or has an exhibition, the most common types of responses have to do with how many people come to see the show, or a critical article that gets published in a newspaper, or, most likely, in a specialized magazine.
A review or a critical analysis is the common type of response you get by creating or exhibiting a work of art. Maybe the curator sees the piece and wants to create another show, and that’s another way in which you have a response. But with “GFP Bunny,” I observed an entirely different kind of response.
This is why I coined the term “generative reception,” because rather than receiving the work in the usual way—by writing a review, curating another show, or coming in larger numbers—the public has actually appropriated Alba’s icon and used it to generate their own modalities of creation, to unleash their own creativity. Alba has become a character in several novels written in different countries. She has been appropriated by students in different contexts. She has been used as an example of potential business practices. She has also been used also as an emblem of the biopunk movement, which is antithetical to mainstream biotechnology. She has been adopted by people on opposite sides of the political spectrum. She appears in children’s books. She has been appropriated by DJs, philosophers, and creative writers. They have all transformed her into something else. Not to mention journalists, who have used her to produce different kinds of discourses.
Alba has become an icon that the public not only thinks about, but also thinks with. In that sense she escapes control, because her icon circulates globally in ways that are completely unexpected and unpredictable. In response, I have recognized this condition. Her icon and her story are continuously transformed internationally, so that the body of this discourse is generated globally. In response to this, I have been creating works that reflect her global condition.


Q24: The National Institute for Agronomic Research in Jouy-en-Josas, where Alba was born, prevented her from leaving the laboratory, even for the limited duration of an exhibition. She was never allowed to go home with you and your family, as had been previously agreed upon. In response, you created a campaign that included posters featuring the words Ethics, Art, Family, Media, Nature, Science and Religion paired with an image of her in your arms. In December 2000, you posted them all over Paris like lost pet flyers. Your campaign also included a series of public lectures, one of them being the conference I attended at La Sorbonne. Is this poster campaign, despite its communicative and political nature, the expression of a relative kind of despair?

A24. In a sense, yes, because the way the events unfolded was highly unexpected. I had an agreement with scientist Louis-Marie Houdebine that Alba would meet me in Avignon. I would live in the gallery with Alba in a reproduction of my living room, and the public would have been allowed to join us in that space. There would have been a blue light, so she could glow; of course, I would not glow, so there would be two mammals, one blue and one green, and we would have a debate. All this was announced and printed. Louis Bec called the debate “Des gènes sur l’herbe” (Genes on the Grass) which is clearly a play on words with “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass), and none of this happened because the director of the lab overpowered the scientist, removed his autonomy, and prevented him from allowing me to bring Alba to Avignon and subsequently to Chicago.
When we learned of this, it seemed so illogical, because there was an agreement, no problem, and no reason why she wouldn’t be allowed to come. But this decision, made completely in isolation by the director of the lab, took me by surprise. So I went back to Paris from Chicago and spent thirteen days working from 9 am to 9 pm, developing a public campaign to mobilize public opinion towards the liberation of Alba. I calculate that with all the TV and radio broadcasts, and the visibility of posters on the streets, I reached at least half of the population of Paris. So there was a very direct engagement, on my part, with the public at large in an attempt to mobilize it; that was the public side of my campaign. Privately, I met with a lot of different people, curators and critics and scientists, and I tried to find ways to reach the director of the lab in private. It was summer while this was unfolding, and we all know what happens during summer: nobody’s available. By the end of summer, the director was no longer the head of the laboratory.
All of this was a completely unexpected sequence of events that took me by surprise, and dramatic circumstances required dramatic responses.


Q25: Alba has started to recede from our consciousness. Even in your “Lapin Mémoire” drawings, she is fading away.Is the series “Rabbit Remix” an attempt to carry on her memory in the form of drawings, prints, paintings, murals and sculptures?


A25. Rabbit remix started in a very spontaneous way. Because of the censorship imposed by the director of the lab, my first response was my “Free Alba!” campaign. I created seven posters to ignite that campaign.
Remember that the Bush-Gore campaigns were a background to this project, but also the doomsday general feeling, the millennial apocalypse horizon that loomed over the emblematic number 2000. So there are a lot of contexts to Alba’s birth. I found myself surrounded by republican flags at my home in Chicago, so I decided to create the Alba flag. While my neighbors pledged allegiance to their cause, I pledged allegiance to Alba.
From the posters, that allowed me to take the campaign publicly to different locations, to the highly political emblematic nature of the flag, the series started to progressively take form. Because she was born in the year 2000, by 2001 there was a very large number of articles about her published in the world media. And because, as we know, newspapers and magazines will take any fact and shape it in the manner that they see fit in order to sell magazines and newspapers to their target audience, be it right-wing with Le Figaro, or left-wing with Libération, they completely changed the artwork into material to sell newspapers. Then I realized that this phenomenon was taking place, so I created the “Free Alba!” photographs in which I reappropriated their appropriation of my artwork.
This engagement with the news media took a lyrical turn. For example, my drawing “Three Rabbits” includes Bugs Bunny and the Energizer Bunny. This is because the media would write articles with cliché headlines like “What’s Up Doc? Transgenic Bunny censored in Avignon” and “Energizer Bunny: She keeps glowing and glowing...” So I reappropriated these images back into a lyrical drawing where you see a hand-drawn form of Alba side by side with a hand-drawn Energizer Bunny and Bugs Bunny.
This engagement with the news media led me to carve a space in this drawing series for something more personal, like “Lapin Memóire,” which could be translated as “rabbit memory,” or “the memory of a bunny,” in which Alba appears as a very diffused form, a recollection, which is a way of reaffirming her presence to our collective memory. Little by little, the series evolved in a very spontaneous way. By 2006, we had, in a sense, come to the conclusion that she would never come home. Because I felt that this moment was beginning to escape me, I created “Featherless,” a sculpture that recreates the photograph of me holding her in my arms in the lab where she was born, which is the picture on the seven campaign posters. I wanted to recapture that moment by rendering it in three-dimensions.
All of this happened in a very spontaneous, unplanned manner. By 2006, when I lived in Paris, I realized that the discourse around Alba had really mushroomed in many languages and many different contexts. I responded by creating the “Lagoglyphs”, a form of visual language in which we see variations on the bunny form, reimagined through a hybrid of multiple modalities of language, such as hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Hebrew, and pre-Columbian languages. This Lagoglyphic language works like the opposite of our language, because if you take the Latin alphabet, for example, and permutate the fixed number of twenty-six letters, you arrive at the totality of meanings possible. With the “Lagoglyphs,” we have the opposite. We have meaning that is fixed (always Alba), but an infinite number of signs that perpetuates itself endlessly.


Q26: “GFP Bunny,” like “The Weather Project” by Olafur Eliasson and “Cloaca” by Wim Delvoye, is one of the most remarkable works of the early 21st century. Is the fact that these works surpass nature what makes them so spectacular?

A26. In a sense, yes, but it also depends on what one understands by “nature”. If one considers nature what we find outside of the human realm, then you could say yes. On the other hand, if, like me, you consider nature to be the laws of physics, then you would say that works such as these are only possible because of nature.
In other words, they are only possible because they do not defy the laws of physics. There is something about the scale as well. The Turbine Hall project involves light in space, it envelops the body and occurs on a very large scale. Cloaca is really a series of works. You have, all the way from the original Cloaca (which is very large), to progressively smaller and portable Cloaca machines. In both cases, there is an attempt to replicate something that we already find within what one traditionally considers to be “nature.” In Olafur’s case, the sun, and in Wim’s case, shit. But in the case of “GFP Bunny,” we have something different. There is no attempt to reproduce something we have already experienced, but rather to produce something we have never seen before anywhere—to literally bring to life a creature that was imagined by the artist.
There’s also an important distinction between “The Weather Project” and “Cloaca.” While the first alludes to its subject (i.e. represents the sun), the second actually materializes its subject (i.e. makes real shit). So, of course, even though “GFP Bunny” follows the laws of physics, it really does not operate within the logic of “The Weather Project” and “Cloaca,” because these two projects re-present (i.e. present again) something that we already know—the sun, or shit—and GFP Bunny brings into the world something that did not exist at all before.


Q27: Your sculpture “Boulevard Alba” is shaped like a traditional Parisian street sign. The plaque reads: “Hommage de la France à la lapine verte en reconnaissance de sa contribution exceptionnelle à la défense du droit des nouveaux êtres vivants [France pays homage to the green bunny in recognition of her exceptional contribution to the defense of the rights of new living beings].” I think there’s a humorous tone to this piece. Do you agree?

A27. This sentence has an ambiguous tone. On the one hand it has humor, because it uses the exact same syntax and vocabulary that official plaques employ when paying public homage to national heroes. Because Alba was born in France, and because she has become emblematic for a lot of different issues, the creation of this plaque, in a sense, embodies that heroic condition. It is as if this four-legged French citizen had lived and died as the symbol of a national cause.
But at the same time, it functions critically. It questions how national identity is constructed, and those that are acknowledged, respected, and ultimately idolized as heroes that represent a certain image of the nation. In the Middle Ages the criminal prosecution and the capital punishment of nonhuman animals was common (a practice continued into the twentieth century). This idea was taken up, albeit in a much different way, by the late twentieth century television program “Animal Court.” Throughout the twentieth century nonhuman animals have been treated not just as criminals but also as celebrities, as the case of certain racing horses and canine stars such as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (the latter even being the subject of a full-book biography). Alba, the first nonhuman art star, is not an art object; she is what I call an art subject. By virtue of being transgenic, and by receiving global exposure, she has brought to light the fact that we humans are and have always been transgenic. This is something that we learned through the Human Genome Project. Humans have DNA that comes from nonhuman life forms, bacteria and viruses, for example. It’s in our chromosomes, we inherit it and we pass it on to our offspring. If we have DNA from creatures that are not human, we are by scientific definition transgenic.
So if you think of Alba as the “other,” as a “monster,” and you realize that you possess the exact characteristics that make you think of her this way, you are forced to think of yourself as a monster as well. The idea of stable identity is challenged the moment you begin to understand that her characteristics are not as foreign as you originally thought.
The plaque uses humor, initially, to make us think about other ways in which identity is constructed in the twenty-first century.


Q28: Beyond Alba herself, and the preservation of her memory, what is the common thread that unites the different works in the Rabbit Remix” series?

A28. As I mentioned before, the creation of this series evolved in a very organic manner. That is, it wasn’t a deliberate, conscious decision to create the series, in order to extend her life. She was alive when I started the series, but she was being kept hostage in the laboratory where she was born. Initially, my campaign—the lectures, flags, online Guestbook, meetings, broadcasts, public interventions and posters—was a direct response to the situation in which Alba and I found ourselves. The lab broke its agreement and I tried to reverse that situation. From that, other artworks were created always in response to the circumstances.
Many years later we can look back and see that this body of work has always been transforming itself in response to the circumstances. We can now see that this series of works helped extend Alba’s reach beyond its initial context. Now that she has passed away, it also helps perpetuate her memory in the public realm.


Q29. Your work “Lagoglyphs: The Lepus Constellation Suite” (2009) combines your interest in both language and physical distance. The five messages that you transmitted from Cape Canaveral towards the bunny constellation transform the rabbit into signs of the same language. These signs evoke the singularity of the green bunny, and they will arrive at their destination in 2038. Isn't this a symbolic action aimed at extending even further the existence of this chimerical animal, through a transmission into the future?

A29. It’s a real transmission (at a frequency of 6105 MHz) that carries a clear symbolic charge. Yes. The way you phrase it makes perfect sense. A Space capsule, if you will. Obviously I don’t count on anyone responding when the message arrives at the Lepus constellation. I have no specific expectations of what will happen to these Lagoglyph messages when they arrive, but I do know that they will arrive around 2038, and it is interesting to consider the fact (even though it was not my original motivation) that this constellation is among the top ten constellations that NASA has targeted for their Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. NASA believes that there are planets in this constellation that may be somewhat similar to our own, and they are trying to identify the existence of planets within this constellation. As a side note, open Google Earth in the “Sky” menu, type “Lepus” and press return. You’ll be taken directly to it and will see the constellation in the form of a bunny body and its protruding ears. Zoom in and right-click on the stars. Try Nihal, for example, the second brightest star in the Lepus constellation, with 150 times the luminosity of the Sun. A window pops up offering, not without a sense of humor, the options “Directions to here” and “Directions from here.” So who knows what the future holds. Alea jacta est.


Q30: Alba, at the dawn of the new millennium, has almost been welcomed as an alien. To some extent, “Lagoogleglyph” and “The Lepus Constellation Suite” are works addressed in two opposite directions, one from Earth to space and the other from space to Earth. Is this another way of highlighting her uniqueness?

A30. This condition that you allude to, that Alba has been treated like an alien upon her arrival, is echoed by the popular idea that Martians are green. The conventional depiction of extraterrestrials as green creatures goes back at least to the nineteenth century. In 1917, when he lived in Oak Park, Illinois, where coincidentally I also reside, Edgar Rice Burroughs published his novel A Princess of Mars, in which the lead character, John Carter, meets four-armed green nomadic tribesmen. Since then, this conceit has gained ever more popular currency, to the point of becoming a Pixar movie entitled John Carter of Mars—not to mention countless other fictional works in which green outer space humanoids were featured throughout the twentieth century. So, this construction of the “alien,” of the “other,” and the association with the color green, is something that may have played an unconscious role in the public reception of Alba, when she first appeared.
Indeed, her singularity is highlighted in the double-gesture of creating works that send messages to space (“Lepus Constellation Suite”) and see messages from space (“Lagoogleglyphs”). There are many interesting issues surrounding these two works. The double-gesture could be compared to another double-gesture that I carried out in 1997; “A-positive” and “Time Capsule” were both created the same year, as a single action. “Time Capsule” brings technology literally inside the human body while “A-positive” brings the living literally inside the robotic body.
Likewise, I carried out a double-gesture in “Lagoogleglyphs” and the “Lepus Constellation Suite.” In the “Lagoogleglyph” I make the Alba-based image in a grid of large pixels specifically to be seen by a satellite that Google Earth uses to produce its geospatial information maps. I created the “Lepus Constellation Suite” specifically to be transmitted to space. In other words, in one gesture I make a piece to be seen from space and another that is sent to space, and they both have the bunny as the axis. The “Lagoogleglyph” is a bunny message designed for the sensor of the WorldView-2 satellite. The interstellar messages in the “Lepus Constellation Suite” were transmitted to the bunny constellation (below the constellation Orion) through satellite broadcasting equipment and a parabolic dish antenna.
A good environment to experience both works is Google Earth. In Google Earth, you can click on the address where the first “Lagoogleglyph” is located. Then, zoom in, from the position of the satellite out in space into the Earth and right above the roof of that building where the “Lagoogleglyph” is. You’ll see the work easily. My website gives detailed tips: <>. After that, you can switch from Earth to Sky. When you find yourself in Google Earth sky mode, you can type “Lepus,” press return, and it immediately takes you to the “Lepus” constellation. You can see that constellation in the shape of the bunny as well.
So in that environment you can have a good sense of both works. With the “Lagoogleglyph”, I actually hired the satellite WorldView-2, which belongs to a company called Digital Globe, one of the companies that Google uses. The company ascribed a number in their catalog to my satellite image, and then Google retrieved the image from the catalog and inserted that permanently into Google Earth. Now anybody with a computer can see it anywhere, any time. In regards to the Lepus constellation, I hired a company located right next to the Kennedy Space Center to carry out the transmission. Concerning the possibility of my messages being received by anybody, we will have to wait until 2038 to see if NASA finds a planet harboring life in that constellation.


Q31: I remember one day I was walking in le Marais in Paris and I wanted to ask you about one of your works.  I made a mistake and asked you about “the seventh day.” You answered with a smile: “No, this one is not mine.” The work I was referring to was “The Eighth Day” (2001), which brought your “Creation Trilogy” to a close (after “Genesis” and “GFP Bunny”). How does this work complete the trilogy?

A31. My “Creation Trilogy” is composed of “Genesis,” “GFP Bunny,” and “The Eighth Day.” With “Genesis,” I worked with the smallest form of life, a single-celled organism, a bacterium. With “GFP Bunny,” I worked at the opposite end of the so-called tree of life, with a mammal, a multi-cellular organism. But rather than a tree, which is vertical, I’d like to think of a horizontal spectrum of life. With “The Eighth Day,” the third part of the trilogy, I have not one but many organisms, an entire ecology of green fluorescent creatures.
The “Creation Trilogy” has the common characteristic of green-glowing life forms. The “Genesis” bacteria have a synthetic gene that encodes the biblical statement, and also a fluorescent sequence that allows the bacteria to glow green. In “GFP Bunny,” the main phenotypical characteristic of the rabbit is to glow green. “The Eighth Day” is a whole ecology with green-glowing mice, fish, amoeba, and plants; they all coexist and interact in this space.
In “The Eighth Day,” the complexity increases by having a whole ecology. What was once a singular, distinctive, unique trait of a specific organism becomes a dominant trait that characterizes that ecological habitat and the artwork as a whole. All creatures, by glowing green, form an unexpected community that share a characteristic. It represents a philosophical reversal of “GFP Bunny,” because in that work Alba was treated as the green singular “other,” while in “The Eighth Day” any life form that does not glow green becomes the different one, the “other.”


Q32: Plants, amoeba, fish and mice coexist within “The Eighth Day.” All of them express the gene that produces a green fluorescent protein. Does this gene, which you also used in “GFP Bunny,” artificially create a form of interspecies similarity?

A32. Exactly. It is precisely this condition of glowing green that produces another level of similarity between these distinct species. In the case of the amoeba, they live inside the body of what I call a biological robot, or biobot. The amoeba glow green, and depending on what is going on in their environment (which is the body of the robot), they will move and behave differently. According to their behavior, they will activate the legs of the robot. The presence of the amoeba inside the robot has a direct physical consequence in the world they share with the fish and plants and mice.
While the amoeba control the legs of the robot, we humans control the eye of the robot through the Internet. So in reality, the overall behavior of the biobot, what is seen by the mice and the fish, what is experienced by humans locally and remotely, is the result of the simultaneous and collaborative action of amoeba and humans. I don’t mean “collaborative” here to suggest that the amoeba “know” that they are working with humans, but simply to suggest that in the context of the work they “co-labor”, i.e., work in tandem with humans. This is so because, again, the observable behavior of the biobot is the result of integrated human and amoebal activity.
In “The Eighth Day” we have a biological robot that cohabits the space and mice that react to the movements of the biobot. So everything affects everything else in this interspecies ecology in which I merge the biological and the technological, the human and the nonhuman, the local and the remote.

Q33: The biobot, which is the focus of “The Eighth Day,” is inhabited by a colony of green fluorescent amoeba. When they move or reproduce, the biobot reacts by activating one of its six feet. The on-board camera is the “eye” of the robot, and is connected to the Internet; it offers different viewpoints of the ecology in which the biobot moves. Could we say that, via the robot, the amoeba control the gaze of the internet participants?

A33. Yes, and that has many interesting implications. You could be looking in a certain direction, controlling the eye of the robot, and then all of a sudden, your point of view would change, because the robot moved its leg, because the amoeba moved. You are not in full control of the position that you occupy within that world.
When you move the eye, there is resonance within the body of the biobot and that resonance affects the overall behavior of the amoeba. Nobody controls anything completely; it’s a space in which every action by every life form plays a role. It’s a chain reaction, a butterfly effect, because the work is on the Internet and therefore remote action also has a local consequence and vice versa.
Another aspect of this work is what the local viewer that comes to the gallery immediately perceives. There’s a second camera looking down on the ecology from a bird’s eye view. This camera from above looks at the space and in a sense sees another type of ecology, in which the human is integrated. This bird’s eye view can only be accessed through the Internet or locally through the computer in the gallery. And you can only occupy one of the two positions. The work creates these constantly changing subject positions that are in perpetual flux.
One of the interesting aspects of this situation is that when you realize the amoeba play a role in controlling the behavior of the biobot, you realize that something that is very small and microscopic plays a role in the overall, global, holistic behavior of a much larger and much more complex system. And that is fascinating to think about, because when we think about ourselves, we like to think that we are in full control of our lives, that the human form is some kind of a discrete entity separate from the environment and separate from other life forms. But in reality, the human is a symbiont, the human demarcates the boundaries of a physical unit in which symbiotic existence takes place. We share this unit that we call “the human body” with millions of different life forms, and their needs and behavior play a very direct role in how we behave and, in many cases, how we think. We are only keenly aware of this when we get sick, but that is not the only situation in which our native inhabitants play a role in our lives.
Fruit flies have bacteria that directly affect their production of pheromones, mating habits, and the formation of species. As a result, some say that the unit of selection is not the genome of the animal as seen from the outside but the host genome together with its associated microorganisms, the “hologenome.” This symbiotic relationship that we and other life forms have with bacteria is, in reality, much more profound than we thought. A work like this is not meant to illustrate this point, but rather to make us consider the poetic and philosophical implications of life as a network, a complex communication process.


Q34: I saw “Move 36” (2002-2004) in Paris in 2005. The title refers to the thirty-sixth move in a 1997 game of chess, by the computer Deep Blue against Gary Kasparov, the best human player at that time. This move gave the game-winning advantage to the machine. This piece is composed of several diverse elements. What brings them together?

A34. “Move 36” is not a collection of elements in a space but rather a space itself. So the experience of the work requires you to be in that space. There is only one door. When you enter that space, when you first cross the threshold, in a sense you are still outside of the work. You look from left to right as if you are watching a tennis match, because you see the projections moving on both walls. But you cannot go straight forward, because in the center there is a chessboard. There is a light in the ceiling that shines down onto this chessboard, creating a very particular luminous atmosphere. This chessboard is made of sand and soil, and I use humid soil, because it communicates a very visceral smell in the room. Of course, through photographs you can’t see that. But when you are in the space, it is very earthy and visceral.
Between the diversity of colors and movements that are projected, the gentle luminosity of the chessboard and that smell that pulls you in, you wonder what the relationship is. When you go around this chessboard and get closer to the other side, you can see that an unusual plant grows only in one square. There are no chess pieces. The projections to the left and right are square, and inside each square projection there are eight-by-eight individual square animations of all different textures, rhythms, colors, and movements. The human eye cannot produce a gestaltic experience in this case. The diversity of activity is such that you cannot take in the totality of the experience, which means that, intuitively, without thinking about it, you naturally gravitate towards one square. Once you perceive yourself consistently looking at one square, you move the focus of your attention to one after another continuously. 
The viewer may not notice this, but at this point I have moved you from the subject position of the observer to the position of the chess player, the one who actively scans the chess board from one square to another. The two opposing projections echo in absentia the interplay that takes place between the two players, but it’s not clearly stated which one represents the human and which the machine. This ambiguity is deliberate; it suggests the fluidity of subject positions. A very subtle light shines from the ceiling and illuminates the plant, drawing attention to that plant, which grows on the square where the computer Deep Blue made the winning move against Kasparov.
I have created a plant that doesn’t exist naturally in the world, by encoding “Cogito, Ergo Sum” (I think, therefore I am), from Descartes, into DNA. To achieve this I first converted the Cartesian Cogito into 8-bit ASCII, a universal computer code, and then used a code I invented to go from ASCII to DNA. Once I had the actual DNA synthesized, I used another DNA sequence to cause the leaves of the plant to curl, so wherever the leaves are curly, they express the Cartesian DNA. Because of the synecdochical characteristic of sand (it connects to the world of computers, since sand contains silica which is converted to pure silicon, which is used to make computer chips) and soil (which is where the plant grows, therefore emblematic of life), this interlaced field between sand and soil, in my opinion, presents to the viewer the terrain in which the biological and the technological will play out in the twenty-first century.


Q35. Isn’t this encoding method in resonance with the one you created for Genesis?

A35. We could identify similarities and differences between my encoding process for “Genesis” and “Move 36.” The most obvious differences are in the historical contexts to which these works make reference. “Genesis” refers to the bible, to the western idea of man’s dominion over all life forms. It refers to the historical process of translation from countless oral traditions into the early written forms of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)—probably written throughout the first millennium B.C.E. and arguably completed around 450 B.C.E.—and the subsequent translations from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek and Latin, and how scholars have used these translations to produce other translations, a constantly mutating text. “Move 36” refers to a very specific historical moment, when Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997. Chess has always been considered a measurement of human intelligence; in this instance the best human player failed, and the machine exhibited nuanced technique previously believed to be the exclusive prerogative of humans.
In regards to the code itself, “Genesis” begins with the appropriation of a well-known text, similar to “Move 36.” It uses the binary system of Morse code, while “Move 36” uses ASCII that is also binary. So these two codes are similar in this respect. In “Genesis,” I created an additional code that translates Morse to DNA. In “Move 36” I established a direct analogy between pairs of zeros and ones and the four bases of DNA.
“Genesis” has a structured code that is partially arbitrary and partially motivated, while “Move 36” has a code that is based on analogy through association. In “Genesis,” the base cytosine becomes the dot of Morse, thymine becomes the dash of Morse, adenine becomes word space, and guanine becomes letter space; in “Move 36” there is a direct analogy between these chemical bases and pairs produced from the two numbers of ASCII (‘zero’ and ‘one’). So the letter “A” of adenine becomes 00, cytosine is 01, guanine is 10, and thymine is 11.
To sum it up, these pieces resonate with each other. Both begin with a natural language statement, both employ systems that are binary, and both arrive at a representation of that natural language text in the form of DNA. While “Genesis” presents the human with the possibility of defying a divine command, “Move 36” witnesses the symbolic triumph of the machinic over the human.


Q36: Works you call “Biotopes,” which are part of the series “Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries” (2004-2006), are literally alive, and thus constantly evolving. I remember seeing the biotope “Erratum I” in your solo exhibition in 2007 on the occasion of the International Poetry Biennial of Val-de-Marne. What is the relationship between the visual and biological dimensions of your biotopes?

A36. When you see any biotope, you see it at a particular moment in its life, in its evolutionary history. Just as if you met a person when that person is five, or ten, or fifteen, or fifty, you will have different experiences because that person has changed dramatically. If you encounter that biotope the moment that it finishes incubating and is ready to go into an exhibition, versus a few years down the line after it has lived outside the museum in a private home, you will see distinct transformations. What you see is in no way a final form but always a transient moment in a perpetually mutating, transforming artwork. There is no image in the biotope. What you perceive as an image is nothing but a single moment in the life history of the biotope. Just as a person’s face has a visual dimension but is not an image (i.e. it is a thing, not a representation or an abstraction), the biotope is not and does not have an image. It is a supraorganism.


Q37: One important moment in the development of a biotope is when you feed and water it. However, this process does not end when the work leaves the studio. Indeed, “Theorem,” “Apsides,” and “Clairvoyance,” among others, are sensitive to the temperature, humidity, and brightness of the exhibition space. Once again, your creations escape your control and literally live by themselves. Is the presence of viewers, the very air they exhale, likely to affect these ecologies?

A37. Yes. There are countless factors that play a role in how the behavior of the biotope develops. It’s really impossible to predict. Generally it is believed that because I created them, I am supposed to know everything about them. The truth is that because they are alive and unique, I have been learning a great deal about them since I first showed them in 2006, in the course of setting them up for different shows. I learned a lot about them by simply having the experience of sharing a space with them, and observing how they manifest their behavior. This doesn’t mean I have total control over them.
What I do control is minimal and ephemeral, because I manipulate the metabolism of the biotopes. I am able to produce areas in which the metabolism is not as active as other areas, and the less active areas appear darker. Where it is active, we see lots of color, and as a result I produce this initial organization of the different metabolic states that the viewer believes to be an image. In the course of time, however, this image eventually disappears, because the biotope is active. It responds to the environment and the care it receives, because it needs to eat and drink. Different environmental conditions such as light, humidity, and bacteria play a role in its behavior, as well. It responds to care that is provided, but the caregiver doesn’t have any level of control. The biotope is alive, and it is unique, and it will live its own life and respond in its own way to both care and environmental conditions.


Q38: The private collector of such works is asked to monitor light and water levels in order to keep the biotopes alive. The relationship between the collector and the work is therefore closer to that of a human and a companion pet. In the extreme case of the biotopes’ biological death, can they be brought back to life?

A38. It is a truism that everything that lives dies. But a 2,000-year-old date seed was found in 2005 at Masada. It was planted and it germinated. Some microorganisms can resist the harshest conditions of extreme radiation, temperature, pressure, and even a total lack of air. The eight-legged Tardigrade, for example, was exposed for 10 days to the vacuum and radiation of space in 2007. Back on Earth, it laid eggs that hatched normally. Life is amazing and always surprising.
But one thing that life apparently cannot thrive without is water. The biotope has to drink. Environmental humidity is good, but the biotope occasionally needs a little bit of water. If it is deprived of food, water, and light for a long time, it is conceivable that it could eventually die.
The biotope is unique in the sense that it is an ontologically liminal entity, because it is simultaneously an object and a subject. It has a frame, it can be put in a crate and shipped as an object, it can hang on the wall, but it is alive like a fish or a plant or a dog. It needs food and water, it needs light, it is metabolically active, and it responds to your care by producing lots of color and changing form. Because of this liminal condition, it is perfectly conceivable for an unresponsive biotope to be reactivated by the introduction of new cultures or for a dead biotope to be brought back to life by replacing the dead culture with an entirely new one.
The biotope always changes, so if I were to bring in new cultures and revitalize the biotope, it would simply be change of a particular kind. This would be welcome; it would allow it to resume its perpetual state of transformation.


A39. There is no doubt that the world has changed enormously between 1999 when “Genesis” premiered at Ars Electronica, and 2009 when I showed “Natural History of an Enigma” in the same art festival. The world has changed in a lot of ways; on the one hand, of course, we had in 2001 the destruction by terrorists of the original World Trade Center and its emblematic Twin Towers. The global rise of terrorism in the twenty-first century has created very pragmatic daily changes in everyone’s lives and has raised the specter of bioterrorism, a fear that now looms in the background. When you enter certain buildings, for instance, you must scan IDs, have photographs taken, or have your name entered into the database; when you fly, both domestically and internationally, security is much stricter. Everything has become a lot more difficult, a lot more complicated. Full-body scans at airports are nothing but a symptom of a facebookian environment in which privacy has evolved into a rare commodity.
On the other hand, scientific developments have made the general public more aware of molecular biology than it was ten years ago. For example, the personalized genome sequence, even though it’s not yet fully available, is clearly on the horizon. Stem cells routinely make headlines (because scientists have succeeded in transforming one type of cell into another) and gene therapy continues to be a dominant topic of research and debate. Not to mention synthetic biology. So there are many recent developments that capture the public’s imagination in new ways.
Additionally, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to the inventor of in vitro fertilization. This made the public realize that something they rejected in 1978 was in the end not frightening; the Nobel Prize forced the general public to reexamine their own reaction to a biotechnology that caused fear but was proven beneficial.
Likewise, when I started to use GFP in my “Creation Trilogy” (“Genesis,” “GFP Bunny,” and “The Eight Day”), there was a great reaction. The public thought it was not ethical, not appropriate. Then, in 2008, when Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP,” the public began to reassess their initial reaction, and they had an independent means of verifying that this was a reliable medium to work with. I have only mentioned a few changes, but from 1999 to 2009 we have witnessed many transformations in the world that affect both people’s daily lives and the reception of bio art.


Q40: The DNA sequence that you introduced into the plant plays a direct role in the production of immunoglobulin, which is part of your immune system and therefore involved, as you correctly point out, in the “identification and rejection of the other.” Doesn’t our relationship to the “other” underlie many of your previous works as well?

A40. Yes. It is true. In the Telepresence works, with “Ornitorrinco,” for example, when you find yourself in the remote robotic body, you are having an experience you’re not accustomed to. You become somebody else, in a sense. You don’t know where the body is, you have to transfer your cognitive processes into a different body. You interact with other life forms through the sensorial apparatus of the robot.
I explore this idea in different ways. For example, in “Essay for Human Understanding,” the human is removed entirely. In “Rara Avis,” you find yourself in the position of a robotic parrot surrounded by living birds. From the parrot’s perspective, you see yourself, and it looks like you are behind bars. You occupy the position of the one who observes and the one who is observed, the one who is inside and the one who is outside, the one that is surrounded by humans and the one that is surrounded by birds. In the end, what hopefully comes across is the fluidity of these subject positions.
So when I refer to the “other,” I am ultimately referring to the fact that the category of Otherness is a social construct that is used as an epistemological weapon to ascribe centrality to the self and alterity to those that one seeks to marginalize. This is not so much a question of activism or social reference. But if you can engage with the subject position of the “other,” as I do in these works, then you realize that you are yourself always in a fluid subject position.
The difference between these earlier works and bioart is that, in bioart, the “other” is literally what I create. The “other” becomes integrated into a social context in which there is dialogical interaction and responsibility. So we can definitely detect the presence of the question of alterity in my work as a whole, beginning with the early Telepresence works and continuing all the way through my transgenic works.


Q41: There is an element of mystery and the unknown in your genetic works. Yet the beings you create are real, they actually exist. Edunia’s uniqueness is expressed in the red veins of its fragile pink petals. But six years seems like a long time, even for the creation of an entirely new kind of flower.

A41. When I started the process, I did not have a specific number of years in mind. I simply worked as long as necessary to complete what I set out to do. So no, I don’t think that six years is too long to spend developing this work. The creation of new life does not conform to a deadline. Life as we know it may conform to specific, familiar schedules, but when you create new life, without precedent, without reference, you don’t even know if it’s possible. It took me six years to create Edunia, but while I was immersed in the process, working with Neil Olszewski, I never knew if I would even be successful in creating it, and if so, how long it would take. Because I was convinced that it was possible, it was a question of working as long as it took to bring this new life into the world.


Q42: It’s pretty radical to present Edunia alone in the middle of an empty room. 

A42. It may be radical, but in presenting her this way, I want to do away with apparatuses, devices, systems, algorithms, buttons, and triggers, and really enable the simplest, most powerful form of experience: the uninhibited encounter between two life forms, between humans and Edunia. I’m not anthropomorphizing Edunia, I’m not saying that she is aware of encountering a human being. But plantimals are very sensitive to their environment, they respond to the human electrical field, they detect the presence of entities; plantimals are not indifferent to what surrounds them. When one touches or smells or breathes on Edunia, it affects her life in a biological, literal way. It is my hope that the unhindered presence of this artwork in a space will also have an emotional and cognitive resonance with the viewing public.


Q43: “Natural History of the Enigma” is a series that, beyond the flower, incorporates photos, lithographs and sculptures. But there are also a limited number of “Edunia Seed Packs,” which contain what makes her genetically unique: your DNA. In the same way you converted private collectors into loyal human companions to your biotopes, aren’t you now converting them into loyal gardeners?

A43. The Edunia seed packs have already been acquired by private collectors, some of whom have planted them and lent the resulting flowers to museum shows; so, in some ways, the modality of experience of this artwork is analogous to the gardener that will plant the seed. But the difference in this case is that while a traditional plant exhausts itself (fulfills its stated ornamental goal) through its biological germination, the artwork carries an extrabiological dimension, a poetic charge; the human and the plant come together to form this hybrid that would be impossible to produce through traditional means, and this hybridity makes us realize how close we truly are to the entire community of life.


Q44: “Cypher” (2009) is a kit containing laboratory materials and a synthetic gene. This requires the use of a rigorous protocol for anyone who engages with the work. What exactly is this work, containing a mini-laboratory, which can be opened as a book and literally brought to life by its reader? 

A44. The status of this work is ambiguous. Its three-dimensionality and its materials make it a sculpture, but what one actually experiences is a mini-laboratory. You open it like a book, and the reading act consists—precisely as you point out—in giving life to the poem that I wrote for this work. So, is it a book, a sculpture, or a lab? Obviously the do-it-yourself component also has a political resonance. I think that if we try to decide what it is, if we try to collapse its multiplicity into a single modality, we might have difficulty. It is unique because it is many things at the same time.


Q45: Central to your work is both the hybridization of body and technology, and the blurring of the boundaries between species. This approach challenges the idea of purity. Now, in the “Cypher” poem, when you threaten to attack the dystopia of “Gattaca,” are you also signaling an attack on purity?

A45. Yes, because if you consider the agribusiness and the industrial animal farm, or the large-scale production of ornamental plants and animals, it’s clear that the goal is to arrive at standards that can be replicated in mass quantities, standards that are defined as pure examples of that particular breed or strain.
The notion of purity is, of course, a very dangerous one. Culturally, we come from different backgrounds, have different influences and often speak more than one language. Physically, every single human being has ten trillion human cells and a hundred trillion bacteria cells. All human beings are symbionts: we are made of human and nonhuman parts. The genetic similarity between humans and chimps is superior to 98%. All of this has very interesting philosophical implications.
I have always attacked this idea of purity, first by moving the human cognitive process to an invented electronic body and later by producing amalgams of living and electronic bodies; eventually by creating biological transgenic bodies. This constant fusion of discrete entities, living entities, and entities that are not usually seen together; my creation of interspecies communications; my fusion of the living and the technological, the human and the nonhuman; my erasure of the boundaries between the local and the remote in my Telepresence work; all of these actions seek to undermine the idea of purity. All humans have DNA that comes from bacteria and viruses, so even the person who thinks of himself or herself as the most pure example of his or her kind has always been a hybrid.


Q46: 2010 marked the thirtieth anniversary of your career. During these three decades, you have also published many books, the majority of which articulate your theoretical positions. What is the relationship between your artworks and your publications?

A46. There is a direct relationship between my books and my artworks, because I don’t write or publish books in the sense of a traditional author. I write as an artist in the studio. Whenever I write, I am always engaged in the process of creating the artwork. I write from the point of view of somebody who is fully immersed in his métier. When I write, I don’t separate myself from the fact that I am a practicing artist who is continuously creating new works of art and reflecting on his works of art.
In other words, there is no claim in my theoretical reflection of dispassionate, objective distance. I am deliberately engaged in the material production of these works, and my theoretical reflection seeks to be in dialogue with my production of artwork. I could engage in a reflection that predates or postdates the presentation of the work of art, because I continuously learn from both states of engagement with the work. I do not blindly apply an arbitrary theoretical framework to my works. My theoretical insights often come from the fact that I am continuously engaged in historical research, due to my innate curiosity, and also from the material phenomenological act of physically making the artworks, bringing them out, exhibiting them, and encountering the audience.
It’s important to point out that my books are very different one from the other. I have books like Telepresence & Bioart, and Light & Letter, that collect my theoretical writings since the 1980s. But I have a book like Life Extreme that is an artists’ book distributed as a regular book; it is a collaboration with philosopher Avital Ronell. The structure of the book is very serious, but also very playful. The book is an artwork in itself, as opposed to the books that are fundamentally theoretical.


Q47: I’d like to talk about the different kinds of books you have published since the early 1980s. Two of these books represent the near totality of your theoretical writings. The first one, “Luz & Letra [Light & Letter] (2004), features texts from the 1980s, and the second one, “Telepresence & Bio Art” (2005), features texts from the 1990s and early 2000s. Beyond the periods in which they were written, what differentiates your approach in these two books?

A47. In the 1980s when I started, there was no context for my work to exist in. Critics were mostly interested in painting, specially the Neo-expressionist international style that emerged in Italy, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. I not only had to create my work, but also the context, the social space, in which that work could exist.
To achieve that, I started to write articles for daily newspapers to reach the broadest possible audience, to circulate ideas and images and forms that would help develop an audience for media art and poetry. I wanted to help the general public understand and respond to the work that I was making and exhibiting. So by and large, the texts contained in Light & Letter were published in daily newspapers. Even though they are theoretical texts written by an artist, they were written for circulation in the news media to produce that cultural space in which my artworks could resonate.
Telepresence & Bioart collects longer essays that were published in professional publications such as books, journals and conference proceedings, but they are no less committed to the presentation and circulation of new ideas with very similar goals to my preceding shorter articles. They contain more thorough historical research and they articulate my ideas at a greater length. But like the shorter texts, they seek to unite theoretical reflection with studio practice.


Q48: You edited two books, “Media Poetry” (2005) and “Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond” (2007). The first documents the new poetry written for nonbook media. The second documents the new art created with biomedia. Was your goal with these books to initiate new movements?

A48. Although I realize that many readers will discover the movements through these books, I don’t know if I can say that these books start the movements. However, as an insider, I can say that they seek to capture, represent, and articulate the main achievements of these movements with which I’ve been involved since the very beginning. Allow me to point out that Media Poetry, as published in 2007, is actually the second edition of this book. The book was originally published in 1996, at the time when media poetry was first emerging. In that sense, it was contemporary to the rise and emergence of the movement. It is the first book on the subject. The second edition is double in size, includes many new names, is broader in scope, and reflects the difference between 1996 and 2007. Signs of Life is a book that came out in 2007. From the day I conceived it to the day I held the published book in my hand, it took me eight years to complete this volume. If you consider that bioart emerged in the late nineties, the book is also contemporary to the development of the bioart movement. So it’s a very accurate articulation of the main questions that the movement was interested in developing and proposing in its initial phase.


Q49: Your artist’s books include “Hodibis Potax” (2007), which documents your holographic, digital, and biological poems, and “Life Extreme” (2007), which brings together photos of real living beings, all created by humans. Knowing that there are, according to Hugues Marchal, literary issues in your transgenic art, what do these books have in common?

A49. Life Extreme is literally an artist’s book. It’s unique because the introduction (which I call an “Anthroduction”) is not really narrative text or theoretical text, but rather a collection of different tables of content, a collection of different summaries. It basically articulates different ways in which the material of the book can be classified. Knowledge is constructed; it is a function of how any material is organized, presented, articulated, and contextualized.
The creatures in the photographs of the book are real, and I juxtapose them with quotes from philosophers and poets to create different kinds of resonance between the images and the text. Every creature has a biography at the end. All of this is interspersed with comments by Avital Ronell, so this is a very fluid, playful book, even though the material in it is extremely serious.
Hodibis Potax is not exactly an artist’s book. It is an anthology of my poetry: holographic, digital and biological. Ironically, none of which can actually be presented in the book itself. The book is traditional, made out of paper. In the end, it functions as a comprehensive and accurate sourcebook that provides all the necessary information to become familiar with the body of work I developed in holographic, digital, and biological poetry.


Q50: So let’s go back to “Cypher,” because beyond these books, all of your holographic, digital, and biological poetry has been published in the etymological sense of publicare, or “to render public” in Latin. What is the relationship between your books and your nonbook publications?

A50. It is true that to publish is to share with the public, not necessarily through paper. Before print, the Roman motto of “publicare et propagare” was carried out as stone or metal carvings. Martial’s first book of epigrams, which sold for five denarii, was written on a papyrus or parchment roll. Or, closer to our own times, we can say that posting on the Internet is publishing. In my case, throughout the years I have been forced, by the very nature of what I do, to publish my work in ways that were demanded by the very nature of the work itself.
Holographic poems could potentially be mass produced (i.e. embossed), but the cost of publishing a book of holographic poems is prohibitive. So I have made editions of my holographic poems, and they are regularly exhibited in galleries and museums, where the public can see them. My holopoems are published by being exhibited.
But in one particular case, in 1990 I handmade a limited edition of approximately 100 copies of one holographic poem called “Amalgam.” This holographic poem was glued into the catalog of a solo exhibition I had in New York in 1990. I did that to signal that in the future the publication of entire books of holographic poems would be possible.
The network (Minitel in the early days; the Web since 1993) is the natural environment for the digital poems, and the natural way of seeing these works is on the computer or a mobile device. So, that is how I have published them. With the biological poems, each requires its own method of publication and circulation. “Cypher” functions simultaneously as transgenic art and biopoetry.
What unites all of my publications is that I have never compromised their creation in order to render them more accessible to an audience. When I think of my public, I do not necessarily think of my contemporaries. As an artist, my objective is not to cater to an existing reality. I make art to bring into the world new entities, to change the world. I understand that culture moves slowly, and I understand that a younger audience can more freely connect with my work. So when I think of publishing, I think about publishing in terms of both space and time. My art and poetry are projectiles travelling towards the future.

Kac Web