DNA Spirals Into Artists' Medium
By Debra Jones
02:00 AM Mar. 06, 2004 PT
Eduardo Kac, the artist who brought us Alba, the glowing bunny, is at it again.
Kac, who says recent biotech research provides a "new aesthetic platform" for artists, uses DNA and genetically modified organisms as his media of choice.
His latest installation, which opened Thursday at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, doesn't involve transgenic pets or fluorescent mutants. Instead, he has translated Descartes' "cogito, ergo sum" into his own designer DNA sequence and inserted it in a tomato plant.
The piece, called Move 36, is inspired by the 1997 chess game in which Garry Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue, IBM's computer. Kac's installation is named for a surprising move in Game 2 of the match when Deep Blue, instead of making an expected move to position its queen for an attack, chose to exchange pawns. Kasparov reportedly was so unnerved by the tactic that it ruined his concentration for the rest of the match.
"I was intrigued by what the match meant philosophically," Kac said. "It was the first time we've seen a computer exhibit behavior previously thought of as only in the realm of humans.
"I was also interested in Kasparov's emotional response," Kac added, "as a human being in the face of a novel event. What happens when we come into contact with something not living, but that nonetheless demonstrates behavior reminiscent of humans?"
Move 36 comprises a large chessboard, a genetically modified plant and two grids of projected blocks of undulating colored patterns. The chessboard's dark squares are made of soil (representing life); the light squares are blocks of cement or hardened sand (representing silica). The grids of colored patterns, projected on two opposite walls, represent the chess players in absentia, Kac said.
Kac said the plant is rooted in the square where Deep Blue made the move that flummoxed Kasparov.
To encode the plant with DNA representing Descartes' "emblematic sentence of ontology," Kac first translated the text into a series of 0s and 1s. He then created a rule to translate the 0s and 1s into a sequence of the four building blocks of DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. (Specifically, A=00, C=01, G=10 and T=11.) As he worked on the code, Kac said it was as if his "computer screen was dripping with biological goo." Then he called up a lab to order the DNA, and lickety-split, they FedEx'd it to him the next day.
The so-called "Cartesian gene" was then inserted in a plant in such a way that it would create a visible mutation in the plant. Kac said he wants viewers to easily see the expression of the synthetic gene.
For nonscientific folks, or those who haven't been in an organic chemistry lab for a while, it may be surprising to learn that it's pretty easy nowadays to isolate, synthesize and reproduce DNA.
Kac provides copious details about his process of translating cogito ergo sum into genetic code, but very little about the logistics of obtaining the synthetic DNA and inserting it in the plant.
"You wouldn't ask where a painter gets paint and canvas," he said, protesting that it would be too didactic to go into the details of the science involved.
Kac is clearly interested in the interplay between art and science, and in science's role as a cultural force. He is not just concerned about our scientific literacy, however, but about our artistic literacy. "People have a sense of what science has brought us," Kac said, "but that's not true about art. The idea that art is about subjectivity and beauty -- it's not!"
Just as computer-related jargon has become part of the culture at large, Kac said, likewise the language of biotech will too.
"And just as some will use it to defend a particular view, I and others will use it to sing a different song."
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