Originally published in New Scientist, 06 January 2001.

But is it art?

Photo: Gautier Deblonde
Photo: Gautier Deblonde
What do you call a transgenic rabbit that glows green when you expose it to blue light? A funky pet? A lab animal? A violation of animal rights? Here's a clue: its creator is the Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac. He says the rabbit, called Alba, is his way of getting involved in the debate on the ethics of gene technology. But that's not how others see it. In fact, since Alba's creation, Kac has managed to attract the combined wrath of animal rights activists, the anti-biotech lobby, even the French lab where Alba was born. Gretel Schueller asked him what all the fuss is about

What went through your mind the first time you saw Alba glow?

Oh, I could speak for half an hour, but words will never capture it. When I held her and saw her glow, it was absolutely indescribable. It was just an initial contact, but I felt a bond on my part. I'm not saying she would feel the same because a rabbit really needs to get to know you and live with you to develop that bond. And rabbits have. There are amazing stories of rabbits having dinner with the family at the table.

If Alba is a work of art, why is the lab where she was born refusing to let her go, claiming that she's just another lab animal?

The former director of France's National Institute for Agronomic Research decided not to let her come to me last June as was originally agreed. He said we didn't have the ideal conditions. But of course that's not true. He never told us what his conditions are. He never allowed us to try to create them. It's obviously disguised as something else. I think it might have something to do with his perception about other people's perception about the relationship between art and science, which is sad because it implies that the knowledge generated by art is not important. The thing that really makes me agonise is the fact that she's there and I'm here. It really breaks my heart.

The techniques used to create Alba are the same that geneticists use to create transgenic lab animals. So what's the difference between what you do and what geneticists do?

The difference is clear. Consider, for a second, what [the television evangelist] Pat Robertson and [the rap musician] Snoop Doggy Dogg have in common. What is the main instrument that they both use to reach their audience? They both use the English language and they both use television. But they use it in dramatically different ways. That does not make them identical. As an artist, I'm using the processes of science to allow us to open up discourse in a social realm.

So is Dolly the cloned sheep art?

Could you consider a Kandinsky painting science? Well, it depends. You could look at it chemically. A scientist could talk about it atomically. But that's not how Kandinsky approached it. He was operating within a cultural realm. It's an oil painting. Dolly is not art.

You're the only artist around creating transgenic art. Why do you do it?

For 20 years I have been preoccupied with the idea of creating a different model for art that is not focused on individual expression. My art is more located in a social realm. It is not art focused on the mind of an individual, who then places that object in a museum for the contemplation of another individual, who then interprets the work. To think about art in these terms in the 21st century would be almost equivalent to thinking of physics today in Newtonian terms. Transgenic art is a radical departure--not only from everything that I've done before, but also for art in general. But it comes from somewhere. Physics has changed dramatically and so has biology and so has art. Just as relativity was a paradigm shift and just as quantum physics was a paradigm shift, the idea of transgenic art is a paradigm shift.

What has been the response from scientists and other artists?

There are scientists who find the work problematic and others who find it brilliant and there are artists and art historians who feel the same way. The topic of biotechnology in art is becoming more popular. I've started the Alba guest book on my website to allow people to express their opinions. Most of them support bringing Alba home.

So what do you hope to achieve with your art?

Imagine that Robertson and his circle were the only people allowed to use the English language. That means that Snoop Doggy Dogg is without a voice. His world view cannot be expressed. So my point is that biotechnology right now is a language only a few people speak. It is imperative that those who are not experts, [yet] part of society, learn the elements of this language--how it is being used and how it is spoken. They can then contribute their world view and we have truly a larger social dialogue on issues that will affect everyone.

How is Alba contributing to the debate surrounding genetic engineering?

I'm interested in highlighting the social and communicative aspects of the discourse in genetics because that is where you and I will feel its impact. We're not going to feel the impact through a paper published in Nature. We're going to feel the impact in our homes. We're going to feel the impact when decisions we make about our private lives are discussed in the media. The creation of a transgenic mammal allows us to start to consider what it might be like in the future to have other kinds of transgenic mammals in society, such as humans, for example. And you know that we already have at least three genetically modified humans--one in the US and two infants in France. All three were born with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency, SCID. And all three are living regular, fulfilling lives. So what does this mean? It might mean that the idea of genetically modified human beings is not only acceptable in certain circumstances, but also desirable.

The current debate about the ethics of genetics is very polarised. Where does your work fit in the spectrum?

What I perceive to be a problem today is the fact that the debate is extremely polarised. The corporate side saying, "This is all great" and "Trust me." The other side saying, "This is horrible" and "This is going to destroy the world." I do not believe it is either/or. So I wish to create ambiguity between these two polarised positions. Alba will not feed the world. Alba will not cure cancer. She does not represent anything associated with science or the corporate world. But she cannot be picked up by the opposite discourse either because she's not diseased herself. She's healthy. She does not cause disease. She's a normal rabbit except for this unique property, but we all have our differences.

Photo: Gautier Deblonde
Photo: Gautier Deblonde

But in creating Alba, some say that your position is closer to the "corporate" one in the debate. You're not neutral. Don't they have a point?

Of course not. I cannot agree with the idea that Alba does not have the right to exist in the manner that she does. As a result of my work, a lovely, wonderful bunny was brought into the world. This work is extremely careful. It results from huge amounts of research by reading books and papers, but also through intense dialogue with professional geneticists from coast to coast. I came to the realisation that this particular gene is the standard tool in molecular biology. GFP, green florescent protein, is a standard marker for genetic research because it does not cause any morphological or behavioural transformations. So there was no experimentation. The people in France I worked with have been creating transgenic rabbits for many years. The first transgenic rabbit was created in 1985, so it is not a new concept in that sense.

You've said that gene technology can provide humans with many benefits. But you acknowledge that it also permits the potential for abuse. How do you address that in your work?

Alba is a cuddly, docile rabbit. She's not a sign of anything that would evoke fear in the population. But she does make some people uncomfortable. This is important because it is exactly at this level that the project functions to make us think. Some people ask themselves, "Well, she looks docile. She looks great. So why do I feel uncomfortable?" Others will say, "I have no problem with this project, but it doesn't mean that I support everything that biotech stands for."

Critics have said that by creating Alba, you've sanctioned the right for anyone to manipulate life forms . . .

Why would whoever made that statement single out the work of a single artist following basically the same processes employed by thousands and thousands of individuals around the world? That reveals a prejudice that a certain technology belongs only within one realm. Computers were developed by the military for the military, but today they are everywhere. The idea that a technology is the exclusive domain of a single professional is not acceptable.

So there's a limit to how much you'd change an animal's genes? Where do you draw the line?

One thing I will not do is work with humans. That's completely off. Also, my commitment is a social one. I do not accept that an artist would create new life forms and not take responsibility for them. The idea of Alba being part of my family is very important. I personally take responsibility for her.

What's next on the list?

I would like to bring a transgenic dog into the world, into my family. Just like the rabbit, the dog would be very much loved. But you can't even start to make any concrete gestures until IVF becomes viable for dogs. And that hasn't happened yet. That might happen by next summer. In terms of other animals or plants, that would be extremely premature on my part to make any comment because I continue to study these issues and learn from them. So who knows what there might be in the future? Transgenic art is not a one-time proposition. It is a new art form that will continue to be created by myself and others and will evolve in time.

Glow green

Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine
Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

Eduardo Kac created Alba with the help of a run-of-the-mill technique in cell biology: a fertilised rabbit egg was injected with the gene for a green fluorescent protein, commonly known as GFP. Seven years ago, the protein was isolated from its original home, the fluorescent perimeter of a jellyfish. Since then, GFP has become one of cell biology's most useful tools.

What makes GFP so valuable is its fluorescence, its small size, and lack of any adverse effects on its host. Those attributes have allowed scientists to use the GFP gene as a marker to tell when other genes are "on" or "off" in living cells or organisms. When GFP is fused to a protein of interest, researchers can monitor the protein as it travels through a living cell. The green protein has found its way into viruses, bacteria, yeast, moulds, a variety of plants, fruit flies, zebrafish, many mammalian cells, mice, cow embryos, and, of course, rabbits.

Gretel H. Schueller is a science writer in New York. More at www.ekac.org

From New Scientist magazine, 06 January 2001.

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