Artillery magazine, mar/apr 2011, vol 5 issue 4, pp. 34-35.


Eduardo Kac Keeps Up with Technology

by Carrie Paterson

WHAT were you doing with the Internet in 1996? Learning how to send e-mail? Artist Eduardo Kac was conducting experiments to understand "network ecology" and what perceptual models arise when carbon and silicon are integrated.

His work counters fears of the "nerd apocalypse" — the "Singularity" written about by Ray Kurzweil and others — where artificially intelligent silicon-based life forms become self-aware and revolutionary. Kac (pronounced "Katz") says we have already evolved a hybrid consciousness, which he illustrates with a simple example: "Sometimes you know something, and you know you can access the information, if you can just access Google. This is a condition of our time, our coupling of intellectual process with the network."

What role do "networks" play in evolution, and why is this important for art? Kac has approached this question in his work since the mid-1980s through hybrid works that use interfaces to join remote sensing technologies to living creatures — animal, plant and microbiological. Over the last 10 years the work has evolved to include transgenics, coupling DNA from different species or facilitating DNA mutation. I have written about Kac's work for X-TRA and Sculpture and wanted to ask him about his "telepresence" works that will be seen this year in three retrospective shows in New York, Italy and France. I wondered if he could reflect upon some of my favorite topics — science fiction and astrobiology.

Kac's visionary "telepresence" works from the 1980s couple robotics to networks of living creatures, allowing people, animals and plants to experience different states of being through networked interfaces. They are important to reconsider now with respect to our age of viral media and social networks because they challenge systems of unidirectional exchange and propose philosophical questions about what constitutes "life" itself and how it might evolve. Kac has said he challenges the "metaphysical propensity of cyberspace" with the "phenomenological condition of physical space." So in the age of Rovers, Huygens, Hubble and planetary exploration, what does Kac think about humans conducting remote sensing in outer space?

Kac has coined the terms "telempathy" and "biotelematics" to describe the results of humans and other life forms being connected to one another via telematic interfaces like the Internet, and how humans develop sympathetic connections with nonhumans in this manner. A number of Kac's works over the past 20 years explore these ideas and, he states, developed from his use of robot-human interfaces first imagined by sci-fi writers like Robert Heinlein. When asked why he began working this way, the short answer was, "because telecommunication technology can't compete with live experience. I wanted to create artworks that would allow someone to experience an exchange."

"Telepresence" is slightly different from the "face time" of today's telecommunication. Kac wrote in an essay for the MIT Press book The Robot in the Garden that while telepresence and telecommunication have "aesthetic principles" that are complementary, "telepresence events combine self and other in an ongoing interchange, dissolving the rigidity of these subject positions." As noted by other writers and Kac himself, one of his primary concerns is to break down the boundaries that have existed for centuries between "self" and "other" through visual and other perceptual means. How this might occur through the mutual implication of local and networked ecologies is demonstrated in several works from the mid-1990s and may have grave implications for our sense of humans as "individuals."

Kac's way of thinking is the death of essentialism. He relates that already human bodies are networked with bacteria whose cells number 10 times our own! "We are these multiple creatures," he says, "which would be better described as a symbiotic unit, or explained through a network model."

In 1997, for Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Kac wrote about the first Mars Rover, Pathfinder, and the dawn of "telepresence for the masses." The 1997 landing was significant for "telepresence literacy" because CNN broadcast the first images from Mars live for all of Earth to witness. For Kac, the "immediacy of the image coming from the robot — as fast as the speed of light allows" is just one step away from webcams on Mars, which would "develop in us a sense of belonging to that planet."

What would ensue with the first live images of astrobiological life? Kac emphasizes his interest is "philosophical rather than astrophysical" in regard to these subjects, but that if "we identify indigenous life on Mars, it would be a humbling experience." With a majority of exoplanetary scientists thinking we are close to finding nanobacteria on Mars, or elsewhere, maybe Saturn's moon Titan, or Jupiter's moon Europa, it is clear humans are only going to be able to encounter those life forms through an interface. But with a biotelematic encounter on Mars we will likely finally experience the Martian invasion, virally, through our own social media.

Eduardo Kac has retrospective solo shows in 2011 at the Richard Massey Foundation in New York; Centro d'Arte Contemporanea in Torino, Italy; and outside Paris at Centre des Arts in Enghien-les-Bains.

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