A playful, poetic and pioneering installation
By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic
So you think all that splicing-of- jellyfish-parts-into-monkeys hanky-panky
-- which caused such a stir last week -- is only going on in some Brave New
science lab in remote Oregon? Uh-uh. Artists too have picked up on the
genetic manipulation of life forms, giving new meaning to the notion of the
creative act. And a prime example is here in Pittsburgh.
The work is "Genesis," by controversial global figure and transgenic
artwork pioneer Eduardo Kac, one of four projects in "Interactive Domains,"
which opens tonight at the Wood Street Galleries. Chicago-based Kac will
give a free gallery talk at 1 p.m. tomorrow.
Also showing is a new work, "Playworld.02," by Claudia Hart and the
Swinepearls, from New York. Murray Horne, gallery curator and manager, says
that of the four, this computer-animated piece comes closest to a "gaming
model." Hart draws from arcade games and television to structure her work
while simultaneously deconstructing those same influences.
If a component of Hart's playfulness is parody, "Text Rain," by New Yorkers
Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, engages through poetry, a quality that
won Horne's appreciation.
"It's very, very poetic -- a very, very beautiful thing," Horne says. "One
of the criticisms of electronic art is that it's cool, technical first,
then art. These are all mature artists [who've surpassed that]." Visitors
find themselves intervening uniquely in a rain of letters that make up
words to lines from Evan Zimroth's "Talk You."
Horne compares Canadian artist Luc Courchesne's "Paysage (Landscape) No. 1"
-- a room-sized virtual landscape set in a park in Montreal that won the
Grand Prix in the InterCommunication Center Tokyo Biennial in 1997 -- to
landscapes "in the tradition of Manet and Monet, rich with greens."
Exhibition visitors will be able to interact with virtual visitors to the
While each of the artists in the exhibition receive equal billing under the
show's theme of interactive work, Kac's arrives serendipitously one week to
the day after ANDi, the world's first transgenic monkey, was presented to
This coincidence will no doubt please the artist, who has mused
philosophically on the social aspects of his bioprojects to a broad,
multinational audience, and seems invigorated by each new platform. If his
isn't a household name yet, it may be because the company he keeps
expresses itself mainly in scientific, intellectual and digital journals.
But last year his albino "GFP Bunny" landed him in the popular media,
including an interview with Peter Jennings on ABC News.
The rabbit, Alba, which was birthed in a lab in France last year, has in
common with ANDi a jellyfish gene that emits a green glow when exposed to
ultraviolet light. Named "green fluorescent protein" (hence the GFP of
Kac's title), the gene is popular in genetic research labs because it's an
easily detectable marker.
Rather than scientific applications, however, the value that Kac appears to
be after is "shock," as in the other-worldly effect a green sheen can give
to a fluffy pet. One of his hopes is that when exposed to this biotrick,
the equally fascinated and horrified viewer will be prodded to ask, "What
Kac firmly explains his intent when describing the artwork, which he says
"comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue
generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit."
He sees the project as a "complex social event" that reaches beyond the
animal's "formal and genetic uniqueness." His motivation is to spark an
ongoing, multidisciplinary and public dialogue about the "cultural and
ethical implications of genetic engineering," which he sees as crucial and
overdue. Kac suggests that the issues are subtle as well as obvious.
For example, will and/or should genetic manipulations affect "notions of
normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness"; does
communication take on new nonsemiotic qualities when genetic material
crosses species barriers; and does such research challenge the "alleged
supremacy of DNA in life creation" and call for a more thorough examination
of the interrelated contributions of genetics, organism and environment?
And in perhaps his most radical pronouncement, he calls for the "expansion
of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to
incorporate life invention."
As early as December of 1998, in the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Kac was
writing about transgenic art as "a new art form based on the use of genetic
engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to
create unique living beings."
To this he adds the caution: "This must be done with great care, with
acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a
commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created."
It should be noted that stage three of "GFP Bunny" hasn't been reached
because Kac hasn't yet taken the rabbit home, where the "social
integration" would occur. An article in the Dec. 16 Science News Online
says, "Kac, who visited the rabbit in France when it was born this spring,
claims that the scientists created it at his request. [The scientists],
however, contend that it was created for research purposes, and they have
so far declined to release the animal to the artist." There's an electronic
form on the artist's Web site (http://www.ekac.org) soliciting "Support
[for] E. Kac's Efforts to Free Alba."
Such are the complications of working with living creatures vs. having one
fabricated out of, say, porcelain or pansies.
Kac seems not to have run into such hesitancy with the scientists supplying
him with the bacteria for "Genesis."
The title tips the viewer to the biblical base for this layered and
thoughtful piece. Kac began with the verse that reads, "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," a poetic statement that
becomes loaded within the context of gene manipulation.
This, he translated into Morse Code, chosen for its significance at the
beginning of the information age. Then, Kac devised a computer program that
would translate the code into the letters of DNA base pairs. He sent this
information to a genetics lab where scientists used it to construct what
Kac dubbed an "artist's gene."
In the installation, a petri dish sits in a dark room, the activities of
tiny colonies of E. coli bacteria (a lab mutation of a common and much
studied member of human intestinal flora) living on its surface magnified
and video-projected onto a wall. The Genesis gene has been inserted into
bacteria that have lab-introduced cyan fluorescence, and they share space
with bacteria that have yellow fluorescence but no Genesis gene. During the
run of the exhibition, the bacteria will replicate themselves, may
conjugate and produce a green bacteria or may lose color and turn ochre and
pale. "DNA-synthesized music," with parameters derived from bacterial
multiplication and mutation algorithms, was created for the work by
composer Peter Gena.
Web visitors to the site ( http://genesis.woodstreetgalleries.org ) can
order ultraviolet light to shine on the colonies, causing them to
fluoresce, and also accelerating their naturally occurring mutations.
At the end of the exhibition, Kac asks scientists to sequence the genes
again to identify changes that would alter the original biblical verse when
the gene strain is translated back. These results have been minimal in the
past. But the overall implications of the piece may inspire such profound
considerations as whether or not we wish to put man in the driver's seat of
evolution, whether there are sufficient controls to keep random and perhaps
disastrous events from happening, who the new competitors for title of
Creator are and what their long-range plans may be, who would control this
new knowledge or bioproduct (the first skirmishes over these issues are
already being played out), and, simply enough, whether man can resist the
temptation to tamper when such seductive material beckons (i.e., order that
"Genesis" was commissioned for the edgy arts/technology showcase Ars
Electronica 99 in Linz, Austria, and "Wired News" (Aug. 29, 2000) called it
"one of the hits" of the 20-year-old festival, which recently switched its
emphasis from electronic media to biotechnology.
It next showed in Brazil and Slovenia, before becoming part of the
contentious "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution" at Exit Art
gallery, New York, which contained artworks that both assimilated and
critiqued the new biology. Of "Genesis," The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl
wrote (following a description of the piece) that, by instigating
mutations, thereby changing the sequence of the genes and ultimately the
biblical passage, "You thereby rewrite the Bible, see. I think that we are
meant to like this consequence, Scripture being politically retardataire,
or whatever. Meanwhile, one can't help noticing that Kac has taken dominion
over living things to a level undreamed of in Pentateuch. Is the irony of
the work profound? It may only be clever."
Such a stir must be music to a man who's had a pet monitoring microchip
implanted in his ankle, registering its code in an international database,
to address issues of surveillance and man's continuing connections with
machines; and explored the human-robot-animal interface in such projects as
"Darker Than Night" (wherein a batbot -- telerobotic bat -- spends the
night in a zoo bat cave with 300 of its organic counterparts); and
"A-positive," a 1997 collaboration with Ed Bennett that involved an
intravenous hookup between Kac's arm and a "biobot," an exchange that
resulted in a small flame being ignited by oxygen extracted from Kac's
blood and a glucose-saline solution released into Kac's other arm.
Born in 1962 in Rio de Janeiro, Kac received his B.A. in communications in
Brazil and then an M.F.A. from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago,
where he is currently assistant professor of art and technology.
Kac was in on the 1980s beginnings of holopoetry and telepresence art, and
by staying current with technological advances he remains relevant today in
the public sphere, academia (he speaks in an art, technology and culture
colloquium at Berkeley this month) and where humanities and the law
converge (his work was the subject of a symposium at the Chicago-Kent
College of Law last fall).
While some of his actions may seem extreme, they're passionate responses
from the artist's center. As Horne puts it, "He's infuriating people, but
not in the same way that Duchamp's urinal infuriated people."
Times change, and the art in this exhibition reflects that. "The idea of
having participation in artwork is nothing new," Horne continues. "The
scope now is so expansive, and I think these works reflect that. I try to
make the work as broad formally and emotionally as possible. The parameters
the artists are working within are as broad as any other medium in any
Each artist has a technical assistant coming to Pittsburgh to install the
work. Then, the gallery is left on its own and that the works will continue
to function is "an act of faith," Horne says. "But I have to qualify that
by saying I've never had a problem. These artists are mature as artists and
technically proficient and in control of their medium. Luc Courchesne wrote
his own software; Eduardo Kac has custom-made software. Being able to
create your own software is like being able to mix your own paint -- you
know the nature of your activity.
"It used to be the medium drove the artwork. It's not true any more.
There's a convergence now where the fine art and technique meet."
Copyright © 1997-2001 PG Publishing. All rights reserved.
Back to Kac Web