Artist seeks to free his glowing creation - rabbit
By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A genetically modified rabbit, which glows green, hops
around the French laboratory that created her, never far from the thoughts
of the Chicago artist who conceived of her as a provocative artwork entitled
Eduardo Kac, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, would like to bring the controversial albino rabbit, named Alba,
He envisions Alba taking up residence with his wife and daughter as a kind
of performance-art pet whose every cell glows green when under a blue or
ultra-violet light. While an embryo, French scientists inserted a jellyfish
gene that produces Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) to make Alba glow.
"The day that this happens will be magical. I'm looking forward to it,"
the 38-year-old Kac said. "Her temperament is quite docile and gentle."
But the reunion may not take place, and should not, said New York Medical
College biologist Arthur Newman, a member of the U.S. Council for
"While (Alba) raises interesting questions, I think it steps over a line. I
don't think we should be manipulating complex organisms in the name of art,"Newman said.
In a jellyfish, the gene instructs cells to produce the green-glowing
protein that serves as a mode of communication in the darkness of the deep
ocean. But when inserted into the one-celled rabbit embryo that grew into
Alba, it could have had unknown disruptive effects, Newman said.
No responsible laboratory would release Alba to an individual as a pet, he
GLOWING DOG PIQUES INTEREST
But some fellow artists find Kac's work intriguing. He originally wanted to
create GFP-K9, a glowing dog, which piqued the interest of Staci Boris, a
curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
"I was sort of blown away by the idea, but I didn't expect it to come to
fruition," Boris said. "(Kac) liked the idea of it being different and
familiar at the same time."
"I believe he is an artist," Boris added. "Ten years ago there wasn't
anything called Web art using a computer. Now people accept it as art. He's
pushing the boundaries between art and life, where art is life."
While not the first artist to employ live animals in his work -- Boris cited
a 1960s-era exhibition of live pigs by Chinese artist Xu Bing -- Kac is at
the forefront of this particular aspect of science and aesthetics, she said.
"People go to extremes to create something provocative, but a lot of
scientists are blind to the effect of progress," she said. "Kac is involved
in the discussion. He's a unique presence in the art world."
NOT SEEKING ANIMOSITY NOR PUBLICITY
Well-versed in the science and philosophy underpinning his interactive
works, Kac participates avidly in discussions about them, dialogue he
considers integral to the art.
"My goal is not to create some kind of social animosity for publicity's
sake. I want to know what it's like to live with a transgenic being," Kac
said, adding he was surprised that "GFP Bunny" had created such a media
Knowing that the genetic makeup of a human being and a chimpanzee are 98
percent alike, or that humans have much in common genetically with plants,
creates "complexity" for Kac.
For 20 years, Kac said he has examined how art and viewer communicate with
interactive, often jarring works.
In another of his pieces entitled "Genesis," which is on display in a New
York gallery, Kac took a sentence from the Old Testament, translated it into
Morse Code, transposed that into DNA, had the DNA inserted into fluorescent
bacteria, then shone an ultra-violet light on the bacteria that is lit when
someone hits its Web site, which in turn mutates the bacteria.
"The biblical passage is loaded historically, politically, socially," Kac
said. "When we collectively mutate the text, we're saying we don't accept
the baggage that it represents. But we don't know what that change will be.
The whole thing is a snapshot of where we are culturally -- that we have
this long historical baggage and we set out collectively to change it.
"One of things that artwork can do is make people aware," he said. "An
artist shapes particles. I'm interested in creating a different area of
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote scathingly in The New Yorker of the
"biomania" embraced by Kac and other artists exhibiting at New York's Exit
Art gallery, calling it at best "clever," part of a "hot trend" with the
"shelf life of milk."
"Art used to crown civilization. Now it skitters through seams and around
corners, eagerly parasitic," Schjeldahl wrote, terming the trend
Among other pieces in the "Paradise Now" show are photographs of children
with puppy dog eyes, breeding frogs and storage tanks of frozen sperm.
Kac's goal is to share his home with his conceptual bunny. Still, his works
were not the unscientific meddling of a mad artist, Kac
insisted. He wants them to stir discussion of the ethical questions raised
by genetic engineering, not as reminders of the horrific history of
"My work is not an experiment. There's nothing new here" about GFP Bunny
scientifically, he said. "The work is done with enormous care. In no way
would I have done anything like this if anything would have happened to
Scientists routinely transfer the jellyfish gene that makes Alba glow to
keep track of living matter, he said. No one knows whether Alba's glow gene
is recessive or if the trait would be inherited by any offspring.
DOES BUNNY FAN FRANKENSTEIN FEARS?
Controversy over Alba may have frightened the French laboratory, the
National Institute of Agronomic Research, into keeping her under wraps. Kac
said he hoped a new institute director would let Alba go.
Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan said Kac's works were a reminder to
scientists to watch what they do and to discuss the ramifications of their
"When rabbits glow, it should remind us that you can make small changes and
have big results," said Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Genetic engineering could be used for all kinds of strange purposes," he
added, including a future of genetically altered humans. "You could have
kids going from school that glow to prevent them from getting hit by cars.
My point being, what modifications are acceptable and what aren't? There
aren't any guidelines, any rules. For the love of art isn't enough."
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