Convergence 2002 Volume 8 Number 1.

Aleksandra Kostic and Peter Tomaz Dobrila (eds), Eduardo Kac: Telepresence, Biotelematics, Transgenic Art (Slovenia: Association for Culture and Education, Kibla Multimedia Center, 2000), 144pp. ISBN 961 6304 02 X

This volume is a collection of essays which both maps the artistic development and marks the theoretical, social and cultural relevance of artist Eduardo Kac and his work.  In a clearly presented and well-illustrated book, nine varied pieces of writing - the final by Kac himself - enable the reader to develop an understanding of the trajectory of Kac’s artistic development, and to engage in increasing depth and detail with the themes and issues engaged with by this exceptionally interesting, sophisticated and thought-provoking artist.

The first six essays in the book offer a project by project profile of Kac’s work from the beginning of the 1980s to the late 1990s.  In ‘Eduardo Kac - Pioneer and Visionary’  Annick Bureaud provides a concise account of Kac’s engagement with a broad range of media.  Beginning with his use of holography to produce ‘holopoetry’, a three-dimensional architecture of words which shifts and changes with the movement of the viewer, she argues that the artist’s work is a ‘search to express and manifest complexity’ (p. 8).  Following on from this Edward A. Shanken describes a project (entitled ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’) in which Kac, in collaboration with Ikuo Nakamura, used telerobotic devices to ‘facilitate remote communications between non-humans, in this case, a canary in Kentucky and a philodendron plant in New York’ (p. 20).  Christiane Paul opens up questions of memory, identity and location via an account of a project in which Kac had a programmed identification microchip inserted into his leg and was, subsequently, registered in a web-based animal identification database.  Alexandra Kostic’s essay ‘Teleporting an Unknown State on the Web’ furthers the debates surrounding remoteness and participation by describing how Kac enabled remote participants to keep a plant alive by pointing their webcams at the sky, providing enough light to support its existence in a darkened gallery space.

Suzana Milevska’s essay ‘From a Bat’s Point of View’ begins to expand upon the issues of ‘telepresence’ on a more sophisticated level.  Here, she examines Kac’s installation ‘Darker than Night’, an interactive installation in which a robotic bat was placed in a cave occupied by Egyptian fruit bats.  According to Milevska, a complex interface enabled ‘humans and bats to become mutually aware of their presence in the cave throught the exchange of sonar emissions’ (p. 47), addressing the complexity of the ‘human-machine-animal relationship’ (ibid).  In ‘From/To Body to/From Robot’, Machiko Kusahara critically develops the debates surrounding experience, telepresence, identity and location through a range of examples taken form Kac’s installation works including the award winning ‘Uirapuru’ project.  Here a physical but false rainforest environment interacted with a virtual rainforest environment, remote servers in the Amazon Rainforest itself, remote viewers on the internet, and the physical presence of visitors to the gallery space in which the installation was placed.

The last three essays in the book mark the transition from Kac’s earlier ‘Telepresence’ and ‘Biotelematics’ artworks to his development of ‘Transgenic Art’ in which he begins to employ techniques of genetic engineering.  After a brief introduction to this final section by Gerfried-Stocker, Steve Tomasula gives an excellently written and thought provoking analysis of Kac’s project ‘Genesis’.  In an interactive installation, the image of a petri dish full of different coloured bacteria was projected onto the wall of a gallery space via an electronic microscope.  This ‘living image’ was also available to be viewed remotely over the web.  Internet ‘viewers’ became ‘participants’ of this piece by triggering a source of ultraviolet light in the gallery which speeded up the multiplication of the bacteria in the petri dish.  Initially, half of the bacteria, already carrying a protein which glowed cyan when illuminated under ultraviolet light, was encoded with a DNA sequence.  Fashioned by Kac himself, this sequence was derived from the book of ‘Genesis’ via a translation into morse code and then into de AGCT letters which form the genetic base.  Throughout the duration of the installation the bacteria containing the ‘Genesis’ gene coupled and mutated with other ‘yellow’ bacteria which were not originally encoded with the artist’s produced gene.  As a result of this complex layer of scientific, virtual and physical interaction, the word of God itself changed and mutated through the medium of the artwork.

In response to this fascinating and multi-faceted project Tomasula weaves an equally complex critique in which he invokes the ‘open’ writing of earlier forms of cultural production, where texts were seen as source material to be interpreted, reworked and developed, to the ‘closed’ text of today’s ‘finished’ artwork which awaits a reverential response within a relatively fixed format of interpretive manoeuvres.

Althought this is a familiar argument, the strength of Tomasula’s essay resides in the relationship he builds between the function of Kac’s work as an aggregate of production, distribution, contribution and re-interpretation - which asks as many relevant questions about our relationships to discourses of science as it does about our relationship to the ‘artwork’ itself.

The final essay in this book is by Kac himself about his most recent transgenic artwork, ‘GFP Bunny’, which was completed (or rather initiated) on 29 April 2000.  Here, with the help of genetic scientists, Kac has produced a green fluorescent rabbit whose long-term social integration, living as a family pet, will form an equally important part of the artwork as discussions and debates caused by the project itself.

Invoking philosophers such as Locke, Leibniz, Kkant, Bokhtin and Levinas, Kac develops a highly complex, thought-provoking and interesting argument surrounding our need to engage with the moral, social, ethical, political and economic questions surrounding biotechnology as a dialogic process, rather than succumbing to the either/ or plebiscite of moral choice of refusal.

The clear strength of this book, as with the work of Kac himself, is that it engages us (indeed leaves us in no doubt that we are complicit) with the consequences of scientific endeavour and research today.  Although all of the projects undertaken by Kac, and reviewed in this publication, are obviously founded on a highly competent and critical understanding of contemporary scientific and technological processes, the reader is not required to share this level of competence as a pre-requisite to engagement.  In fact it is engagement with the works themselves, and the themes and issues which they embody and invoke, that underpin the purpose of this publication.  As Kac himself comments, it is his purpose ‘to remain truly open to the participant’s choices and behaviors, to give up a substancial portion of control over the experience of the work, to accept the experience as-it-happened as a transformative field of possibilities, to learn from it, to grow with it, to be transformed along the way’ (pp. 106-107).

John Byrne

Convergence:   The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies

                      Spring 2002, Volume 8, Number 1

                      Published by the

                      University of Luton Press 

Back to Kac Web