(2007) 'Reviews', Contemporary Theatre Review, 17:3, 463-470.

Telepresence & Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits & Robots
by Eduardo Kac
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005, 311 pp, ISBN 0-472068-105 (paperback)

Gabriella Giannachi

In 2005, the increasingly prominent field of new media art witnessed the publication of three studies focusing on the practice and theoretical writings of three of the most important artists working in the field to date, Eduardo Kac, Orlan, and Stelarc.

Telepresence & Bio Art, is written by the artist, the other two, Carnal Art and STELARC: TheMonograph, are, respectively, a study of Orlan’s work written by Jill O’Bryan, an independent scholar and artist, and an edited volume addressing Stelarc’s practice through a number of interdisciplinary essays by scholars in Performance Studies, Visual Art and New Media curated by Marquard Smith. Unquestionably, these texts represent a milestone for those interested in newmedia art, but they should also be of interest to scholars and students in performance and theatre studies. This is not only because aspects of the aesthetics of a number of the artworks discussed stem from the historical avant-garde, and there are obvious associations between the new media works presented in these three volumes and those of their modernist predecessors, but also because a number of the artworks are either explicitly performative or imply forms of human/computer interaction related to, or even grounded in, more or less explicit theatrical mechanisms. 

Telepresence & Bio Art is the first full-length documentation of Kac’s oeuvre, containing a timely aesthetic, political and historical analysis of his practice, as well as a useful contextualization of his work within the broader fields of performance practice and new media art. Bringing together twelve years of writings, this volume offers at once a useful introduction to the overall field of new media art and an insight into what the author describes as ‘the chronicle of a journey’ (vi) covering fields as diverse as telepresence, telerobotics, biotelematics, biorobotics and transgenic art, of which Kac has, throughout the years, been a prominent and active representative. 

The volume is organized in three sections. ‘Telecommunications, Dialogism, and Internet Art’ covers practices dealing with the field of  telecommunications, interactive systems and the internet, suggesting that these enable ‘the creation of truly dialogical art’, i.e., ‘art based on interactions among subjects’ (xi). This section represents an important analysis of telephone and fax art, online message boards and teleconferencing, to name but a few forms, framed within a broader aesthetic and political context spanning from Brecht to Futurism, Orson Welles to Moholy-Nagy. Artists discussed in this section include Iain Baxter, James Lee Byars, Paulo Bruscky,among others, as well as a pioneer in the field of newmedia art, Roy Ascott, presented here both as artist and theorist. Offering an important introduction to telephony, a growing field within new media art, this section interestingly concludes that ‘the telephone is in constant displacement; it is logocentric, but its phonetic space, now in congruity with inscription systems (fax, email), signifies the absence more typically associated with writing (absence of sender, absence of receiver)’ (50). Drawing attention to the fascinating interplay of presence and absence within the field of telecommunicaton art, Kac also recognizes the complexity of the ontology of this genre. This first section also contains a study of internet art, which is contextualized in relation to mail art and videotext art. It presents, among others, the work of Guglielmo Cavellini, Fred Forest, Vuk Cosic, jodi, Stelarc and Guillermo Go´mez-Pen˜a, as well as Kac’s own Ornitorrinco in Eden (1994), a well-known telepresence work taking place on the internet through wireless telerobotics, traditional and cellular telephone systems, videoconferencing and digital television, realized with Ed Bennet; and Rara Avis (1996), an important online telepresence artwork in which local and remote participants could experience an aviary from the point of view of a telerobotic macaw. A further section, presenting interactive artists such as Char Davis, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, is perhaps the most underwritten chapter in what is otherwise a strong overview of an increasingly important field. 

The second section, ‘Telepresence Art and Robotics’, focuses on Kac’s own practice and, in particular, marks the development ‘of an aesthetics of telepresence based on the couplings of telematics and robotics’. Here Kac defines telepresence art as ‘a new art form generated in the intersection among telecommunications, computers, and robotics’ (127). Representing an important insight into Kac’s own theory and practice, this section highlights crucial aesthetic features of communication arts, on time, distance, communication and the relationship between the medium and content. Talking about his own work, Kac notes that ‘telepresence works provide a reflection on relevant contemporary issues without addressing them as ‘‘content’’, as separate from the materials that constitute the work itself’ (142), thus drawing an interesting insight into the impact of postmodern aesthetics on new media art.

The final section, ‘Bio Art’, consists of six pieces analysing the intersections between electronic art and biotechnology, and introduces the important, and now widely used concepts of biotelematics and biorobotics – ‘signaling the integration of biology with telematics and robotics respectively’ (xii) – and transgenic art, ‘a new art formbased on the use of genetic engineering techniques to create unique living beings’ (236). This section discusses pioneering works such as GFP K-9 (1998 – in progress), leading to the creation of a transgenic dog, and GFP Bunny (2000), the green fluorescent transgenic rabbit named Alba created through the insertion of a jellyfish gene that allowed Alba to glow in a certain light. Through these examples, Kac deals with the ethics and aesthetics of an emergent artform that quite literally embodies technology. He notes that the ‘nature of his new art is defined not only by the birth and growth of a new plant or animal but above all by the nature of the relationship among artist, public, and transgenic organism’ (236–237), so much so that ‘there is no transgenic art without a firm commitment to and responsibility for the new life form thus created’ (237). Although there is beginning to be an important body of scholarship in the field of biomedia, including studies such as Eugene Thacker’s fascinating Biomedia (2004) and The Global Genome (2006), or Mark Hansen’s seminal Bodies in Code (2006), not to mention the important practical and theoretical work of the Critical Art Ensemble, there is still not much literature available on the subject, and so this last section of Kac’s study represents an important advancement in the field.

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