Originally published in Slovene in Maska, Letnik IX (XVI), St. 3-4 (68-69), Pomlad 2001, Ljubljana, Slovenia, pp. 26-29.

Flouescentna Zajklja Alba : intervju z Eduardom Kacem

Sasa Savel

Why is it today necessary for the artist to collaborate with genetic engeneering and telecomunications?

Scientific and technological specialization has increased to such an extent that it has become impossible for a single individual to master multiple disciplines. Artists wishing to develop works in areas that require very specilized knowledge find in dialogue with other professionals a productive approach to bring their visions to fruition.

What is the role of art produced or motivated by genetic engineering?

The artist makes it evident for the general public that molecular biology is not a rarefied language spoken by experts beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. The work of the artist is a stimulus for layperson debate. Through accessible visual means, the work of the artist assists the general public in understanding how close the consequences of the biotech revolution are to the individual. In this sense, the artist reinforces the discussion. In art the question is not "what has already been done in the scientific arena", because the emphasis is not on a given process and its result. In art the key gesture is one of cognitive intervention at a symbolic, not practical, level. It is precisely because corporate genetic engineering leads us and non-human animals towards a relationship of author to inscribed (genetic) text, that it becomes urgent to conceptualize and experience other, more dignified relationships with our transgenic other. "GFP Bunny" addresses this need by bringing the transgenic mammal into society, into the domestic space, into a sphere of personal relationships.

Why biological processes are so important to you?

The key issue I have been addressing in my work for about 20 years is communication. My work investigates the question of communication not as the transmission of information from one point to another, but as a life force. My work explores communication as a shared space in which meaning can be negotiated. In my work I create what Humberto Maturana calls " consensual domains" , social spheres in which dialogical interaction can emerge. Biological processes are important in art because they are at the crossroads of profound social transformations, underway through developments in biotechnology. These developments have cultural consequences. Art is uniquely positioned to investigate the social and cultural meanings of biotechnology beyond simplistic affirmations of determinism.

What does mutation of biotechnology bring to art?

Biotechnology as a medium opens up a completely new domain for artmaking -- a domain in which social and ethical questions are crucial. It is also important to remember that not all transgenic or biotechnological artworks will discuss issues related to biotechnology. It is perfectly possible to use biotechnology to create works that address immemorial issues, such human memory, personal history, or loneliness. Biotech as a medium must not be confused with biotech as a theme.

The history of art that involves DNA goes back into past: plant and animal domestication. What is the difference between art work and breeding projects?

The differences between the two include the principles that guide the work, the procedures employed, and the main objectives. Traditionally, animal breeding has been a multi-generational selection process that has sought to create pure breeds with standard form and structure, often to serve a specific performative function. As it moved from rural milieus to urban environments, breeding de-emphasized selection for behavioral attributes but continued to be driven by a notion of aesthetics anchored on visual traits and on morphological principles. Transgenic art, by contrast, offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context.

There is a clear distinction between breeding and genetic engineering. Breeders manipulate indirectly the natural processes of gene selection and mutation that occur in nature. Breeders are unable, therefore, to turn genes on or off with precision or to create hybrids with genomic material so distinct as that of a rabbit and a jellyfish. In this sense, a distinctive trait of transgenic art is that the genetic material is manipulated directly: the new DNA is precisely integrated into the host genome. In addition to genetic transfer of existing genes from one species to another, we can also speak of "artist's genes," i.e., chimeric genes or new genetic information completely created by the artist through the complementary bases A (adenine) and T (thymine) or C (cytosine) and G (guanine). This means that artists now can not only combine genes from different species but easily write a DNA sequence on their word processors, email it to a commercial synthesis facility, and in less than a week receive a test tube with millions of molecules of DNA with the expected sequence. The result of transgenic art processes must be healthy creatures capable of as regular a development as any other creatures from related species.

What does the emergence of a new genetic colonialism bring to art?

Developments in molecular biology are at times used to raise the specter of eugenics and biological warfare, and with it the fear of banalization and abuse of genetic engineering. This fear is legitimate, historically grounded, and must be addressed. Contributing to the problem, companies often employ empty rhetorical strategies to persuade the public, thus failing to engage in a serious debate that acknowledges both the problems and benefits of the technology. There are indeed serious threats, such as the possible loss of privacy regarding one's own genetic information, and unacceptable practices already underway, such as biopiracy (the appropriation and patenting of genetic material from its owners without explicit permission).

As we consider these problems, we can not ignore the fact that a complete ban on all forms of genetic research would prevent the development of much needed cures for the many devastating diseases that now ravage human and
nonhumankind. The problem is even more complex. Should such therapies be developed successfully, what sectors of society will have access to them? Clearly, the question of genetics is not purely and simply a scientific matter, but one that is directly connected to political and economic directives. Precisely for this reason, the fear raised by both real and potential abuse of this technology must be channeled productively by society. Rather than embracing a blind rejection of the technology, which is undoubtedly already a part of the new bioscape, citizens of open societies must make an effort to study the multiple views on the subject, learn about the historical background surrounding the issues, understand the vocabulary and the main research efforts underway, develop alternative views based on their own ideas, debate the issue, and arrive at their own conclusions in an effort to generate mutual understanding. Inasmuch as this seems a daunting task, drastic consequences may result from hype, sheer opposition, or indifference.

This is where art can also be of great social value. Since the domain of art is symbolic even when intervening directly in a given context, art can contribute to reveal the cultural implications of the revolution underway and offer different ways of thinking about and with biotechnology. Transgenic art is a mode of genetic inscription that is at once inside and outside of the operational realm of molecular biology, negotiating the terrain between science and culture. Transgenic art can help science to recognize the role of relational and communicational issues in the development of organisms. It can help culture by unmasking the popular belief that DNA is the "master molecule" through an emphasis on the whole organism and the environment (the context). At last, transgenic art can contribute to the field of aesthetics by opening up the new symbolic and pragmatic dimension of art as the literal creation of and responsibility for life.

Can this enormous enthusiasm to modification result in infectious art for example: the use of bacteria like you did in the project Genesis?

There is no enthusiasm on my part. The fact that I am using a computer to write these words does not make me a computer enthusiast. The fact that I drive a car to arrive at a destination does not make a car enthusiast. As an artist, I work with different media in order to create a given work, to suggest an idea or emotion, to create contexts in which meanings can emerge. If done with great care and after extensive research, and if based on very well known scientific practices, transgenic art does not pose any threats. By contrast, threats are posed by military research which purpusefully seeks to develep biohazards of all kinds, including deadly microorganisms.

What are the cultural consequences of new technologies you discovered by means of art?

Technology introduces new methods of production and distribution of objects and information. In the case of biotechnology, we are also witnessing new ways of creating life. Technology also creates new social relationships and often affects distribution of power. Technology expands the reach of human subjectivity and agency. Because of the enormous importance of contemporary technology, it is imperative for art to engage it directly, transforming its social meaning. Technology is often developed with specific goals, and embeds a particular world view. Artists working with new media often recontextualize technology to convey ideas that are not related to the stated goal for which the technology was developed. Likewise, artists are able to express worldviews that are different from those responsible for developing the technology.

You as a genetic programmer manipulate genetic material directly. What happens to the Frankenstein if genetic codes are manipulated wrongly?

It is easy to call Frankenstein that which we do not know well. Remember that, in the novel, a child who could not see, engaged in conversation with Frankenstein, finding him to be a candid and affectionate individual. On the other hand, those who found him to be ugly and monstrous, did not give themselves the opportunity to learn more about the spirit of the individual behind the unusual appearance.

As with every aspect of human activity, if an individual makes mistakes, these mistakes often have different levels of consequence. It is not possible to generalize. Every particular mistake could have different consequences, or, in some cases, none at all.

In Kibla you presented your latest unique artwork -- flourescent bunny Alba. Why did you pick that particular colour?

I worked with a very specific gene -- a gene that produces GFP, green fluorescent protein. This gene is used in laboratories worldwide in multiple kinds of research, as a genetic marker to facilitate visualization of biological processes. This gene is used widely because it does not cause changes in the morphology and behavior of the host genome. I did not want my work to be an " experiment". I wanted my work to be based on very well established, very well known scientific practices. I wanted for the process to be safe. Given the fact that green fluorescent protein is the standard marker in molecular biology, it was the best choice.

Is her glow inheritable?


If in Transgenic art the relationship between artist, public and transgenic organism is so important, how come it doesenít reach most of the public and art critics are so sceptical about it?

Transgenic art does reach the public. "Genesis" , for example, has been shown in Europe, South and North America, and is currently travelling to other venues. At every venue, " Genesis" was also on the Internet, reaching thousands of participants, many of which do not necessarily have a pronounced interest in art. At a much larger scale, " GFP Bunny" has reached billions of viewers, readers, and listeners worldwide, from Canada to Japan, from Argentina to Singapore, from India to South Africa. Both works have also reached the public trough symposia and conferences, in which multiple points of view have played a role in the dialogue. In this sense, together, " Genesis" and " GFP Bunny" have reached a very large audience through direct experience in a gallery, but also through radio, television, print media, and the Internet. As is always the case in art, both critics and the public have shown both appreciation and reservation for the work. There are countless precedents in the history of art. Picassoís " Demoiselles díAvignon" was considered, in its time, one of the ugliest paintings ever produced. In 1917 Duchamp's " Fountain" was rejected and not included in the exhibition it was created for. It is understandable that it takes time for a new idea to be understood. Art critics and theorists have used the context created by " GFP Bunny" to develop their own reflection on related topics. This is very productive. " GFP Bunny" is as much a work to think about as it is to think with.

Has anybody tried to make human transgenic art?


Does transgenic art close the gap between Virtual and Real in time where space has lost its meaning?

Transgenic art does create a new situation, in which the technological and the biological are conflated. Using digital technology artists can produce new genes and conceivably, in the future, create entirely new genomes. In transgenic art, the metaphor of art as life becomes literal.

How much will the lost touch for sensible reality with teleoperations influence human reproduction, considering today reproduction could be done in vitro, tomorrow it could be just the Click?

The increased use of teleoperations will expand human agency beyond geographic distances but will not completely disconnect us from physical reality. History finds in the technology of in vitro fertilization a good example. About 30 years ago, when in vitro fertilization was first developed, there were many fears regarding the use of this technology. Today, it is a common process, with thousands of human beings who were born through IVF living healthy lives in many countries.

Project A- positive that you presented 3 years ago is a device designed to aerate blood from human forcing it to release oxygen that will fuel a small flame. How will reproduction of biorobotics take place? With human implants?

Biorobots will not reproduce. They will be created just as robots are currently created.

What if in the name of art the use of genetic engeneering, cloning, biocomputing will result in artificial biodiversity?

Transgenic art offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context.

Humans have played a role in increasing biodiversity for thousands of years. If the creation of dogs has long historical roots (60,000 years), more recent but equally integrated into our daily experience is our use of hybrid living organisms. A case in point is the well-known work of botanist and scientist Luther Burbank (1849-1926) who invented many new fruits, plants, and flowers [9]. In 1871, for example, he developed the Burbank potato (also known as the Idaho potato). Because of its low moisture and high starch content, it has excellent baking qualities and is perfect for French fries. Since Burbank, artificial selective breeding of plants and animals has been a standard procedure widely used by farmers, scientists, and amateurs alike. Selective breeding is a long-term technique based on the indirect manipulation of the genetic material of two or more organisms and is responsible for many of the crops we eat and the livestock we raise. Domestic ornamental plants and pets thus invented are already so common that one rarely realizes that a loved animal or a flower offered as a sign of affection are the practical results of concerted scientific effort by humans.

If the question alludes to how close we are to the creation of new life forms in the context of art, then the answer is: new plants, insects, and microorganisms have already been created by artists. Alba is the first mammal created in the context of art.

You are among few artists from generation of body art principles of 60's to continue charting new territories by using new technologies. Which cultural problems do you sense this very moment?

New technologies culturally mutate our perception of the human body from a naturally self-regulated system to an artificially controlled and electronically transformed object. The digital manipulation of the appearance of the body (and not of the body itself) clearly expresses the plasticity of the newly formed and multifariously configured identity of the physical body. We observe this phenomenon regularly through media representations of idealized or imaginary bodies, virtual-reality incarnations, and network projections of actual bodies (including avatars). Parallel developments in medical technologies, such as plastic surgery and neuroprosthesis, have ultimately allowed us to expand this immaterial plasticity to actual bodies. The skin is no longer the immutable barrier that contains and defines the body in space. Instead, it becomes the site of continuous transmutation. While we try to cope with the staggering consequences of this ongoing process, it is equally urgent to address the emergence of biotechnologies that operate beneath the skin (or inside skinless bodies, such as bacteria) and therefore out of sight. More than make visible the invisible, art needs to raise our awareness of what firmly remains beyond ole are the typical roses found at the Florist Shop -- the classic image of the rose. The first Hybrid Tea was 'La France', raised by Giullot in 1867. A cherished companion such as the Catalina macaw, with its fiery orange breast and green-and-blue wings, does not exist in nature. Aviculturists mate blue-and-gold macaws with scarlet macaws to create this beautiful hybrid animal.

Did you have any legal problems with your projects and if yes how do you confront them?

I do not break the law. As a result, there are no legal problems.

Many lifescience artist derive their concepts from "The myths". Is The myth of Galathea the ideal today's artists are striving towards?

Different artists pursue different goals, with equally varying media and approaches. It is relevant to notice that while in ordinary discourse the word "chimera" refers to any imaginary life form made of disparate parts, in biology "chimera" is a technical term that means actual organisms with cells from two or more distinct genomes. In transgenic art, a profound cultural transformation takes place when chimeras leap from legend to life, from representation to reality, from fiction to fact, from tradition to today. Different cultural traditions have offered us countless imaginary creatures: the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse; the Amazonian Curupira; the Nordic Troll; the Greek Chimera; the Jewish Golem; the Hindu Vishnu, often represented as a blue man with four arms; the Aztec feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl; the Chinese deity called Land My, which has the body of a tiger with nine tails, feline claws and nine human heads; the Persian three-headed dragon called Azhi Dahaka; the Mesopotamian winged bull. Alba is imaginary in the sense that she emerged not from a typical mating process, but from human imagination. She is also imaginary in the sense that her uniqueness stimulates our imagination to cognize her both as an ordinary physical being and a fantastic individual: what is Alba like?, or, what is it like to be Alba?. This peculiar situation, the materialization of an imaginary being, produces an unprecedented ambiguity. In this ambiguity the physical and the imaginary are reconciled in their ceaseless interplay.

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