Originally published in the magazine Select, V.2, Chicago, 2001, pp. 14-21.
EDUARDO KAC : INTERVIEW BY KARL KUHN
Eduardo Kac is an artist whose works seem, at first, alien and unbelievable. After the initial wave of surprise, delight and apprehension, it becomes clear that he is not only working with the materials of our age (telecommunication devices, robotics, genetic material) but he is also working with the most primal of materials: communication. The works featured in the Portfolio selection (pp 51-56) are from three recent projects that popped pathways in our tiny minds that we didn't know existed.
"GFP Bunny" is the creation of a chimerical green fluorescent rabbit (a green fluorescent protein, found in Pacific Northwest jellyfish, was genetically introduced into an albino rabbit embryo), the socialization of the animal and the dialogue that surrounds it.
The "Genesis Room View" and "Encryption Stones" are excerpts from "Genesis". This work shown in Chicago recently at Julia Friedman Gallery, is, as stated in the show statement, "a transgenic artwork that explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet." The work's centerpiece is an "artist's gene" that was created by translating a passage from the Bible to Morse Code to DNA base pairs.
The "Bio-Bot Sketch" is a rendering of the bio-bot featured in "The Eighth Day" (October 25th-December 14th 2001@ Institute for Studies in the Arts, Tempe, AZ). The bio-bot will co-exist with GFP animals in an installation and will be equipped with a camera to allow remote viewing over the Internet.
SELECT: How did you arrive at the transgenic work that you are currently producing?
KAC: 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 vital 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.
SELECT: Can you discuss how the creation of a transgenic life, by using
established genetic engineering techniques, can be viewed in an art
KAC: In the case of my art work "GFP Bunny", Alba, the
bunny, is not an artwork. She is part of the "GFP Bunny" work. My
transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green
fluorescent rabbit, the social integration of the rabbit, and the
public debate generated by the project. An intervention realized in
the context of art can never be reduced, purely and simply, to its
process, material, or technique. An intervention realized in the
context of art has a symbolic order, which is to say that it alters
our understanding and generates new knowledge. If "GFP Bunny" does
not "look like art" it is because it has no historical precedent. It
sets the precedent. That which we can not recognize, we must cognize.
"GFP Bunny" is as much a work to think about as it is to think with.
SELECT: You have written about the work in terms of the whole social
event and "bringing the transgenic mammal into society, into domestic
space, into the sphere of personal relationships." What implications
are there for the transgenic mammal (say, Alba) in socializing with
other members of their species?
KAC: Even though they do not always do so, transgenic animals can pass the
transgene to their offspring. To breed transgenic plants and animals
is to play a role in evolution, which humans have done from the
beginning of domestication, going back at least 60,000 years ago. A
very large percentage of what we see in the word -- what some call
"nature" -- is in fact the result of direct or indirect human agency.
The implications for the transgenic mammal in socializing with other
members of their species are less on the order of practical change,
and more at the level of our (human) awareness of the cultural
transformation underway. Transgenic and non-transgenic animals
already coexist in farms worldwide. In other words, based on what has
been observed so far, non-human animals do not discriminate against
their fellow transgenic kind. We shouldn't either.
SELECT: Much of your work reminds me of the implications in
Fancisco Varela's work, i.e. "that evolution consists not in optimal
adaption but in what we call natural drift". Is the idea of "being with" the
transgenic mammal in social space an opportunity for a "middle-way"
(Merleau-Pony's "entredeux") dialogue about genetics?
KAC: Yes. For Marleau-Ponty our not-sameness to each other is not a flaw,
but is the very condition of communication. He wrote: "the body of
the other -as bearer of symbolic behaviors and of the behavior of
true reality- tears itself away from being one of my phenomena,
offers me the task of a true communication, and confers on my objects
the new dimension of intersubjective being." For Marleau-Ponty it is
in the ambiguity of intersubjectivity that our perception "wakes up".
For Varela, there isn't a given world to which organisms simply
adapt. Instead, Varela sees an ongoing process of structural coupling
between organisms and environment, one changing the other through
interaction in a "natural drift". The tangible and symbolic
coexistance of the human and the transgenic at home and in society at
large shows that humans and other species are evolving in new ways.
It dramatizes the urgent need to develop new models with which to
understand this change, and calls for acceptance of difference in
ways that expand what has been learned from decades of civil rights
activism and representation politics in the arts.
SELECT: GFP Bunny created quite a stir in the press last year. Do you feel
that the dialogue and commentary brought up the questions you pose in
your work or do you feel the fantastic "otherness" of the piece
polarized the dialogue?
KAC: In the age of the "post-digital analogue", to use Mike Punt's term,
everyone is trying to develop a new vocabulary with which to
understand and intervene in the new context. The dialogue generated
by "GFP Bunny" has reflected -- and contributed to -- this process.
The responses and active discussions generated by "GFP Bunny" -- not
only in the media, but on campuses, online, at homes, and in private
correspondence among individuals -- cover the whole gamut, from
polarized positions to more subtle and nuanced approaches. As the
debate continues, and expands regarding my new transgenic works, it
is also important to think about the long-term effect of the work. In
the long run, we will be able to look in retrospect and see that "GFP
Bunny" will have assisted in the creation of a new context for debate
SELECT: In Genesis you created a transgenic artwork that has at it's center
the creation of the "artist's gene". This synthetic gene was invented
and created by translating a sentence from the book of Genesis into
DNA base pairs. Can you discuss the implications of humanity's
supposedly divinely given superiority over nature and the genesis of
the information age?
KAC: Genesis shows the interconnectedness of technology, ideology,
industry, science, communication, and religion. I employed Morse code
not out of a technical need, but as a symbolic gesture both meant to
expose the continuity of ideology and technology and to reveal
important aspects of the rhetorical strategies of molecular biology.
Samuel Morse embraced the radical Protestant movement of the 1830s
known as Nativism. The nativist platform was racist, anti-immigrant,
anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. All his life Morse hated and feared
American Catholics, supported denying citizenship to the foreign born
and wrote pamphlets against the abolishment of slavery. In my work
"Genesis", the translation of the KJV Genesis passage to Morse draws
awareness to the continuity from fierce British colonialism to the
bigotry of nativist ideology. The industrialization of North America,
in tandem with technological hegemony, was based on the gargantuan
profits amassed from the slave trade in the eighteenth century. In
1844 Morse sent the first telegraphic message, from Baltimore to
Washington, D.C.: "What hath God wrought!" The translation from
KJV/Morse to a gene is meant to reveal the continuity between
imperialist ideology and the reductionistic view of genetics, both
focused on suppressing the complexity of historic, political,
economic, and environmental forces that make up social life. In
addition, the Morse code is a central metaphor in molecular biology.
In his influential essay "What is life?" (1943), physicist Erwin
Schrödinger promoted an atomistic view of biology and predicted key
characteristics of genetic material more than a decade before the
structure of DNA was understood. He wrote: "It has often been asked
how this tiny speck of material, the nucleus of the fertilized egg,
could contain an elaborate code-script involving all the future
development of the organism. (...) For illustration, think of the
Morse code. The two different signs of dot and dash in well-ordered
groups of not more than four allow of thirty different
specifications." The metaphor of the "code-script" proposed by
Schrödinger took center stage in molecular biology and became an
epistemological instrument in this field. This begs the question,
which I seek to ask with "Genesis", of how meaning is constructed in
science. How do we go from the metaphor of "genes as code" to the
"fact" that "genes are code"? Is it by the progressive erasure of the
initial conditions of enunciation of a metaphor?
Encryption Stones appear in Genesis like re-mixed Rosetta Stones. One
holds keys to understanding the past in three languages (Greek,
demotic script, hieroglyph) and the other to understanding the future
in three languages (Natural language, binary logic, DNA Code). What
does this tell us about language? About carbon-life and digital-data?
In "Encryption Stones" I mix the structure of the Rosetta Stone (a
message translated to three languages) with the image of the tablets
of the law (a pair of tablets of accesible size displayed side by
side). Mixing old and new, the "Encryption Stones" are carved by hand
on the outside, and laser-etched on the surface from a computer-file
I created. 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. In the nineteenth century the comparison made by
Champollion based on the three languages of the Rosetta Stone (Greek,
demotic script, hierogliphs) was the key to understanding the past.
Today the triple system of Genesis (natural language, DNA code,
binary logic) is the key to understanding the future. "Genesis"
explores the notion that biological processes are now writerly and
programmable, as well as capable of storing and processing data in
ways not unlike digital computers. The boundaries between
carbon-based life and digital data are becoming as fragile as a cell
SELECT: In "Transcription Jewels" the purified Genesis DNA is presented in
very delicate vials. Can you discuss the materials used in their
construction and the implications they have for the "treasure" they
KAC: "Transcription Jewels" is a set of two objects encased in a
custom-made round wooden box. The word "transcription" is the term
employed in Biology to name the process during which the genetic
information is "transcribed" from DNA into RNA. One "jewel" is a 2"
genie bottle in clear glass with gold ornaments and 65 mg of purified
"Genesis" DNA inside. "Purified DNA" means that countless copies of
the DNA have been isolated from the bacteria in which they were
produced and accumulated and filtrated in a vial. The gene is seen
here out of the context of the body, its meaning intentionally
reduced to a formal entity to reveal that without acknowledgment of
the vital roles played by organism and environment, the "priceless"
gene can become "worthless". The other "jewel" is an equally small
gold cast of the three-dimensional structure of the "Genesis"
protein. By displaying the emblematic elements of the biotech
revolution (the gene and the protein) as coveted valuables,
"Transcription Jewels" makes an ironic commentary on the process of
commodification of the most minute aspects of life. Both the purified
gene in "Transcription Jewels" and its protein are not derived from a
natural organism, but rather were created specifically for the
artwork "Genesis". Instead of a "genie" inside the bottle one finds
the new panacea, the gene. No wishes of immortality, beauty, or
intelligence are granted by the inert and isolated gene sealed inside
the miniature bottle. As a result, the irony gains a critical and
humorous twist by the fact that the "precious commodity" is devoid of
any real, practical application in biology.
SELECT: How important is the remote monitoring of "Genesis" via the internet?
KAC: Remote participation is essential. Participants are not simply
monitoring, they are actually mutating transgenic living bacteria
online, they are changing the "word of God" encoded in the bacteria.
Genesis suggests that the ordinary gallery visitor - or Internet
surfer - can in fact gain access to the building blocks of the
genetic code. So the idea of genetic modification is not only in the
hands of the artist. It is not just the means for me to create an art
work. Genetic modification is built into the act of perceiving and
participating in the artwork. Thousands of people who have visited
the site have changed the bacteria. "Genesis" focused on debunking
the notion of supremacy of the DNA molecule by creating an "artist's
gene", a synthetic gene, and expressing it in bacteria. "Genesis"
demonstrated the plasticity of the gene, i.e., how one can inflect it
with meaning. It also brought to an interactive realm the human and
the bacteria networks.
SELECT: Is The Eighth Day (October 25th -December 14th 2001
@ Institute for tudies in the Arts, Tempe, AZ) the realization of transgenic
ecology? Is this ecology separate from ours? Do we share in it's
space and development somehow?
KAC: "The Eighth Day" brings together living transgenic life forms and a
biological robot (biobot) in an environment enclosed under a clear
Plexiglas dome, thus making visible what it would be like if these
creatures would in fact coexist in the world at large. One of my main
goals with "The Eighth Day" is to draw attention to the fact that a
transgenic ecology is already in place (primarily in the USA, since
many crops in the USA (corn, cotton, canola, and soy, for example)
are transgenic, but also increasingly in other parts of the world,
most notably Argentina, Canada, and China). We do not grasp the
complexity of this cultural transformation when we open our
refrigerator to look for corn, when we put on a cotton shirt, or when
we go to a restaurant and pour soy souce over the meal. "The Eighth
Day" creates a dramatic setting that brings together beings
originally developed in isolation in laboratories, now selected and
bred specifically for "The Eighth Day". Selective breeding and
mutation are two key evolutionary forces, so "The Eighth Day"
literally touches on the question of transgenic evolution. (It is
also important to point out that the mice and fish are in excellent
health and have all of their needs taken care of on a daily basis.)
Through the Internet we see this new ecology from within, as we look
through (and control) the eye of the biobot (a biological robot that
hosts transgenic amoeba and that resides in the dome). My goal is to
produce an image that synthesizes this passage into a new kind of
environment, one in which romantic notions of what is "natural" have
to be questioned and the human role in the evolutionary history of
other species (and vice versa) has to be acknowledged, while at the
same time respectfully and humbly marvelling at this amazing
phenomenon we call "life".
SELECT: Does The Eight Day feature GFP animals?
What type and what lab helped in the creation?
KAC: The transgenic creatures in "The Eighth Day" are GFP plants, GFP
amoeba, GFP fish, and GFP mice. I developed this work between 2000
and 2001 at the Institute for Studies in the Arts, Arizona State
University, Tempe. The work evolved in the course of two years and
had the participation of twenty professionals, including Alan Rawls
and Jean Wilson-Rawls, biologists at Arizona State University who
have a personal interest in art and literature. All of the transgenic
creatures in "The Eighth Day" are created through the cloning of a
gene that codes for the production of green fluorescent protein
(GFP). As a result, all creatures express the gene through
bioluminescence visible with the naked eye.
SELECT: There is a Biobot (Biological Robot) featured in the
new work. How does it function in the transgenic ecology of The Eight Day?
KAC: A biobot is a robot with an active biological element within its body
which is responsible for aspects of its behavior. The biobot created
for "The Eighth Day" has a colony of GFP amoeba called Dyctiostelium
discoideum as its "brain cells". These "brain cells" form a network
within a bioreactor that constitutes the "brain structure" of the
biobot. When amoebas divide the biobot exhibits dynamic behavior
inside the enclosed environment. Changes in the amoebal colony (the
"brain cells") of the biobot are monitored by it, and cause it to
slowly go up and down, or to move about, throughout the exhibition.
Ascending and descending motion becomes a visual sign of increase
(ascent) and decrease (descent) of amoebal activity. The biobot also
functions as the avatar of Web participants inside the environment.
Independent of the ascent and descent of the biobot, Web participants
are able to control its audiovisual system with a pan-tilt actuator.
The autonomous ascent and descent motion provide Web participants
with a new perspective of the environment. The biobot has a
biomorphic form and the "amoebal brain" is visible through the
transparent bioreactor. In the gallery, visitors are able to see the
terrarium with transgenic creatures from outside and inside the dome,
as a computer in the gallery gives local visitors an exact sense of
what the experience is like on the Internet. By enabling participants
to experience the environment inside the dome from the point of view
of the biobot, "The Eighth Day" creates a context in which
participants can reflect on the meaning of a transgenic ecology from
a first-person perspective
SELECT: The Biobot seems to be a continuation of your earlier work in
tele-robotics. Can you relate to us the development of this line of
your work? What can the remoteness and manipulation of distanced
seeing in these pieces tell us about ourselves?
KAC: My first biobot was created for a piece entitled "A-positive", from
1997, created with Ed Bennett. The work created a situation in which
a human being and a robot had direct physical contact via an
intravenous needle connected to clear tubing and fed one another in a
mutually nourishing relationship. In A-positive, the human body
provided the robot with life-sustaining nutrients by actually
donating blood to it; the biobot accepted the human blood and from it
extracted enough oxygen to support a small and unstable flame, an
archetypal symbol of life. In exchange, the biobot donated dextrose
to the human body, which accepted it intravenously. Today, the
concept of the biobot is starting to take hold, with artists in Japan
and Greece creating biobots as well.
My work with tele-robotics (also referred to as "telepresence")
started in 1986 and continues through today. With the biobot created
for "The Eighth Day", telepresence and biorobotics come together. By
asking humans to temporarily take the point of view of another being,
my goal is to point out that there are as many realities as there are
sensorial systems to aprehend them, and intersubjective experiences
to construct them. My work integrates cognitive ethology,
consciousness studies, cybernetics, and dialogical philosophy, as in
the work of Uexküll, Griffin, Nagel, Maturana, Bakhtin, and Buber.
I'm in agreement with Abraham A. Moles, who wrote: "As we enter the
age of telepresence we seek to establish an equivalence between
"actual presence" and "vicarial presence." This vicarial presence is
destroying the organizing principle upon which our society has, until
now, been constructed. We have called this principle the law of
proximity: what is close is more important, true, or concrete than
what is far away, smaller, and more difficult to access (all other
factors being equal). We are aspiring, henceforth, to a way of life
in which the distance between us and objects is becoming irrelevant
to our realm of consciousness. In this respect, telepresence also
signifies a feeling of equidistance of everyone from everyone else,
and from each of us to any world event."
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