Originally published in Indie Planet, June 2000.


Crossing the Line

by Steven Shaviro

Art today is all about crossing boundaries. There's always someplace you're coming from, but you are unlikely to remain there. The World Wide Web doesn't abolish individual places. But it eliminates the distance between one place and another. Any location can be connected to any other location. You can move directly from A to B, without worrying about all the points in between.

It's not just physical boundaries, though, that are breaking down under the impact of new technologies. Cultural critic Donna Haraway identifies three sorts of distinctions that are fast losing relevance in the postmodern world: distinctions between the human and the animal, between the organic and the mechanical, and between the physical and the virtual. All of these used to be hard-and-fast differences, with no overlap. But now the boundaries between them have become rather fuzzy. Scientists manipulate genes, crossing from one species to another. Surgeons implant plastic pacemakers in flesh-and-blood human hearts. We navigate through chatrooms and online databases as easily as we do through freeways and shopping malls.

No artist reflects this situation of fluid boundaries and unexpected crossings more fully than Eduardo Kac. Kac is Brazilian, originally from Rio de Janeiro. But he currently lives and works in Chicago. He has exhibited his works on four continents. Over the years, he has created works in many different genres, from performance and video to holograms and "visual poetry." But he has specialized in multimedia interactive pieces that allow the spectators to become active collaborators in the work, and that press against the cutting edge of new technologies. Even before the World Wide Web existed, Kac was pioneering "telecommunications art" and "telepresence art," using television and fax machines in order to create real-time "visual dialogues" between participants in different cities.

More recently, Kac has created interactive art installations that transport the viewer into virtual-reality settings. Last year, for instance, he made Darker Than Night, located in the bat cave of a Dutch zoo. Kac constructed an artificial robotic bat that inhabited the cave together with the zoo's 300 real (biological) bats. The "batbot" contained a sonar device, analogous to the echolocation that real bats use. A computer received the feedback from this sonar, and converted it from high-pitched sound into dots of light. By putting on a virtual-reality headset, a viewer could see the resulting visual patterns. After all, bats are sonic creatures, whereas primates are largely visual ones. In this piece, Kac was able to translate the sound-centered world of the bat into the visual terms that we human beings can more readily appreciate.

Kac's latest art project is his most audacious yet. Simply put, he wants to make a fluorescent dog. Kac proposes the new genre of "transgenic art." This would consist in using genetic engineering for aesthetic purposes, instead of just for useful (medical and scientific) ones. In the past few years, scientists have analyzed the gene sequence that codes for GFP (Green Florescent Protein). GFP is a substance produced by certain jellyfish, that allows them to shine with a greenish glow. Researchers have transplanted the GFP gene into the embryos of frogs and mice. The resultant glow allows them to track embryonic development, and to watch the growth of cancerous tumors.

Kac proposes to insert the GFP gene into the genetic material of a dog. This would lead to the creation of a new canine breed, one whose fur glows green in the dark. The idea may seem shocking, but Kac points out that it is only a logical extrapolation of what dog breeders have done already. For hundreds of years, we have been breeding dogs selectively, to create animals with unusual shapes and abilities. Some breeds are useful for activities like herding and hunting, but many more are purely fanciful. There are dogs with odd shapes, like the Dachshund and the Sharpei. There are dogs as tiny as the Chihuahua, and as enormous as the Great Dane. There are dogs as high-strung as the Poodle, and as mean and nasty as the Rottweiler. In this company, a phosphorescent dog doesn't seem all that odd. Kac points out that the GFP gene is completely harmless, so his dog won't have the sorts of health problems that affect many of the more specialized breeds.

The fluorescent dog probably won't come into existence any time soon, but it is well within the bounds of scientific possibility. In proposing it, Eduardo Kac reaffirms the role of the artist as an explorer, and a crosser of boundaries. In ancient times, the artist was a shaman, a mental voyager into unknown realms. Now that powerful computers and genetic science are turning what once was magical into commonplace experience, it takes somebody like Kac to renew our sense of wonder. Kac's experiments in telepresence art and transgenic art help to remind us just how rich and strange the biosphere can be, even in this age of ubiquitous technology.

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