American Book Review, July/August 2006, Vol. 27, N. 5, pp. 35-36.

New Arts of Being

Steve Tomasula

Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots
Eduardo Kac
University of Michigan Press
325 pages; paperback, $27.95


Though internationally known for being the first artist to genetically alter a mammal with the explicit aim of making it a work of art, Eduardo Kac is also a historian and critic of this field, writing insightfully about the vast array of human and artificial bodies—genetically redesigned plants and animals, web cams, robots, switching circuits, and the like—that he and other artists have been offering as works of art for over twenty years. Now, Kac has gathered a number of these essays into Telepresence and Bio Art, a book that recasts the trajectory of art by tracing the development of his work from its modernist antecedents, through the computer-nerd-as-artist days of teletype art, to his latest biological art works.

That is, one way to read “The Aesthetics of Telecommunications,” and “The Origin and Development of Robotic Art,” and “Transgenic Art,” and the other (heavily-footnoted) essays of this book is as an apology for an art form whose reception often seems to range between sheer incomprehension and outrage—creating non-art, or Frankensteins. But it’s all in a day’s work for an artist who adopts phone lines or genetic code as his medium. Seen against the “fine” art aesthetics of the museum and commercial gallery scene, Kac’s project reinvigorates art in ways reminiscent of the Futurists by insisting that art participate in the “dialog of ideas,” circulating throughout a culture that has come a long way from the days when cave paintings were the supreme expression of an artist in tune with his culture, and his survival. For experience in the first world is no longer shaped by the terror of the hunt, or modernist alienation, but, as Kac points out, by globalization, digital culture, multiplicity of online relationships and identities—one for the boss, another for potential lovers—integration of organic and artificial life. People no longer have to live with the nose they were born with—or the organs, or the body chemistry. But they do have to live in the world that results from these possibilities.

"It’s not difficult to imagine future historians returning to Telepresence and Bio Art to measure Kac’s stated intentions against actual aftereffects as he helps to usher art, and us, into that future."

Thus, Kac strives to engage viewers as “participants in situations involving biological elements, telerobotics [robots operated from a distance], interspecies interaction, light, language, distant places, time zones, video conferences, and the exchange and transformation of information via networks.”  If all art is representation, what Kac hopes to represent are the largely invisible networks we navigate in our interactions with one another—from a child’s touch, to speech—but especially those that are mediated by a host of “new technologies…from surveillance systems to….cash stations….”  The medium may not be the entire message, but it is part of it. And the part that interests Kac contributes to who we think we are and how we relate to one another.

Kac’s influences are wide-ranging and the history he writes of his field is also a Bildungsroman focusing on his aesthetics: Orson Welles’s 1938 radio staging of War of the Worlds; Gene Cooper’s Thundervolt, in which lightning strikes from around the U.S. were networked through wiring worn by the artist. Mark Pauline’s Rabot, a work that features a dead rabbit fitted with a mechanical exoskeleton so that it could be made to walk backwards, is also relevant here; likewise Nam June Paik’s The First Accident of the 21st Century, a robot that Paik remotely controlled to walk out into Manhattan traffic, where it was promptly hit by a car. The early history Kac maps out is replete with NASA-mission-control-like photos of artists creating the Pong of network art, and Kac goes on to relate those heady days when “the appearance of a new [web] site was a novel event,” and artists were discovering the Internet as a space for social and aesthetic practice, a “conflation of medium and exhibition venue.”

An ur-moment in this history comes from artist László Moholy-Nagy. According to Kac, once Moholy-Nagy, in 1921, took the step of selecting a sign-painting company capable of working off of grid coordinates rather than a sketch, and then calling in his coordinates by telephone and letting the factory execute his paintings (in three different sizes), he ushered in the age of digital art. Had the sign company employed robots, then most of Kac’s main elements would have been present: symbolic exchange mediated by technology; the recession of origins; the dispersal of “the” artist into multiple cocreators; and what Kac calls telepresence, or acting remotely in an alien space, be it a surgeon working in a patient’s body cavity or a geologist operating a robot on Mars. Noting that the telephone has become increasingly more oriented to writing and action than speech—think text messaging, for instance—Kac investigates how this sense of our actions in a remote location echoes the way first users of the telephone experienced voice as disembodied.  For example, Kac’s networked orchestration, Teleporting an Unknown State (1994-96), a plant in total darkness could grow only if people from around the globe sent it light by turning their webcams toward the sun.

When writing about his own work, Kac’s references are as likely to include Baudrillard or Barthes as visual artists; in practice, these same ideas are just as likely to take physical form. Thus while Foucault might write about the posthuman as a discursive subject—that entity that comes to supercede the traditional, humanist individual—Kac writes of the human body’s migration from a “naturally self regulating system to an artificially controlled one,” even while implanting in his leg a microchip (Time Capsule, 1997) in order to register himself as the owner of himself: hence a performance of the migration from “being” a body to “owning” one’s body, a fundamental shift in subject position.

But Kac’s aesthetic seems to have its full flowering in his genetic art, the sphere for which he is most widely known and to which the last third of the book is devoted. After an introduction and overview of bio art, several essays lay out the thinking behind his major works: Genesis (1999), an interactive event where participants were invited to corrupt an artificially created gene that carried the biblical passage, “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”; GFP Bunny (2000), the work for which his genetically-altered fluorescent rabbit was created; and The Eighth Day (2001), in which Kac seemingly continues the creation that God gave up on the seventh day by placing a number of genetically-altered plants and animals in a biosphere that also contains an interactive “biobot,” a robot that uses genetically-altered amoebae as a nervous system. His key insight in all of these works is the “passage of biology from a life science to an information science.”  The ramifications of this shift are profound. Using what some claim is the “useless” nature of art in order to turn science into art—much like Duchamp turned a urinal into art by displacing its function as a urinal—Kac foregrounds dramatically the boundaries between art and science and life. And by involving his audience as participants rather than as mere spectators, he asks them/us to weigh their/our responsibility for the world we are all collectively creating.

Thus his corresponding emphasis on ethics: using “genetic engineering to create unique living beings” as an art form, Kac writes, “must be done with great care; with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised; and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.”  Still, one wishes Kac had addressed the complex issues his work raises with something more than a call for artists simply to love the life-forms they create. What, for example, are we to make of the assertion that the sanctity of individual species—including our own—should not be violated?

The art critic Suzi Gablick once wrote that if art is whatever an artist says it is, then it can be nothing else. At a time when there would seem to be little consensuses about what art is, or what it’s for, the fact that Kac’s work has inserted itself into an international discussion having profound consequences for our understanding of biological and technological limits is note enough of its importance, both to art and to people. While Kac’s role in this discussion will be for later generations to evaluate, finally, it’s not difficult to imagine future historians returning to Telepresence and Bio Art to measure Kac’s stated intentions against actual aftereffects as he helps to usher art, and us, into that future.

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