Elwell, J, Sage. Crisis of Transcendence:  A Theology of Digital Art and Culture (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011) pp. 7-10

Animal: GFP Bunny (2000) by Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac has described himself as the first “transgenic artist.”14 Philip Reilly, CEO of Interleukin Genetics, explain that transgenics refers to, “our ability to move genes across species barriers.”15  When this ability is employed for artistic ends the result is transgenic art, which Kac defines as “a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to create unique living beings.”16   Elaborating on this, Kac explains that “the nature of this new art is not only defined 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.”17 
Creating from this insight, Kac won  the Golden Nica for Hybrid Art at the 2000 Ars Electronica Festival for his piece A Natural History of the Enigma for which he integrated his own genetic material with that of a Petunia.
Not surprisingly then, art historian James Elkins has described Eduardo Kac’s work as “six degrees of separation from every  important issue of our time.”18   No where is this more apparent than in one of his earliest transgenic creations, GFP Bunny.
Kac created GFP Bunny by integrating a synthetically enhanced version of the green fluorescent protein into the genome of an albino rabbit through zygote microinjection.  The genetically enhanced version of the green fluorescent protein produces roughly two times the fluorescence of its naturally occurring counterpart and has been used for decades by scientists as a diagnostic marker at the cellular level.  After the protein was introduced into the genome, the zygote developed and was carried to term in an uneventful pregnancy.  Just one month later, Alba, the Green Fluorescent Protein Bunny, was born.  (This is the normal gestation period for rabbits.)
However, Alba only glows when illuminated by a blue light, at which point she fluoresces a bright green that can be seen using a special yellow filter.19
The creation and birth of Alba, the glow-in-the-dark bunny, was the first of three
phases of the GFP Bunny project.  The second phase began on May 14, 2000, with the first public announcement of Alba’s birth  at the Planet Work conference in San Francisco. Kac wrote that this phase would be defined by “the ongoing dialogue between professionals of several disciplines (art, science, philosophy, law, communications, literature, social sciences) and the public on the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering.”20   The third phase involved taking care of and raising Alba as a member of the Kac family.   Reflecting on the totality of all three phases, Kac observed that “aesthetics in the context of transgenic art must be understood to mean that creation, socialization, and domestic integration are a single process.”21
Kac’s insistence that his work be understood as a process reflects the dynamics of control inherent in biological art.  As Stelare demonstrated with his Ping Body, there is much power to be had in harnessing the reductive force of code.  If a thing, even the human body, can be reduced to code it can be controlled according to the principles of code.  However, GFP Bunny runs up against the limits of that control by confounding the logic that code demands.
To create GFP Bunny Kac had to convert genetic code into digital code.
That conversion, or reduction, made it possible to control Alba’s genetic destiny.  From that moment on, her modified genetic code was an enactment of the fate-shaping control of digital code.  The line separating digital and genetic code is remarkably fluid, and increasingly trivial.  As cultural anthropologist Thomas de Zegontita writes, “what counts is the code,  Digital or DNA, they are both susceptible to mediation, to human control of what the code expresses.”22    And yet, after Alba was born, the code she embodied as GFP Bunny became independent  and autonomous.
Inasmuch as Alba was the expression of the green fluorescent protein and glowed in the dark, she existed an instantiation of the coded form and a testament to Kac’s ability to harness the power of code - both genetic and digital - to exact lasting control.  However, it is precisely as the realized embodiment of Kac’s control that Alba as code demanded that Kac relinquish control.  This is why Kac describes his relationship with  his transgenic art as “dialogical.”23   A dialogical exchange obtains between Kac as creator and controller and his autonomous creation which embodies the demands of responsibility that fall to the creator of an independent living being.
In this respect, transgenic art in general, and GFP Bunny in particular, entails a tangible negotiation of control uncommon in the traditional arts.
As first glance, it may appear that this ambiguity of control arises simply because Kac created something possessed of its own mobility which  required his care.  More accurately however, GFP Bunny reveals  that once code is taken to instantiate its own value, it ceases to be merely a tool for wielding control and becomes instead an agent of control itself with which control must be negotiated.  This implication of the coded form of biological art cannot be overstated.
Because code as form is operative at the most elemental level, it recasts all that it encounters in its image.  To appreciate this and its relevance in biological art, imagine two works of art sitting side by side: Alba (under normal light), the rabbit from Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny, and a hypothetical painting of Alba executed by a master artist according to the most lifelike detail.
It could safely  be said that the painting of Alba would display such formal characteristics as a masterful absence of visible brushwork, a precise but subtle use of color and tonality in its depiction of the varying shades of white that color each patch of fur, and a studied appreciation of light source, shading, and perspective.  Thus if asked whether the painting tends toward form or content, it would seem most reasonable to reply that the rabbit itself as content takes precedence over the formal elements of the piece precisely because they fade into their realization of such a lifelike rendering of this particular rabbit.  What then about Alba herself?
Not surprisingly, Alba might be described according to the same formal elements as the painting.  Her fur displays subtle tonal variations of white, the light reflects off her delicate pink nose in coordination with her shiny rose-colored eyes, and she appears completely “lifelike.”  But this raises a troubling question.  Why is it that the painting is about the rabbit, but Kac describes Alba as being about “the ongoing dialogue between professionals of several disciplines (art, science, philosophy, law, communications, literature, social sciences) and the public on the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering.”24  Taken as they are, the two works are virtually  indistinguishable.  Why then the variance in representational content?
The answer is code.  The formal elements used to describe the painting reflect the artist’s technical skill in using paint.  As a result, the rabbit as the paiting’s content (its “aboutness”) comes to the fore precisely as the obviousness of the medium is marginalized by formal craft.  Conversely, the formal elements used to describe Alba ultimately relate back to Kac’s manipulation of genetic code with digital code.  Unlike paint, however, the formal properties of digital code are manifest only in the transformation of its subject into itself.
Thus, whereas our  hypothetical painter applied paint on a canvas, fashioning it into a remarkable resemblance of the rabbit.  Alba was created by first reducing the rabbit to code and then re-fashioning it from the “inside out” as it were.  Consequently, any “content” that might be read into Alba is simply a manifest expression of her coded form.
Turning from animals to cells, SymbioticA’s half artwork, half science project MEART raises the question of code’s capacity to realize true creative transformations.  Ping Body showcased the power of code to manipulate life from the outside in.  GFP Bunny featured code forming life from the inside out.
With MEART, code becomes both art and artist - at once a creation fashioned from the inside out and a creator fashioning its own works from the outside in.

J. Sage Elwell is assistant professor of religion, art, and visual culture at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.  His research and teaching focuses on digital art and culture and explores how technology transforms fundamental values and ultimate meanings.  This is his first book.

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