Originally published in Wednesday Journal, 11 October 2000, pp. 49, 52-53. 
Wednesday 11 October, 2000

Oak Park's Mr. Green Genes
Artist Eduardo Kac discusses his artistic vision and his glowing bunny
By Laura Stuart October 11, 2000
Oak Park artist Eduardo Kac has had his 15 minutes of fame -- worldwide fame -- and he's not sure whether he's happy about it. If you missed it, Kac and a group of French scientists used genetic engineering to create a rabbit with an enhanced version of a fluorescent jellyfish gene. The gene causes the bunny (named Alba by Kac, his wife Ruth Kafensztok and their daughter, Miriam) to glow green when a blue light is shined on it.

As a result, Kac has seen his 20-year art career reduced to a sound bite about Alba the glowing bunny. Worse, he finds Alba treated as some kind of artistic and scientific parlor trick rather than as the complex social subject he intended her to be.

"My definition of art is philosophy in the wild," says Kac. "It's a symbolic form of inquiry. I consider myself an artist-researcher -- my contribution is at that very early stage when the culture at large hasn't caught up. I make art that offers a reflection on changing, new cultural patterns. I use my art as a way of learning, of trying to understand. And I put people in touch with new ideas. My work is a powerful prompt for reflection, for viewers to use for their own discovery."

How did he get from there to the bunny?

Kac says his methods may have changed, but his basic concerns have remained the same since his days as a performance artist in his native Brazil in 1980. "I've always been interested in how we see the world and how we relate to one another," he explains. "I wanted to investigate how our continuous cultural transformations are shaped by science and technology."

And when Kac says "we," he has a broader definition in mind than you might expect: "The heart of my whole body of work is to create shared experience between entities, not just humans. My focus has been the coming together of difference -- to let you experience the world from a perspective other than your own."

One more point about Kac's art: Don't think you can just stand back and look at it. "I'm interested in creating an alternative art form focused on experience that is transformative," he says. "As the artist, I create the context, but the viewer walks in and has a living experience of the work. It's more like a conversation -- I'm the artist, but I'm not so much in control of the outcome. Art for the 21st century needs participation and a more intense form of physical experience."

Kac, an assistant professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, believes that in order for us to fully understand the bunny, we've got to take a look at his whole body of work.

Back to the future

Kac was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, although his family came from Poland. He grew up immersed in books of many languages (Kac is fluent in Spanish, French, Portuguese and English and also reads Italian). While a college student at Catholic University in Rio, he started a performance group that appeared, uninvited but welcomed, in public spaces. "We became a Friday night tradition in the heart of downtown Rio. I wrote the texts. It was social and political commentary with a sense of humor, complex ideas conveyed through simple means," he recalls.

In 1983, Kac wrote a book, Escracho, summarizing his work and the work of other artists he found "interesting and relevant." It's now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But Kac found the world of books limiting, and he moved on to a new form of communication: holographic poetry.

"I wanted to investigate the idea that a new poetry could be written in a new environment. The poetic text would allow for relative points of view -- two people looking at the text could read different things, and each eye could read different words. As you move, there's a sense of transformation; a passage is suggested without having to settle for an invented construction. It makes the 'reader' an active participant," explains Kac.

The "holopoetry" that resulted can be held in your hand. As you move your eyes, some words come into view and others disappear. Kac had the idea before he had the technical means to pull it off, but he ran into another artist who "knew a guy" with knowledge of holograms and access to a lab. That's how Kac has created much of his artwork.

"I've always worked with teams of professionals. An analogy is a film director -- I'm responsible for the conceptual impetus, but my work calls for areas of specialization. There's still a lot of hands-on experience and study required, though, because I have to understand the different media so I can communicate with the experts in their own language," he says.

Kac spent 10 years, until 1993, producing various forms of holopoetry. It's been studied at Yale University and is in several museum collections, including the Museum of Holography in Chicago. But Kac was ready to move on to something new, and he became increasingly interested in the role of telecommunications in art.

One of his earliest telecommunications projects involved the use of fax machines and live television. "The idea was to do work with another artist," he recalls. "It was like a jam session, a video chat. He sent me a fax of an image, and I transformed it and sent it back to him. We went back and forth, and it was broadcast on live TV. The idea was a visual dialogue occurring live, through telecommunications, with a sense of improvisation."

Much of Kac's telecommunications work prefigured the Internet; he and his fellow artists used complex and sometimes convoluted technology to communicate images across time and space. "We were talking about art created in an immaterial form; imagine what that meant in 1985. We were discussing a completely new world. We created a virtual gallery, accessible on a network, 15 years ago."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Kac's next series of projects took the idea of remote communication a step further. He calls them "telepresence art." Kac places a robot in a unique environment, often in a remote place, and lets viewers see that space through the robot's eyes while controlling the robot's motion. At first, Kac and his collaborator, Chicago artist and technical expert Ed Bennett, used telephone lines and wireless transmissions; when it became possible, they moved to the Internet.

An early example of a robot project: Kac put a robot in a robot-scale space, with lots of interesting places to explore. "There's sound, color -- nothing is hidden, but it's all viewed from the robot's perspective. What you see depends on where the robot goes, and you control all of the robot's movements from your remote location. It's in a gallery in Chicago, and you're in a gallery in, say, Paris. What you do there can break a glass in the robot's environment here. It's like an out-of-body experience, where you view a world from a perspective other than your own, and you're responsible for the physical consequences," explains Kac.

Rara Avis is a 1996 telepresence work created by Kac for an exhibit held in connection with the Atlanta Olympic Games. It consisted of a large aviary, filled with 30 small, gray birds and, at the back, a large red macaw. At the front of the exhibit there's a virtual reality headset; when you put it on, you see the cage, the 30 birds and yourself from the eyes of the macaw, which is actually a robot. When you move your head, the macaw's head moves accordingly.

You're in the body of the macaw, but you're not alone there. The images you see are sent over the Internet for remote participants, who in turn can use microphones to make sounds, which trigger the vocal apparatus of the macaw. You provide the eyes, while the remote participants provide the voice for the bird.

What's the point, besides that it's a lot of fun? "The robot is the interface between you and another life form," says Kac. "You see the world from the perspective of another species."

Kac has lots of these installations. He did one in a bat cave in Holland in which participants got to be a robotic bat and experience "moments of shared awareness" with other bats. There's another in which a plant and a canary communicated with each other in different cities: the canary's song traveled to the plant, wires attached to the plant measured its reactions and converted them to sound, and the sound went back to the bird, which responded in turn. It's about as close to an interspecies conversation as you can get.

Kac is careful to note that no animals were harmed in the making of these exhibits. "I always work with professionals, showing the utmost concern for these beings. We make sure they're happy and well taken care of, both during the show and after it's over as well," he says.

A glow in the family

Kac is in the middle of two projects now, GFP Bunny ("GFP" stands for "glowing fluorescent protein") and Genesis. They're both examples of what Kac calls "transgenic art," which he defines as art concerned with "living beings with genes not originally part of their genome."

"Genetic engineering is not new; it's a part of our culture. There are no poodles in the wild, and no tangerines in nature. There are reasons for fears, but we can't pretend it's not happening. My art can contribute to a dialogue -- to make you think about the issue," explains Kac.

In Genesis, on view at a New York City gallery (and online at and through his website, www.ekac.org), Kac took a sentence from the Bible -- "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" -- converted it to Morse Code and then converted the Morse Code into DNA base pairs (through his own invented code). The result is language transformed into a gene, which scientists actually created in a lab and introduced into bacteria in a petri dish. "We made it glow so you can actually see which bacteria have the gene," says Kac.

"The petri dish is displayed over an ultraviolet light, in a beautiful, poetic environment," he continues. "There's a huge video projection, in a warm, dark room." Turning the UV light on, which can be done over the Internet, disrupts the bases of the DNA and causes mutations. "You're changing the genetic structure of a living organism," says Kac. In effect, you rewrite the sentence.

What's the point? "We're told that what we are is determined by our DNA. But if an artist can work playfully with DNA, you realize it's not immutable, it's also a site of invention and creativity. DNA is not one thing, it's not the secret of life," explains Kac.

Which brings us to the bunny. Kac insists that Alba is not a work of art. "That would objectify her," he says. "I'm not interested in the creation of genetic objects but in the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large and providing her with a loving, caring and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy."

That's why Kac won't consider the project done until he brings Alba to Oak Park to live with his family. "We want to share her experience, to have a sense of empathy with her, to make the 'transgenic other' a part of our lives," he says.

Kac has visited Alba in Jouy-en-Josas, France, where he found her to be a "cool, quiet bunny." She's a healthy albino rabbit; she looks white unless she's under the blue light. "If there was any indication that she would have been born with a defect or disease, or that anything bad would have happened to her, I wouldn't have done the work," Kac insists. Contrary to most press reports, the genetic engineering was done with individual reproductive cells, before the bunny embryo existed.

Kac plans to travel to France in December, where he'll try to untangle the bureaucracy and bring Alba to Oak Park. "This is where she belongs," he says.

Amid the press frenzy over Alba, Staci Boris, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, commented, "[Kac] is pushing the boundaries between art and life, where art is life. People go to extremes to create something provocative, but a lot of scientists are blind to the effect of progress. Kac is involved in the discussion. He's a unique presence in the art world."

He's also a unique presence in Oak Park. And the bunny will be, too. 

©Wednesday Journal 2000

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