Originally published in ARTnews, December 2001, (Volume 100/Number 11), in the special section The Next Wave: Ten Trendsetters to Watch, pp. 118-119.
Building the Bioluminescent Bunny
With fluorescent proteins and engineered bacteria,
Eduardo Kac wields the tools of science in the
service of transgenic art
When Eduardo Kac proposed GFP K-9, an artwork involving a dog enhanced with a gene from a jellyfish that would cause it to glow under ultraviolet light, at the 1999 Ars Electronic festival in Linz, Austria, his stunned audience fell silent. Never mind that the dog genome had not yet been mapped and his project might take decades to realize, or that scientists were already able to create laboratory rats with green fluorescent protein, or that it would look no different from other dogs under natural light. The plan to alter the genetic code of animals made Kac, who has dark curly hair and favors tinted glasses, look like an intellectual heir of Dr. Frankenstein.
While Kac (pronounced "cats") shocked the art world at Linz with the concept for GFP K-9, his attempt the next year to realize GFP Bunny provoked a broader uproar. In that case, the director of the French laboratory that engineered the rabbit refused to release it to Kac, who had planned to take it home to his wife and daughter in Chicago. Though he intended GFP Bunny as an artwork exploring the social interaction between his family and a fluorescent albino rabbit named Alba, many critics assumed the rabbit itself was meant to be regarded as an art object, although that was not Kac's intention. The resulting scandal was a bonanza for headline writers around the world, who reached for puns like "CROSS HARE" that both mocked the dispute and expressed a certain discomfort with Kac's project.
"It's so easy to fear or hate what you don't know," says Kac, 39, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For the last couple of years, he has been testing the limits of creativity and public opinion in the genre he calls transgenic art; that is, works of art involving genetically modified bacteria, bioluminescent mammals, and other organisms that carry alien genetic material. Kac's latest transgenic work, The Eighth Day, which premiered in October at Arizona State University in Tempe, and remains on view on Kac's Web site, www.ekac..org, is a domed environment inhabited by mice, fish, plants, and amoebas, all genetically imbued with green fluorescent protein, or GFP, from a jellyfish. Under blue light and viewed through a special filter, the organisms appear to glow. What's more, the amoebas are contained in a "biobot," a robot whose motions are governed by the tiny creatures' collective activity.
"In a sense, the microorganisms become the mind of the robot," Kac explains. "When they run out of food or are put under stress, they start to behave as one larger organism."
With works like The Eighth Day, which was created in collaboration with some 20 scientific specialists, Kac is using the relationships among species (including humans) to call attention to the eroding boundary between biotechnology and mainstream contemporary culture. Kac's Genesis (1999) took a line from the Bible about man's dominion over all living things and translated it into Morse code. Then, using a formula of his own devising, he mapped it onto the four amino acids that are the building blocks of genetic code. Bacteria cloned from the resulting gene were put on display in the gallery under ultraviolet light. The light caused mutations in the bacteria, which, in turn, rewrote the biblical verse.
"Eduardo is raising some of the really big questions," says Marvin Heiferman, an independent curator who included Genesis in "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," the 2000 show he co-organized at New York's Exit Art.
"He doesn't have the constraints a research scientist might. It's precisely because he's an artist that he has the freedom of expression to raise ideas that others won't."
Genesis, Kac's first realized transgenic work, was the center piece of a solo show last year at the Julia Friedman Gallery in Chicago. Encryption Stones (2001), a pair of Rosetta Stone-like granite slabs etched with the English, Morse code, and DNA versions of the Genesis gene, sold for $13,000.
Genesis also furthers the artist's exploration of language and communication, which began in the mid-1980s and manifested itself in holographic poetry as well as in telematic works that incorporate telephone, fax, or online connections. Like many of his pieces, Genesis can be experienced remotely; visitor's to Kac's Web site could manipulate the level of ultraviolet light in the gallery.
The idea that chimerical creatures are being developed and exhibited for art's sake has led bioethicists, animal-rights activists, and others to condemn Kac as arrogant and misguided. But Kac denies that the organisms are meant as art objects: the altered animals are not intended to make something monstrous, but rather to bridge distances and forge connections, as he has done with his telematic works.
"I firmly believe that any negative reactions one would have to GFP Bunny would disappear when you hold Alba in your arms," says Kac. In his view, the reaction to GFP Bunny results less from "having a loving, healthy rabbit in the world" than from the lack of public awareness of the current capabilities of biotechnology. It wasn't Kac who first came up with the idea of genetically modifying animals so they glow; scientists have been inserting GFP in genes to study embryonic development, and they haven't observed any adverse effects on animals.
"There are certain kinds of experiences that reshape your thoughts, and you can no longer occupy the position you did before," Kac says. "It's not comfortable, but once you realize that this comes as a symbolic intervention that raises awareness of the cultural shifts under way, it's a profound insight."
For Kac, an artist should provide insights into, say, how we fear technology or perceive difference, and should do so not necessarily through traditional means. (Nor is an artist necessarily a craftsman: Kac conceives his works but often relies on "specialized professionals" to realize them.) He cites László Moholy-Nagy's sound sculptures, Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, and the experimental poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire and e.e.cummings as influential. Kac, a native of Rio de Janeiro, also takes inspiration from the work of fellow Brazilians Lygia Clark ("what I find inspirational is not just her formal solutions but her commitment to go where you need to even when the circumstances might be adverse") and Flavio de Carvalho. In an art "experiment" in 1931, Flavio marched through a Catholic procession and flirted with the young women portraying the Virgin Mary -- until the police intercede to save his life.
Some critics have connected GFP Bunny to a 1965 action by Joseph Beuys in which the German artist cradled a dead hare in his arms at a Düsseldorf gallery, but Kac dismisses any parallels as unintentional. "It's a strictly formal comparison." he says. "I'm talking about enabling life."
"The same way people didn't want to think about terrorism until recently, people don't want to think about cloning. You know cloning is going on in some private lab somewhere," says Heiferman, adding that Kac's work is "raising uncomfortable issues. At some level, he's the bad-boy artist-and that's a good thing."
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