Originally published in Art Journal, New York, Fall 2000, pp. 45-47.


Carol Becker

When it was first proven that Dolly, the cloned sheep, had a genetic makeup the age of her host, it threatened to end the fascination with cloning as a viable method of reproduction. (Why would a member of any species want to start out old?) But in April 2000, when scientists at Advanced Cell Technologies in Worcester, Massachusetts, announced that their cloned cows "possessed cells with clocks that are set like newborns,"' this was a revelation. [1] It would seem that finally humans had found the fountain of youth. Now able to replicate other species (and someday ourselves) ad infinitum, they (we) could always remain young.

At the core of the Human Genome Project, cloning, and biotechnology, there appears to be a desperate desire to find "the secret of life," a search intended to foil the most fearsome elements of our genetic programming--the inevitability of imperfection, deterioration, disease, and death. Perhaps the conversation about the "posthuman" is fundamentally about our desire to flee from human vulnerability, mortality, and our subjective awareness of these conditions. And if such experimentation and theorizing is a personal, ontogenetic attempt to defy death, it is also a phylogenetic effort to continue to evolve as a species when it would appear that all dramatic "natural" evolutions of the physical body have come to completion. Simultaneous with this interest in immortalizing the physical body is an attempt to create a new, virtual body, unencumbered by gravity. One day we might decant our old "self" or core into a cybernetic shell stored on some version of a floppy disk from which our singular and collective identities could be eternally retrieved (but hopefully not erased). These complex motivations are often couched in the discourses of transcendence and liberation.

If, in the art world, the theorizing of the 1980s and 1990s were about issues of identity--the mining of the nuance of one's historical self, conceptualized in society, or what one is, then perhaps this new era will be characterized by what one is not, and focus on the incorporation of otherness; the recombination of the natural and the fabricated; the physical and the virtual; the breakdown of distinctions between art and science; the site of visual experimentation now become the actual, material body, no longer merely its representation; the interrogation of the permeable parameters of species differentiation--new hybridities--as well as the cyborgization and robotization of the human body, and the humanization of the machine. Perhaps we are now enamored with the notion of the posthuman precisely because we perceive humanity as an outdated Enlightenment construct impossible to obtain. Dystopian--unable to imagine the transformation of society and social structures, we have become fascinated with something pre-social: the source of life and all its differentiations as manifested in the Human Genome Project. Is our focus now shifted to the origins of being to deflect us from the question of being in society? Or is this actually the issue of identity taken to an even more basic level: What is human? What is animal? Where do the two come together? How can we truly gain mastery of the code that makes us human and differentiates us from the 98 percent of our makeup that is genetically similar to that of apes? Are we nostalgic for our placement in the world of animals (the 98 percent) or committed to leaving such categorizations behind once and for all (the 2 percent), through our ability to control how all animals including ourselves, evolve? Or are we simply bored, fearful that our apparently intransigent relationships between mind and body, sentient and nonsentient will remain unchanged for eternity? Into this wildly unpredictable, potentially dangerous, philosophically rich field of experimentation, one marked by a lack of examination of motivation and potential consequence, enter artists, many of whom love to create in such spaces of metaphor, ambiguity, virtuality, multiplicity, artificiality, utopianism, risk, and chaos.

Eduardo Kac is such an artist who has navigated these new geographies for some time. Kac believes, "If we leave technology behind in art, if we don't question how technology affects our lives, if we don't use these media to raise questions about contemporary life, who is going to do that?" [2] He has used each of his art pieces and spectacles to attract media attention and thereby encourage public dialogue about the social issues his interactions and interventions address. Among other projects, Kac has grown a single seed in a gallery in New Orleans through light sent by individuals around the world via the Internet (Teleporting an Unknown State). He has implanted a chip in his own leg registering himself as both animal and owner on a Web-based animal identification database (Time Capsule). And he has created a performance where a robotic device designed to aerate his own extracted blood was then able to use it to ignite a flame (A-Positive).

In his most recent piece, Kac has collaborated with geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine to create a "GFP rabbit"-- a transgenic albino bunny whose genetic makeup is altered with a gene obtained from a Pacific Northwest jellyfish that contains GFP, green fluorescent protein. Scientists have previously used this substance to track genetic changes in frogs and mice. Kac had originally wanted to create a "GFP K-9" -- a dog that would turn fluorescent under a blue light or glow green in the dark, like the rabbit. But the technology was not yet advanced enough to permit bringing the fluorescence into the coat of a dog. Hence Alba, the albino bunny. But Kac insists that Alba alone is not the art project. Rather, according to Kac, "It is one gesture--the creation, social integration, and response" that comprises the actual piece. [3]

Eduardo Kac hopes to live with Alba (now several months old) in a gallery context in Avignon, France (as part of the art festival AvignoNumerique), where he will attempt to "normalize" his relationship with her, constructing a domestic space where he and Alba will cohabitate over the course of two weeks. There, visitors will be able to see the rabbit and to observe her glow under a blue light. As a result of the weeks in Avignon and the conference framed around the multifarious issues this piece will generate, Kac hopes to "displace the discourse of a transgenic animal from a scientific model into that of a social subject." Kac then intends to return to Chicago with Alba, where she will become a "member of his family. " [4] He is interested in finding the place of public dialogue beyond the obvious polarizations--the utopianism that can surround bioengineering as well as the fear that often accompanies its potential outcomes. He is also interested in how the issues around such "transgenic" (cross-species genetic transplanting) art are discussed in the public arena and how Alba's existence, and his response to it, might, in his words, "introduce much-needed subtlety and ambiguity" into the debate.

Here the artist has assumed the role of educator, researcher, scientist, social critic, inventor, and co-creator of life. His struggle as an artist is no longer to interrogate his own "hybridity" to register his own "agency," but rather to actually be part of creating a visually and genetically new, transgenic creature, and then focus on her integration into society, her agency, individuality, and potential designation as "other."

In the universe of the posthuman it would appear that the human species will now not only fuse with machines to determine their destiny and how human they will become, but also, no longer the victim of nature ourselves, will become even more the choreographers, curators, and programmers of all other existent, and yet-to-be-imagined species. As Kac says, "I'm interested in science and technology because they allow me to intervene in reality in a way that has a sense of immediacy."

Had we done better as humans in relationship to each other and the "natural world," perhaps we could be more optimistic about what to expect from such posthuman interventions in the realm of the "real." But there is no turning back. Such work to expand the notion of self/other, sentient/nonsentient--visually and conceptually--will inevitably continue. Many scientists and artists will be seduced by the challenges and also imagined good that certain types of research might achieve. Some will also be taken with the glamour, power, and money connected with creating "the first of its kind." All that can be done is as Kac has proposed: create forums where conversations about "consensual domain" between ourselves and other creatures can take place; interrogate the motivations behind such projects; develop ethical discourses to help honestly evaluate the effects of such experiments and art endeavors on those other humans, part-humans, posthumans, and nonhumans with whom we cohabitate and whom we will increasingly seek to perfect and control.


1 - Taken from a report in USA Today, April 28-30, 2000.

2 - Eduardo Kac: Teleporting an Unknown State, October 1998.

3 - All quotes by Eduardo Kac are taken from an interview with the author, May 2000, in Chicago.

4 - Ibid.

5 - This term of "consensual domain" is very important to Kac and came up repeatedly in our conversation. This raises serious questions about how to achieve consensual domain with an animal.

Carol Becker is Dean of Faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author and editor of several books.

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