Art and the transgenic bunny
Please bear with me through this paragraph, it gets easier later. I make up arbitrary rules to translate
an English sentence from the Book of Genesis into the language of DNA, containing only the letters
A, G, C and T. The resulting DNA sentence has no biological meaning, it is just a short, random
sequence of As, Ts, Gs and Cs. Wait, this is just the beginning! I get a biotech firm to assemble a
real piece of DNA with this sequence and a scientist friend to introduce it into bacteria using
standard DNA technology. The bacteria are also engineered to contain a jellyfish gene producing a
protein that makes them glow green under blue light. This green fluorescent protein called GFP is
commonly used in bacteria, fungi, plants and animals to study gene expression. Here, GFP is just
for show. And here comes the stroke of genius! In a museum, I place the bacteria under a camera
connected to my website. I rig the system so that people from all over the world can look at the cool
fluorescent bacteria on their computer screens and activate a UV lamp that irradiates the bacteria in
the museum. UV radiation introduces random changes (mutations) in the bacterial DNA including
the "genesis" sequence that I cobbled in there. After thousands of random people have e-zapped the
bacteria, I let a scientist retrieve the modified "genesis" sequence from the cells and read it to me in
A,T,G,C alphabet. I turn it back into English using my translation rules in reverse: The original Bible
message returns garbled!
I call this art. Its novelty lies in its heavy reliance upon science and technology-most of the work is
done by friends, the real experts. Novel also is the interactive, social and creative experience of
thousands of world-wide Internet surfers united by a single passion: Modify the DNA/Genesis
sentence. Buzz off Leonardo da Vinci, my artist/scientist friend, with your pathetic little smiley
faces! Once, artists like you had to master a craft-nowadays I can just manage other people's crafts.
My job is to inject arbitrary "meanings" (e.g. the activity of humans changes things, wow!) into any
set of random components assembled from the science and technology sandbox. If I knew enough
to perform any of those science McNuggets myself, I'd probably use them to do science.
Until now I pretended to be an artist like Eduardo Kac, who led a panel discussion on his art on
Nov. 6 at Duke. He is an assistant professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago and has used biological/technological/social themes in his work for some time. After
Genesis, he described Alba the fluorescent rabbit, the real draw for most of the audience, including
myself. In the end, what did Kac do? Not much, as the real work was again done by experts. The
idea developed from his Genesis project. He asked French scientist friends if they could make him a
rabbit that glows green under blue light. "No problem," they said with a French accent, "we make
transgenic rabbits like rabbits anyway." Microinjecting the jellyfish GFP gene into a rabbit's
fertilized egg, they let the gene find a home in a rabbit's chromosome (this is my cool title for my art
project: the first transgenic love song; get ready for the next panel discussion) and let the egg
develop into a cute, green fluorescing rabbit.
Now for some "meaning." Well, communication being one of Kac's kicks ("dialogical relationship"
he calls it, obviously to stifle it), he sticks it into the rabbit together with the GFP gene. He wants to
"socialize" the rabbit, first with his family in a museum, then in his home. I am serious. This "art"
seems a ruse to give his daughter a cute and exclusive pet. Some of the panelists wondered, more
politely than I, what glowing has to do with having a pet, and what's so artsy about it, for Genesis'
sake! Fortunately the big bad director of the French transgeneticists doesn't want to release Alba for
Kac's private enjoyment. According to Kac, additional artistic meaning is given to Alba by the
mini-debate on biotechnology it generated. Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush
are therefore works of art too, although they definitely do not glow (their parents were better artists,
since they mixed the DNA themselves).
Kac's next step is a fluorescent doggy, with claims that "inventing new life forms" attests to his
respect for nature and his desire to counteract the accelerating pace of species extinction (see his
website, www.ekac.org). Please! No matter how often he mentions Aristotle, Walter Benjamin,
Picasso, transgenic art, dialogical and other such smokescreens, Kac is doing a disservice to real art
and science, both frameworks through which, with hard work, intelligence and passion, we should
try to understand and respect our world.
Daniele Armaleo is an assistant professor of the practice in the department of biology.
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