Originally published in NY Arts Magazine, Vol.6, No.12, December 2001 <http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/60/ethics.htm>.

"The Ethics of Knowledge"

Cristine Wang

From such works as Leonardo Da Vinci’s "Codices", to Jules Verne’s "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", to the film "The Matrix", we have seen in art the attempt to imagine a "Brave New World", extending our perceptive, cognitive means with the aid of machines and technological developments (existing or imagined). They are hypotheses, forays into the synthesis of art and science, forging a path beyond our preconceptions of each distinct discipline, a hybridization of concept, space, physical + virtual forms. They enable us to think beyond the existing status quo, and ruminate on the "what might have been or what may be..."

Their beauty lies in their sheer existence, of coming into being as a clearly-defined series of principles and thoughts, having their first expression in our world as a sketch, a word, a novel, a film, a performance, an object, and in this case, "transgenesis"--the creation of hybrid forms with the use of biotechnology. The importance of Eduardo Kac’s work with transgenic art is that, like any proponent of the avant-garde (citing the likes of Marcel Duchamp who exhibited, in 1917, for the Independent Artists‘ Society, "created" the ready-made "Fountain," urinal, and called it "Art") he puts into question notions of "artistic practice" and "authorship." "All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." [--Marcel Duchamp, from his lecture: "The Creative Act," given April 1957, Houston Texas] It seems to me that we should by now in the 21st century throw away that old school romantic desire for "Intention"- for, as Duchamp has shown us, not only is it impossible to "really know what the artists' intent was," but it is also irrelevant. The importance of a work is entirely circumstantial--it is shaped by context and society.

According to Duchamp the artist "does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work's inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle." Art is thus ultimately created by the viewer - any object, or, potentially, any concept, becomes art when intellectual analysis is focused upon it. In "NEGOTIATING MEANING: THE DIALOGIC IMAGINATION IN ELECTRONIC ART," Eduardo Kac speaks about how it is of paramount importance to have active forms of communication between two living entities. That social interaction, interrelationship, and connectivity is the basis of life.

Machine Breeds Machine. Duchamp's futuristic vision of allegorical machines is one of the true marriages between matter and spirit, art and technology, "the spirit is the bride." Duchamp invented a new physics of his own, closer to Jarry's pataphysics than to conventional science, a fourth dimension engineering that goes beyond the rational axiomatic rigidity of scientific law. One of Duchamp's greatest works, “The Large Glass or the Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even” (1915-23) represents the most difficult and mysterious of all domains, the fourth dimensional phenomenon of sex. These theoretical suggestions which were later to be discovered by Baron Von K. Reichenbach and Wilhelm Reich, isolate and demonstrate a tangible biological energy generated by the human body (particularly during sexual activity). These discoveries can only enhance yet even more new possibilities in the future exploration of the man machine symbiosis in all levels of creation. As technology accelerates and new knowledge formulates so does the spirit in its needs to expand its own awareness, for only in the pursuit of knowledge of all things can we discover ourselves. Eduardo Kac’s work "The Eighth Day" does just this; it expands our awareness of the technology + issues surrounding "transgenics" the study + practise of genetic modification (or GM, as its commonly referred to). A transgenic being contains a gene or genes which have been artificially inserted instead of naturally occurring. The inserted gene sequence (known as the transgene) may come from another of the same species, or from a completely different species. The obvious impetus for such actions is towards improving the original, a striving towards perfection.

We have seen studies into dna sequencing, with the human genome project. DNA molecule stores an organism's genetic information and orchestrates the metabolic processes of life. If DNA is the source code of life, or the operating system (if you will), then it is not unlike the Operating System (OS) of computers, Windows, for example. So if we argue that the software giant Microsoft should make the source code available, in order that it may be improved upon, and understood, is it not the case with DNA, the source code of life? The "Eighth Day" brings to light these questions. In conclusion, I posit that, while it is unclear why genetic engineering performed in the name of science is more acceptable than the same process carried out in the name of art, that it is through projects such as Eduardo Kac’s "Eighth Day," that make an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the changing realm of biotechnology and its consequent social + cultural ramifications. And this is its greatest contribution, for as Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." --[from, "The World As I See It", Albert Einstein]

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