Eduardo Kac

 "Cypher" is an artwork that merges sculpture, artist's book and a DIY transgenic kit. It measures approximately 13 x 17 " (33 x 43 cm) and is contained in a stainless steel slipcase. When removed from the case, the kit — itself also made of stainless steel — opens up in two halves, like a book. Inside, the viewer/user finds a portable minilab. The kit contains Petri dishes, agar, nutrients, streaking loops, pipettes, test tubes, synthetic DNA (encoding in its genetic sequence a poem I wrote specifically for this artwork), and a booklet containing the transformation protocol—each in its respective compartment.

The work literally comes to life when the viewer/reader/user follows the protocol in the booklet and integrates the synthetic DNA into the bacteria (the "transformation").  The bacteria (normally pale) will then glow red, showing through this transgenic visual marker that the artwork is now alive. In bacterial division, two identical clone cells are always produced. After the transformation, the poem will be fully integrated into the bacteria's cellular machinery and therefore will be present in each newly reproduced bacterium. "Cypher" visually hybridizes sculpture and artist's book : a three-dimensional metal object (with a velvety internal coating, finished by hand using industrial techniques and complemented with glass objects) is initially handled like a book, only to reveal itself as a nomadic laboratory. The key poetic gesture in "Cypher" is to place in the hands of the viewer the decision and the power to literally give life to the artwork.

Eduardo Kac, Cypher, DIY transgenic kit with Petri dishes, agar, nutrients, streaking loops, pipettes, test tubes, synthetic DNA, booklet, 33 x 43 cm, 2009.

Exhibition view at Rurart, Contemporary Art Center, France, 2009.
For more photos of Cypher, please click here.

The synthetic DNA in "Cypher" encodes in its genetic sequence a poem I wrote specifically for this artwork. The code replaces alphabetic letters included in the poem with short DNA sequences of two or three bases. The poem "Cypher" is composed with a high statistical incidence of the four letters that represent the four genetic bases Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine (i.e., A, C, G and T). The set of remaining letters is formed by four consonants and two vowels: these additional six letters were carefully selected to form a "code within the code" that serves as semantic counterpoint to the apparently enigmatic meaning of the poem. The result of this process is that poem and code complement each other in such a way that the code is absolutely integral to the poem. Both are included in the booklet present in the kit, thus enabling the viewer to discover this relationship while following the protocol to give life to the poem. The title manifests an anagrammatic relationship between sign and referent that is, itself, also part of the work.

 "Cypher" is an artwork that presents itself as an invitation; it is a call to engage with a set of procedures that merge art and poetry, biological life and technology, reading/viewing and kinesthetic participation. This sculptural object's relationship to the book is enhanced by the fact that the title of the work is engraved on the spine of the slipcase and on the "cover" (the front of the kit). The work can go on a bookshelf and be clearly identified. When opened, the viewer discovers a complete transgenic kit. The "reading" of the poem is achieved by transforming E. coli with the provided synthetic DNA. The act of reading is procedural. In following the outlined procedure, the participant creates a new kind of life—one that is at once literal and poetic.

See pictures of Cypher in the exibition "Eduardo Kac: Lagoglyphs, Biotopes and Transgenic Works," curated by Christiane Paul and shown at Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (January 25th to March 30th, 2010).

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