Originally published in Parachute, N. 104, Jan-Feb-March 2002.


Genes, Genera, Genesis: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac

ERNESTINE DAUBNER

Biotechnology and genetic engineering offer artists quasi-godlike powers to merge art and life. Although genetic artists, as early as the 1920s, were actively breeding “live” organisms, usually beautiful plant hybrids, a sensational offshoot of this genre of “live art” has recently emerged. This is transgenic art: the creation of new life forms by means of gene manipulation, or the alteration of the genetic make-up of living organisms. The transgenic artist, Eduardo Kac, defines this practice as “a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings.”

Assuming the role of a genetic programmer, the artist is now able to write and alter the genetic codes of different species, and by so doing, create hybrid creatures or chimeras.

Kac believes such interspecies creations will, in fact, “yield the generation of beautiful chimeras and fantastic new living systems, such as plantimals (plants with animal genetic material, or animals with plant genetic material) and animans (animals with human genetic material, or humans with animal genetic material).” Clearly, Kac’s transgenic projects are controversial, and intentionally so. They are designed to provoke us to “critically reflect on the social and cultural implications of biotechnology.”

Although the ethical implications of such transgenic art practices are astounding, and of great significance, Kac also reminds us of the positive and beneficial aspects of creating new chimeras. For one, being able to invent new life forms, through the manipulation of genes, permits the artist to contribute to “global biodiversity,” an advantage at a time when “at least one endangered species becom(es) extinct every day.” Imagine also the range of new possibilities open to visitors of exhibitions of “transgenic art.” Soon we will be able to take these new chimeras home with us to grow them “in the backyard” or to raise them “as human companions.”

Kac’s GFP Bunny (2000), a genetically modified rabbit called Alba, is one such chimerical companion (fig.1). The genes of this albino bunny were altered by the addition of an Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), taken from the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. Alba is now able to glow a bright green when subjected to ultraviolet light, transformed by art and science into an aesthetic entity. In his most recent transgenic art exhibition, The Eighth Day, Kac presents us with a “spectacular ecology of green glowing creatures.” These include GFP fish, GFP mice, GFP amoeba and GFP plants located in a closed environment under a ventilated, clear, Plexiglas dome. As gallery or online visitors, we are able to experience the environment of the chimeras inside the dome by means of an avatar, a biological robot, or “biobot,” linked to the Internet. This biobot has an active biological element (a colony of GFP amoeba as brain cells) within its body that are responsible for some aspects of its behavior. Not only are we able to see the host of green chimeras through our cyborgian avatar, the biobot, we can even monitor the activity in its amoebal brain, through a transparent bioreactor, as it moves around its transparent enclosure .

Certainly the ability to merge living organisms with the machine, and to transfer genes from one species to another, prompts one to completely rethink age-old notions about the stability of genetic identities and the solid (genetic) boundaries between human, animal, plant, and machine. In his transgenic artwork, Genesis (1998-2001), Kac blurs such boundaries even more (fig.2), melding together genetic and cultural codes, genes and genera, nature and culture. By fusing these disparate elements into modifiable hybrids, the artist aims to transform and transgress inherited language, the carrier of reductive and unethical paradigms. As Kac explains, Genesis represents “an intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet.”  

In this net installation, Genesis, Kac has set up a petri dish, its contents projected onto the central wall of the exhibition space, as well as onto our computer monitors via the Internet. The petri dish contains the “artist’s gene” and we, as gallery or online visitors, are invited to partake in its genetic modification. As we discover, the “artist’s gene” was engendered from the biblical Words from Genesis, posted on the right wall of the gallery: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” These Words generate a series of translations and intricate transformations of cultural and genetic codes, culminating in the proliferation and modification, in the petri dish, of the “artist’s gene.”

To begin with, the letters and spaces constituting the biblical sentence (the original code) are translated into the dots and dashes of the Morse code. The binary Morse code is subsequently converted into the genetic alphabet, ACTG: the dots are replaced by the genetic base Cytosin C; dashes are substituted with Thymine T and so on (fig. 3). The transformation of cultural codes into DNA codes produce a unique string of ACTGs, represented on the left wall of the exhibition space. This particular sequence of ACTGs constitutes the genetic code of the “artist’s gene,” now able to produce protein.

Placed into a petri dish next to another protein (ECFP), emitting cyan fluorescent light under ultraviolet radiation, the “artist’s gene” becomes color-coded before it is inserted into a species of E. coli bacteria. The genetically engineered cyan bacteria are then introduced to another colony of E. coli, this time without the “artist’s gene.” Also color-coded, this particular strain of E. coli bacteria was inserted with an Enhanced Yellow Fluorescent Protein (EYFP) that emits yellow light when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. In the petri dish, the two strains of cyan and yellow bacteria naturally proliferate, and we are able to monitor how they either retain or lose their respective colors, or how they produce hybrid green colors (fig. 4). As participants in the gallery space or online, we are able to participate in what Kac calls “transgenic bacterial communication” by switching the ultraviolet light on and off. The artist explains that “[t]he energy impact of the UV light on the bacteria is such that it disrupts the DNA sequence in the plasmid, accelerating the mutation rate” (fig. 5).

What, one may ask, is the purpose of creating and manipulating the “artist’s gene” in this way? The answer lies in its genesis, in the biblical Words: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” According to Kac, “[t]his sentence was chosen for its implications regarding the dubious notion of (divinely sanctioned) humanity's supremacy over nature.” Translating these Words into the binary Morse code is also significant, says Kac: “[A]s first employed in radiotelegraphy, [the Morse code] represents the dawn of the information age—the genesis of global communications.” The mutation of the biblical decree to binary logic and into the DNA sequence of the “artist’s gene” is, for Kac, an ethical stance. “[T]he ability to change the sentence, is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it.” At the end of the first Genesis exhibition at Ars Electronica in Linz, the modified DNA of the “artist’s gene” was translated back into Morse code, and into English. Mutations in the original words had indeed occurred: “LET AAN HAVE DOMINION OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA AND OVER THE FOWL OF THE AIR AND OVER EVERY LIVING THING THAT IOVES UA EON THE EARTH. Significantly, “man” was modified into the neutral word, “aan;” and the spelling of the verb in the phrase, “moves upon the earth,” came to resemble the word, “loves.”

What is noteworthy in the creation and modification of the “artist’s gene” is the melding of cultural codes with biological organisms. By generating a process that dissolves the unitary biblical decree, the binary structure of the Morse and genetic codes, into “transgenic bacterial communication,” Kac makes tangible the cyborgian dream of dialogical interaction and transcending conditions of fluidity, and of slipping boundaries. Kac explains it this way: “Today the triple system of Genesis (natural language, DNA code, binary logic) is the key to understanding the future.…The boundaries between carbon-based life and digital data are becoming as fragile as a cell membrane.” This cyborgian condition of fluidity and slipping boundaries implicates us personally since we are invited to participate in this “transgenic bacterial communication,” communally on a global scale, in situ or via the Internet (fig. 6). As Kac remarks, “transgenic art calls for a dialogical relationship between artist, creature/artwork, and those who come in contact with it.” Let each of us then respond, but from beyond the boundaries of such pre-established art/science experiments. In this way, we can create worthwhile and fruitful dialogues about the social and cultural implications of creating chimeras and cyborgs.


NOTES

1 For an historical account of “genetic art,” see George Gessert, “A History of Art Involving DNA,” Ars Electronica 90: LifeScience, Vienna, New York: Springer, 1999, pp. 228-235. Gessert cites the photographer Edward Steichen as one of the first “genetic artists” who considered his plant breeding in the 1920s an art form. See also his “Notes on Genetic Art.” Leonardo Vol. 26, No. 3 (1993): 205.
2 Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art,” Ars Electronica 90: LifeScience, Vienna, New York: Springe, 1999, p 289. A Brazilian-American artist, Kac has been an innovator in other areas as well. In the 1980s, he pioneered telecommunication art, creating interactive (dialogical, telepresence and biotelematic) artworks. For more detailed information, see his web site, <www.ekac.org>.
3 The term, “chimera,” has a double-entendre: in Greek mythology and other western constructs, the chimera was inscribed as a monstrous hybrid creature; as a biological term, it refers to an organism formed by two or more genetically distinct species.
4 Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art,” p. 292.
5 See Eduardo Kac. Press Release at <www.juliafriedman.com/exhib_kac.html>.
6 Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art,” p. 289.
7 Ibid.
8 This exhibition premiered at the Institute for Studies in the Arts, Tempe, from October 25th to November 2nd, 2001.
9 Commonly used as a science fiction theme, meaning a fusion between human and machine, the term, “cyborg,” was coined in 1960 by research scientist Manfred Clynes to describe the implications of advances in biomedical engineering, such as prosthetic limbs, heart pacemakers, drug-dispensing implants and synthetic body and organ implants. As a cross between an anthropomorphic machine and living organisms, I also define the biobot as a cyborg.
10 For more information, see Eduardo Kac’s website at <http://www.ekac.org/8thday.html >.
11 First shown at Ars Electronica in Linz in 1999, Genesis was subsequently exhibited in Sao Paulo, Pittsburgh, New York, Tempe, Chicago and most recently at The Yokohama Triennale in Japan. See Kac’s web site at <www.ekac.org>.
12 Eduardo Kac, Genesis at <www.ekac.org>. Unless otherwise stated, all references to Genesis are from this web site.
13 Kac has created a series of prints, entitled The Book of Mutations, illustrating other mutated sentences.
14 I refer here to Donna Haraway’s cyborg metaphor which “is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions [that] suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms […a means to bypass] the production of universal, totalizing theory….” See her “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 154, 181.
15 Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art,” p. 289.


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