Originally published in the gallery brochure of Genesis exhibition realized at Julia Friedman Gallery, May 4 -- June 2, 2001.

Eduardo Kac: Metaphor into Motif

David Hunt

Eduardo Kac is suspicious of metaphors. The genome as a book? Twenty–three chapters reflecting the twenty–three chromosomes? Genes as the tangled narrative strands within each of these chapters? For Kac, the notion that we might relax on a lazy afternoon flipping through a document which mirrors the complexity of the human genome, makes about as much sense as describing the beautiful symmetries of the genes themselves as a kind of glorious, self–organizing machine code. Indeed, these days, for every folksy description of the double–helix as a recipe, blueprint, or instruction manual, we get an equally vague (albeit more stylish) description of DNA replication as a souped up photocopy machine—a sentient computer miraculously able to read its own files.

Kac is well aware that when describing in lay terms the nuances of recent genomic mapping, whether mathematical algorithms or New Age biorhythms are your operative metaphor of choice, ultimately you must face the fact that metaphors simplify. They reduce. What was once a dynamic concept, merely becomes a static literary conceit. A double–helix described as a Mobius strip, or an M.C. Escher painting, or even some kind of primitive aquatic radiolarian, might help you to visualize the process of a chain of amino acids folding itself up into a unique protein, but a metaphor, no matter how inventive or well phrased, doesn’t allow you to become a part of that process.

And process, embodied in the gradual mutation of a synthetic “artist’s gene,” is exactly what Kac wants to implicate us in. In fact, we enter the Genesis exhibition in the same free–form, subjective manner that one might use to burrow into the core of a hypertext novel. That is to say, the viewer is free to wander throughout the gallery and approach each artwork in whatever sequence he chooses, basking in the dim, sepulchral glow of the room, even as he slowly gathers a general sense of the show through variously repeated formal motifs: the circular form of a petri dish, graphic symbols as a form of primitive hieroglyph, the projected “larger–than–life” biological cluster as a way of setting up an equivalency between “man” on the cellular level, and “man” as a discrete, unified whole. Zooming out we see language, history, biology. Zooming in: a sentence from the biblical Book of Genesis, a fossilized depiction of a twisting 3 – D protein, a constellation of glowing bacteria vibrating in lambent UV light.

And just as we click through the various pages of a hypertext with infinite permutations, knowing that multiple readings of a single overriding story-structure exist, we likewise encounter Kac’s Encryption Stones (2001), two 24" x 18" black granite slabs—the literal conceptual touchstone of the entire exhibition—while simultaneously registering a more totalizing sensation of being contained within some intelligent organism. Space—within G e n e s i s ’ hushed lighting and the ambient murmur of its soundtrack pulsing in the distance—is warmly enveloping; almost uterine. All the better to lose oneself in a quiet reverie while pondering each sacred object. In a time of net–blogs, chat–rooms, and discussion groups with their own intricate Darwinian laws of survival and speciation, it makes sense for Kac to encourage a personal, meditative, open–ended structure of reception, while still maintaining the exhibition’s leitmotif as a single, cohesive, overarching statement.

Kac’s statement, then, is best expressed through the single sentence from the Book of Genesis laser–etched into the Encryption Stones: “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”. Kac says he chose this distinctly authoritarian verse, “for what it implies about the dubious notion of divinely sanctioned humanity’s supremacy over nature.” In it’s grim tone of finality, the passage unequivocally asserts a lone ideology without compromise. Whether specifically Christian, or boilerplate fascistic, hardly matters. What does, is the command’s sense of knee–jerk inevitability; its smug certitude.

But Kac is not so easily convinced. His iconoclastic critique is armed with multiplicity, ambiguity, irony, and a certain deflation of pompous rhetoric. He translates the sentence into Morse Code, long known as the originary language of global information, and then converts the dots and dashes into a sequence of genetic bases according to a system of his own devise. Back in the heyday of Morse Code, experts were said to possess a “subtle–fist,” pounding out their unique handles in a percussive dance of the palm. This symphony of beats and pregnant pauses, here, offset by the genetic language of the base pairs, and further decentered by the biblical text, not only shows the flexible nature of language as a tool of ideology, but conclusively debunks its heavy totalitarian cadences. Kac’s “subtle fist” engenders multiple perspectives through multiple languages, while packaging the semiotic shuffling in the quasi–authoritarian medium of historical artifact. The Rosetta stone, you might remember, whose royal decree praising Egypt’s King Ptolemy in 196 B.C., came packaged in black basalt, uncannily mirrors the Encryption Stones’ jagged relic–like contours.

What ’s most ingenious is Kac’s nod to Hollywood and Silicon Valley ’s packaging of pulp fiction in the form of cliffhanger entertainments. Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tomb Raider use archaic covenants and holy relics as archeological no–prizes for those who prefer their nail–biting suspense delivered in serial fashion. Kac taps into this constantly delayed gratification of the pulp form (or the video game’s next level) by teasing us with the faux–aged quality of the object. It’s not surprising that the serial literary genre and the video game’s implied promise of ever–more baroque treasures, egg us on to the next level; their state of perpetual “unfinish,” creates a sense of anticipatory desire, much like the software industry ’s endless product upgrades and platform improvements.

But why focus on change? What are the advantages of highlighting a morphology of provisional forms? Why are viewers on the Internet allowed to activate a lightbox, speeding the mutation of the bacteria containing the “artist’s gene” as it sits replicating in the petri dish? The history of modernism, at least from Donald Judd ’s machine tooled industrial boxes, reveled in the notion of throwing the specific object’s platonic virtue back onto the viewer for shrink–wrapped, idealized pleasure. A temporal, and hence woefully theatrical, experience of an object was the ultimate taboo for a generation that venerated immediacy and instantaneous effect. Why, then, trade a static, magisterial presence, for the potentially more sketchy payoff of a growing, developing gene in a moist bacterial environment? A gene whose fluid identity is being hastened by viewers in the gallery operating the UV lightbox as well as remote websurfers watching the bacteria mutate in the form of a streaming video feed downloaded to the blue phosphor glow of their computers? For one, this organic structure undercuts the supremacy of the line from the Book of Genesis. Man neither has dominion over fish or fowl, nor does he accept received ideas and wisdom as it is passed down through history—over the ages—or as it is banalized in tabloid headlines and visionary op–ed pieces proclaiming our scientific control over nature.

Nature—elusive, formless, and constantly dodging our efforts to contain it—is the hallmark of what Kac describes as his “transgenic” practice. As the genes change, so, too, do our relationships to each object develop, and with them, meaning. Consider, for instance, Kac’s Transcription Jewels (2001). Encased in a circular custom–made wooden box (tacitly echoing the round petri dish), are two “jewels.” Kac slyly takes the wind out of the sails of every venture capitalist knocking on biotech doors, practically bellowing “Eureka!” at the top of their get–rich–quick lungs, like grizzled prospectors at Sutter’s Mill or deep in Alaska’s Yukon. And the material with which Kac fashions his jewels? Two inches of laser–sintered silver with—what else?—gold plate. This fool’s nugget was created via rapid prototyping, and gains a further ironic twist in that the protein used as a model for the tiny ingot comes, not from a natural organism, but from the synthetic Genesis gene. Hence, its practical application in the biological world is nil.

Not to be outdone, the complementary “jewel” resting in the ornate box is a small, clear–glass genie bottle with gold details, which contains purified Genesis DNA inside. Rather than a “genie out of the bottle,” poised to grant us three wishes—say, the isolated genes for intelligence, beauty, sexual preference (the infamous “gay gene”), Kac enacts a bait and switch with his synthetic distillation, dashing our hopes for a new Promethean magic. But Kac goes further than simply confounding our faith in a sense of personal, genetic manifest destiny by complicating current strategies of viewing the genomic structures that give rise to the proteins themselves.

Between atomicity—the thinking of the protein in parts—and holism—the thinking of it as a unified object, lies the intricate circularity between a protein’s primary, “backbone” structure, and its secondary structures, called alpha–helices and beta–pleated sheets. One such three–dimensional protein is caught spinning within a crystal ball (again, keeping the formal round motif intact); it’s image distorted anamorphically by the convex glass. The piece, titled In Our Own Image (2001), conflates the mystical soothsaying of the fortune teller’s ball with predictive engineering’s claims to a purely rational future. We see our own image in the mirrored glass while pondering the protein’s soft–focus depiction. The future, far from bright, is blurred.

David Hunt is a New York–based writer who publishes regularly in Flash Art, frieze, and art/text.

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