Review magazine, Kansas City, March, 2005, Issue #61, V. 7, No.4, p. 38.

There are no rules

An interview with Eduardo Kac

Debra di Blasi

I imagine people looking at your verbal work and then exclaiming, “That’s not writing!”

Since 1980, I have engaged writing in different modes in my work. On the one hand, I have created experimental poems, from my early body writing to holopoetry, from digital to biopoetry. On the other, I have occasionally used texts in visual works. The only difference is that in the poems the text does not exist before the poem is written, that is, I write them. In the visual works, I give myself the freedom to also use fragments of well-known texts. When I do so, it is to use the public familiarity with a selected text to the benefit of the work. There are no rules.

Please put your work into a context easily palatable to people unfamiliar with your work and those who think of writing as text on a page. And tell us in what direction your work is heading now?

First I'd like to say that I love the printed page, to the point that the weight of my books has forced me to do structural reform in my house, otherwise they could have damaged it beyond repair! So my point has never been the elimination of the printed page. As an artist and writer, I have always fought for the creation and development of alternatives to the printed page, so as to continuously invent new literary, poetic, textual realms of experimentation. As Mallarmé once said, "tout au monde existe pour aboutir à un Livre", that is, "everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book". So, inevitably, and to my own enjoyment, even alternatives to the printed page end up as a book, as my own anthology Media Poetry exemplifies. Having said that, my own work has gone from experiments with the body as a writing medium in the very early 1980s to the invention of holographic poetry, or holopoetry, which I continuously produced from 1983 to 1993. My first electronic text is from 1984, and my first poem published online is from 1985 (using the French minitel system). Since then I have continuously, albeit intermittently, produced and published digital poems, many of which can be accessed on the Internet. My most recent literary venture (extraliterary? paraliterary?) is Biopoetry, that is, the creation of texts based on the logic of life as a medium, including DNA and proteins.

You’ve said that coining labels for your work, like “biopoetics” and “transgenic poetry”, has its own hazards, particularly having to then define the new labels.

One feels the need to coin a term when no existing term is satisfactory to name a new entity in the world. To name is to give identity. I do coin new terms when I find myself in need, but at the same time I understand that some labels may have a relatively short life. It's OK. Everything changes and transforms. As long as we are aware of this, and don't stay tied to labels for their own sake, they can be profoundly useful epistemological tools.

What is the relationship of your biopoetry to a culture whose views are, first, so easily manipulated by “spin,” and, second, generally oblivious to being “spun?”

Biopoetry is, at this point, more a vision than a body of work. I published a Biopoetry manifesto, in which I state that in a world of clones, chimeras, and transgenic creatures, it is time to consider new directions for poetry in vivo. The manifesto includes suggestions for future developments, only a few of which I have actually worked with in one-way or another. Biopoetry is not a proposition that feeds a hype culture; to the contrary, being as provocative and challenging as it is, it presents itself as an alternative to the pop-infused hypersaturated global mall that is contemporary culture.

Writing is a way to connect, a form of communication. As you say, everything changes and that’s okay. How do you perceive writing, in general, as having changed in the last decade – whether subtly or blatantly? And what changes has your own work undergone during the same timeframe, based on major or minor epiphanies through creating and evaluating your work?

I think that one of the most important developments of the last ten years is the emergence of the international Media Poetry movement. I first documented the movement in my 1996 anthology New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies, which was published as a special issue of the journal Visible Language. The British publisher Intellect will bring out my updated revision of the original anthology in 2006. The most notable difference being that I will drop the word "new" from the title. The form has evolved and matured and Media Poetry is now studied in English and Comparative Literature departments around the country and the world. The Internet has contributed as a medium of dissemination, helping form a new generation of readers and writers, but we shall not forget that certain kinds of Media Poetry cannot be fully experienced online, such as holopoetry and biopoetry. Another outstanding development is the rise of the graphic novel as a literary form. I have always been an avid reader of works that blur the boundaries between text, sound, and image, but in the past decade the graphic novel in particular has soared in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

On the surface, “Genesis” is extraordinarily beautiful. The protein’s form is lyrical and its transmutation a gorgeous choreography illuminating the fundamental poeticism of natural processes. Can you talk first about the philosophical issues of this work, then about your personal feelings toward the aesthetic results?

Genesis evolved from the original installation, which was largely based on the writing and the mutation of the Genesis gene, to a second phase that was focused on the writing of the Genesis protein. This process generated several other works. All together form the Genesis series. In a nutshell, Genesis is a transgenic artwork that explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet. The key element of the work is an "artist's gene", a synthetic gene that was created by Kac by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle specially developed by the artist for this work. The sentence reads: "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." It was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion of divinely sanctioned humanity's supremacy over nature. The Genesis gene was incorporated into bacteria, which were shown in the gallery. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria. The 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. Genesis was a personal breakthrough, a point of no return. It represented the culmination of several years of artistic experimentation, and it immediately opened up new possibilities. It has been shown in more than thirty venues since it premiered in 1999, and it has engagements for 2007. I'm very pleased with the work, not only because of its reception, but also because it was a challenge and an adventure from which I learned enormously.

The first time I read about ANDi, the rhesus monkey injected with a florescent jellyfish gene that did not glow I was pissed because it seemed so superfluous an experiment. (It wasn’t, but there’s not room here to discuss why.) By the time I read about Alba, your fluorescent rabbit, which actually was created before ANDi, I’d thought about how people have been altering animals for a long time, with more adverse affects (think: Pug dogs and their chronic breathing problems) and how I’ve come to accept, or more accurately, ignore these transmutations. One layer of your GPF bunny is the social integration of a GPF animal, but isn’t another equally important layer the social integration of art that uses genetic engineering as a medium?

In essence, the social integration of a GPF Bunny was meant to corporify the question -- which otherwise could remain very abstract -- of social integration of art that uses genetic engineering as a medium. There are many other implications of GPF Bunny, but this is one of them.

The National Endowment of the Arts recently released their Reading at Risk report with its “bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture.” This followed the NEA’s pet project, Shakespeare in American Communities. I like Shakespeare, but Hamlet was probably the last thing that got me interested in reading as a teen. Do you see the decline of reading as a significant problem? If so, one that can be solved – and how? Or is the decline of reading an inevitable consequence of an age wherein new forms of narrative media (e.g., video games, DVDs, internet) are relatively accessible and more passively entertaining?

It is often forgotten that Shakespeare was popular in his own time. What we need is to inspire in young readers the passion for reading. In a sense, and up to a point, it is less critical what they read, and more important that they discover the pleasure of the text, to mention Barthes. As a teen Cummings was more relevant to me than Shakespeare. If young readers become enthralled with texts that are meaningful to them, in time they will discover other authors, possibly Shakespeare as well. I don't know if this is true regarding poetry and fiction, but as far as I know, most young readers of non-fiction read online, for convenience but also because there is no cost to them. This includes cell phones. I read the news on my cell phone regularly, and as I plan on changing my old cell phone for a new one, I'll be authoring and reading verbal and visual visual artworks on my cell phone as well. As I mentioned before, the graphic novel has emerged as a mainstream literary form. All of these factors cannot be ignored. The book will never go away. It is a wonderful medium. This does not mean that new forms should be ignored or forced to conform to the traditional book. We must recognize the importance of and stimulate the productive mutual contamination between the book and new media as creative writing environments.

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