Originally published in the book Face/off Body Fantasies, edited by Robert Eikmeyer (Frankfurt/Main : Revolver, Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2004), on the occasion of the exhibition of the same title, realized at Kunst und Kunstgewerbeverein, Pforzheim, Germany (February to May, 2004), pp. 55-61
1. Contrary to many of your critics I would like to suggest a more cheerful way of reading GPF-bunny. Getting cheeky I would say that it is not about reflecting genetic engineering, biotechnology or the social codes in the sphere of art. Would you like to play this game?
Every artwork is never "about" just one topic; neither does it spring from just a single motivation. There are always several factors at play, and my work is no exception. The angle one chooses to explore, in the end, is more a function of the emphasis one seeks to highlight, for his or her own purposes. As a citizen, I do have my own private sets of issues and concerns. However, I consider the artwork to be way too important to be reduced to a propaganda vehicle for this or that idea. When the opportunity presents itself, in public or private, I manifest my own personal thoughts on any given subject. Through art, though, I seek to create complex visual and intellectual problems, not offer simplistic solutions.
2. Your text and your transgenic artwork GPF-bunny reminds me of a work by Ilja Kabakov, the exhibition THE LIFE OF FLIES. In a very peculiar way philosophical seriousness was crossed over with total nonsense. Kabakov developed something like a metaphysics of flies or a simulation of scientific discourse. For example there was an alleged theorem by Pascal There is no better way to understand the destiny of mankind than to observe the motion of flies and so on. Is it possible to see the same production of seriousness and nonsense in GPF-Bunny?
My work hinges, to a great extent, on hybridity and ambiguity. While through the first I integrate elements often considerate disparate, by means of the second I articulate the tension and multiplicity of meanings inherent in the work. The result is that the work can be frustrating to those looking for clear and unequivocal statements of one sort or another, in favor or against a given position, but rewarding to those who respond to poetic and philosophical approaches. I find deplorable the positivistic and teleological belief in "progress" still at the core of many disciplines, so I treat it as what it is: a belief. Science has its beliefs, rituals, and fictions. Key beliefs are the notions of "truth" and "objectivity"; central rituals are the creation and testing of hypotheses and the collection and organization of statistical data; an important narrative in science is the altruism of research. Science is no less important or valid because of these characteristics. What is not acceptable is the perception that these aspects cannot or should not be questioned. My use of rigorous methods to create imaginative works, which themselves spawn multiple narratival pathways, is my form of criticism, which emerges through the hybridity and ambiguity mentioned above.
3. I think the same applies to your texts and lectures, where you obviously being entirely serious - combine the philosophy of Buber, Bakhtin or Maturana with the rearing and caring for a domestic rabbit in your family or the history of the evolution and domestication of the rabbit. Isn't this scientific Kitsch?
Not at all. In my writing and lectures, it is not the work that stands before the viewer, but it is I. In these cases, I address the reader or listener with less ambiguity, sharing insights I have gained in the process of creating, presenting, and reflecting about the work. The combination of insights from Western philosophy with aspects of evolution and natural history is deliberate, to forge a new synthesis. In fact, a more complete account would acknowledge that I have attempted to bring together art, philosophy, molecular biology, natural history, and cognitive ethology. The zone of intersection between these disciplines can be said to be the work itself. What is relevant in this new synthesis, which will become more common in the future, is that it not only establishes a new platform for the creation of art but also that it allows us to reflect on the human condition in new ways. It help us realize the shortcomings of notions of the human orchestrated in opposition to the trope "animal" or based on concepts such as "nature".
4. I would say, actually with GPF-bunny you have created a hybrid text, where different orders of language and different voices were mixed: For example there is the voice of the father of a family, holding the rabbit, which is seeking protection in his arms, then the voice of the visionary scientist, extolling the advantages of the genetic therapy or the voice of the literary researcher, who thinks about intersubjectivity and so on. It is often said that you are a concept artist, a member of the avant-garde knowing no bounds, or a dadaistic artist. Which is true?
I'm not a conceptual artist. I'm extremely interested in the visual and formal aspects of the work. The fact that a contemporary artwork has an intellectual dimension to it is not sufficient condition to categorize it as "conceptual art". Dada was manifestly anti-technology and nihilistic, which is not my case. My work seeks to establish its own practical and theoretical ground, posing to viewers and critics a challenge that is analogous to the one I face in the conception and production of the work. The multivocality you allude to is, indeed, an important aspect of the work.
5. You often perform in a scientific context, for example in October 2003 you opened a lecture series of the Schering foundation in Berlin New ways to science. How do these circles react to your lectures, like to an artistic performance?
In fact, if you look at it proportionately, I'm seldom invited to scientific contexts. On occasion, particularly at some lectures, professionals from other disciplines are invited to participate in discussions. The discussion at Schering included a scientist, but also included art historian Horst Bredekamp, from Humboldt-Universität Berlin, for example. Audiences are always mixed, also with students and professionals from many disciplines. As is customary, responses vary widely. This dialogue is extremely fertile, and I always welcome it.
6. What distinguishes your position so much from a - let us say - position of a photoshop-genetic-engineer is the fact or the assumption that you have created Alba, which is a real organism. Does Alba really exist as a green fluorescent rabbit and does it live at home with you and your family?
Of course Alba exists. All my work establishes its poetic charge from concrete interventions in the physical world. I'm not interested in representation as the primary means of creation. This is a consistent trait of my work. Due to the censorship imposed soon after her birth, unfortunately it was not possible to bring her home. Since that moment, I have been reacting to this censorship with a series of interventions, works, and exhibitions. As a permanent protest, and marking her absence, the Alba Flag flies in front of my home. In 2003, I published an artist's book called "It's not easy being green!" that compiles multiple responses to the work around the world. The online "Alba Guestbook" has been colleting comments and expressions of support to my cause of freeing Alba since October 2000.
7. In general I think the choice of a rabbit as an object of research is wonderful. Hardly any other pet in the children's room is so much an object of emotions. Do you think the reaction to fluorescent bugs or cockroaches would have been similar?
In the context of this work, from the outset I wanted to create a mammal. Not an insect. Not a fish or bird. A mammal. This is so because we are mammals, and this new being would then be closer to us, prompting visual, intellectual and emotional responses based on this very fact.
8. To me it doesn't seem to be coincidental that the rabbit is white. I immediately thought of Carroll´s Follow the white rabbit or the same wonderful scene in Matrix, where one of the actors has a tattoo of a white rabbit on her shoulder. Did you see Matrix before you created Alba, the albino rabbit?
The rabbit does seem white to the human eye, but if we wished to be more precise, we would say that the rabbit is albino, because she has no pigmentation. The fact that she is albino allows the fluorescence to be seen more intensely. I love science fiction and I'm a big fan of films such as Lang's "Metropolis", Kubrick's "2001: The space odyssey" or Scott's "Blade Runner", for example, but I really did not get into the Matrix fad. It just did not have the same appeal to me.
9. Of course we don't have problems with fluorescent rabbits or fish in reality - you can buy fluorescent fish for your fish bowl at home by now but with the idea of fluorescent people. Is that taboo for you?
Yes. I don't think it is acceptable to create fluorescent people now or in the foreseeable future. Let me point out, though, that one day we may very well see human beings born with new transgenic sequences, as germline gene therapy might be developed in the future. As reproductive technologies change according to market forces, particularly in the United States, we may also see new surprises ahead. I have no problem with the idea of human cloning. As I stated both poetically and literally in the context of "GFP Bunny", the question is not how one is brought into the world, but what happens afterwards. I just think that it is premature to try to clone a human, since at this point we know very little about the process.
10. Let me say your favorite way of working is to examine the context of something. That reminds me again of Kabakov, who immediately supplied the comment with imaginary voices from the audience in many of his works. The general, communicative context, which is normally the outside of a work of art, is already produced artificially in your GPF-bunny. Maybe Alba simply is a ready-made?
Alba is definitely not a ready-made, and this is a very important point. A ready-made, as is commonly known, is an artefact that is already there and that is brought into a new context by the artist. Alba did not exist prior to my conception. She is a materialized imaginary being. This has nothing to do with Duchampian strategies. The use of evolutionary principles, the manipulation at the molecular level, the chimerical passage from legend to life, the creation of new beings in art these and other key elements of my work have no correlation to Duchamp. The real break is marked by the fact that I don't create objects. I create subjects.
11. You stress the dialogic principle of your work, for example in "Dialogical Telepresence Art and Net Ecology" or "Negotiating Meaning: The Dialogic Imagination in Electronic Art" etc. Although you always quote Bakhtin, isn't actually Habermas meant in your works with his theory of communicative acting? Isn't Bakhtin much more pessimistic, because when he talks about the dialogical principle of the novel he always means an incompatibility of voices?
Undoubtedly, Habermas's Theory of Communicative Acting is important. There's in his work a certain idealism, or utopianism, that I find more difficult to sustain discursively today. I don't find Bakhtin to be pessimistic per se, other than the fact that he writes under Stalin, lives a difficult life, and sees his collaborators assassinated by the dictator. His premise that there is no "I" as such, that all there is dialogicality, is extremely useful. Before Habermas or Bakhtin, it was in Buber that many of these ideas were manifested. I first read Buber when I was 14 and, bracketing his theological interests, I find him still relevant today.
12. Could you define again, what transgenic art actually is, a term or name that was used in 2002 for two editions of Kunstforum, a well-known art magazine in Germany. There transgenic art was exclusively used in connection with the human body.
In the course of the last 20 years, I have created several words and terms, simply because when you don't find a word that expresses something new, you must coin such word. However, meaning emerges not by decree, but by use and negotiation. I coined the phrase "transgenic art" to name the creation of works that involve real and new transgenic beings. It was a very focused proposition. The term was used in Kunstforum in a much more encompassing way, to suggest an aesthetics that makes reference to genetics, biology, and medicine, but not necessarily using their tools and processes. In any case, it is important to differentiate between art that critically appropriates the tools of technoscience to subvert it thus enacting a transformative force in the physical world -- from representational and contemplative works that comment on these issues exclusively through pictorial composition or sculptural form. The point here is to recognize that there are different modalities of intervention that cannot be homogenized by a theme. The aesthetic specificity of transgenic art is the ascription of non-biological meaning to life that crosses species boundaries.
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