PAGING DR. MOREAU
Eduardo Kac has tagged himself with an animal-tracking microchip and nourished a seedling on light transmitted over the Internet. Now, he wants to create a real, live dog that glows in the dark. To Kac, it's "transgenic art." To some, it's a crime against nature.
by Gordon Grice
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.
I: Time Capsule
Inside Eduardo Kac is a microchip through which information has been transmitted. On live TV,
Kac pushed a thick hollow needle into the flesh of his left leg to insert the chip, two by fifteen
millimeters in size. He became a node in a data system. The act of scanning coaxed the
microchip to transmit its encoded numbers. Using those numbers, Kac (pronounced "cats")
registered himself on a database meant to match lost animals with their human companions. He
registered himself as both "owner" and "animal."
All of which required only a few moments. The chip will stay in Kac's body for the rest of his
life. This event, in itself and as rendered on television and the Web and simultaneously with a
photo exhibition in a more conventional art space, is called Time Capsule.
Time Capsule is only one episode in Kac's ongoing attempt to challenge and expand the idea
of communication. The other episodes have involved a genetically engineered rabbit and a giant
robotic fish; the song of an Amazonian bird (both real and mythological); fax machines and
graffiti; even a seedling nourished by the light of distant skies, their light fed through the
Internet via webcams. From rubber stamps to photocopiers to holography, Kac has tinkered with
any technology that can be made to speak. He has asked us to see through the eyes of a robot,
and also through the senses of a fish, a macaw, and a bat, all rendered technologically with
devices such as a virtual reality helmet.
But perception isn't the whole point for Kac. He has also asked us to play Frankenstein with a
petri dish and to become a part of his art by debating its ethics.
II: Rara Avis
A great red bird, roughly a macaw but with the broad face of an owl. The broad face comes off.
You could hold it in your hand; you could put it to your face and make it a mask. The red bird
is a robot. It stands on its branch and looks out at you.
Thirty gray birds move about the cage. They move together, an instant communication of flight.
It is the impossibility that tells you they are real.
In front of the cage, a woman is waving her arms. She is looking toward the red bird. Her
movements have something of ballet and something of the Frankenstein monster's tender
touching of the sunlight. The red bird is fake; the gray birds are real; the woman sees herself
virtually. The helmet she wears shows her the world through the eyes of the red bird, and what
she sees is herself. The red bird is caged; through his eyes the woman sees herself behind bars.
She moves her hands about to vary herself through other eyes. She moves, it seems to me, with
III: GFP Bunny
It's like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Moreau, your basic mad scientist invented by H. G. Wells in
the shadow of Darwin, scalpeled up the flesh of animals to induce change. He forced evolution,
like a gardener forcing tuberous flowers. He had horses and hogs walking like men and women,
some of them speaking, saying things like, "Not to go on all fours: That is the law."
Vivisection was a real Victorian horror, a typical way of working out the function of nerves. The
cries of the mutilated dogs (for example) were explained as a mechanical response to stimuli: a
machine speaking soullessly of incoming data, never the suffering of a feeling being. Blame
Descartes. He pictured everybody inhuman as a robot, the nerves serving as sluices for the
hydraulic fluid. He must have forgotten what anyone can see when cutting into the spinal cord
of, for example, a dog: You can see that the nerves are not hollow.
For Descartes, the soul was human, but nowhere evident in the corpus: his resonant phrase was
"ghost in the machine."
Kac persuaded scientists to meddle with a gene from a certain jellyfish. This jellyfish, found in
the waters off the Pacific Northwest, among other places, is transparent. But sometimes,
especially when it's disturbed, the jellyfish's rim ignites with nodules of green bioluminescence,
like a string of Christmas lights. The gleaming chemical found in the Pacific Northwest jellyfish
has been put to many usesfor example, as a way to trace chemicals in the human body. It was
briefly notorious last year when scientists mixed it with monkey semen as part of an in vitro
fertilization experiment that resulted in glowing monkey fetuses (and eventually a live
green-glowing monkey). Mice have been altered more profoundly, the gene for
bioluminescence actually introduced into their genetic material, potentially to be passed down
Kac has held a few billion copies of the gene in his hand (actually, a synthetic version of it). It
was like a sprinkle of salt or sugar, but blue. He arranged for a rabbit to be created, a rabbit
genetically imbued with jellyfish fluorescence.
Dr. Moreau claimed he was, plying his scalpel in the service of science. The troubling part of
itthe horror of the novelis that he got caught up in the rapture of it; his science began to
smack of art. For the protagonist of the novel, the resultafter the flesh of the man-animals and
the flesh of their creator have burned promiscuously in a single fireis the unease of
ramification. He sees the beasts immanent in the faces of his fellows.
Kac is no merciless Moreauin fact, he strongly opposes cruelty, and none of his artworks calls
for animals to be hurt. He searched out a gene acknowledged to be harmless. He planned to
nurture the life his persuasion engendered. He planned, in fact, to feed the rabbit at the same
table with his own child. (An administrator at the lab has thwarted Kac's plans by refusing to
turn over the rabbita new form of censorship for the age of genetic art.)
Kac named the rabbit Alba. She looks like any other albinowhite fur, pink eyesunless she's
subjected to blue light. "Alba is not the art," Kac says. GFP Bunny comprises her creation, the
resulting controversy, and, Kac hopes, the creature's eventual nurturing in his own home.
To roil, to rouse debate, to provoke people into speaking in a language genetic: that is the art.
IV: More about GFP Bunny
Meat. The whole business makes me think of meat.
I think, for example, of a painting David Lynch once made, with raw meat lumped onto a canvas
along with the carcasses of a rat and a small bird. The meat portion of the image suggested a
face, but textured like an open wound or an orifice. Such a medium couldn't last, but that was
part of Lynch's point. He allowed the flies to come, the maggots to hatch, the glittering array of
ants to do their work. Once some larger animal came in the night to take away a piece of the
meat. Rot and scavengers converted the painting to a process, to something active, something
closer to performance than still life.
Kac happens to know a lot about meat as a medium. He's a professor at the Art Institute of
Chicago, where he teaches, among other things, a seminar on art and biology. When I asked him
about the art of flesh recently, he told me about a Venezuelan sculptor whose medium was raw
meat. He mentioned an early '70s artist in Rio de Janeiro who left bundles of meat on the streets
in response to his government's habit of eliminating dissidents. People would find the artist's
bundles and wonder who had been murdered.
Kac's rabbit is not unlike the meat painting, but in reverse. Lynch's piece was made to decay;
Kac's to grow, to become.
V: GFP K-9
"There's no such thing as a Chihuahua in the wild. There's no such thing as a poodle in the wild,"
The subject comes up because he's planning to have a dog engineered along the lines of the
gleaming rabbit. The dog, too, is meant to be adopted into Kac's own family. (It was impossible
to choose a cat, because the entire Kac family is allergic to cats.)
What he means about the lack of wild poodles: we have created all the types of dogs through
selective breeding. When dogs go feral and breed indiscriminately, their breed-traitstheir
extremes of size, their mottled coats, their odd shapesrapidly vanish, to be replaced by a
generic form of dog like that of the Australian dingolean, long-snouted, uniform in color. In
other words, something increasingly lupine. Without us, dogs would still be wolvesthe two
canid species can still interbreed to produce fertile offspring, and that fact means their status as
separate species has more to do with our own perceptions than with objective biology. In this
context, a little genetic tinkering of the sort Kac proposes is arguably just more of the same
thing we've been doing for thousands of years.
Of course, dogs have been tampering with our evolution too. We know from archaeological
evidence that dogs have been with us for at least 14,000 years. They were the first species with
which we willingly cohabited, and that relationship predates civilization. In fact, it may have
created civilization. Scientists picture wolves drawn to the smell of meat cooking on the fires
built by ancient men and women. The wolves would linger after the fires went out to eat the
leavings. Such camp-following led the two species to become increasingly comfortable with
each other, until finally the sharing of food was voluntary. The wolves-becoming-dogs could
smell and hear better than their primate partners and thus could warn us of danger. It became
possible for us to settle down and guard a patch of land instead of roaming to escape large
predators. We could tend plants; we could grow crops. We built houses and cities.
What I'm saying is, dogs invented us.
VI: Genesis Kac
calls projects like GFP Bunny and GFP K-9 transgenic art. His first foray into transgenics was
Genesis, and it began with the verse that begins this article, the one in which God gives us a
swelled head about our place in nature.
Kac translated the verse into Morse code. Then, using a formula of his own devising, he
translated the Morse into genetic code. The resulting gene, once manufactured, was put into
bacteria in a petri dish. Museum-goers could participate by zapping the dish with a dose of
ultraviolet radiation. This action would create random mutations. The ultraviolet zapper (stop
me if I get too technical) could also be operated through the Internet. So while the exhibit was
in one city, you could sit at your computer in some antipodal city and roll the genetic dice with
the distant dishful of germs. It was the Frankenstein experience for anybody who wanted it:
creating new life through science.
Kac chose the Biblical verse "for what it implies about the dubious notion of divinely sanctioned
humanity's supremacy over nature." Your miniature noodlings in the arbitrary exercise of power
are meant to make you think about our presumptions to power over other living things. But this
formulation makes Genesis seem simpler, and more didactic, than it really is. Kac, an admitted
carnivore, has more layers of complication to reveal.
After observers and Web participants administered their ultraviolet influence, the gene was
different. Kac had its component proteins analyzed. Using the same formula as before, he
translated their sequence back into Morse code, and the Morse back into English. Here's the
genetically altered divine mandate:
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.
Gordon Grice holds an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. Delacorte published his book, The Red Hourglass. in 1998. His writings have appeared in Harper's, Granta and the New Yorker. He is working on a second book.