Originally published in Art Nexus, No. 31, February ­ April 1999, page 119 and 120.

Restless Words

Pablo Helguera

Few artists in Chicago have the inquisitive creativity of artist and writer Eduardo Kac, who has moved from working with holography to computer programs, from installations to networked events. In one case, Kac surgically inserted into his ankle, in full view of the public and live on television, a microchip which recorded him in a digital database used for locating stray animals. Kac has also invented a telerobot (which he calls "Ornitorrinco", or platypus), which can be remote-controlled by various users through the Internet.

Kac's different experiments in poetry, holography, digital technology, and robotics reflect his creative curiosity and the clear, focused and rigorous interests of a sensitive intelligence. Kac engages the seduction of the new, but always committed to the essence of literary experimentation and visual poetics.

Though Kac has spent many years in Chicago (first as a student and then as a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago), most of his exhibition projects have been carried out in other cities. After a brief absence from Chicago, Kac has now returned with fresh energy and an interest in showing his work there. The result was the exhibition presented in the Summer of 1998 at the Aldo Castillo Gallery, entitled "Language Works", and curated by Julia Friedman.

In this exhibition, the visitor was presented with a sample of Kac's constant fascination with a series of themes, including the way language functions, and the frontiers between the visual and the textual, the technological and the literary. Since the early 1980s Kac has explored language through holography, a medium which allows him to present a specific word-image in a three-dimensional form and in motion. Using this medium, Kac worked for more than ten years on the development of what he calls holopoetry, poems which can be read in different ways depending on the direction or the position in which the spectator looks at them. Without a doubt one of the fundamental influences on Kac's work has been the legacy of Brazilian and international visual poetry. Subsequently, as seen in "Language Works", Kac explored other kinds of interactivity through computer programs. In this exhibit, the visitor was able to navigate poems through which he could read the verbal material in many different ways, depending on the decisions made by clicking on the screen. Creating a poem in this way with many reading options (a well-established literary tradition in Latin America: see for example Rayuela, by Julio Cortazar, or Blanco, by Octavio Paz) makes the reader more active and a creator of meaning.

The works in the show had complex conceptual origins. For example, another work, entitled UPC, consists of a video projected onto the wall with diagonal letters crossing the screen to form phrases such as "Nothing above to left or right nothing below". Kac has a great familiarity with semiotic theory and provides significant explanations of his experiments. It is difficult to imagine, however, that any spectator would notice the connections between this work (UPC) and the fact that, as the artist points out, his work adopts a nihilist position, suggesting that the rigid dichotomies of the past, such as the political left or right or the "above" (heaven) and "below" (hell) of religion, are being overcome by global economic forces. (UPC, incidentally, is the acronym for Universal Product Code.)

Seen in this way, the ultimate strength of Kac's work does not necessarily lie in the conceptual structure on which it is based or the source of the artist's inspiration (which are not the starting point for the viewer-reader), but rather the impact of the intrinsic poetic dimension. There is no need to be a specialist in semiotics to understand that there is a language, both visual and literary, in these cold pieces of apparatus known as computers. For a moment we can forget that we are in front of an electronic screen, and temporarily feel the presence of poetic space. In the final analysis, the objective is not to explain, but to present an infrastructure that generates a multiplicity of experiences and interpretations. Wittgenstein believed that language was only useful in allowing us to realize how inefficient it was in describing the world: "I am only describing language, I am not explaining anything." In Kac's case, too, language is not definitive, but neither is it useless: its usefulness lies in its ability to be many different things as we use it to navigate through the seductive labyrinth of his works.

Pablo Helguera is the Director of Education of the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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