Art Nexus 7 no. 69 90-4 Je/Ag 2008
Eduardo Kac : The Artist as Demiurge
Eduardo Kac is a talented and protean visual artist, poet, essayist, and theoretician (his writing holds as much interest as his visual production). His work encompasses many genres, and he is often a pioneer and a protagonist in many fields: holography applied to the arts, the creation of works to be transmitted by fax, photocopied art, experimental photography, video, fractals, digital art, microchips approached as human prostheses, virtual reality, networks, robotics, satellites, telerobotics, teletransportation, genomes, biotechnology, Morse code, DNA. Kac has coined many names for his work, such as: bioart, biopetics, biorobotics, biotelematics, holopoem, holopoetry, telempathy, plantimal, telepresence, teleborg, transgenic art, weblography, and webot.
Following is a review of some of the landmarks in his challenging work.
Eduardo Kac's creative efforts were initially channeled through the field of language and writing, in its earliest origins, poetry was essentially oral. In fact, poetry was born as a sister to music; writing, which came later, made possible a spatial presence. Through the use of holograms, Kac reaches beyond the plane of graphic poetry: he uses lasers to create his holopoems and, with them, a new syntax. Kac defines the holopoem as "a spatio-temporal poetic work, conceived, realized and exhibited with light in a four-dimensional fashion. As the reader or viewer looks at the holopoem, it changes and generates new meanings." And in another interview, he adds:
"The entire body reads the holopoem, not only the eyes. The only way of negating the holopoem is to remain still. You must engage in a kind of reader's dance. The syntax of each work varies, is discontinuous and spatio-temporal. Each work demands, then, a vector, a rhythm of movement. It is the reader who brings the work to life. The holopoem breaks the gestalt because holography puts totality in transit, unmounting spatial hierarchies and blocking privileged points of view. The digital holopoems take the possibilities of movement, meaning and reading in even more radical directions."
Eduardo Kac creates innovative works of art based on science and technology. In the process, he blazes new trails, pushing the boundaries of what is conventionally considered art.
In the work Telepresence Garment (1995), the "telepresence" in the title alludes to the integration of telecommunication and robotics. The figure of Kac's robot, an artificial man that unthinkingly complies with telecommunicated orders, evokes the Kabbalah legend of the Golem (and the alchemist's homunculus), giving it a new meaning. This humanoid figure, magically created from mud (with inert matter, in an old mechanistic interpretation), acquired life when its creator put in its mouth a paper inscribed with the secret, sacred name of God.
Golem, homunculus, robot, automaton, thoughtless bodies. Bodies untouched by the dignity of the word, The Golem can't speak but understands what he is told. He is slow to perform tasks but executes instructions literally. According to the legend, the Golem grows incessantly, becoming the largest and the most violent lodger in the house, one likely to kill people. At this point, the Golem, Kac's robot, and others, act as triggers, questioning us and challenging us to reflect.
By having a magical word (emet, "truth") placed behind its teeth, the mud figure was filled with life force; as the mysterious syllable of life was taken from its mouth, emet became met, "he is dead," and the figure crumbled down, went back to the earth, and died. In contrast, the replicants in Blade Runner were never killed: they died when they were placed out of service.
The Golem, conceived perhaps as a myth of power, lays the ground for creatures such as Prometheus, Frankenstein's monster, the replicants, and every robot. Thus, both the legend of the Golem and Eduardo Kac's Telepresence Garment seem to warn that what humans aspire to most truly know will be their double, a personal and nontransferable Golem, a terror-matter, a terror-body. My wordless double is the worst in me: servility or unacknowledged des true tiveness.
Tekporting an Unknown State (1994-96) is a biotelemathic installation -- a "kind of art where biological processes are closely connected to computer-based telecommunication systems" -- that uses the Internet not to broadcast data or content, nor to direct it to any human being, but to make possible the survival of a plant, at a distance and through the teletransportation of light. In other words, one possible interpretation is that Kac substitutes a satellite for the sun to generate photosynthesis. In this way, the artist can plan "an optimism about the ethical possibilities in the use of technology that converts the act of communication into a life-giving act." Also, the light required by the plant for its survival is sent by whoever interacts with the work, from anywhere in the world (through the Internet) or at the exhibition site.
If the Golem is an earthen figure, Eduardo Kac's experiment on his own body (Time Capsule, 1997) is a radical version of the prosthetic. Kac implanted a microchip on his own leg. This act echoes of the birth of Diortysius, who as a fetus was rescued by Zeus and implanted in his thigh. The microchip (a prosthesis, for sure) contains a number that functions as the digital identifier of its bearer and which can be transmitted to the networks or to a satellite. Is this a post-human body and/or a warning on the uses of technology?
In my view, Kac probes even greater depths with Time Capsule than before, proposing the microchip as a minuscule sign of identity for human beings in the process of alterations, of fading-out, of a virtual "destitution of subjectivity" -- that is, of the condition of subject -- to which they are inexorably subjected by the exhaustion of the State and the ascent of the globalized, post-ethnic marketplace. Through this work, the artist provokes us to become conscious of the need to engage new strategies of subjectivity in regard to a new social context.
In his continued exploration of the intersections and the connections among art, science, and technology, and alongside new scientific proposals, Eduardo Kac prepared a project that included live bacteria.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, Eduardo Kac was aware of the fact that, in the realm of science, bio-technological solutions have been proposed as the most ideal for solving a variety of problems afflicting humanity as a whole, such as the elimination of waste, the substitution of fast-depleting hydrocarbons, and the reduction of contaminants. Bacteria, it seemed, could save the world.
In 1998, Kac wrote what can already be considered a classic: Transgenic Art. In 1999, he exhibited Genesis; in 2000, GFP Bunny; and in 2001, The Eighth Day. In 2002, he created Move 36, which was finally exhibited in 2004.
BIOART AND THE FUTURE
By 1998, Eduardo Kac understood that "the marvels of genetics create a new art," as Steven Henry Madoff wrote in The New York Times. Transgenic art, Kac explains, can be described as a mode of artistic creation based on the use of genetic-engineering techniques with the intent of creating new life forms.
Kac's work is rooted in the origins of this new artistic trend. In his earliest work of transgenic art, 1999's Genesis, he conceived a synthetic gene based on a chain of translations: he chose a verse from the Book of Genesis in an English translation ('Let them [man] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth'); the passage was then translated into Morse code and from there into DNA code.
This gene, an "artist's gene," was transferred to bacteria, which produces alterations in the synthetic gene from being activated by viewers manipulating a computer mouse, as well as by web surfers, who can from a distance turn on an ultraviolet lamp in the installation of the work. When the artist reverses the process and the resulting gene is translated back into Morse and from there into English, the verse that results from such manipulations is different from the original. As Kac's work indicates, if translation/interpretation doesn't become a creative act, it is impossible.
In Genesis, Eduardo Kac uses the tools of language (a passage from the Bible translated to English, to Morse, and to the genetic code), of religion, of biology (bacteria), and of the possibilities opened by biotechnology, creating an "artistic gene." This is commonly referred to as intertextuality.
In GFP Bunny (2000), Kac opened a new pathway, one that emerges from the aesthetic interference of life programs. Indeed, by splicing the fluorescence genes of a Pacific jellyfish (Aeqitorea victoria) and a female rabbit embryo, Kac accomplished a genetic modification, transforming Alba into the first albino rabbit to present a fluorescent green glow whenever a specific blue light is shined on her -- contemporary art's first living chimera. Already in 1988, Vilem Flusser ventured in Art forum, "Molecular biologists will soon be able to manipulate skin colors the way a painter manipulates acrylics." A decade later, Eduardo Kac, the transgenic artist, made that prediction a reality.
Above all else, this is a transgenic operation. But it is not only that. With GFP Bunny, it has been said. Kac didn't change a rabbit but invented one. He invented it from a biological degree zero. His task was to make an imagined being into a reality, which invites us to think of Kac as a creator of nature.
The artist as demiurge: the artist creates works of art and, also, life? Bodies? Can artists mutate human beings? Who grants them the right to do so? Are there, then, limits to their creativity? And if such is the case, what are those limits? Who sets them?
GFP Bunny has provoked controversy, as it represents a great leap with respect to art as it was practiced before, the kind of art that used inert supports and materials rather than that which we call life. Thus, we can say that Kac's work is not only deployed in the aesthetic domain, but it reaches as well into the heart of ethics. CFP Bunny, from this perspective, leads us to wonder about the limits to artistic acts on living beings. The question remains open, and it has motivated an array of contradictory answers.
Move 36 (2002-04) refers to the six games of chess ("a game that could be fifteen hundred years old... an entirely abstract, esoteric, terribly cerebral pastime," as George Steiner said) between IBM's Deep Blue ('the greatest player that never lived') and the chess champion of the world at the time, Gary Kasparov ("the greatest player that ever lived"). Move 36 was played by the computer in the second game and made the machine's victory inevitable. "The confrontation of a human being with an 'intelligent' machine is highly symbolic," Baudrillard wrote in Libération, "not only because of the prestige attached to the game of chess, but also because it summarizes man's dilemma in the face of the machines he uses today: informaticized, virtual, cybernetic, networked, etc.... Even if human intelligence must one day declare itself defeated, that moment must be postponed for as long as possible."
ART AND ETHICS
In this ceaseless quest, Kac seems to be driven by the explicit desire to configure a poetry founded on new technologies. In his words: "To summarize, language, the semiological continuum between sign systems, communication, subjectivity, the organic continuum between every kind of life, and the dialogic are the paradigm of relationships that has shaped my interests from the very beginning."
When Eduardo Kac, the pioneer and inexhaustible protagonist of this revolutionary shift in art, claims for his work the consummation of the "dialogic paradigm," the establishment of a "utopia of proximity," the artist/viewer relationship as a me/you, face-to-face relationship (i.e. bi-directionality), he is claiming and pointing toward an art constructed on a relational, ethical substratum.
Appreciated as a whole, Kac's oeuvre reveals an insatiable impulse to innovate, which propels him in surprising directions, ones that are perhaps alien to what is commonly understood as art. But Kac is wagering that this is the right moment for the domain in which he moves -- digital and biological art, the offspring of technology -- to assert and shape its space among the arts.
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