Eduardo Kac Explores New Frontier In Art

By Kevin Nance

We used to know what art was, or at least we thought we did. It was painting and sculpture, shape and line, color and texture. It was made with pens, paint brushes, chisels, molten metal poured into casts. It was for sale.

But the work of Eduardo Kac is none of these things.

His is a world of "telepresence" installations, in which people, robots and sometimes animals and plants interact mysteriously, separated by thousands of miles yet brought together by computer networks, the Internet, telephones, video and audio equipment and high-tech virtual-reality gear.

He creates "holopoems," three-dimensional pools of light in which words and letters appear and disappear in shifting, turbulent patterns, signifying first one thing, then another. He makes computer images that combine his backgrounds in linguistics and semiotics with his history as a billboard and graffiti artist.

Space, it turns out, isn't the final frontier. New-media art is, and Kac is one of its leading pioneers.

Kac (pronounced "cats") is part of "Out of Bounds: New Work by Eight Southeast Artists," a high-profile avant-garde exhibit opening this week at Atlanta's Nexus Contemporary Art Center in collaboration with the Committee for the Olympic Games' Cultural Olympiad.

If Kac's tools and methods are unconventional, so are his goals. He has ideas he wants to communicate, but so what? Far more important, he says, is the exchange between artist and audience. The traditional artist says, "Listen to me"; Kac says, "Let's have a chat."

"In my work, what is there is negotiation of meaning, not communication of meaning," he said recently. "There isn't a message that is so important that I have the right to speak, and you have only to listen. There's no hierarchy. There's no pre-coded message or previously determined content. Whatever we do, whatever we say, is the result of our negotiation."

But for all his newfangled notions and techno-trendiness, Kac is more than a hacker with a taste for dabbling in art. His central impulse is straight out E.M. Forster: "Only connect ..."

Three of Kac's favorite words are "loop," "link" and "network." His need to bring people throughout the world together in community, virtual or otherwise, is all-consuming. In his vision, we're separated from each other, tragically segregated, sealed off. To bridge our gaps of space, time, class and culture is Kac's mission. To do so in ways that are beautiful -- "I see beauty in computer networking," he said without a trace of irony and with no small amount of tenderness -- is his heaven.

"There are a lot of artists now working in these new cutting-edge media, but Ed is one of the few with a soul that shines through the circuit boards," said Julia Fenton, who helped select Kac's work for the Atlanta exhibit from more than 1,500 nominations and 150 studio visits in 12 states.

"He has a real content that comes through, a contemporary content that springs from the kind of philosophical and technological base that we're all living with now," she said. "But it's also an emotional, interpersonal content. He's presenting the human tragedy as it always has been: We're lonely voyagers on this planet, struggling for connection."

'Either/or doesn't work'

Kac grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under a repressive military regime that used intimidation, torture and even killing to maintain power. It was only when he was in his late teens -- he's now 33 -- that the process of democratization began, allowing artists to begin to pursue their vision without fear of government reprisals.

In retrospect, he concedes, growing up in a totalitarian society probably played a significant role in forming his radically democratic aesthetic sensibility. Deeply suspicious of hierarchical and rigidly linear ways of thinking, Kac pursued an artistic career in which responsibility for creating meaning was always shared with the viewer/participant.

He began in the early 1980s as a performance artist interested in body politics, the joyful reclaiming of physicality and sexuality that had been repressed by the government. He also wrote and performed poetry, much of it using the sort of slang and humor that had previously been frowned upon.

While pursuing his studies in linguistics and semiology at Rio's Pontificia Universidade Católica (and reading voraciously in several languages about contemporary art and philosophy), Kac began experimenting with multimedia art, including graffiti, billboards, copy and fax machines, "book sculpture" and so on.

Finally, he began to investigate the possibilities of holography -- three-dimensional images created with lasers and white light projected through photographic film or computer-generated transparencies -- and developed his own brand of what he calls "holopoetry."

In Kac's view, the printed word was too rigid and confining. Holography was the perfect means to create the more fluid, unstable environment he wanted -- an environment in which letters and words could appear and disappear, configure and reconfigure, cohering or not, all dependent on the perspective of the viewer. As Kac wrote in an essay, it's all an expression of "a vision of the word, and the world, as malleable."

In the holopoem "Adhuc," for example, it's possible to see the words "never," "forever" and "whenever" at different times. In "Astray in Deimos," the words "mist" and "eerie" sometimes combine to suggest "mystery."

"The holopoems are about the dissolution of the rigidity of the poetic space," Kac said. "We have offered challenges to a lot of people since Gutenberg, but it's time to look at other storage media than the book."

He compared the experience of viewing his holopoems with floating in space.

"I saw once a video of a frog that they let loose inside a space shuttle -- oh boy, what would I give to be that frog? -- and the frog did not know what to do. Swimming in zero gravity, the creature was like, 'What is this? Where am I? What's going on?'

"This is what the holopoems do. We have this binary mode of mental operation. It's either/or, black or white. But in the holopoems, language is not fixed. It's not stable. Either/or doesn't work. For you it may be 'either,' for me it may be 'or.' But these are reversible, and as we reverse them, we find things along the way. So this pendular motion, this instability, is not something that you can ignore. I'm asking you not to ignore it, because that is my contribution."

Most people looking at the holopoems try to reduce them "to a common, familiar experience," Kac said. "They just try to read the words. But sometimes it's just not there for them to read. Because if they never turn their heads a little bit to the right or left to look at it from a different angle, they'll never see it."

'Rara Avis'

Kac still makes holopoems, although recently he's begun to create "hyperpoems," open-ended poems using hypertext technology available on the World Wide Web. In hypertext, viewers are given a document piecemeal; they mouse-click on a word or phrase of their choice to get to a new word or series of words, thus determining the sequence -- and therefore the meaning -- of the overall text.

Kac also continues a series of computer-generated images called "Erratum," which combines colorful abstract backgrounds with pairs of words, most of them near-homophones (such as "knife/night") which invite subtle leaps of intuition and connection. (These and other examples of Kac's work are available for viewing on his Web page)

In recent years, Kac has increasingly concentrated on "telepresence" projects involving various combinations of computer networks, telecommunications, robotics, videoconferencing, remote participants and spaces and the Internet.

Beginning in 1989, while Kac was finishing his studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he and his friend Ed Bennett collaborated on a series of telepresence installations involving "Ornitorrinco" ("platypus" in Portuguese). This was a mobile, wireless robot controlled simultaneously by remote participants in various cities across the country (including Chicago, Seattle and Lexington) and broadcast on the Internet.

The fleeting, tantalizing subtext? A vision of global community.

"We are living in a mediascape, in a forest of electrons, if you will, which shape everything: who we are, our identity, how we talk, the words we use, the way we think, everything," Kac said. "Part of what I do is remodulate the mediascape, make it do things that it's not supposed to, to show there are alternative ways of thinking, doing, interacting, collaborating, dialoguing -- ways that hopefully expand our perception of ourselves, that show us that things don't have to be the way they are, that there are networks that promote a more collaborative, participatory, caring experience."

Kac is working "in an area that the majority of people don't even know exists," said Jack Gron, chairman of the Art Department at the University of Kentucky. "He combines the best of electronics and science as well as conceptual exploration in his work. It has the ability to reach a broad range of people simultaneously, in real time, across continents, which is not available in any other medium. He's really one of the leaders in the field. As time goes on, he'll be identified as one of the people who's made strong contributions to making art on this new frontier."

Kac's latest contribution may be his most ambitious so far. "Rara Avis," his telepresence installation opening Friday through Aug. 24 in Atlanta, is a complex system of networked components that form a metaphor of human connection through a shared body and vision.

When viewers enter the gallery in Atlanta, they will see a 21-feet-by-22-feet aviary containing a telerobotic macaw (a South American parrotlike bird), about 10 live finches and some plants.

Using a virtual-reality headset, the viewer will see what the macaw sees with its high-tech videocamera eyes (one of which is recording in low-resolution black-and-white, the other in high-resolution color). In fact, the viewer will have the sense of becoming the macaw; when the viewer turns to the right or left, the macaw will do likewise.

The video images recorded by the macaw will be transmitted to a computer at UK, which will then reflect the images onto the project's Web page and onto the M-Bone, an elite subset of the Internet. (Kac said this is to point up the hierarchies of Internet access.)

Anyone with Internet access will be able to view the black-and-white video by downloading free software (a link will be provided on the Web page) or the color video by downloading a different program for a fee (another hierarchy metaphor). Frame grabs from the video also will be uploaded every 10 seconds to the Web page.

A loop will be established when people accessing the Web page speak into their videoconferencing microphones. Back in Atlanta, this will cause the macaw, and perhaps the live finches in response, to sing.

"If you say 'I love you' or 'I hate you,' it will be the same," Kac said. "All the macaw knows is that somebody somewhere -- Johannesburg, Kiev, Rio, London -- is out there on the network. When you are in the gallery listening, you and the birds, all of you inside and outside the cage, metaphorically and literally, will know that somebody somewhere, maybe than one person, maybe hundreds of people, are at that moment, on the Net, all together in that body, all at the same time. That body becomes a shared space. That body becomes everything."

Originally published in the daily newspaper Herald-Leader, June 23, 1996.