Trans-Genesis: An Interview with Eduardo Kac
As the year 2000 drew to a close, Eduardo Kac may well have reflected that unpredictability a consistent element in his art practice had become a driving force in his life since the birth of Alba the glowing rabbit. Much to his surprise, Kac had become a celebrity, due to a snag in the execution of his art piece GFP Bunny. The transgenic rabbit whose creation Kac had set into motion had attracted the attention of everyone from ArtNews to Biology News to ABC News after the lab that created her refused to release her to Kac, who had intended to raise her at home. From summer of 2000 onwards, Kac has been interviewed endlessly about laffair Alba, an ongoing custody battle that involves ideas of intellectual property, artistic freedom, and the safety and propriety of allowing transgenic animals to move out of the lab and into the world at large.
Much of the furor about Alba, however, has managed to elide the larger story behind Albas creation and, for that matter, the long trajectory of Kacs career that has led to creation of what Kac describes as transgenic art. For at least the past two decades, Kac (pronounced Katz) has been interested in exploring the interface between technology and the visual arts. After coming to the U.S. from Brazil in the mid-1980s, Kac first became known for holopoems that used holography to transform the experience of reading. In his subsequent work, he has deployed telecommunications and Internet technology, robotics, VR, and now biotechnology to create artwork that consistently emphasizes the role of the audience in the production of meaning. Over the years, these projects have been exhibited in places such as at the annual European digital arts festival Ars Electronica, the New York Center for Media Arts, New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Yokohama Triennale, in Japan. Kac himself, now an Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has come to witness the increased interest in both his own work and the work of newly emerging artists who share his concerns.
This interest was amply demonstrated by the crowds that gathered around Kacs work Genesis when it was on view during September and October 2000 as part of a Manhattan gallery show called Paradise Now: Picturing Art in the Genetic Age. In Genesis, Kac plays simultaneously with the mutability of language and the mutability of life forms. The piece has its genesis in the English version of a Biblical verse Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Kac first converted this sentence into Morse code; the Morse code characters were then translated into the four letters of the genetic code. With the help of geneticist Charles Strom, Kac then had a biotech company synthesize the gene written by the code, and inserted this gene into a bacteria culture. To see the genetic artwork, viewers hit a toggle button in the gallery or via the Internet and a UV light simultaneously illuminates the bacteria and mutates it through ultraviolet exposure. Each time Genesis has been shown (in Linz, São Paulo, Chicago, New York, Yokohama, Athens, Madrid, and Pittsburgh) a new translation of the Bible verse, and a new strain of bacteria, have been produced.
While Genesis suggests that the ordinary gallery visitor or Internet surfer can in fact gain access to the building blocks of the genetic code, the unintended controversy surrounding GFP Bunny has suggested that the biotech industry is loath to loosen its grip on the right to own genetic manipulation. Kacs intention was to create a transgenic animal in a research lab one that would glow when a gene derived from fluorescent jellyfish protein (GFP) was added to its DNA and then raise this animal as a domestic pet. The resulting work would address issues including what Kac labels transphobia and the treatment of laboratory research animals. Originally, Kac planned to create a glowing dog (GFP K9) but he decided to pursue his idea with a French lab, INRA, that had integrated GFP into rabbit DNA. The resulting rabbbit, which Kac and his family named Alba, was born in February 2000. Kac announced he would spend one week with Alba in a performance space in Avignon in June of 2000, and then bring her to the United States.
As of December 2000, however, Alba remains at INRA. The lab claims that Kac never gained the authorization to take her home; such an action, a spokesperson has suggested, would be a scientific and ethical impropriety. Kac is actively pursuing the liberation of Alba from INRA; on his website, (www.ekac.org), he expresses a concern for her welfare that can only be described as parental. In the meantime, medical ethicists have denounced Kac as irresponsible, animal rights activists have hailed his efforts to free the glowing rabbit, and Kac himself has been shuttling around the United States and Europe explaining his ideas about transgenic art and Alba and being explained, in turn, by both scientists and art critics who inveigh about the significance or presumptiveness of his project. In the midst of all this furor, Kac took some time to meet with me in his office at the SAIC. We discussed his past and current projects, and I asked Kac to give his own interpretation of the current debate about Alba and what she represents.
Lets start off talking about your earlier work. Im curious about the way your career has covered vastly different geographic and conceptual terrains. For example, you began your career as an artist in Brazil in the early 1980s, with performance pieces that had a definite political dimension.
My early work emerges in a very specific context. In the early 1980s, Brazil was still under a military dictatorship that was suppressing freedom of speech and eliminating public space; it also tortured and killed its own citizens. At the same time, however, this government had collapsed economically; globalization was taking its initial steps, and the protectionist model of the military dictatorship was no longer useful. So the country was moving towards a transition, but it was still under a clear military rule. It remained an environment where the primary idea of the body was that of the tortured body, of the distorted body, of the suffering body. In this context, I saw the opportunity as citizen and as an artist to create public space where there wasnt one. I was inspired by Marcuse, Reich, Barthes, to think about how a particular world view in this case, the world view of this dictatorship basically constrained the body and channeled its libidinal power towards productive labor. I wondered how to unleash that creative power of the libido in a manner that would help to rebuild the country, and help to build a sense of awareness of the situation we were facing at that time.
My background, prior to these first performances, was in literature specifically experimental writing and communications. As a very young man, the little money that I had went into this fantastic bookstore in Rio that basically brought in everything from Spain,, Italy, United States, France, and England. From that bookstore, I acquired an understanding of literature and art history. And when I decided to go to school, and I could not find a suitable art school this is Brazil twenty years ago I went into a communications program, where I studied philosophy and linguistics and semiotics.
So, coming from this patched-together education, I set out to form a performance group, and staged performances in public spaces over a period of about two years. Most took place on Friday nights in a square in the heart of Rio, Cinelandia, bordered by the National Library and the Municipal Theatre. On friday nights the bars, restaurants and sidewalks of this square are populated by blue-collar workers, transvestites, students, male/female prostitutes, and intellectuals. These performances were about developing a new sense of body politics, in which the body became a site of pleasure that could in turn ignite a sense of civic reconstruction; they were thus extremely political. However, they were also extremely humorous; I would walk around this square in a pink miniskirt a piece of clothing that suggested, lets say, something other than performance art in this environment and I would recite brief poems, what I then called porn poetry. This poetry had nothing to do with pornography in the sense of exploitation of sexuality: instead, the poems were aimed at the undoing of that exploitation. In a sense, the language of pornography was appropriated to undo pornography, as I later appropriated the tools of science and technology. This undoing happened through my creating new meanings for the words in question, meanings that expressed a world-view that was politically critical and celebrated the voices of persons who dont get heard.
This semantic project of reclaiming, and the idea of the flesh expressed in language, in turn led to a series of performances in which I wrote with my own body. I began to document some of these performances in photographs: at that time, I was looking to focus on language and media, and to focus on social issues on a larger scale, in a way in which physical presence would not be a necessary component of the work. Some of these images were published in a book, Escracho, that I published in 1983, at the end of my performance work. Escracho also features the work of other writers and artists whose work was important to me at the time for example the work of Otavio Donasci. He created what he described as videotheatre, in which the actors head is replaced by a vertical television set; the resulting actor is a combination of a human body and an electronic head.
Your acquaintance with Donasci also led you through a chain of circumstance to your next project, the creation of holographic poems.
When I finished Escracho, I went to Sao Paulo and gave Donasci a copy of the book. We turned to discussing what I wanted to focus on next. I told him that after all these experiments in verbal-visual expression in different media, the next project I imagined was not so much a semantic project, but rather a syntactic project that would create an immaterial linguistic form. I wanted to create a poetics that would be based not on the physical rigidity of language as we experience it on the page, but that would instead step off the page; still, it would not fully find itself embodied. A poetics, in other words, that would exist between two dimensions and three dimensions, that would change and transform itself according to different points of view. In such a kinesthetically oriented work, the act of reading would impact meaning and language could change color or could change form.
When I was ten years old, I had read an article on holography, and I was so intrigued that Id kept it; I had just reread it. I said to Donasci, I dont know, this seems really difficult, it involves experimentation in a lab, but the result of this holographic process sounds very much like what I would be interested in creating. And he said, I actually know someone who just set up a holography lab. I went to this lab and saw a hologram for the first time. It was clear to me then that someone had invented a technology that would allow me to address the aesthetic problem I had created for myself. So I started to work with that medium immediately. I created these dissolving linguistic structures that were dynamic and beautiful, and which tied meaning to the point of view of the observer. I called them holographic poetry or holopoetry. I produced holopoems from 1983 to 1993, about twenty or so.
In holopoetry, I set out to undermine the two-dimensional page, the two-dimensional text. From no perspective can you have the totality of the text. When I have theorized holopoetry, I have talked about it in terms of three primary aspects; discontinuous syntax, binocular reading, and semantic interpolation. Discontinuous syntax means that the text is never seen from a single perspective; there are always jumps that exist as truly topological, fourth-dimensional jumps. Binocular reading means that a condition can be created while reading in which your left eye reads one word while your right eye reads a completely different word, and reading thus becomes a more intense experience. Semantic interpolation means that a slight movement of your head produces something else; the process of interpolating between things that allude to different semantic fields in turn produces new meaning. For example, think of the word sun and the word knife. If you think of black and white you can think of a word that designates a middle position between the two gray but there is no term for between sun and knife. What I wish to do is not to stabilize that condition, but to produce the oscillation between the two extremes visually so you suggest a word without fixing the word.
Your production of holopoetry in the lab, so to speak, was the first instance when you collaborated with a scientist or engineer to produce an artwork.
With holopoetry, I had a very specific objective, but didnt have any experience with the medium. So I went through a quick learning process, and started to write the holopoems myself. Its never an issue of let me see what I can do with this, or oh, you make airplanes? Let me see if I can make airplane art. Its always something that has to do with my inquiry and initiative. Of course, sometimes the scientists involved have their own interests and their own inquiries, and sometimes these interests coincide; sometimes a scientist or engineer will be interested in a project for his or her own reasons. I find when working with scientists or engineers that the dialogue is fantastic: they have a world-view and vocabulary entirely separate from that of artists and writers. It is my hope that the scientists gain as much intellectually as I do from the process of working together.
At the same time you were working on holopoetry, you began working on a series of other projects. Could you describe this other work?
Aside from holography, another immaterial domain for the word-image hybrid that I was exploring at the time was the emerging global network. It is important to be clear that network here includes the pre-Internet network. The current state of the Internet is not Eden; it is just one moment in a long history of networking. The Internet of the future will be very different from the Internet of today, just as when I started to work with networking in 1985 the network felt very different. It was equally exciting, but the way you worked, what you were able to accomplish, the topology of the network, how you were to reach out to other spaces and how the audience experienced it, everything was different. My first network projects were with the telecommunications network; I started to work with the French Minitel system in 1985. I created a series of five or six pieces that would display on the Minitel screen, pieces that were about language emerging over time. It was an exciting frontier for artists at the time, because you were creating truly immaterial artwork. There was a sense that the process of dematerialization of the art object had reached a kind of closure. With the beginning of the networks, we started to build something new.
Can you explain what you mean by immaterial artwork?
Artists have written about dematerialization throughout the 20th century. Perhaps the process started with Duchamp and Gabo, and it may have been first theorized by the Russian constructivist Lissistzky, who actually used the word dematerialization Moholy-Nagy also spoke of virtual sculptures, sculptures that do not have volume but through motion are perceived to have volume. But this experimentation gained closure with the rise of communications media, including video, and the passage into a truly immaterial means of production, the network. The network enabled us to create, present, and experience works that are purely digital or that hybridize the digital and the analogue. It is not longer a matter of reducing the materiality of an art work (conceptualism), or appropriating an existing object (ready-made), or minimizing the form of a constructed piece (minimalism). The network enables us to create immaterial work that priviliges interpersonal communication as an artistic strategy, where what is really important is the flow of data through cyberspace, the nomadic and ephemeral network topologies created by artists, and the modalities of intersubjective remote interaction. With a network you can also reach out beyond geographic borders.
Im curious about the tension between this interest in elimination of geographic borders that I see in your network projects this seems a persistent characteristic, as well, of most new media art and the geographic specificity of your earlier work, which seems grounded in the politics of the nation-state.
That sort of national identity is not really something I am concerned with now. I was concerned with it at the time because there was a sense of urgency that was extremely intense and as a young artist I felt I had to respond. Also, to reduce that work only to the politics of national identity would be erroneous: the literary aspect of that project was also very important, and that was informed by contexts beyond the politics of Brazil. I even dont really like the term national identity. It just so happens that by geographic accident, as is always the case you happen to be born somewhere and when you open your eyes you do that in a particular context. That will inevitably inform ones identity; you dont live somewhere for a long period of time and ignore the environment. But once I made the transition from the early performance work, I turned to work that looked beyond such geographic contexts, that had to do instead with overcoming geographic distance. Working in the immaterial realm of the network allowed me to do this.
Of course, we cant speak of this naively. We have to understand that English is the lingua franca of today, as French was once and Latin before that. That fact enables those who work with English to go beyond nationality, because thats the language of business, thats the language of the Internet, thats the language of pop culture worldwide.
So would you describe yourself as less political in your current work?
I dont really separate the philosophical inquiry from the political. There is a very important philosophical dimension in my later work that extends from my earlier sense of engagement. Beginning in the holopoetry, and especially in my work with telecommunications and telepresence, my work embraces what I have called a dialogic aesthetics. Dialogic art is not framed as stable material composition to produce contemplation and interpretation, but is predicated on the idea that what subjects bring to the work contributes to the experience that they have. With holopoetry, this aesthetics was present but subdued. Viewers didnt need to do much to engage with the work: just a slight movement of their head would mean that a letter or word would disappear, and this would enable them to experience the fact that they were constructing meaning through their process of looking. But in the network projects that followed my minitel work subjects are actively engaged.
Dialogic aesthetics is a challenge to conventional ideas about art-making. If you have a dialogue, you certainly dont have the traditional idea of the artist as an individual who is solely responsible for the work. I have been trying to create artworks in which you can still recognize the role of the artist theres a title that helps frame a sense of inquiry, and there is a specific material context but what actually unfolds is not something that I can control. One could say that with any artwork there is an element of uncontrollability; since interpretation is not something that the artist can control. But in dialogic work this uncontrollability is manifested in a kinesthetic manner. The formation of meaning is not introspective, not something that happens purely and simply at a level of cognition. You are an active, physical maker of meaning. Through this process of making meaning ideally the viewer will come into contact with his or her own process of discovery and creativity.
Ive read a couple of articles that suggest you feel that dialogic art is a necessary direction of contemporary art, that we cannot rely on art forms of the past to communicate the complexities of the present. I believe both of them quoted you as saying, it makes no sense to paint as we painted in the caves
In those articles Im being quoted out of context from a long response that I gave to a question about the relationship between art of the past and art of the present. Painting has a circumscribed materiality, a specific reach and scope; other media offer different possibilities that painting can never possess, such as connectivity and immateriality, for example. So the question is not the death of painting, but an understanding of its historical limitations. What we cannot afford is to have a hierarchy of media, with one medium at the top and other media forming the base of the pyramid. In art what is important is not only the choice of media, but the level of accomplishment within a specific medium. Great painting is great art as much as a great network piece is great art, one not being more important than the other simply because of the execution medium. Historically, we need to develop technological literacy, i.e., we need to formulate a critical vocabulary that is not anchored to the past, with which we will be able to recognize and discuss with profundity great achievement in immaterial media. Part of the current problem is lack of outlets for that which is different. Dialogical aesthetics is an alternative, a different way of thinking about and making art.
And the technology you begin to work with enables this alternative
Yes. Through telecommunications art a more intensified dialogical experience became possible. In telecommunications art, I could incorporate geographic distance, time zones, and the absence of visual immediacy as an aesthetic element. But more importantly, I could enable viewers to use the network to negotiate meaning, and also to create a truly visual dialogue by sending, receiving and transforming text sound and image. And when I shifted to what I call telepresence art, I was able to add yet another element of agency and remote physicality to the network environment. Telepresence art took the previous work in telecommunications and then coupled it with robotics. In science, another term used for this technological coupling is telerobotics doing something at a distance. But the scientific term emphasizes what is less interesting to me. I am less concerned with remote operations, and more interested in subjectivity and social space. While telecommunications allows us to create a virtual shared space despite distance, telepresence allows us to eliminate the effects of distance, it allows to physically affect or occupy that shared space. With telepresence, one subjects oneself to a remote robotic body and finds oneself inside that body, able to make decisions wirelessly through the network.
When I began work with telepresence, I was interested in two things that emerge from this process of interpolation. First was the idea of experiencing a place, a world, a social environment, from a perspective other than your own both literally and symbolically. In my own writing, I have suggested that this process of experiencing a space from a perspective other than your own calls for tele-empathy, or empathy at a distance. This in turn provokes an acute understanding of one of the central aspects of contemporary culture; namely, that something that exists in a remote space just beyond the access of your senses still has a strong effect in your life, as the metaphor of the butterfly effect reminds us. Second, I wanted to explore the idea that the elements that are put in place in the art of telepresence including the interface, the topology of the network, the robotic body, the space that you invent, and the relative scale of that space in relation to the body of the robot are less about enabling an experience and more about constructing that experience. In other words, what the viewer is engaged with is less, what is it like to be there? then, how do I construct meaning? And each person who experiences the work will have a completely different map of that space, thus a different sense of meaning, so this space becomes multiplied vicariously.
With this in mind, I started to open up two different routes of investigation, exemplified in Dialogical Drawing (1994) and Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1994). Dialogical Drawing asked the question: what is the condition of the art object in a network environment? Dialogical Drawing consists of what seems to be an art object that you hang on the wall like any other; it has no wires or antennae marking it as different. But if you look at it, you soon notice that somethings happening: sounds are coming from it. Eventually, through your own process of discovery, you realize there is an identical object hanging in another space, and someone else is doing just what they are doing: noticing that there is someone on the other end. If you say something, you find you can talk to this other person remotely. You then stop contemplating the work at a distance and move closer to it so they can speak into it; you stop looking, and create this shared mental space. You are no longer in detached contemplation, but in a social sphere of dialogical interaction
Not all of my dialogical propositions are for humans, however. In Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a bird is singing in a cage 400 miles away from a plant in another space. The song travels to the space, and is played in real time for the plant. An electrode touching the plant senses the plants response through microvoltage fluctuations, and uses that data to generate sound that travels back to the bird. A sphere of social interaction between members of two different species is established that way. And while the piece is thus not created for humans, humans are welcome to engage with it. When they do approach the plant and the bird, the behavior of the plant and the bird changes according to how people behave. The audience becomes aware that depending on what they do, the experience they have is dramatically different; after all, the bird and plant are sentient beings responding to their environment. So what we have is a very complex example of what Maturana calls consensual domains: shared spheres of perception, cognition and agency in which two or more sentient beings (human or otherwise) can negotiate their experience dialogically.
Note that this project is not about simulation, it is about distance. What is significant is the fact that something is in a different space right now. The viewer/participant doesnt have visual access to it and has to heighten the other senses and work at the level of kinesthetic experience because he or she no longer has the visual means to guide experience. The importance of this drama of distance, of geographic separation, has been severely misunderstood in art-making, and my work has constantly sought to produce this awareness.
When you say this is not a project about simulation, it reminds me that one of the things that Ive noticed about your work is that lack of interest in simulation and virtuality you may use VR headsets, but your intention is not to project your viewers into a fabricated universe.
A disembodied, detached, purely virtual experience is not really of great interest to me. Im interested in when different sentient beings and different subjectivities come together and become shared. In these moments, we can even entertain from the point of view of imagination what it might be like to occupy these different subjectivities. I dont believe that one can, of course. I can barely know who I am, how can I possibly know what its like to be someone else?
The idea of occupying the subjectivity of another is at the center of Rara Avis, a piece which follows Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Rara Avis (1996) is an attempt to study the notion of exoticism, which has to do with geographic distance and also with lack of appreciation of difference. The viewer comes into the gallery and puts on a VR headset; he or she then finds him or herself in the body of this robot bird, a macaw. This robot macaw, in turn, is in a cage shared with 30 smaller gray birds, live birds; it is set apart from them in terms of both color and size. Suddenly the viewer is this exotic bird in the cage, looking out. He or she is both the object and the subject of contemplation, in a cage and outside of a cage. When the viewer looks at the so-called exotic, he sees himself.
In another work from this period, Darker than Night (1999), what the viewer experiences is the subject perspective of a bat in darkness. I wanted to create moments of ephemeral mutual awareness between human and bat. It is a common misperception that bats are blind; they are not blind; but they do experience the world primarily through their echolocation, their sonar. So in this piece, you put on a VR headset that informs a robotic bat in an actual bat cave to emit ultrasound. The bats can hear and respond to this sonar. The robot then transmits the calls of the bats, which are converted from ultrasound to sound so that humans can hear them. The place where sonic emissions coincide is represented visually in the VR headset as a series of moving white dots against a black background.
This emphasis in your work on human-animal intersubjective communication highlighted, in the works youve just described and in your speculations on the enigma of animality in your recent GFP Bunny project is also a feature of contemporary writing on animal ethics, work made popular recently by the writing of authors as diverse as J.M. Coetzee and Peter Singer. What is your investment in animal ethics, and are you reading some of the new work thats come out on the topic?
Much of my reflection on animal ethics comes from my reading of philosophy. I find that the Western philosophical canon is faulty in its construction of animality. That is to say, in my reading, the visions of animality present in Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz, and Kant are biased in regard to the cognitive and emotional life of animals. This is troubling, because the idea of humanity in this philosophy is largely based on the difference between the animal and the human. Cognitive ethology has unequivocally demonstrated that issues such as self-recognition, tool creation and use, and the teaching of cultural traits to the young can no longer be used to distinguish humans from non-human animals. Examples include Donald Griffin, Jane Goodall, Franz de Wall, and many more. And now, in the context of genetics, our proximity to otherness and to animality is being discussed in ways that exert tremendous influence on peoples lives at the everyday level: health insurance, family planning, medical research, privacy in the workplace, what we eat. The writings of Steve Baker, Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe, for example, have also contributed significantly to the development of a respectful and thoughtful approach to the question of the animal in the context of art and culture without the trappings of a counter-productive an excessive sentimentality.
Id like to move on to your two current projects, Genesis and GFP Bunny. Genesis seems to me to draw together key aspects from the rest of your work a concern with the visualization of language and the contingency of language, a concern with the relation between man and animals, and what you describe elsewhere as an aesthetics of telepresence. Could you speak a bit about the genesis of Genesis?
Youre right in noting that Genesis has a very strong sense of continuation with issues in my earlier work. It brings together the semiotic continuum between word and image, the sense of transformation, the ability to modify something at a distance. Genesis is probably the most dramatic manifestation of this modification in my work, because one is modifying the genetic structure of living organisms. But Genesis is also a departure, since it is the first transgenic artwork I have developed and fully realized. My earlier work couples the biological and technological creates a network between them, or an ecology between them. But in Genesis and GFP Bunny the biological and technological come together. The process that I use to create the Genesis gene is absolutely technological, absolutely synthetic. However, once I create an organism, I cannot separate what was dry in the laboratory from something that is mutated in the body of living bacteria. It is not only the biological and technological that are conflated in this work, however; it also becomes impossible to separate art from life. One is quite literally whether in the gallery or from home looking at life forms, which did not exist as such before the creation of my work. In fact, youre not only looking at them, you are changing them from within when you do so. So the idea of genetic modification is not only in the hands of the artist. It is not just the means for me to create an art object. Genetic modification is built in to the act of perceiving the artwork. Thousands of people who have visited the site have changed the bacteria.
Do you have any idea exactly how many people have visited the site and mutated the Genesis bacteria?
The Genesis server does keep a log file, but I dont scrutinize it. I used to keep log files at the beginning of my Internet artwork. But theyre huge, and there are lots of countries involved, and it turned out to be too much work for no concrete reason. I know that people are visiting because they write emails, post discussion points, publish articles, etc.; one gets a sense that there is a large response. I have no interest in quantifying the experience of art.
What is the duration of Genesis? Is the code translated back into Morse and reassembled after each exhibit?
Genesis does not have a specific duration. Some galleries host the show for a few months, others for a few weeks. That is not something that I determine; that is determined by the gallery. The code is not translated back after each and every show. When Genesis premiered at Ars Electronica in 1999, I did take it back to the lab and read it back into Morse, and then into English, and then posted the results. Its not the point of the piece to keep reading at every presentation. I could see how interesting it could be to read all mutations and look at these different meanings, but that would be a different project. In this project, Im really focused on playfully exploring the ambiguity of the idea of the Genesis gene itself. When I speak of the genesis gene Im certainly referring to the genesis gene in the context of my work not a gene responsible for the creation of the biblical Genesis but the ambiguity serves a purpose. We constantly see scientists reducing complex emotional, behavioral, social traits to a gene; for example, the gay gene or the alcoholism gene. This is absurd. So, likewise, heres the Genesis gene. It shows how ridiculous it is to reduce the complexity of human life and human choice to a simple DNA sequence.
You have written that the GFP Bunny Project, comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, its social integration, and the ensuing public debate. The creation of Alba, and the public debate, have certainly been accomplished, but Alba has not been socially integrated; you have not been allowed to bring her home. Id like to ask a few questions about the debate surrounding Alba. Some scientists and medical ethicists who have been critical of GFP Bunny have suggested that art is not a sufficient reason to engage in the sort of project that Alba represents. For example, biologist Stewart Newman, a member of the U.S. Council For Responsible Genetics, has commented that I dont think we should be manipulating complex organisms in the name of art. It seems that those who make this criticism are mistaken in assuming that the creation of GFP bunnies such as Alba is unique to your project.
Alba is not an experiment I did not want this to be an experiment. I did not want there to be errors that could result in suffering or deformity. Louis-Marie Houdebine, the scientist at The French National Institute for Argonomic Research (INRA) that worked with me on this project, has produced other rabbits that express green fluorescent protein. I wouldnt say he does it on a regular basis; at this point the Institute has about ten animals. And Houdebine knows the physiology of the rabbit better than almost anyone: this is why I chose to work with him. He was, by the way, as surprised as I was about what happened with Alba, because we had both agreed on her coming home with me.
So Alba is not unique: she is only different in the fact that she expresses GFP in the entire body. This is something generally only done when scientists are developing the method for GFP expression in a particular animal. After this, they go to target expression. In other words, scientists always study a specific thing, for example, hypothetically, how cancer spreads from the liver to the lung. So they attach the gene for green fluorescent protein to a specific sequence; thus when an organism develops they are able to observe in vivo how the particular issue manifests itself. Ubiquitous, or full-body, gfp expression is not too common because it is not useful in science.
Regarding Stewart Newmans remark, in an article published in New York Arts Magazine about my work, he was quoted as confirming the validity of the artistic inquiry and the contribution to cultural knowledge brought by art. Dr. Newman knows that denying artists access to biotechnology is an unsustainable position. Just like all of us, he is looking for a new way to understand and contribute to the changes underway.
Spokesmen for INRA have suggested that it is somehow improper or even dangerous for Alba to be taken outside of a laboratory context. What do you make of this implication that Alba might somehow contaminate the non-transgenic animal population were she to be let out of the lab?
We have to question the nature of the statement from which the question follows. I dont believe this to be a correct statement. I mean, we already see farms with transgenic pigs and transgenic sheep; these animals arent in the wild, certainly, but they are in contact with humans and other animals. It seems to be a contradiction. If transgenic technology is safe for the production of insulin and human protein in the milk of pigs, etc. and if its safe to have these animals in contact with other animals then there is nothing unsafe about Alba. In other words, the very processes of science contradict that statement. Theres no problem with releasing Alba; shes not going to do anything. Shes just going to be a bunny in the home of a family. Of course, if there are concerns about reproduction, I would agree to spay her. As is common knowledge, veterinarians regularly recommend spaying and neutering dogs, cats, and rabbits.
If danger is not the issue with releasing Alba, then what would you say is the issue?
Of course I can only speculate. My suspicion is that the former director there is now a new director, who came in the middle of all of this chose to take the safe route of making a decision based on what he perceived the reaction of the public might be. This is instead of choosing to play an active role in changing public perception of this issue. Changing such perception is precisely, in part, what my work can contribute.
When you say public, do you mean specifically the French public, which seems to be particularly anxious about biotech research, or do you mean the larger Euro-American context for biotech research?
I dont think the director was thinking internationally; he was thinking about the French public. But this project is intended to cross between North America and Europe and the world over, and to promote a dialogue between scientists, artists, and the public in all places that such a dialogue is possible. Houdebine, when he became involved with the project, also felt that this was an opportunity to further such a dialogue. Unfortunately, the director didnt seem to feel this way.
The implicit suggestion here is that transgenic animals are only safe, and only ethically viable, in a situation where their creation is tied into a scientifically legitimated notion of human benefit. What is your response to the implication that it is presumptive for art to insert itself into the place of this constructed idea of human benefit?
This question takes us into a discussion of metanarratives. Basically, most human endeavors operate by having an external discourse to justify its modus operandi. In the case of corporate biotech, we are told experimentation is great, its going to generate wealth and create jobs, its going to position the US as a leading country in this new field. Well, Alba doesnt generate wealth, Alba doesnt create jobs, Alba doesnt contribute to US domination in world affairs. In the case of science, were told, experimentation is great, because it will save lives, this will cure cancer. Alba doesnt save human lives. She doesnt cure cancer. In the case of anti-biotech, were told, experimentation is bad because it generates monsters; deviant, sick problematic life forms. Alba isnt suffering, she is not diseased, she will not cause disease. So corporate biotech, science, and anti-biotech dont have their metadiscourses to articulate here. So what are we left with? We are left with Alba: our transgenic other. Why is there so much transphobia? What is the issue? Why are we afraid of transgenic when its near the word art but not afraid of it when it is near the word science? Is it that we are afraid of the symbolic realm?
This may seem like an off-the-wall comparison to you, but the GFP Bunny project in particular, your intended week-long cohabitation with Alba in a living room installation in Avignon keeps reminding me of Joseph Beuys 1974 project, I like America and America likes me, where Beuys sequestered himself for a week in the United States with a live coyote, an animal that symbolized something indeterminate about the Western United States and the loss of Americaness. I was curious whether Beuys project ever came to mind while you were working on GFP Bunny, whether you think that your aesthetics of dialogism had any relation to Beuys notion of social sculpture, or whether you in fact feel your work strikes out in an entirely different direction.
My work is completely unrelated. To understand the modulation of social space as art one has to look at Flavio de Carvalho in the 30s and 50s; for dialogical aesthetics one has to look at Lygia Clark in the 1960s, not Beuys. I have no interest in dellusional shamanistic fantasies and post-war Germanic romantic idealism. New research and scholarship will contribute to an expansion of the cannon. I'm very interested in other artists who worked in the social realm before Beuys; for example, Flavio de Carvalho, a Brazilian artist who began working in the 1930s. Carvalho is perhaps best known for a series of drawings of his mother dying, but his key contribution is coining the category of experience as art and creating several works that were themselves experiences that intervened in the social fabric. He was interested in bringing to art methods, knowledge, approaches from other disciplines but then completely turning them upside down. He was interested in psychology, sociology, anthropology in a way, actually, that is somewhat analogous to my interest in philosophy, genetic engineering and robotics. Just as it would be a pointless formalist exercise to compare two paintings with red hues simply because they're rectangular and of related chromaticity, two completely different works that involve humans and non-human animals cannot be compared on the grounds of an apparent and superficial formal analogy. Beuys performed with a dead hare and carried a rabbit's foot or tuft of rabbit fur with him. I'm not interested in dead animals or body parts of dead animals. In my work I seek to create new life or explore intersubjective experiences. To make it clear: my work was not proposed simply as a one-week cohabitation. This one week was intended as a way of enabling the French public to have the experience of sharing social space with a transgenic mammal. So it was not about me and an animal as an allegory, but it was about all of us being together in a very real situation that was frightening or stimulating for the public. Most importantly, the proposal was that immediately after this one week, Alba would come home to live with my family. Socialization and ongoing personal relationship cannot be compared with a staged, one-week performance. While Beuys created works that were meant primarily as symbolic archetypes, my works employ the very tools that give rise to the social transformations I wish to question. Hence, my method is to engage with and to intervene directly in the discursive and material manifestations of social realities.
What happens next? What specific steps will you be taking in your attempt to liberate Alba? I know youre planning to go to France in December 2000 will you be allowed to see her?
In a recent interview that INRAs head of research gave to a French magazine, he didnt say that the director had decided not to release Alba; he said the director had decided not to release her yet. This yet really made me very happy, and brought some peace to my heart, because it signals the possibility of continuing dialogue. Im not giving up, though I am also not pursuing this issue in a negative and aggressive manner. He cant release her on his own. When I go to France in December, I dont believe I can see her but Im going to try. My goal is not to create a disturbance. I want people to understand my motivation, that Im sincere, that I very much want Alba here. Were eagerly awaiting her.
You want Alba at home because you want to show that the transgenic can be brought into the home. In your explanation of the concept of transgenic art, you suggest that transgenic art can be taken home by the public and grown in the backyard. What do you think of Natalie Jermijenkos Biotech Hobbyist projects (www.irational.org/biotech), in which the public can buy kits to, for example, convert their own skin with the GFP Octopus gene? Does your idea of home-grown transgenics differ from Jeremijenkos?
Just as soon as we had computers, we had computer hackers. I suppose biotech artists could be called hackers of the future, but of course soon others will begin to hack biology too. Eugene Thacker talks of open source DNA. Just as both artists and hobbyists manipulate digital images, biotech hacking will trickle down to society at large. But it seems that glorification of hobby biotech has more to do with the novelty of biotech; Im interested instead in the intersection of art, technology and culture. I do like Jermijenkos One Tree project (www.o-r-g.com/ONETREE/), in which she has visually demonstrated the striking difference between hundreds of different clones of the same tree. This project, like most of the biotech art that I like, is interesting because of the statement it makes, not just because of its use of biotechnology.
Speaking of the fetishization of biotech in art, as the Paradise Now exhibit drew to a close, several of the participating artists, as well as several academics interested in cultural representation of the biotech industry, criticized the exhibit for its complicity with the biotech industry. Specifically, political scientist Jackie Stevens argued that The Joy of Giving Something, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the exhibit, had connections to biotech interests. She claimed that art about biotechnology, especially with a critical edge, serves to reassure viewers that serious concerns are being addressed. Even more importantly, biotech-themed art implicitly conveys the sense that gene manipulation is a fact on the ground, something that serious artists are considering because it is here to stay. What do you think of the suggestion that artwork which is critical of the biotech industry may only serve to placate the public? And what do you make of the suggestion that the changes to be wrought by the biotech industry might exaggerate and/or be naturalized by art which imagines what these changes might be?
One thing that we have to be clear about is that if Karl Marx were alive today, he would be writing The Communist Manifesto in the latest version of Microsoft Word, sending it through MCIs network, and posting it on the Nettime list, or perhaps sending it via AOLs Instant Messanger. So would it be less valid because he wrote it in a tool developed by the harbinger of global capitalism? The tools are here. People drive cars created by Ford: does this mean that they have to embrace his Nazi sympathies?
So youre saying that were not rendered complicit by the tools we use
I think that we have to be very careful, as there is a difference between using the tools of biotech and sharing the corporate biotechnology worldview. Some people have been too quick to criticize biotech art. Perhaps there are some artists who do not realize exactly what it is that they are doing, but this cant be generalized. Biotechnology, as the structuralists were keen to point out, can be compared to a language. So, for example, televangelist Pat Robertson and rapper Snoop Doggy Dog share a language English but do they have the same world-view? Like any other technology, biotechnology operates through the material semiotics that Donna Harraway writes about so eloquently. There is a process of sign operation that is not verbal or visual, that is very much about changing things in the world. So when you appropriate these tools, but interject other elements, other world views, and recontextualize them as in Genesis this is in no way illustrating the world of biotech, but rather matching the complexity of the issue with an equally complex relationship of aparently unrelated elements. Sometimes, of course, an artist might run the risk of oversimplifying this complexity, or the art critic might fail to realize the complexity: then there is a problem because it impoverishes a great opportunity for dialogue.
Speaking of complexity, your latest piece, The Eighth Day perhaps your most complex work to date will be shown at Arizona State from Oct-Dec 2001. You've created a sort of transgenic re-envisioning of the biosphere project, a self-contained ecological system, encased in an acrylic dome, which includes both transgenic animals (GFB amoeba, fish and mice) amd plants and a "biorobot" whose behavior is determined by the division of amoeba within its manufactured brain stem. How do you see this project extending your work in GFP Bunny and Genesis? One thing that interest me particularly is that the animals in this piece are moved away from the realm of the domestic and familiar, isolated in the sort of hermetically sealed environment that the director of INRA has implied would be the appropriate environment for Alba. You're once again confronting your audience with the possibility of a world saturated with transgenic creatures, but what are the different implications of you approach here?
"The Eighth Day" is part of my "Creation Trilogy" but it is very different from "Genesis" and "GFP Bunny". "Genesis" focused on debunking the notion of supremacy of the DNA molecule by creating an "artist's gene", a synthetic gene, and expressing it in bacteria. "Genesis" demonstrated the plasticity of the gene, i.e., how one can inflect it with meaning. It also brought to an interactive realm the human and the bacteria networks. With "GFP Bunny", one of the key issues was not just domesticity, but the fact that living and growing in the domestic context, the rabbit would become part of the family and society through daily interaction, affection, contact, communication. Mice do not have a history of domesticity (quite to the contrary) and it is not possible to establish this level of sustained intersubjective and intimate interaction in a domestic setting with fish. One of my main goals with "The Eighth Day" is to draw attention to the fact that a transgenic ecology is already in place (primarily in the USA, since many crops in the USA (corn and soy, for example) are transgenic, but also increasingly in other parts of the world). We do not grasp the complexity of this cultural transformation when we open our refrigerator to look for corn, or when we go to a restaurant and pour soy souce over the meal. "The Eighth Day" creates a dramatic setting that brings together beings originally developed in isolation in laboratories, now selected and bred specifically for "The Eighth Day". Selective breeding and mutation are two key evolutionary forces, so "The Eighth Day" literally touches on the question of transgenic evolution. (It is also important to point out that the mice and fish are in excellent health and have all of their needs taken care of on a daily basis.) My goal is to produce an image that synthesizes this passage into a new kind of environment, one in which romantic notions of what is "natural" have to be questioned and the human role in the evolutionary history of other species (and vice versa) has to be acknowledged, while at the same time respectfully and humbly marvelling at this amazing phenomenon we call "life".
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