Originally published in the art magazine World Art, N. 1, 1996, pp. 18-23

Object Lessons

In his performances and telepresence displays, Eduardo Kac breaks down language in a bid to question cultural differences. From performing on the beach to surfing the Net, Simone Osthoff learns how to eliminate space.

by Simone Osthoff

"I don't see myself as an 'American artist' or a 'Brazilian artist,' a 'Holography artist' or a
'Computer artist,' a 'Language artist' or an 'Installation artist,'" Eduardo Kac insists. "Labels are
not very helpful and are often used to marginalize people. I prefer not to be bound by any particular
nationality or geography. I work with telecommunications, trying to break up these boundaries."
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962, Kac (pronounced Katz) moved to the US in 1989 to study fine art
at the Art Institute of Chicago. With a characteristic disregard for national boundaries, he went on to
represent both the US and Brazil in international exhibitions.

Kac belongs to the '80s generation who fought to reclaim political freedom in Brazil after 15 years
of military dictatorship. His work continues to explore the issues of information censorship and
freedom of speech that so obsessed Brazilian social life at this time. However, Kac is among the
few artists from that generation to continue charting new territory, using new technologies and
exploring the cultural problems they raise.

Currently assistant professor of new media in the department of art at the University of Kentucky,
Lexington, Kac is documenting the unrecorded history of electronic art in Brazil. A member of the
editorial board of Leonardo, he is also guest editor for the American journal Visible Language of an
international issue on the relationship between experimental poetry and new media. Although he
lives in Lexington, he uses the Internet to work all over the world.

Back in 1983, it was language that drew Kac to holography, or 'holopoetry' as he describes it. "I
am not interested in holography as a 3-dimensional form. I am really interested in holography as a
time-based medium. In many of my holograms, time flows back and forth, in non-linear ways. I
just don't think in terms of one word after another, as we normally speak and write. I'm less
interested in conveying the result of my thought than in conveying the process of my thought.
That's why the language in my holograms fluctuates, oscillates, changes and disappears. By not
having a linear sequence, you can explore the image in any direction you want. You have a
time-reversal possibility. You orchestrate time structures in space. You're really dealing with a
space-time continuum and breaking it into orchestrated discontinuities. "The holographic medium
allows me to work with language floating in space and time, breaking down, melting and
dissolving, and recombining itself to produce new meanings. This work reveals a distrust, a
disbelief in the idea that we can simply use language to communicate a message, as the slave of
meaning. I'm more interested in suggestion and evocation."

The intersection of word and image has always been of interest to artists and poets, and was a
central concern of the Brazilian Neoconcrete movement of the late '50s. Regardless of the level of
ambiguity found in their work, most postconceptual artists, such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger
and Lorna Simpson, have used language in a very direct way. By contrast, Kac's use of language is
an equivocal one.

"Words are not containers that hold meaning, like a cup contains coffee," he explains. "I don't think
one can fully understand anything or anyone. There will always be a tension between what one tries
to communicate and what one tries to understand, and this tension oscillates with the dynamic
pattern of language.

"I am interested in proposing alternatives to the unidirectionality of the system of art; we have come
to realize that language is truly unstable and absolutely turbulent. We would like to be in control of
language and arrest this flux of events that surrounds us. I believe in the negotiation of meaning,
not the communication of meaning. When we use language in a linear way, in art and poetry, we
are in danger of by-passing the fundamental problem of our own medium, which is language itself.
What about language's role in shaping our perception of the world?"

In much contemporary art, words are immediately legible, as they are in the mass media. In Kac's
series of still images Erratum, however, he created a visual amalgam that makes the words less
readily perceptable. "I would like the viewer to spend some time with the work, to explore his or
her own readings. The series is very painterly, so it plays with certain expectations the viewer might
bring to the experience. But the seduction of color and surface is fully integrated with the suggested
semantic resonations, which brings the viewing - or reading - experience much closer to literature.
In Erratum, pairs of words are seen in a field in which layers of colors embed and dissolve the
verbal forms. It is as if the semantic tensions created between the words were rendered visually,
translated into the perceptual tension created between the word fragments and the surrounding
field." Like many of Kac's works, Erratum can be seen on the Internet.

The emphasis on experience and process is central to Kac's telepresence installations, as it was to
his public performances in Rio in the early '80s. "In my work in the early '80s the body was
everything. The body was the tool I used to question conventions, dogmas and taboos - patriarchy,
religion, heterosexuality, politics, puritanism. The body became my writing medium ultimately."
In such performances Kac would use props such as 'object poems' (seen on pages 18-19) and
provoke the audience to participate. If a member of the audience could answer his questions they
could take the prop home. On February 13, 1982, Kac celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Week
of Modern Art of 1922, which launched modern art in Brazil, with a performance at Ipanema. "The
whole beach was energized," Kac recalls. "It concluded with a call for everybody on the beach to
undress (which is absolutely illegal) and enjoy themselves. Several people did. This was followed
by a naked demonstration along the beach. We carried banners and posters, and distributed
pamphlets calling for a new art, a new society and a new life. The very last action of the
performance was a symbolic dive into the Atlantic Ocean. We all came out of the water together -
wet and reborn."

'Telepresence art,' according to Kac, occurs at the intersection of robotics, telecommunications and
computers, within a wider framework of electronic interactive art. "It implies less stress on form
and composition, and more emphasis on behavior - choice, action - and negotiation of meaning. It
highlights the public who, as participants, acquire an active role in shaping their experience. Instead
of the performance of the artist, members of the public now perform. The role of the artist in this
case is not so much to encode messages unidirectionally, as to define parameters from which
experiences will unfold. Telepresence art also implies the primacy of real time over real space."
This issue of real time over real space informs an ongoing collaboration with Ed Bennett that began
in 1989. "I created installations to the scale of a telerobot, that we call 'Ornitorrinco,' or 'platypus'
in Portuguese." 'Ornitorrinco' - a 'hybrid' creature, an egg-laying mammal - is an apt title for the
heterogeneous mixtures that are represented by the telerobot. The resulting work, Ornitorrinco in
Eden, took place on October 23, 1994, for approximately 5 hours. Kac believes this to have been
the first telepresence art work on the Internet, explaining that "the word 'telepresence' here refers
specifically to our fully mobile, wireless telerobot. The piece bridged the placeless space of the
Internet to physical spaces in Seattle, Chicago and Lexington. It consisted of these three nodes of
active participation and multiple nodes of observation worldwide."

The telerobot in Chicago was controlled in real time, via a regular telephone link, by participants in
Lexington and Seattle. "Communication took place not through any verbal or oral exchange but
through the rhythms that resulted from their engagement in what was a shared, a mediated,
experience. And as the piece was experienced through the Internet, anybody in the world with Net
access could see it, dissolving gallery boundaries and making the work accessible to larger
audiences. The theme of the installation was the accelerated decay of media. Ornitorrinco was
immersed in a garden of technological obsolescence made of old records, damaged computer
boards, broken mechanisms and erased tapes."

Viewers from various countries, including Finland, Canada, Germany and Ireland, came on-line
and were able to see the remote installation in Chicago from the point of view of Ornitorrinco as
controlled by anonymous participants in Lexington and Seattle. The idea of looking at the world
from the perspective of the object is a fascinating one. "Klee once wrote that objects in his studio
contemplated him," says Kac. "Lacan speaks of objects looking back, in the sense that objects have
meaning not only because we can see them, but because they are part of a much larger network of
meanings, which includes language. Ideas in art can't always be thought of literally. "What the
telepresence installation with the Ornitorrinco telerobot is all about is to metaphorically ask the
viewer to look at the world from someone else's point of view. It's a non-metaphysical out-of-body
experience, if you will. You are asked, or provoked, to remove yourself from your direct sense of
the space that surrounds you and transport yourself, in space and time, to another body, to another
situation, to another identity. This unique situation raises the issue of whether this is even possible,
or desirable, and what its implications are."

This work creates a new communicative situation that has not been experienced before.
"Ornitorrinco in Eden created a context in which anonymous participants perceived that it is only
through their shared experience and non-hierarchical collaboration that little by little, or almost
frame by frame, a new reality is constructed. In this new reality, spatio-temporal distances become
irrelevant, virtual and real spaces become equivalent, and linguistic barriers are temporarily removed
in favor of a common empowering experience."

Kac's work implies that the fundamental relationship today is that between appearance and
disappearance rather than that between appearance and reality. "We live in a world where our mental
images of places, cultures and people are no longer being acquired through direct observation. We
can all conjure up images of the Moon, we can dream and see ourselves on the Moon. We have
memories of places we have never visited. We think of places and we have developed concepts
about cultures that we have never seen, never experienced. In my telepresence installations, I'm
making geographic displacements that reflect that. Nothing exists until you make it your own, until
you claim it, until you create your own narrative, until you construct it.

The linkage between physical spaces and computer and telephone networks appears in different
forms throughout his recent work. He cites Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a
collaboration with New York-based Japanese artist Ikuo Nakamura, in which a bird in a cage in
Lexington had a sonic dialogue over a regular phone line with a plant located at the Science Hall in
New York City. "The bird's voice was sensed by the plant over the phone," says Kac. "The plant's
response, a fluctuating electric field, was converted to audible sound and sent back to the bird's
cage on a loop."

In another work, Dialogical Drawing, two identical pieces hang on a wall: one at the Museum of
Brazilian Art-FAAP, São Paulo, and one in the Center for Contemporary Art, Lexington. As people
look at them, and make comments to each other, they hear sounds coming from the piece on the
wall. The 'drawing' on the wall (a 3-dimensional piece created with mahogany, wires, speakers,
microphones and circuit boards) enables a live, two-directional sonic bridge linking strangers in
remote countries, in two time zones. "The work is about surprise; the interaction of foreigners, their
cultural references, and the conversations that result from these interactions."
While optimistic about the Net's potential as a venue for artistic investigation, Kac remains
cautious. "There are a number of problems," he says. "One is a new kind of 'digital colonialism,'
so to speak, because the language of the Internet is English. The other problems are censorship and
access. If you look at the map of the Internet, you see that Africa and South America do not have
the same density of nodes you see in Europe and North America. People that live in these continents
are being underprivileged, left behind. This is another very important problem, because you're
talking about new technologies and communication media on a global scale. Ironically, the distances
between different cultures shrink on a physical level but remain largely untouched on a social and
political level. The perpetuation of distance becomes an impediment to knowledge of different
cultures and viewpoints. And in this sense, the simulated experience of a new and temporary
identity in my telepresence work points to the need for a qualitative change in the use of
communications technology."

In many underdeveloped countries, even a basic thing like the telephone is a very complex problem.
Technology has layers and levels of meaning in our lives that really haven't been addressed; that's
true from a political view - technology has the potential to empower people in many ways. If we
leave technology behind in art, if we don't question how technology affects our lives, if we don't
take charge, if we don't use these technological media to raise questions about contemporary life,
who is going to do that?"