Originally published in Leonardo Digital Reviews, October 2001 <http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/reviews/oct2001/ex_GENESIS_osthoff.html>.
Eduardo Kac's Genesis: Biotechnology Between the Verbal, the Visual, the Auditory, and the Tactile
Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago, U.S.A
Reviewed by Simone Osthoff, Assistant Professor Art Criticism, School of Visual
Arts, Penn State University, U.S.A.
The complex relations between Biotechnology and Art, biological processes and
representation--words, images, sound, and objects--is the subject of Eduardo Kac's
Genesis, an installation that recently inaugurated the Julia Friedman Gallery in the
West Loop area of Chicago. Chicago-based Eduardo Kac, an artist
working with communications processes for two decades, has moved in recent years
into the area of biotechnology, exploring processes of translation, encoding, mutation,
and retrieval of information inscribed in life itself. In his words: "Genesis explores the
notion that biological processes are now writterly and programmable, as well as
capable of storing and processing data in ways not unlike digital computers." Kac is
one of the pioneers enlisting biotechnology as a medium for art making, no longer
exclusive territory of science labs or science fiction. Genesis raises new issues in the
long history of art and science while also posing new challenges for art criticism. In
Genesis, Kac explores, besides traditional forms of representation and
presentation-both verbal and visual--non-semiotic forms of communication. The
molecular processes unfolding in real time in a Petri dish in the gallery challenge and
intrigue believers and skeptics alike.
The key element of Genesis is an "artist's gene," a synthetic gene created by
translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and
converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs. The sentence reads: "Let man have
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living
thing that moves upon the earth." This sentence was chosen for what it implies about
the dubious notion--divinely sanctioned--of supremacy over nature. Crucial in Genesis
is the way Kac interpreted the meaning of the word "dominion" from the biblical
passage, creating, through viewer participation, a powerful symbol for change.
According to Kac, Morse code was chosen because, as the first example of the use of
radiotelegraphy, it represents the dawn of the information age--the genesis of global
communication. The "Genesis" gene is incorporated into glowing bacteria and
projected as live video in the gallery and streams over the Internet, where the public is
encouraged to intervene and monitor the evolution of the work. Original Genesis
DNA music by composer Peter Gena accompanies the installation.
As if the whole business of seeing wasn't complex enough, Kac further challenges
viewers by creating hybrid images that reference the manifold relations between
biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the
Internet. New to this version of Kac's Genesis (the installation was originally exhibited
at Ars Electronica 1999) are new artworks in a variety of media and materials. These
works, according to Kac, explore the cultural implications of what he refers to as the
"new fetish" of the biotechnological world: the gene and the protein. At the same
time, they pose interesting theoretical and metaphysical questions about media,
meaning, and representation. The exhibition starts with two black granite slabs,
alluding to the Rosetta Stone, holding the key to the translations from the original
biblical passage to Morse code, to gene sequence, and reversing the process, from the
mutant gene sequence, to Morse code, and finally back to altered English. A series of
smaller stone carvings, also in black granite have each a different morphological view
of the "genesis" protein. A portfolio of five giclée prints contains verbal and visual
images of the Genesis gene. Two video sculptures project, behind a crystal ball that
distorts the images, moving videos of bacteria colonies in one, and of the Genesis'
protein swirling in space in the other. And finally, a luxurious box containing a small
bottle of purified Genesis DNA is accompanied by a gold cast of a three-dimensional
structure of the Genesis protein, a statement about the commodification of life.
Denying the dualities inherent in formal and conceptual labels, either/or classifications,
Kac's dizzying process of translation yield hybrid creations that surprise viewers at
every corner, communicating across heterogeneous languages, disciplines, and
materials. One leaves the gallery with many unsettled questions, while being reminded
by Genesis that in the age of biotechnology, art cannot afford to ignore the new
paradoxes of life.
Updated 2 October 2001.
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