Art at the biological frontier
Summary: In this paper I will discuss three recent electronic art works in which biological processes or interfaces are investigated. These works are entitled "Teleporting an Unknown State" (1994/96), "A-positive" (1997), and "Time Capsule" (1997) The first work created a situation in which actual photosynthesis and growth of a living organism took place over the Internet. The second piece proposed a dialogical exchange between a human being and a robot through two intravenous hookups. The third approached the problem of wet interfaces and human hosting of digital technologies through the implantation of a memory microchip.
Keywords: art, biology, telematics, telepresence, robotics, interactivity, dialogism
Working with multiple media to create hybrids from the conventional operations of existing communications systems, I hope to engage participants in situations involving biological elements, telerobotics, interspecies interaction, light, language, distant places, time zones, video conferences, and the exchange and transformation of information via networks. Often relying on contigency, indeterminacy, and the intervention of the participant, I wish to encourage dialogical interaction and to confront complex issues concerning identity, agency, responsibility, and the very possibility of communication.
"Teleporting an Unknown State" is the title of my biotelematic installation which linked the Contemporary Art Center, in New Orleans, to the Internet (August 4-August 9, 1996). This piece was part of "The Bridge", the Siggraph '96 Art Show. "Teleporting an Unknown State" combined biological growth with Internet (remote) activity. In a very dark room a pedestal with earth served as a nursery for a single seed. Through a video projector suspended above and facing the pedestal, remote individuals sent light via the Internet to enable this seed to photosynthesize and grow in total darkness. The installation created the experience of the Internet as a life-supporting system.
As local viewers walked in they saw the installation: a video projector hung from the ceiling and faced down, where a single seed laid on a bed of earth. Viewers didn't see the projector itself, only its cone of light projected through a circular hole in the ceiling. The circularity of the hole and the projector's lens flushed with it are evocative of the sun breaking through darkness. At remote sites around the world, anonymous individuals pointed their digital cameras to the sky and transmitted sun light to the gallery. The photons captured by cameras at the remote sites were re-emitted through the projector in the gallery. The video images transmitted live from remote countries were stripped of any representational value, and used as conveyors of actual wavefronts of light. The slow process of growth of the plant was transmitted live to the world via the Internet as long as the exhibition was up. All participants were able to see the process of growth via the Internet. The computer screen, i.e., the graphical interface on which all the activity could be seen, was dematerialized and projected directly onto the bed of earth in a dark room, enabling direct physical contact between the seed and the photonic stream.
This piece operated a dramatic reversal of the regulated unidirectional model imposed by broadcasting standards and the communications industry. Rather than transmitting a specific message from one point to many passive receivers, "Teleporting an Unknown State" created a new situation in which several individuals in remote countries transmitted light to a single point in the Contemporary Art Center, in New Orleans. The ethics of Internet ecology and social network survival was made evident in a distributed and collaborative effort.
"Teleporting an Unknown State", Eduardo Kac, 1996.
During the show, photosynthesis depended on remote collective action from anonymous participants. Birth, growth, and death on the Internet formed a horizon of possibilities that unfolded as participants dynamically contributed to the work. Collaborative action and responsibility through the network were essential for the survival of the organism. The exhibition ended on August 9, 1996. On that day the plant was 18 inches tall. After the show, I gently unrooted the plant and replanted it next to a tree by the Contemporary Art Center's front door.
"A-positive" was a dialogical event realized by Ed Bennett and myself on September 24, 1997, at Gallery 2, in Chicago, in the context of the ISEA 97 art exhibition. This work probes the delicate relationship between the human body and emerging new breeds of hybrid machines that incorporate biological elements and from these elements extract sensorial or metabolic functions. The work created a situation in which a human being and a robot had direct physical contact via an intravenous needle connected to clear tubing and fed one another in a mutually nourishing relationship. To the new category of hybrid biological robots the general epithet "biobots" is ascribed. Because of its use of human red blood cells, the biobot created for "A-positive" is termed a "phlebot".
In "A-positive", the human body provided the robot with life-sustaining nutrients by actually donating blood to it; the biobot accepted the human blood and from it extracts enough oxygen to support a small and unstable flame, an archetypal symbol of life. In exchange, the biobot donated dextrose to the human body, which accepted it intravenously. In "A-positive", oxygen is extracted by the phlebot and used to support the erratic flame. The conceptual model created by this dialogical work is far from conventional scenarios that portray robots as slaves that perform difficult, repetitive or humanly impossible tasks; instead, as the event unfolds the human being gives his own blood to the biobot, creating with it a symbiotic exchange.
"A-positive", Eduardo Kac and Ed Bennett, 1997.
This work proposes that emerging forms of human/machine interface penetrate the sacred boundaries of the flesh, with profound cultural and philosophical implications. "A-positive" draws attention to the condition of the human body in the new context in which biology meets computer science and robotics. We can no longer regard the body as isolated from firm contact with the technoscape or protected from the biological surveillance of biometrics. Not even DNA or blood are immune to the invasion of the body by technology. A DNA computer has been successfully demonstrated through the joint effort of a biologist and a computer scientist. Instead of electrical impulses, it employs deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, to control the commands a processor gives to a computer and uses nucleotides, the basic units of DNA, to replicate the actions of a processor. The technologies that condition our imaginary and sensibility at the end of the century (including nanotechnology and genetic engineering) also penetrate our skin -- our blood stream, even -- enabling new forms of therapy. Miniaturized electronic devices and new chemical compounds are invading (and cohabiting) the physical structure of an organism. For example, a new technology aptly called "electroinsertion" proposes to increase a drug's effective potency manifold by binding specific drug molecules directly to the red blood cells, rather than adding a drug to the circulatory system. This and other related developments clearly reveal that technology has already permeated the body in subtle ways. The dialogical situation created in "A-positive" quite literally "wires" the human being to the robot, with four connection points in a prototypical biological LAN (Local Area Network). Once extracted and released inside the sealed chamber, the oxygen supports the minuscule glowing mass of burning gas, the symbolic "nanoflame".
"Time Capsule" was a work-experience realized on November 11, 1997, at Casa das Rosas, a cultural center in São Paulo, Brazil. The piece lies somewhere between a local event-installation, a site-specific work in which the site itself is both my body and a remote database, and a simulcast on TV and the Web. The object that gives the piece its title is a microchip that contains a programmed identification number and that is integrated with a coil and a capacitor, all hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass. The temporal scale of the work is stretched between the ephemeral and the permanent; i.e., between the few minutes necessary for the completion of the basic procedure, the microchip implantation, and the permanent character of the implant. As with other underground time capsules, it is under the skin that this digital time capsule projects itself into the future.
When the public walked into the gallery where this work took place, what they saw was a medical professional, seven sepia-toned photographs shot in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, a horizontal bedstead, an on-line computer serving the Web, a telerobotic finger, and additional broadcasting equipment. I started (and concluded) the basic procedure by washing the skin of my ankle with an antiseptic and using a special needle to insert subcutaneously the passive microchip, which is in fact a transponder with no power supply to replace or moving parts to wear out. Scanning the implant remotely via the Net generated a low energy radio signal (125 KHz) that energized the microchip to transmit its unique and inalterable numerical code, which was shown on the scanner's 16-character Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). Immediately after this data was obtained I registered myself via the Web in a remote database located in the United States. This is the first instance of a human being added to the database, since this registry was originally designed for identification and recovery of lost animals. I registered myself both as animal and owner under my own name. After implantation a small layer of connective tissue formed around the microchip, preventing migration.
Not coincidentally, documentation and identification have been one of the main thrusts of technological development, particularly in the area of imaging, from the first photograph to ubiquitous video surveillance. Throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries photography and its adjacent imaging tools functioned as a social time capsule, enabling the collective preservation of memory of our social bodies. At the end of the twentieth century, however, we witness a global inflation of the image and the erasure by digital technologies of the sacred power of photography as truth. Today we can no longer trust the representational nature of the image as the key agent in the preservation of social or personal memory and identity. The present condition allows us to change the configuration of our skin through plastic surgery as easily as we can manipulate the representation of our skin through digital imaging, so that we can now embody the image of ourselves that we desire to become. With the ability to change flesh and image also comes the possibility of erasure of their memory.
Memory today is on a chip. As we call "memory" the storage units of computers and robots, we antropomorphize our machines, making them look a little bit more like us. In the process, we mimic them as well. The body is traditionally seen as the sacred repository of human-only memories, acquired as the result of genetic inheritance or personal experiences. Memory chips are found inside computers and robots and not inside the human body yet. In "Time Capsule", the presence of the chip (with its recorded retrievable data) inside the body forces us to consider the co-presence of lived memories and artificial memories within us. External memories become implants in the body, anticipating future instances in which events of this sort might become common practice and inquiring about the legitimacy and ethical implications of such procedures in the digital culture. Live transmissions on television and on the Web were an intergal part of "Time Capsule" and brought the issue closer to our living rooms. Scanning of the implant remotely via the Web revealed how the connective tissue of the global digital network renders obsolete the skin as a protective boundary demarcating the limits of the body.
The need for alternative ways of experience in the digital culture is evident. The wet hosting of digital memory--as exemplified by "Time Capsule"--points to traumatic but perhaps freer form of embodiment of such proposition. The intradermal presence of a microchip reveals the drama of this conflict, as we try to develop conceptual models that make explicit undesirable implications of this impulse and that, at the same time, will allow us to reconcile aspects of our experience still generally regarded as antagonistic, such as freedom of movement, data storage and processing, moist interfaces, and networking environments.
"Time Capsule", Eduardo Kac, 1997.
X-ray of Kac's left ankle indicating the position of the microchip implant (top left).
Eduardo Kac is an artist and writer who works with electronic and photonic media, including telepresence, robotics, and the Internet. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and South America. Kac's works belong to the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Holography in Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, among others. He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Leonardo, published by MIT Press. His anthology "New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies" was published in 1996 as a special issue of the journal Visible Language, of which he was a guest editor. Writings by Kac on electronic art as well as articles about his work have appeared in several books, newspapers, magazines, and journals in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Mexico, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Uruguay, United Kingdom, and United States. He is an Assistant Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has received numerous grants and awards for his work. Eduardo Kac can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His work can be seen at: http://www.ekac.org.