An Interview with Eduardo Kac
Eduardo Kac, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is an artist and writer who is concerned with philosophical and political dimensions of communication processes. Many of his recent works utilize transgenic mutations to explore the complex relationships between biology, ethics, and technology, and to challenge received notions of nature and culture.
Q. You have said that through your work you hope to stimulate a
dialogue among artists, scientists, philosophers, and members of the
general public about the cultural and ethical implications resulting
from the application of knowledge gained through genetic research.
Can you give an example?
A. Humankind has always been fascinated by the ancient image of the chimera, a creature like the sphinx or the
centaur, that combines body parts from at least two different species. Lab scientists have created chimeras by mixing
cells from different species for research purposes. I conceived "GFP Bunny", an artwork that would begin with the
creation of a chimerical animal, that does not exist in nature, and that would stimulate a series of complex social
interactions. In this case I use the word "chimerical" in the sense of a cultural tradition of imaginary animals, not in
the scientific connotation of an organism in which there is a mixture of cells in the body.
Q. What is "GFP Bunny?"
A: My transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue
generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. Her name is
Alba. Basically she's a typical white albino rabbit, who has a genetic sequence that allows her whole body, from the tips
of her ears to her hind paws, to glow a fluorescent green color when she is placed under regular blue light. Alba means
white, which highlights the fact that under regular environmental conditions she is a white albino rabbit like any
other. In certain languages Alba also means dawn, which suggests a new beginning. Her name was arrived by consensus
in conversation with my wife and my daughter.
Q. How did you create the "GFP Bunny" artwork?
A. My work would not have been possible without the assistance of Louis Bec, director of the Digital Avignon festival,
realized in France in 2000, and Louis Marie Houdebine, the lead scientist in the project.
Scientists have known for some time that they could copy the gene that produces the fluorescent protein obtained from
a species of fluorescent jellyfish called Aequorea victoria and insert it into other host genomes. Then they can use it as a
marker to trace and study the effectiveness of these gene or protein agents as they manifest themselves in the body. For
example scientists have added this green fluorescent gene to anti-cancer genes, so that they can be observed under an
external light source.
In the case of Alba we used a process called zygote microinjection, inserting the fluorescent protein gene from the
jellyfish into the male pronucleous of a fertilized rabbit egg cell (before fusion). The male pronucleus is the nucleus
provided by the sperm before fusion with the nucleus of the egg. As the cell divided, the "green gene" also replicated
itself in every cell of the developing rabbit embryo. In February 2000 Alba was born in France. I visited her for the first
time in April and intend to bring her back home with me to live with my family.
Q. Your work has sparked an international controversy which, you have
made clear, was part of your intention. Could you tell us about it?
A. The artist makes it evident for the general public that molecular
biology is not a rarefied language spoken by experts beyond the reach of
ordinary citizens. The work of the artist is a stimulus for lay debate.
Through accessible visual means, the work of the artist assists the general
public in understanding how close the consequences of the biotech
revolution are to the individual. The artist reinforces the discussion. In art
the question is not "what has already been done in the scientific arena",
because the emphasis is not on a given process and its result. In art the key
gesture is one of cognitive intervention at a symbolic, not only practical,
level. It is urgent to conceptualize and experience other, more dignified
relationships with our transgenic other. "GFP Bunny" addresses this need
by bringing the transgenic mammal into society, into the domestic space,
into a sphere of personal relationships.
Q. Have you done work other than "GFP Bunny" that addresses some of
A. "GFP Bunny" is my second work of transgenic art. In 1999 I created "Genesis", an installation that explores the
relationship between biology, belief systems, technology and ethics. (see the Paradise Now gallery)
For the installation I began with what I consider to be a very troublesome sentence from the book of Genesis: "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." I translated the sentence into Morse Code and then devised a way to translate that into a series of DNA base
pairs. The gene that resulted was incorporated into bacteria which is on display in the gallery and is also visible on a
Website. Every time someone logs onto the Website he or she can turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, which in
turn causes biological mutations in the bacteria, thus changing the original biblical text. The bacteria are brought back
to the lab after the show and the mutated sentence is posted online. These changes symbolize the fact that we no longer
accept the sentence in the form it was handed down to us. New meanings emerge as we examine it. We do not know what
these meanings will be, neither can we control them. The process of creation of "Genesis" can be thought as a snapshot
of where we are now socially in regards to biotechnology and culture.
Q. What is the relationship between biology and art in your work?
A. I am interested in sharing social space with transgenic individuals, i.e., in establishing dialogic interaction with
transgenic beings. I use genetics as a reflection on how close we are to other fellow mammals. The presence of a human
gene in a pig, for example, is evidence that we are much closer to other mammals than we thought. Understanding this
serves as a powerful reminder that differences among humans are truly minimal.
Transgenic art does open a new practical horizon for artmaking, but perhaps its most important contributions are
made elsewhere. Transgenic art imparts a cognitive change regarding the way we feel about and understand the very
notion of life, considering it at the crossroads between belief systems, economic principles, legal parameters, political
directives, cultural constructs, and scientific laws. Transgenic art brings out a debate on important social issues
surrounding genetics that are affecting and will affect everyone's lives decades to come (if not forever). Art is
philosophy in the wild, an inquiry about the world that takes the form of perceptible phenomena (as distinct from
purely verbal discourse, as in literary philosophy). Aesthetics, in the case of transgenic art, is directly connected to the
social dimension of art.
Picturing DNA by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
Copyright © 2000 Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
All Rights Reserved
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