Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries

Eduardo Kac

"Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries" is a series of works comprised of what I call “biotopes,” i.e., living pieces that change during the exhibition in response to internal metabolism and environmental conditions, including temperature, relative humidity, airflow, and light levels in the exhibition space. Each of my biotopes is literally a self-sustaining ecology comprised of thousands of very small living beings in a medium of earth, water, and other materials. I orchestrate the metabolism of this diverse microbial life in order to produce the constantly evolving living works. "Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries" was first exhibited at the Singapore Biennial 2006 [1].

My biotopes expand on ecological and evolutionary issues I previously explored in transgenic works such as The Eighth Day (2001). At the same time, the biotopes further develop dialogical principles that have always been central to my work.

The biotopes are a discrete ecology because within their world the microorganisms interact with and support each other (that is, the activities of one organism enable another to grow, and vice-versa). However, they are not entirely secluded from the outside world: the aerobic organisms within the biotope absorb oxygen from outside (while the anaerobic ones comfortably migrate to regions where air cannot reach).

A complex set of relationships emerge as the work unfolds, bringing together the internal dialogical interactions among the microorganisms in the biotope and the interaction of the biotope as a discrete unit with the external world.

The biotope is what I call “a nomad ecology,” that is, an ecological system that interacts with its surroundings as it travels around the world. Every time a biotope migrates from one location to another, the very act of transporting it causes an unpredictable redistribution of the microorganisms inside it (due to the constant physical agitation inherent in the course of a trip). Once in place, the biotope self-regulates with internal migrations, metabolic exchanges, and material settling. Extended presence in a single location might yield a different behavior, possibly resulting in regions of settlement and color concentration. The biotope is affected by several factors, including the very presence of viewers, which can increase the temperature in the room (warm bodies) and release other microorganisms in the air (breathing, sneezing).

The exhibition opening is the birth of a given biotope. Once an exhibition begins, I allow the microorganisms in suspended animation to become active again. From that point on I no longer intervene. The work becomes progressively different, changing every day, every week, every month.

When the viewer looks at a biotope, she sees what could be described as an “image.” Indeed, it seems to be made of a whole repertoire of visual procedures, such as rips, blurs, scratches, warps, slashes, composites, scrawls, color manipulations, smears, gashes, shadows, gougings, scaling, scrapings, abrasions, transparencies, inscriptions and overpastings. However, since this “image” is always evolving into its next transformative state, the perceived “stillness” is more a consequence of the conditions of observation (limits of the human perception, ephemeral presence of the viewer in the gallery) than an internal material property of the biotope. Viewers looking at the biotope another day will see a different “image.” Given the cyclical nature of this “image,” each “image” seen at a given time is but a moment in the evolution of the work, an ephemeral snapshot of the biotope metabolic state, a scopic interface for human intimacy.

Each of my “biotopes” explores what I call “biological time,” which is time manifested throughout the life cycle of a being itself, in vivo (contrary to, say, the frozen time of painting or photography, the montaged time of film or video, or the real time of a telecommunications event).

This open process continuously transforms the “image” and may, depending on factors such as lighting conditions and exhibition length, result in its effacement—until the cycle begins again.

The biotope has a cycle that starts when I produce the self-contained body by integrating microorganisms and nutrient-rich media. In the next step, I control the amount of energy the phototrophic microorganisms receive in order to keep some of them active and others in suspended animation. This results in what the viewer may momentarily perceive as a “still image”. However, even if the “image” seems “still” the work is constantly evolving and is never physically the same. Only time-lapse video can reveal the transformation undergone by a given biotope in the course of its slow change and evolution.

To only think of a biotope in terms of microscopic living beings is extremely limiting. While it is also possible to describe a human being in terms of cells, a person is much more than an agglomerate of cells. A person is a whole, not the sum of parts. We shall not confuse our ability to describe a living entity in a given manner (e.g., as an object composed of discrete parts) with the phenomenological consideration of what it is like to be that entity, for that entity. The biotope is a whole. Its presence and overall behavior is that of a new entity that is at once an artwork and a new living being. It is with this bioambiguity that it manifests itself. It is as a whole that the biotope behaves and seeks to satisfy its needs. The biotope asks for light and, occasionally, water. In this sense, it is an artwork that asks for the participation of the viewer in the form of personal care. Like a pet, it will keep company and will produce more colors in response to the care it receives. Like a plant, it will respond to light. Like a machine, it is programmed to function according to a specific feedback principle (e.g., expose it to the ideal temperature and it will grow more, but extreme cold or heat will discourage activity). Like an object, it can be boxed and transported. Like an animal with an exoskeleton, it is multicellular, has a fixed bodily structure and is singular. What is the biotope? It is its plural ontological condition that makes it unique.


1 - Works from the "Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries" series were exhibited as follows: Singapore Biennale 2006 (September 4th to November 12th, 2006); "Hodibis Potax" (solo show), Galerie de la Médiathèque Elsa Triolet à Villejuif [Paris], (May 22nd to June 1st, 2007); Galerie In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris, "Du sonore et du visuel 2," (June 2nd to July 31st, 2007); Fringe Exhibitions (solo show), Los Angeles (September 8th to October 6th, 2007); Le Fresnoy, Studio National des arts contemporains, Tourcoing, France [Le Fresnoy National Studio of Contemporary Arts (Tourcoing) France], "Panorama 12", 12th to August 31st, 2009; Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, solo show curated by Christiane Paul ("Eduardo Kac: Lagoglyphs, Biotopes and Transgenic Works"), January 25th to March 30th, 2010); Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany, "Doppler Effect," January 30th to May 2nd, 2010.

Originally published in: IVAM. Eduardo Kac. Valencia, Spain: Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 2007. Exhibition catalogue.

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