Originally published in Tema Celeste, N. 81 July-September 2000, Milan, pp. 76-81.


EDUARDO KAC: INTERVIEW

Daniele Perra

Daniele Perra: You started your exploration of art with a series of performances in the early '80s when you were still living in Brazil, your native country. Since then you have experimented with several other media. What do you remember of those times?

Eduardo Kac: My performances, from 1980 to 1982, took place mostly in public spaces, such as Ipanema beach and the main square in Rio de Janeiro, called Cinelandia. The work evolved as a reaction to the very specific conditions of that time and place--a period of transition when a dictatorship still ruled the country. Those performances were very political, and they employed humor and colloquial language, as well as multiple media, as tools to reach a larger audience. That work was part of an effort to regain a sense of community, to establish a sense of public space, and to open up a discussion about a praxis of the body that was no longer centered on the tortured body of political repression but on the pleasure of the body to move towards a new beginning. For these performances I wrote texts meant to be performed face to face with the public, often incorporating other elements that added interactivity to the experience.

Daniele Perra: "Holopoetry", a term you coined in 1983, marks an important point in the development of your art. What are the basic elements of that new artistic expression?

Eduardo Kac: A Holopoem, is a poem conceived and displayed holographically. This means, first of all, that such a poem is organized in an immaterial three-dimensional space. Holopoetry began in 1983 by freeing words from the page. As distinguished from traditional visual poetry, its goal is to dynamically express the discontinuity of thought. In other words, the perception of a holopoem takes place neither linearly nor simultaneously but rather through fragments observed at random, depending on the observer's position relative to the poem. Perception in space of colors, volumes, degrees of transparency, changes in form, relative positions of letters and words, animation, and the appearance and disappearance of forms is inseparable from the syntactic and semantic perception of the text.

Daniele Perra: On the landing of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft you wrote: "Today, 4 July 1997, is an exciting day for art". What did you mean? Is there any direct relationship between this event and new contemporary art forms?

Eduardo Kac: I believe that in addition to works of art that use technology creatively, there is a sphere of social production that I informally call "works of culture". These "works of culture" are objects, processes, systems, or events that--while certainly not works of art--have the power to mobilize our cognitive or emotional response. To give a late nineteenth-century example: in 1896 an experiment was carried out to transmit a telegram around the world, completing the global trip in fifty minutes. A late twentieth-century example: a wireless telerobot was sent to Mars, controlled from the earth, and its visual perspective was shown live on television for all the world to see. I have been developing the aesthetics of telepresence since 1986; so this Mars event was a confirmation of my intuition that telepresence will become a part of daily life in the future.

Daniele Perra: In your work you have used many types of media, from faxes in Elasticfax to TV for Interfaces, from telepresence for The Ornitorrinco Project to Internet for Uirapuru for which you won an award at the ICC Biennial of Tokyo last year. How did you get so interested in new technologies? How do you use new media, such as Internet, in your artwork?

Eduardo Kac: We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the arts, in which a self-centered approach--such as autobiographic performance, Abstract-Expressionism--is replaced by dialogical situations. With the globalization of the economy and the expansion of networks, connectivity has becomes near-ubiquitous, where before, unidirectional discourse--as in painting or single-channel video--was predominant. My work responds to this characteristic of contemporary life, and at the same time probes into and hopes to contribute to, our passage into a postbiological culture. I see my role as an artist, is not to give the public a fully finished piece, allowing them only to interprete it, but as sharing the tools--the interface, the robotic body, the telecommunications link--that inform the work, and invite the public to explore it. As they explore the possibilities, they expand them. I have merged the notions of event, performance, and installation into something new, incorporating elements such as telerobotics. New concepts need a new vocabulary. That's why I use the words "telepresence", "biotelematics", "transgenic art".

Uirapuru is an example of a work that combines telepresence, virtual reality and the Internet. A fishlike form floats over a forest created inside the gallery and responds in real time to the commands of visitors to the exhibition, as well as to those of people connected on the Internet, who interact with an electronic image of the fish. All around the gallery there are sensors that detect the movements of the remote-controlled fish and create three-dimensional models, with the result that the movements of the fish in the gallery dictate those of the digital image of Uirapuru in virtual space.

Daniele Perra: Interactive installations usually do not allow people to alter the way the artist has conceived them to run. How do you get around that difficulty and let visitors truly interact and "live" it as an active experience through their individual contributions?

Eduardo Kac: I design my works to incorporate the decisions made by the participants, be they humans, plants, birds, mammals, insects, or bacteria. Every situation, in art as in life, has its own parameters and limitations. So the question is not how to eliminate these restrictions altogether--an impossibility--but how to keep it open enough so that what participants experience matters in a significant way. My answer is to remain truly open to the choices and behavior of those taking part to give up a substantial portion of control over the outcome of the work, to accept the experience as it happens as being a changing field of possibilities, to learn from it, to grow with it, to be transformed along the way. Interactivity is only significant when it is structurally meaningful in the work. This change reflects equally profound changes in other fields. Physics acknowledges uncertainty; anthropology becomes relativistic; philosophy denounces truth; literary criticism breaks away from hermeneutics. In other words, the active cognitive role traditionally played by viewers in interpreting an artwork is now physical, both through the open, rhizomatic paths of the work and their own kinesthetic intelligence of the participant. In interactive art, participation is not a metaphor; it is the very process through which the artwork comes into being. Interfaces, for example, was an interactive telecommunications project created by two different groups of artists, one in Chicago and the other in Pittsburgh, in 1990. The idea was to transmit and randomly assemble, by television link in real time, images sent by members of the two groups. The images sent back and forth were projected onto one big screen at the School of the Chicago Art Institute. The group at each end of the link did not know what image the other group was sending because every image took about eight seconds to be visualized ont the screen. The result, with the images superimposing on each other, was a kind of free-flowing visual dialogue, full of surprises and improvisations.

Daniele Perra: You recently coined the term "Transgenic Art" and you created some works such as Genesis (1998-99)--shown for the first time at the last Ars Electronica in Linz­which investigate the field of genetic engineering. Could you explain to me this new phase of your artistic development and the reasons why we should consider Genesis a transgenic artwork.

Eduardo Kac: Transgenic art, I propose, is a new art form based on the use of genetic-engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species to another, to create living beings. Molecular genetics allows the artist to engineer plant and animal genome and create new life forms. The nature of this new art is defined not only by the growth of these new forms of life but above all by the relationship between artist, public, and transgenic organism. Transgenic artworks can be taken home by the public and grown in the backyard or raised as human companions. With at least one endangered species becoming extinct every day, I suggest that artists can contribute to increasing global biodiversity. Ethical concerns are paramount in any artwork, and they become more crucial than ever in the context of biological art, when a living being is either the artwork itself or part of it. From the perspective of interspecies communication, transgenic art calls for a dialogue between artist, creature-artwork, and those who come in contact with it.

Genesis is a transgenic artwork that explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet. The key element of the work is an "artist's gene", a synthetic gene that was created by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle specially developed for this work. 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." It was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion--divinely sanctioned--of humanity's supremacy over nature. 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 was incorporated into bacteria, which were shown in the gallery. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria. After the show, the DNA of the bacteria was translated back into Morse code, and then back into English. The mutation that took place in the DNA had changed the original sentence from the Bible.

Daniele Perra: In your projects, which are always so complex, you often need a team of assistants and the help of researchers in different fields. Are you working on a new project at the moment, or should I say, on a new discovery?

Eduardo Kac: Yes. My new transgenic artwork GFP Bunny was presented in June in Avignon. It was created with the assistance and support of Louis Bec, Louis-Marie Houdebine, and Patrick Prunnet and it consists of the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit and its social integration. "Alba", the green fluorescent bunny, is an albino rabbit. This means that, since she has no pigment, under ordinary environmental conditions she is completely white with pink eyes. Alba is not green all the time. She only glows when illuminated with the correct light. When, and only when, she is illuminated with blue light, does she glow with a bright green light. She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version, i.e., a synthetic mutation, of the original green fluorescent gene found naturally in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells--including human cells--than the original jellyfish gene. Alba's name was mutually agreed by my wife, my daughter, and myself. The public presentation of Alba was projected for an environment designed to maximize her comfort. The environment was planned as a normal living room, with chairs, furniture, and a television, where Alba and I could be seen together for the entire duration of the show. My objective in proposing to live with Alba in the gallery was to affirm our relationship and negate any idea that she might have been seen and treated as an object.


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