Originally published in NY Arts Magazine, Vol. 6, N. 6, June 2001.


One small hop for Alba, one large hop for mankind

Posted by Ulli Allmendinger on May 31, 2001 at 22:45:37


Alba is a cute, little Albino bunny. She’s got a fluffy fur, loves munching on carrots and hops around like any other member of her species. But when illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation at 488 nm) Alba takes on an otherworldly appearance, her whole body––fur, eyes and even whiskers––emitting a fluorescent-green glow.

Alba is the "work" of the Brazilian-born artist Eduardo Kac. Since 1999, when Kac commissioned the "transgenic" bunny from a French lab––where scientists injected green fluorescent protein (GFP) of a Pacific jellyfish into the egg of an Albino rabbit––he has drawn the combined fury of scientists, ethicists and animal-rights activists. His opponents argue that the use of scientific tools for the sake of art is not only silly but dangerous. Kac claims that Alba is merely a new art form for the 21st Century. His critics are skeptical. "Ethically I don’t think we should use genetics simply for artistic exhibitionism. I think that is an abuse," says Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Bill Neely, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is harsher: "If he [Kac] is really interested in glowing bunnies, he should stick to Playboy. At least they have a choice."

Is Alba art? If so, what does she "mean"? Is she the first step towards a series of designer pets? A form of social critique? A freak show?

Kac is not the only artist flirting with a Brave New future. With news on genetic engineering regularly making headlines, a number of artists have perceived the cultural and aesthetic significance of biotechnology. Natalie Jeremijenko at New York University’s Center for Advanced Technology clones trees, George Gessert breeds hybrid irises, and Steve Miller paints genetic portraits. All three were part of last fall’s hugely successful Paradise Now exhibit at Manhattan’s Exit Art gallery, which featured 39 artists whose work navigates the perilous fault line separating art and science. "We are witnessing the emergence of a new type of artist, the artist/scientist/researcher," says Christiane Paul, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. "Eduardo Kac is a perfect example."

Kac has been crossing boundaries––between art and science, physical and virtual spaces, organic and mechanical material––for more than twenty years. The 38-year-old Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago began using cutting-edge technologies in the eighties to create work he termed "telepresence", "biotelematics" and "transgenic" art. Kac has lectured on art, technology and culture at UC Berkeley, and genomics at The New School for Social Research, and last fall his work was the subject of a symposium at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He is a Ph.D. research fellow at the Center for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts at the University of Wales, and member of the editorial board of the journal Leonardo, published by MIT Press. What most of Kac’s critics don’t understand is that Alba is only the latest manifestation of a much larger project.

In December 1998, Kac published an article in Leonardo, arguing that transgenic art was 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 on species into another, to create unique living beings". He continued, "From the perspective of interspecies communication, transgenic art calls for a dialogical relationship between artist, creature/artwork, and those who come in contact with it." At the time he wrote the article, Kac had no idea how controversial this statement would be.

Kac says he "commissioned" Alba for an exhibition of digital art in Avignon. His original plan was to live with the bunny in a living room fitted for the show, and then take her home to Chicago to live with his wife and five-year-old daughter Mimi. Lois Bec, the director of the festival, approached the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France (where scientists had been injecting green fluorescent protein into the eggs of albino rabbits since 1998 to trace the action of particular chemicals, the growth of tumors or the workings of genetic diseases) about getting a bunny for the show. The scientists agreed, but on the eve of the show, the then-director of INRA, Paul Vial, refused to release the rabbit. The INRA claimed the transgenic rabbit belonged to them, and that Kac had nothing to do with the development of the "research object."

While Kac had to return to Chicago without his bunny, news of Alba was quickly picked up by the international press, producing headlines in Le Monde and The Boston Globe, as well as features on BBC London and ABC News. The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl predicted that art like Kac’s was a trend with the "shelf life of milk". "Art used to crown civilization," he wrote, "now it skitters through seams and around corners, eagerly parasitic." Animal activists were furious, scientists called the project everything from silly and gimmicky to an "act of violence." The news of Kac’s genetic art fueled existing fears of global genetic mutation and cloning a la Frankenstein.

And critics kept posing the same questions: Was Alba art? What did she mean? Was she the first step towards a series of designer pets? A form of social critique? A freak show?

Six months later, Kac, whose curly brown-hair bounces give him the look of a Brazilian Einstein, sits in the Au Bon Pain on East 42nd Street. Munching on a Chicken Caesar salad, he tells me of his efforts to move Alba from the lab to his home. "Transgenic animals are often talked about as objects," he says, delighted by the attention Alba has received. "I want to talk about transgenics as social subjects, and contextualize their existence as for its own sake, to shift the discourse away from this cliché of Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau." Kac doesn’t want to comment on genetics as much as he likes "going in the trenches" and using genetic engineering to hold a mirror to itself. "I am not interested in reinstating scientific principles," he says. "My work doesn’t visualize science, it is not meant to duplicate the information that circulates from science to media to the public. It is meant to intervene, to change, to criticize, point out, reflect and modify." He doesn’t really consider Alba to be "art" at all. Rather, she is but a small part of a much larger, more political project. The GFP Bunny project, says Kac, includes not only the process of bringing Alba into the world and integrating her into society, but also deliberately provoking the fears, imaginations and hopes we have attached to genetics and new life forms. One small hop for Alba; one large hop for mankind.

Although Alba might have put Kac on the international map, he didn’t jump into biotechnology from nowhere. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962, Kac spent the first part of his career in Brazil as a performance artist on Rio’s Ipanema beach, protesting against the military dictatorship that ruled the country in the 1980s. "My performances were political, straight to the point, but also very humorous," he says. "I didn’t want the work to be lacking fantasy, freedom and imagination."

When Kac decided to trade the beach for university, no art course satisfied his rebellious instincts. Instead, he studied philosophy, semiotics and linguistics, which he hoped would help him pursue the issues he cared about. How can you create art that isn’t fully finished, but rather depends on the participation of the viewer to be complete? How do you set up a dialogical situation in which the public explores and changes the context of the work? Like Duchamp, who said that a work of art is not complete without the interpretation of the viewer, Kac refuses to give the public a fully finished piece. Yet instead of allowing viewers only to interpret, Kac demands they share the tools and interface he offers, actively taking part in the process of creation.

Duchamp is famous for introducing everyday objects as art, constantly exploring and pushing the boundaries of art. In the same way, Kac flexes preconceived notions of art by introducing new developments in technology and genetics. The installations Kac created in the 1990s––after moving to Chicago in 1989 and receiving an MFA at the Art Institute––explore these questions of context and dialogue. Dissatisfied with the tradition of painting and sculpture, Kac began experimenting with technology to create new art forms. Like much of the Performance art in the 1960s and 1970s, these works disrupt borders between disciplines, between the private and public, between art and everyday life.
In "Teleporting An Unknown State" (1996)–– first shown at the New Orleans Museum of Contemporary Art and part of Electronic Maple, an exhibition on art and technology opening at the new Media Center for Arts in Queens on May 19––a plant positioned in a completely dark room receives the light only via web-based videoconferencing. Kac invited viewers around the globe to point webcams to the sky and teleport the light the plant needs to stay alive to the museum. In "Darker Than Night" (1999) Kac constructed a robotic bat (batbot) and surrounded it with 300 real Egyptian fruit bats in a cave in the Rotterdam zoo. Through the batbot, viewers could experience the behavior of the other bats, while the bats themselves heard only the sonar emitted by the robot.

Today Kac has been busy preparing his first solo show at Chicago’s Julia Friedman gallery, which opened on May 4. Part of the show is Kac’s first transgenic artwork "Genesis" (1999), in which he translated the passage "Let Man Have Dominion Over The Fish Of The Sea And Over The Fowl Of The Air And Over Everything Living That Lives Upon The Earth" from the Bible first into Morse code and then into DNA structure. Afterwards, Kac injected the DNA into fluorescent bacteria, whose twice-translated "biblical" image is projected onto the wall. The installation includes a website (www.ekac.org) that enables people in the gallery and all over the world to switch on an UV-lamp that causes some of the bacteria to mutate, thereby "rewriting" the biblical statement. "It’s a Catch-22 situation, which is of course the ethical dilemma I wish to create here," Kac explains, deadly serious. "If you don’t click, you are basically choosing not to participate in the process of rewriting that passage of the Bible. If you choose to click, again, you are then quite easily changing the genetic structure of a living organism with the same ease you send an email to a loved one or buy a book on Amazon."

Throughout his career, Kac’s use of science has drawn harsh criticism. Caplan acknowledges the validity of the trend of merging art and science but nevertheless calls Kac’s work as "parasitic". "He basically had very little to do with the bunny except to hold it and show it," he says. "The scientists made the bunny, the bunny glows––and he has nothing to do with it. All he’s done is attach himself to it and say ‘Let’s ask whether this can be turned into art’." Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at the New York Medical College, says that while Alba might be a "transgressive" artwork, she shows "how easily ostensibly radical anti-capitalist ideas can be recruited to the enterprise of turning nature into a product". But later, in an e-mail exchange, Newman qualifies his skepticism. "But how did I and my fellow scientists become anointed to do things that should be prohibited to artists? Because we are contributing to the understanding of things? So are artists."

And perhaps this gets to heart of Kac’s Alba controversy. In the age of Dolly, and at a time when Mad Cow and foot-and-mouth disease are shaking up Europe (not to mention Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde sharks and spliced up cows), we struggle with the increasingly blurry distinction between art, life and science. In that sense, Kac—like Duchamp before him—is avant-garde, disrupting established boundaries between art, science and politics. And just as Duchamp’s conceptual art was about ideas, rather than the object itself , Alba is not so much about the eerie glow but the outrage surrounding her––the social and ethical questions she raises. Carole Kismaric, co-curator of Paradise Now, explains: "To ask questions, to pose the issues that are rumbling through culture right now, and doing it in a way that gives it a visual form, that gives it a way that people can talk about, that’s part of what Kac is doing and that’s what good artists do. It rarely happens that they hit upon the kind of question that galvanizes people. In Kac’s case, the idea that an artist’s work of art could actually be the creation of life is frightening to people. Where is the power then? This has to do with whom you trust in culture."

Last year, when scientists completed a draft of the human genetic blueprint, it was heralded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. Yet, while the gene carries the information that helps to form living cells, it is "in its biological reality, text without context, data without dimension", as Dorothy Nelkin, professor of social sciences at New York University wrote in a 1996 article in Artsjournal. Equally, Kac’s work is empty without the historical, philosophical and ethical baggage he brings along. His work is complex, jarring and difficult to categorize. Is Alba art? What does she mean? Is she the first step towards a series of designer pets? A form of social critique? A freak show? While people are still grappling with his artful bunny, Kac has already moved on. His next project? A glowing dog.


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