Mr. Dickey did not to realize that Dr. Houdebine was coerced by the administration of the French institute where Alba was born to completely change his original position. This happened after the publication of the Boston Globe article (9/17/2000). The truth is stated in the Boston Globe article, which confirms that Dr. Houdebine "created her (Alba) for Kac.'' The articles published in the French press prior to the Boston Globe article also confirm this.
Mr. Dickey implies that there was no agreement that Alba would come to Chicago. This is not correct. I have correspondence (dated 5/23/2000) from Dr. Houdebine clearly stating his commitment to send Alba from France to me in the USA.
In spite of the article errors, the most serious problem in this context is the fact that Alba is still at the French institute. I will continue to do everything within my power to bring her home.
I Love My Glow Bunny
Genetically modified objet d'art? Crime against nature? Transgenic protein machine? The inside story of how a reengineered rabbit named Alba became the center of an intercontinental tug-of-war.
By Christopher Dickey
Eduardo Kac has come to Paris to get his bunny back. The Brazilian-born, Chicago-based conceptual artist put himself on the map of global curiosity last summer when he announced that he'd created - in the name of art - a transgenic rabbit that glowed green under blue light. Of course, he hadn't done the technical work. As he described it, he'd "commissioned" the bunny from top researchers at France's Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, an organization of 8,600 people scattered among agricultural research centers around the country. INRA technicians took green fluorescent protein from the little Pacific jellyfish Aequorea victoria, and spliced it into the genes of a rabbit zygote. The resulting bunny, which Kac called Alba, was to be shown at an exhibition of digital art in the Provençal city of Avignon in June 2000. Kac (pronounced Katz) was going to create a small living room in one corner of the show and demonstrate what it would be like to have a green-glowing rabbit as a pet. And then he was going to take Alba home to his wife and child in the Windy City.
But on the eve of the exhibition, the then-director of INRA, Paul Vial, suddenly said no. He didn't really say why. Didn't have to. His people made the
rabbit. His people funded it. His people would keep it. The organizers of the Avignon show denounced what they called disguised censorship. Kac
returned, bunnyless, to Chicago. And the legend began to grow. "CROSS HARE: HOP AND GLOW MUTANT BUNNY AT HEART OF
CONTROVERSY OVER DNA TAMPERING," read the headline in The Boston Globe last September. The wires picked up the story. So did ABC
News and The Washington Post. Half-amused, half-horrified, the general public was presented with the implications of what Kac called "transgenic
art." What would be next? Blue horses? Vermilion cows? Prada poodles? Vuitton pugs?
Like many a strange tale, Alba's story was widely read for a day or two, then widely forgotten. But Kac is determined to keep Alba alive in the public
imagination, and eventually to take his rabbit home. She is a political victim yearning for liberation, a slave to bureaucracy awaiting emancipation.
When I hooked up with Kac this winter, he had returned to Paris to mobilize support among his peers in the field of high tech art. He was exhibiting
recent work, speaking at conferences at the Sorbonne and the École des Beaux-Arts, appearing on local TV programs, and giving interviews to the
press. He was also planning to rally the populace.
Kac is a PhD research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts at the University of Wales. He's an assistant professor of art and
technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has won numerous awards and grants, and his work is in the permanent collections at
MoMA in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, among others. But, he assured me, "I'm not a geek who spends all his life in front of a
Time to take the Free Alba campaign to the streets. And the next thing I know, Kac is putting up posters all over the Left Bank and Montmartre. Each
shows a photograph of him holding Alba in his arms. At the top, they have different words on them: Religion, Média, Éthique, Art, Science, Famille.
One of the first posters goes up on the boarded window of a restaurant just across from the entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts. A street sweeper
wearing the uniform of the Paris sanitation department - Day-Glo-green coat and trousers, green plastic broom, green handcart - stops to see what's
going on. Kac explains. The sweeper nods sagely. "C'est bien, c'est bien, c'est bien," he says. "Transgenique, c'est l'avenir! " Transgenics, it's
the future! Kac, oblivious to blue-collar irony, is overjoyed by this initial reaction.
A couple of days later, Kac is still at it. We wander up the rue du Départ, past the Gare Montparnasse, and into a street fair of schlock art. Kac puts up
an Alba FAMILLE flyer among a collection of graffiti-covered political posters. He's watched by a bunch of guys who've been drinking beer in a stall
that features driftwood sculptures.
One of the men, who identifies himself as "the artist Christophe," asks Kac whether he'd mind if he drew a little graffiti on the poster. Kac says sure,
and stands to one side, explaining where he's from and what he's doing, and that this is the transgenic rabbit he created and wants to take home.
"Ah, c'est magnifique," says Christophe, concentrating on his graffiti: a rough scar across Kac's forehead, a twisted smile on his face, and bolts
protruding from his body. The reference to Frankenstein is unmistakable - but Kac doesn't get it. Taking the spindly bolts for arrows, he concludes
that Christophe "made me into Saint Sebastian," the oft-painted saint who was skewered by the shafts of his enemies. But Christophe isn't finished.
He's drawing garters and fishnet stockings on Alba. And a dialog balloon, with a lone question mark inside, coming out of Kac's mouth.
"Why the question mark?" asks Kac.
"It's 'why,'" says Christophe.
"It's 'why'? Why not?" says Kac.
"Exactly," says Christophe. He steps back to examine his work as if it were on an easel, then takes another swig of his Kronenbourg 1664. "In fact, I
didn't understand anything you said," he says, taking another look at his opus and glancing at his drinking buddies for approval. "It's nice, no?"
There's a hint of belligerence. "It's Dr. Frankenstein, isn't it? It's Brazilian? It's not one of the descendants of that old Nazi who cobbled together
clones, is it?" Alba as one of Josef Mengele's boys from Brazil. Now there's a thought.
But Kac is missing this. Christophe raises his voice. "And its prick, is that fluorescent, too?" Transgenic transgendering. "I mean, what the fuck do
you do with that rabbit there? What about the suffering it feels? And where's the art in this? You say you're an artist. Where's the art? You create life.
You are God. There! You are Dr. Frankenstein."
Kac starts to talk about the long history of breeding animals, saying it took 50,000 years to create the domestic dog of today. But Christophe clearly
doesn't give a shit. He's looking around for another can of Kronenbourg.
"Well," says Kac, "that's enough discussion with the man on the street."
"A fluorescent dog! That would be great!" shouts Christophe as we walk away up the hill.
The public was half-amused, half-horrified. "You say you're an artist. Where's the art? You create life. You
are God. There! You are Dr. Frankenstein."
When I started emailing Kac to arrange our meeting, I was thinking maybe we'd spend dawns in the French countryside, casing the hutches where
Alba is confined. I vaguely imagined us wearing black balaclavas and gloves as we crept among the cages in search of Kac's long-eared opus glowing
in the night like electric lettuce. Then I saw the flashed snapshot that appears on Kac's Web site and his posters. The artist is standing in front of
some hideous brown geometric wallpaper, his face as radiant as a proud father's in the delivery room. Alba looks a little puzzled, but placid. And
white. In the one bit of documentary evidence Kac has for his claim on the luminous rabbit, she's quite white. With pink eyes. No hint of green; no
suggestion of a glow.
Deep in the Alba literature on the Web site, there's an explanation. "Alba is not green all the time. She only glows when illuminated with the correct
light. When (and only when) illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation at 488 nanometers), she glows with a bright green light (maximum
emission at 509 nanometers)." But why was another online photo of Alba so obviously tinted green, conveying the idea of a glowing rabbit instead
of the actual glow? More disturbing, it seemed that INRA had a slightly different take on her creation. For them, the bunny wasn't art - she was just
one among many green fluorescent protein specimens. The organization's chief researcher had been quoted as saying that "'Alba' doesn't exist.
For me, it's rabbit number 5,256 or so."
Kac's glowbunny project felt at once wildly imaginative and vaguely fraudulent. Who was this bunnyman from Brazil? And what did this transgenic
rabbit really represent? Did she mean anything at all?
At the University of Paris' Archiving as Art show, where we first met, Kac was dressed entirely in black: rumply turtleneck, rumply jeans. His hair was
short and curly, cut high on his forehead like a Roman emperor's. He was watching a video of himself projected over a framed syringe that bore the
most lethal-looking needle I'd ever seen. Beside it was a little plastic pill. The display was part of an installation called Time Capsule. The pill was a
microchip, and one day in 1997, live on Brazilian TV, Kac had injected the thing into the flesh above his ankle. "The syringe is the one I used," he
said, his voice a mix of self-satisfaction and surprise. "The microchip on the wall is of course a replica, because the original is still in my leg."
In a short book on Kac's work, Eduardo Kac: Telepresence, Biotelematics, Transgenic Art (on the cover of which the bunny-hugging snapshot has
been retouched in Day-Glo green), art critics offer their opinions of his installations and performances. This is what Christiane Paul, a curator at the
Whitney Museum of American Art, had to say about the monstrous syringe and the microchip: "Kac's radical approach to the creation and
presentation of the body as a wet host" - yuk! - "for artificial memory and 'site-specific' work raises a variety of important questions that range from the
status of memory in digital culture to the ethical dilemmas we are facing in the age of bioengineering and tracking technology."
The questions that interested me were a little less transcendental. "Where'd you get the chip, Eduardo?" I was thinking he had the thing elaborately
constructed in partnership with some high tech lab, and that there was a message of far-reaching significance buried deep within. You know, like a
"I bought a pack of five," he said.
"Oh," I said, feeling a shiver of apprehension about misapprehensions. "A pack of five?"
Sure. There was nothing really special about the time-capsule chip. It's an ID made for tagging pets, livestock, and endangered species. It can be
scanned electronically, like an embedded barcode. Kac just latched onto the technology - bought a pack of five (for about $50) - and made it part of
his art by making it, well, part of him. He even registered himself online with IdentIchip as the owner of his body. The form is reproduced in his book:
Animal Identification: Chip Number 026109532
Call Name: Eduardo Kac
Date of Birth: July 03, 1962
Registered Name: Eduardo Kac
And so on.
This world of Kac's is about making connections - some logical, many not - in the name of art. It's supposed to be high concept, about metaphor. It is
not supposed to be about hanging things on a wall.
Except that there are things hanging on the wall in Kac's installation. There's the framed syringe. There are also sepia photographs - the kind taken
with a Brownie camera between the two world wars - of a woman in her late twenties or thirties. "These are actual photographs of my grandmother,"
he says. Her name was Perla Cukier (Pearl Sugar). She left Poland in 1939, a Jew fleeing the Nazis, and joined Kac's grandfather, Perec Przytyk, in
Brazil. Their daughter - Kac's mother - married early and divorced quickly, then remarried and left Eduardo with her folks. "I was raised by my
grandparents," says Kac, looking at Perla's picture. "She was particularly influential in my life. ... As a child, the world that you know is obviously
circumscribed. That is, grown-ups are always telling you no. The contrast between other adults and the world they let me develop, and her, and the
world she let me develop, was so great."
One of the little sepia squares shows Perla astride a motorcycle on a tree-lined lane in 1930s Poland. Her confident smile is the most arresting image
in the installation. "Her part of the family did not survive," says Kac. "These are analog memories that I internalized," he says. "This celebrates the
lives that could have been."
"She was from Warsaw," he adds. "So she would have gone to Auschwitz." When it's scanned, he tells me, the ID chip in his leg displays a number.
Like the tattoos at Auschwitz. The elegant literalness of this connection is almost an embarrassment to Kac in his role as a professional spinner of
conceptual jargon. But there is something here that sheds light on the rabbit that glows in the dark. It is Kac's obsession with "otherness," with the
way we treat the strange and the alien. Could it be this bunny is really a Maus?
Kac has got this thing about animals. He wants to get inside of them, he wants, in his way, to be them and to share the experience via his Web site.
He draws heavily on the work of Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana, who talks about creating "consensual domains." In one of
Kac's installations,Rara Avis, a bright-red robotic macaw sits on a branch in an aviary amid dozens of drab sparrows. Using a headset, you see
through the macaw's camera eyes, and when you turn your head, so does the macaw, so that you're interacting with the other birds. In a cave in the
Rotterdam zoo, Kac constructed what he calls his batbot, which makes bat sounds while surrounded by 300 real Egyptian fruit bats. "When you put
on the [batbot] headset," he tells me, "what you saw was a visualization of dots moving in and out of a circle representing those fleeting moments of
mutual awareness" between the dangling robotic bat, which was you, and the living bats in the cave. "So there was a moment when we got closer to
that only mammal that flies."
Before Alba, Kac's obsession with "otherness" put an ID chip in his leg, like a tattoo from Auschwitz.
Could it be this bunny is really a Maus?
"Don't psychoanalyze the work," says Kac. But why not? The more closely you look at the technology itself, the less impressive it is. The bird and bat
robots are probably less sophisticated than a Furby. The time capsule is nothing but an IdentIchip. Even Aequorea victoria's green fluorescent
protein is nothing very extraordinary. GFP is widely marketed through scientific supply catalogs for use in various kinds of biochemical research
projects. (This January, researchers in Oregon used it to create the first genetically engineered primate, a baby rhesus monkey - minus the glow.)
Kac may quote the impenetrable Maturana and cite Hungarian artist Lászlò Moholy-Nagy as his inspiration, but it's probably more relevant, and
certainly more revealing, to know that Kac - whose greatest theme is mutation and whose greatest works are mutants - grew up reading X-Men
The next day, as we talk in Café Le Select on Boulevard Montparnasse, a couple of small dogs saunter by. Kac watches them closely, almost
covetously. One is a black-and-white wirehaired Jack Russell with star-quality cuteness. "A good potential GFP dog," I suggest. In 1998, Kac
announced a plan to make a GFP K-9, but he couldn't find anyone to do it. Now, he thinks he might have found a lab in California that can take on the
"I'm looking for dogs," says Kac. "But I'm looking for a hairless dog."
A GFP Mexican hairless?
Kac nods. The Aztecs used them on cold nights around Tenochtitlán as living, panting, licking hot-water bottles. A very weird breed - they're
newbornlike, with almost all the skin exposed. But, since only living cells express GFP, hair doesn't glow, so the less fur the better. How perfect: the
progeny of a bizarre canine race, bred by the earthly but alien culture of the Aztecs, combined with a jellyfish protein to make a mutant pet for the
Chicago family of an American, Brazilian, Polish, Jewish, atheist artist-professor.
And then I remember something Kac said the night before, when we were talking about his indulgent grandmother. Was there anything she ever
denied him? "I did ask for a dog," he says. But she'd never agreed to it.
Eduardo, have you ever owned a dog?
"Well, no, but I am looking forward to ... I mean, my wife grew up with four dogs."
But you don't actually have any pets? Kac shakes his head. "My last name is Kac and the three of us are allergic to cats. But my daughter loves dogs."
For the moment, however, there's Alba.
What Kac keeps saying is that the work of art is not the rabbit; the work of art lies in creating the debate around the rabbit, and bringing the bunny
home to live with Ruth and 5-year-old Mimi. "I didn't want it to be an experiment," he says. "The kind of interaction that would be real was important to
Kac holds up a piece of paper with a list of appointments on it. "This is my intervention plan," he says. "I'm developing this action on many fronts: to
tell my story directly, to gather support from people who are influential, to mobilize opinion to liberate Alba." But he's not planning any visits to INRA,
or any meetings with people there. "I can't drop in from America and tell the French how to operate," he says.
He is right about that, certainly. But Kac seems almost entirely unaware of the political and social environment he's dropped into. Europe is in a panic
over mad cow disease, spread by the practice of feeding living cattle the processed remains of dead ones. Scientists said that inducing cow
cannibalism was OK. Now they're saying bovine spongiform encephalopathy in hamburgers could lead to brain-rotting Creuzfeldt-Jacob disease in
humans. Both BSE and CJD have appeared on the Continent. All this is feeding, as it were, a deep current of anti-scientific sentiment in Europe.
France, in particular, is still reeling from the 1980s scandal over HIV-tainted blood that was pumped into thousands of hemophiliacs because the
government refused to use an American test to screen the blood supply. The French people blamed their politicians and their scientists (only three
or four minor officials paid any penalty), and they blamed the United States because, well, because it was there. Spite is more important than right
when it comes to anti-American reactions among the Gauls. This special bias is also reflected in the raging debate over genetically modified foods,
which are seen as part of a plot to globalize American big-money science.
Into the middle of all this comes Eduardo Kac with his GFP bunny. No wonder the reception he's getting isn't altogether friendly.
Though the French hold artists in higher esteem than politicians, scientists, or CEOs, there is clear suspicion that the bunny is a front - a kind of
cuddly Trojan horse - for multinationals trying to foist genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the European public. When Kac gives his lecture at
the Sorbonne, a ponytailed young man in an orange turtleneck wonders about what he calls "transference" from the scientific to the artistic realm:
"Isn't it bothersome that an artist can promote genetic manipulation, given that scientists are under much more control?"
Again and again Kac is asked to comment on a recent paper, "Notes on the Human Zoo," by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, which
defends the idea that the human race can be improved by scientific means. In other words, by eugenics - or transeugenics. It's not a great
technological or even ethical leap from trying to prevent hereditary diseases to trying to build better immune systems, and from there to making
people stronger, or more intelligent. Dr. Frankenstein had an idea like that. So did Dr. Mengele. And if Kac can create a special rabbit in the name of
art, why not create a special human?
"No," Kac says emphatically. "If I would do something with a human being, then I would be the father. And I do not believe it's all the same. It's an
issue of difference." He pauses for a moment and a mischievous smile lights his face. "But people do often come to me in these lectures and say,
'You know, I would like to glow.'"
There's suspicion that the rabbit is a front - a cuddly Trojan horse - for multinationals trying to foist GMOs
on the European public.
After days of listening to Kac expound, I start to think that Alba is fewer than six degrees of separation from every major issue of our time. No small
achievement in a work of art. But one of the criticisms leveled at the GFP bunny by Kac's colleagues in Paris and by academics visiting his Web site is
that the rabbit wasn't created by the artist, but appropriated by him.
When I ask whether this is true, Kac expounds on the history of appropriation. "Artists have always borrowed from each other's work," he says. "But
when you say appropriation in art, that's not quite what you mean." He points to Marcel Duchamp's 1917 presentation of a urinal as a work of art.
Fountain, Duchamp called it. And appropriation was born, affecting everything from pop art to musical sampling.
Kac doesn't smile at the idea of Alba as a urinal. "It's very important to distinguish my work from that. My work is not about appropriation; it's about
Kac has never said that Alba was the first transgenic rabbit, or even the first to receive a GFP graft. But he doesn't think any other rabbits glow like his
does. And he is sure he commissioned this one.
Is he saying this was the first rabbit created in the name of art?
"Oh, there's no doubt about it," he answers.
Kac left Paris on December 13, no closer to winning Alba's release than when he arrived. And I was no closer to meeting either the elusive bunny or
Louis-Marie Houdebine, the man credited with her physical creation. As director of research into biological development and biotechnology at
INRA's center in Jouy-en-Josas, Houdebine is one of the country's leading proponents of GMOs. After several phone calls to him went unreturned, I
tried an end run: I went to visit one of Houdebine's colleagues, Brother Jacques Arnould - author of the anti-creationist book God, the Ape, and the
Big Bang - who had appeared on a brief television debate with Kac.
An influential figure in the French scientific establishment, Arnould is a Dominican friar who works at the National Center for Space Studies. He
explained that Houdebine and his higher-ups at INRA wanted to control the message at a time when they're under enormous pressure - politically,
financially, and emotionally.
"They are very sensitive," he told me. "They are all a little crazy, the researchers. You know, they say a researcher's occupational disease is to
become mad. And it's not only a joke." Now there was the risk that their world could fall apart. "You spend 20 years in research trying to improve
agriculture and suddenly you discover that all your work is condemned, that you're blamed for mad cow, that genetically modified organisms are
feared." Lifelong projects can die, said Arnould, "because they're not loved anymore." The passion to pursue them, and the funding, disappears.
Arnould continued: "I think the researchers of INRA are afraid that they wouldn't be loved anymore. There's a need to be loved, a fear of not being
loved. We think of that as natural with an artist, but it's the same with a scientist."
I said I understood and sympathized.
That same afternoon, whether prompted by Arnould or not, Houdebine returned my phone calls. A few days later, I was at the gates of the INRA
center in Jouy-en-Josas, about 30 minutes southwest of Paris.
The setting was beautiful and bucolic, on the outskirts of the little village that gave the world the famous fabric, printed with beautiful and bucolic
scenes, known as toile de Jouy. A stream flows through the narrow vale beneath weeping willows near a riding ring. A large, 19th-century chateau
dominates the hillside. INRA looks like the campus of a small university; dozens of buildings are scattered around the grounds, but with rather
uncollegiate names: Genetic Fish, Freezing Rooms, Abattoirs. The phrase I couldn't get out of my mind was "Soylent Green."
I found Houdebine, who has worked at INRA for almost 33 years, in an office overlooking the valley, his desk crowded with papers and burdened
with a large potted plant. He pointed to a collection of three long, low structures outside his window. "The famous green rabbits are in those
buildings," he said. And he began to tell their tale.
Much of his account matched Kac's. Yes, Louis Bec, the director of the Digital Avignon festival, had approached his friend Patrick Prunet of INRA in
1999 about getting a GFP bunny for Kac's exhibit. Prunet got in touch with Houdebine, and Houdebine agreed. Then the INRA director said no, and
that was it. But there was no question, said Houdebine, of creating a rabbit expressly for Kac. There was no "commission." As for Kac taking the
rabbit home to Chicago, there may have been a misunderstanding, because that was never really an option.
Don't think I wasn't suspicious of Houdebine's motives. He recently signed on as scientific adviser to Bio-Protein Technologies, a company created
to "prepare pharmaceuticals in the milk of transgenic animals" - including rabbits. He thinks bunnies could do an excellent job of producing
erythroprotein, for instance. Though this human protein is much sought after by athletes because it increases red blood cells and is hard to detect in
drug tests, a little EPO goes a long way. The worldwide market, according to Houdebine, is less than one kilo a year. "You need a few hundred
rabbits, and that's enough."
Transgenic rabbits have been used to provide the enzyme alpha glucosidase, vital to the treatment of a rare and fatal ailment in children called
Pompe's disease. Rabbits are also useful as research models for human diseases, specifically for the vascular system. "Rabbits are exquisitely
sensitive to cholesterol, just as we are," he said.
To confuse this picture of rabbits as profitable pharmaceutical producers with a frivolous image of green fluorescent bunnies as objets d'art might
alienate BioProtein's financial backers in Holland and France. So Houdebine had an incentive to play down Kac's inspiration for Alba's creation, and
his own role in the project. Yet the logic and detail of his account made sense.
Bunnies, says one scientist, would be an excellent source of performance-enhancing proteins. "A few
hundred rabbits" could supply the global market.
Houdebine said he had nothing against either bio-art or Kac: "I think he's a good guy, a nice person. But he cheated, in a way."
Back in 1998, Houdebine's team took some commercial GFP, combined it with the human promoter EF1Alpha - which expresses the protein in all
cell types - and injected it into the eggs of three albino rabbits. When the rabbits reached maturity, the researchers bred them and raised the
offspring that showed signs of GFP; the non-GFP offspring were destroyed. Eventually the GFP bunnies numbered about 150, which was more
than the hutches could handle, so they were culled back. There is a more or less permanent population on hand of six or seven, but few will live to
enjoy "their full rabbitness," as Kac would say. Most of the GFP bunnies are wanted for their glowing ovaries. When these are removed for research,
the donor is killed. That could be Alba's fate as well. "She's an experimental animal," said Houdebine. "If we need her, we'll use her."
When Louis Bec called from Avignon in mid-1999, Houdebine found his request for a GFP rabbit tempting. The proselytizing author of GMOs: The
True and the False, Houdebine liked the idea of presenting a cuddly glowbunny in a mocked-up living room. "The rabbit would be observed by a
few people; there would be a debate. We planned to show a number of photos of [GFP] cells, showing that we have created a number of [scientific]
tools, and they can be beautiful." Kac and Bec would help Houdebine make his case for genetically modified organisms. "So we said we have
green rabbits - or we suppose they're green," said Houdebine. But nobody had ever checked to see. The researchers were interested in rabbit
genes that would glow green through a microscope down through the generations. They assumed the whole animal might look green under the
right light, viewed through the right filters, but they didn't have the equipment to test it.
One day in April of last year, Kac and Bec brought in the lights and the goggles they needed to examine the rabbits: Three were taken from their
cages. One, a control, had no GFP; under the blue light, its eyes were bright red. But the other two had the gene, and their eyes shone dazzling
green. Their skin glowed, too, though it was hard to say how much, because of the fur. Kac picked up one GFP bunny to hold in his arms, but it was
fretful and hard to handle. He picked up the other, and she was very quiet, Houdebine recalled, "very kind and nice." Later, Kac named her Alba.
As Houdebine and I talked, we toured the main biotechnology center. It was constructed about 10 years ago with a butterfly-shaped floor plan.
"France still believed in biotechnology then, so we got this nice building," said Houdebine. "Now, they still believe, but more ... moderately." In fact,
there is almost no public forum left in which to defend genetic engineering. Even the thoughtful daily, Le Monde, seems to have turned against it.
"This is recent," said Houdebine. "After the contaminated blood affair and mad cow, people changed."
In a cluttered lab, Houdebine showed me a rack of little plastic tubes on ice. Each contained a quantity of liquid about equal to a teardrop, which
contained specifically chosen genetic fragments. "When the gene is prepared, we put it in bacteria, and the tubes are placed in a generator to
amplify the genes." The device looks like an old fax machine with a cribbage board on top to hold the tubes. "You take just one cell and you have
millions of copies of a gene in just a few hours."
Up the hill in a little outbuilding is the lab where technician Céline Viglietta implanted the GFP-laced DNA in the rabbit eggs almost three years ago.
Like many techniques, this one seems remarkably simple once it's mastered. The zygote is positioned under a microscope and held in place by a
tiny glass pipette. The first bit of the operation is accomplished by the technician sucking lightly on the other end of the tube. The gene is put in
place using another pipette that's been brought to an egg-penetrating microscopic point on a precision glass-cutting machine.
The abattoir, or slaughterhouse, on the slope below Viglietta's lab is where unwanted animals meet their doom. And below the abattoir are the rabbit
hutches, which, Houdebine was quick to point out, are in deplorable condition. He blamed the local Green Party for blocking funding because it was
hostile to his GMO research. "You will see when we go to see Alba," he said, "our facilities are very old."
It was the first time he'd said we might actually visit her - and the first time he'd called her by name. But before that close encounter, we'd have lunch.
Houdebine drove us to the nearby Robin des Bois restaurant in his beat-up old Citroën, which had little potted plants in the dusty console. "I'm a
biologist! I love living things!" he said. "I'm surprised more people don't have plants like this in their cars." At the restaurant, I ordered steak, having
long since given up worrying about mad cow. Houdebine had duck. "You know, we have tests now for CJD," he said. "But what's the use? There's
nothing we can do for the disease."
Back at the INRA campus, Houdebine opened the door to the rabbit barn. I was hit with a smell that reminded me of that hamster cage I kept
forgetting to clean when I was 11. To the right of the entrance was a little washroom with a large sink and a rabbit-milking machine. "Notice the tiles on
the wall," said Houdebine. They were the unforgettably ugly brown tiles that appeared in the photograph of Kac holding the bunny.
Inside, there were perhaps 100 albino bunnies, each in a little wire cage about two hops long and no hops wide. "Ahhh, well," said Houdebine.
"Where is Alba?" He was looking at the little manila cards on each of the cages. "I don't know," he said, gesturing toward a row of six rabbits. "One of
these," he suggested. On the cards identifying the rabbits - by race, in effect - were the letters OGM, which is French for GMO, along with the rabbits'
GFP numbers: GFP.081, GFP.082, GFP.011, GFP.016, GFP.015, GFP.014. The 8s and the 1s indicated that the rabbits were from different
founders, said Houdebine. "I remember I put a cross on the label ..." But there were no crosses, and I think that for a minute both of us were
wondering if Alba had been sent to the abattoir. Houdebine turned to the rabbit keeper, Georges Oxaran, a slow-talking man in blue work clothes
that were wet from rabbit washing and speckled white by rabbit hair. Which rabbit was the one all the fuss had been about? Oxaran pointed to
GFP.014, and as we looked more closely, we saw the word Reserved on the card.
He pointed to GFP.014, and we saw the word Reserved on the card. "Ah, yes," said Houdebine. "There
she is." Alba, I presume.
"Ah, yes," said Houdebine. "There she is."
Alba, I presume.
"It's especially this one that's more green," said Oxaran. "It's especially the eyes."
She sat crosswise at the back of her cage, her nose against the bars on one side, her tail against them on the other. Glutinous turds hung like grapes
on the bars beneath her. In the next cage, GFP.015 was restless, looking us up and down. Not Alba. She barely seemed to notice her visitors. In the
normal light of the barn, there was no green glow to be seen. Her eyes were placid and pink.
Fidgety GFP.015 let loose a torrent of rabbit piss that splattered on the concrete floor, forcing us to step back.
"Notice," said Houdebine, "that part of their ears have been cut off to show us they're transgenic." I noticed, too, tattooed inside one ear of each
GFP bunny, a designation and number. I thought of Kac's Time Capsule exhibition, the one that "celebrates the lives that could have been."
I copied down the details from the card on Alba's cage. GFP.014 had been born, along with her three siblings in the adjacent cages, on December
I called Eduardo Kac in Chicago and told him I'd seen Alba. There was a pause on the other end of the line.
"Do you know when Alba was born?"
"No. Do you?"
"Yes," I said, and then told him what I'd seen and what I'd heard from Houdebine.
"I was afraid his discourse would change after there was a scandal."
I said I wasn't sure that's what had happened.
Kac said there was no question that he had proposed such a project as early as 1998, and that Bec had told him it was on course in 1999. Bec had
told him the rabbit was born in February 2000 (and, indeed, GFP.081 and .084 were, on the 6th).
But Kac was scrambling to account for how little he really knew about the rabbit he'd supposedly caused to be created. Houdebine "was probably in
the process, scientifically speaking, of starting the pregnancy. ... Perhaps he started it specifically for me, or it was just in the pipeline."
Perhaps, I suggested, it was all just a misunderstanding.
"Another thing that's very important," said Kac, "is the difference between the language of science and the language of art. In science, say you make a drug that will cure people; the focus of the research is the drug, everything is focused on this physical object. But art doesn't work that way. Is the urinal to be peed on? No. Obviously not. It's this symbolic role that a lot of scientists don't get. For Houdebine, he may not fully grasp what this represents to me."
"I'm just trying to nail down the facts, Eduardo."
"There are facts and they need to be right. But it's not just that."
"It's my hope that she'll come here."
"It doesn't sound like that's going to happen."
"We can do things that science is not interested in - this contextualization in the symbolic realm."
"Ah," I said. "Houdebine seems to have liked you, Eduardo."
"A visionary," said Kac. "He took a chance with an artist he didn't know and I am going to do everything I can to express my recognition."
"But, you know, Eduardo," I told him, "Houdebine says if they need Alba's zygotes, they'll take them and kill her, just like they do with the other GFP bunnies."
"Oh maaaaan, this really breaks my heart. Shit! I can see why scientists don't want to get personal."
"And the future of transgenic art?" I asked.
Kac's tone was businesslike again. "In terms of getting the work done, this is something artists are learning, can learn, and will learn." n
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