While celebrated artist Eduardo Kac (pronounced “Katz”) has been creating intriguing, media-based artworks for more than 20 years, he is perhaps best known for his recent—and controversial—relationship with a fuzzy green bunny named Alba. This live rabbit, you see, is the result of Kac’s ongoing interest in, as he puts it, “the poetics of life and evolution.” She was created when the artist, working with a French lab named INRA, added a gene from a fluorescent jellyfish to the DNA of a rabbit. His goal? To bring into the foreground issues surrounding the biotech industry in general, and genetic alterations in particular. Indeed, over the last several years Kac and his work have been at the forefront of what the artist dubs “transgenic art.”
Kac, who grew up in Brazil and came to the United States in the mid ’80s, has incorporated an array of technologies in his artwork, including the Internet, virtual reality, and robotics. With his recent focus on biotechnology, he is trying to grapple with very basic questions about life and humanity. “It is true that I use the tools of genetic engineering,” he says, “but ultimately, I’m evoking philosophical insights about our changing notions of what it means to be human, a perennial question which must now be revisited.”
In Genesis (1999), for example, he borrowed a sentence from the Bible about man’s dominion over other creatures. He translated the sentence into Morse code, which then became the source for genetic code. Then he transformed this code into a gene, which was inserted into a bacteria culture. Viewers could see the culture on the internet, hitting a switch to trigger a light that in turn mutated the bacteria, creating changes in the biblical sentence.
For many people, this sort of genetic tampering is very frightening. Indeed, while Kac had hoped to bring his glowing, transgenic rabbit home to raise as a family pet, news of her unusual origin got around, and the lab balked, refusing to let the hapless animal go. But Kac takes this widespread fear in stride. “This element of fear is justified,” he says. “I respect it and take it seriously. I have fears myself. The question is: What do we do with our fears? If we do nothing, we contribute to this situation of escalating fear.” Instead, Kac says he opts to channel his fears “into a strategy of appropriation of the tools of biotech,” in order “to offer a critique of the ideologies manifested in science, while developing a very personal visual language.”
Kac is currently working on a new project titled Move 36, which will continue his investigation into the distinction between human and non-human. The piece was inspired by the chess match in 1997 when Gary Kasparov lost to a computer. It will incorporate a large chess board made of earth (dark squares) and sand (light squares). The sole piece on the board is a genetically engineered plant that, according to Kac, uses ASCII computer text to translate Descartes’s iconic statement of ontology (Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”) into genetic code. “The subject of Move 36 is not related to genetic engineering, but to the limits of the human and our commonality with other members of the community of life,” he explains. “The work also asks questions about traces of human agency exhibited by machines, critically revisiting previous notions about humans and animals, such as Descartes’s beliefs that humans were machines with a soul, and animals were soulless machines.”
Kac is very clear about his work, noting with care that for Move 36, he creates “a subject—a sentient being—instead of an object.” Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)