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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

The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl predicted that art like Kac’s was a trend with the "shelf life of milk". whose curly brown-hair bounces give him the look of a Brazilian Einstein. 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. which he hoped would help him pursue the issues he cared about. The GFP Bunny project. "Art used to crown civilization. while the bats themselves heard only the sonar emitted by the robot. In "Teleporting An Unknown State" (1996)–– first shown at the New Orleans Museum of Contemporary Art and part of Electronic Maple. one large hop for mankind. protesting against the military dictatorship that ruled the country in the 1980s. Moreau. Kac refuses to give the public a fully finished piece." he says. 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. news of Alba was quickly picked up by the international press." Animal activists were furious. imaginations and hopes we have attached to genetics and new life forms. viewers could experience the behavior of the other bats." 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. between the private and public." When Kac decided to trade the beach for university. includes not only the process of bringing Alba into the world and integrating her into society. Kac spent the first part of his career in Brazil as a performance artist on Rio’s Ipanema beach. between art and everyday life. delighted by the attention Alba has received. but on the eve of the show. Instead. to change. he didn’t jump into biotechnology from nowhere. Although Alba might have put Kac on the international map. 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. One small hop for Alba. Paul Vial. Kac began experimenting with technology to create new art forms. "My work doesn’t visualize science. it is not meant to duplicate the information that circulates from science to media to the public. The INRA claimed the transgenic rabbit belonged to them. 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. How can you create art that isn’t fully finished. producing headlines in Le Monde and The Boston Globe. "I am not interested in reinstating scientific principles. and contextualize their existence as for its own sake. The scientists agreed. but also very humorous. actively taking part in the process of creation. to shift the discourse away from this cliché of Frankenstein and Dr. point out. "Transgenic animals are often talked about as objects. Duchamp is famous for introducing everyday objects as art. scientists called the project everything from silly and gimmicky to an "act of violence. semiotics and linguistics. freedom and imagination. these works disrupt borders between disciplines. Kac demands they share the tools and interface he offers. but also deliberately provoking the fears. constantly exploring and pushing the boundaries of art. refused to release the rabbit. 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." he says. "I want to talk about transgenics as social subjects. "I didn’t want the work to be lacking fantasy. who said that a work of art is not complete without the interpretation of the viewer. eagerly parasitic. she is but a small part of a much larger. more political project. Munching on a Chicken Caesar salad. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962. he tells me of his efforts to move Alba from the lab to his home. sits in the Au Bon Pain on East 42nd Street. Kac flexes preconceived notions of art by introducing new developments in technology and genetics. no art course satisfied his rebellious instincts. 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. "now it skitters through seams and around corners. Rather." he wrote. Dissatisfied with the tradition of painting and sculpture. and that Kac had nothing to do with the development of the "research object. he studied philosophy. Yet instead of allowing viewers only to interpret." He doesn’t really consider Alba to be "art" at all. Through the batbot. to criticize. . It is meant to intervene." The news of Kac’s genetic art fueled existing fears of global genetic mutation and cloning a la Frankenstein." he says. In the same way. says Like much of the Performance art in the 1960s and 1970s. as well as features on BBC London and ABC News. straight to the point. "My performances were political." While Kac had to return to Chicago without his bunny. reflect and modify. the then-director of INRA.

" And perhaps this gets to heart of Kac’s Alba controversy. "The scientists made the bunny. Kac injected the DNA into fluorescent bacteria. it is "in its biological reality. 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. which is of course the ethical dilemma I wish to create here. "It’s a Catch-22 situation. "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. in an e-mail exchange. that gives it a way that people can talk about. which opened on May 4. In that sense. we struggle with the increasingly blurry distinction between art. But later. jarring and difficult to categorize. text without context. "He basically had very little to do with the bunny except to hold it and show it. If you choose to 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.Today Kac has been busy preparing his first solo show at Chicago’s Julia Friedman gallery. And just as Duchamp’s conceptual art was about ideas. it was heralded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. again. Alba is not so much about the eerie glow but the outrage surrounding her––the social and ethical questions she raises. professor of cell biology and anatomy at the New York Medical College. In Kac’s case. and doing it in a way that gives it a visual form. she shows "how easily ostensibly radical anti-capitalist ideas can be recruited to the enterprise of turning nature into a product". Afterwards. whose twicetranslated "biblical" image is projected onto the wall. data without dimension"." Throughout his career. Caplan acknowledges the validity of the trend of merging art and science but nevertheless calls Kac’s work as "parasitic". science and politics. rather than the object itself . disrupting established boundaries between art. deadly serious. co-curator of Paradise Now. 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. Kac’s use of science has drawn harsh criticism. Back to Kac Web . the idea that an artist’s work of art could actually be the creation of life is frightening to people.ekac. It rarely happens that they hit upon the kind of question that galvanizes people. that’s part of what Kac is doing and that’s what good artists do. 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." he says. the bunny glows––and he has nothing to do with it. explains: "To ask questions." Kac explains. life and science. Kac’s work is empty without the historical." Stuart Newman. Yet. His next project? A glowing dog. Carole Kismaric." Last year. Newman qualifies his skepticism. while the gene carries the information that helps to form living cells. when scientists completed a draft of the human genetic blueprint. philosophical and ethical baggage he brings along. says that while Alba might be a "transgressive" artwork. professor of social sciences at New York University wrote in a 1996 article in Artsjournal. Where is the power then? This has to do with whom you trust in culture. thereby "rewriting" the biblical statement. Part of the show is Kac’s first transgenic artwork "Genesis" (1999). His work is complex. The installation includes a website (www. "If you don’t click. to pose the issues that are rumbling through culture right now. In the age of Dolly. you are basically choosing not to participate in the process of rewriting that passage of the Bible. 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). Equally. Kac has already moved on. Kac—like Duchamp before him—is avant-garde. All he’s done is attach himself to it and say ‘Let’s ask whether this can be turned into art’. as Dorothy Nelkin.