25.07.2011 | Art and genetics

May a plant and a man become a „Plantimal“?

Plants with human DNA, bacteria creating poems and many “living works”. Playing to be God, the first exhibition in Italy dedicated to American artist Eduardo reflects on the genetic possibility to become other. By Claudio Cravero (IT).

Foto: © Valentina Bonomonte, PAV Living Art Park

The work of Eduardo Kac (Rio de Janeiro, 1962; he lives in Chicago) is always up to the moment, and is always hotly debated and controversial. Although his works are the formal result of lab experiments, experiments are deliberately not shown; and this because his research actually investigates the cognitive, biological and social aspects which underlie communication. He then parlays these results into the construction of new dialogues. Kac is a phenomenologist: he explores perception as it appears at the moment of awareness, and in regard to the human body.

Since the mid-1980s, Eduardo Kac has pioneered two experimental methods of creation, Holopoetry and Telepresence Art. The first of these is achieved through a holographic medium derived from Digital Poetry, by organising a text in a three-dimensional and immaterial space that is free of the limits imposed by traditional writing. Telepresence Art is created through dialogue. The artist investigates man-robot-animal communication and interaction in a series of works developed between 1996 and 1999: Uirapuru, Darker Than Night and Time Capsule. The telepresence is made possible thanks to technological interfaces that provide an empathic mediation between the subjects involved, whom are located at different sites.

But it was at the end of the 1990s, with the transition from Environmental Art to Living Art, and with the birth of Transgenic Art – a term coined by the artist – that Eduardo Kac began to make people sit up and take notice. He began creating living works, raising bioethical questions about the legitimacy of certain practices that, until that period, had been the exclusive province of genetic engineering. Transgenic Art, which exploits the application of principles and techniques taken from biotechnologies and genetics to manipulate the genome, aims to create unique living organisms by transferring genetic information from one species to another. The debates surrounding Eduardo Kac, in the sector of contemporary art but also in the wider sphere of the mass media, are  particularly linked vis-à-vis  a series of rather problematic works about current ethics: Genesis (1999) and GFP Bunny (2000). Genesis explores the relationships between biology, belief and information technology, through an artificial gene which is created by translating a verse of Genesis into Morse code, transferring it to bacteria (such as a biological conveyer means) and – as Jens Hauser claims in his text Art Biotech – then presenting them for the first time as artworks to the public. But GFP Bunny is without doubt the case that has earned the most media furor: the case of the “green rabbit”. Named Alba, this bunny was a genetically-modified organism whose DNA had been enriched with a gene that produces EGFP (Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein). This is a potentiated version of the substance that normally gives luminescence to jellyfish in the Pacific Ocean. For genetic science, this kind of manipulation is nothing new: for some years now, science has been discovering organisms that are naturally equipped with this fluorescence.
However,  tensions and perplexity are aroused by Kac’s work. They derive, on the one hand, from people’s familiarity with rabbits who recognize in his work a poor animal manipulated and converted – playing with life – in green; and, on the other hand, from the apparent monstrosity of the artist’s gesture including the human sense of irresponsibility for the animal’s future. Kac stresses, though, that “it is not so important how a living being (cloned or manipulated) comes into the world, as how it is integrated into the social context”. Therefore, because the rabbit is being shown in a museum Alba could be considered an artwork following Dada’s ideas – according to Kac the rabbit is not an artwork, but a subject that, biologically and socially, addresses the possibility of acceptance, integration or rejection. Thus, from this perspective, the nature of living beings becomes fluid, hybrid and transgenic. And transgenic is not a synonym of monstrous, because – even without man’s direct intervention, as claimed by Hauser in Art Biotech – the transmission of genes from one species to another is part of nature itself. Agrobacterium, for example, by penetrating into a plant’s roots, can naturally transfer its DNA to the plant’s cells. And therefore this is not “monstrous”.

Edunia (2003-2008) moves in the same direction. This work is one of Kac’s most recent studies on the theme of hybridisation and otherness. The plant, a so called “plantimal”, comprises a transgenic blend of human being and plant (the name is a combination of petunia, the plant, + Eduardo, the artist), offers itself to the visitor’s sense of touch and smell in all its vitality, reflecting the biological possibilities of “becoming other”. In this way, through transgenic art, we may glimpse a dimension in which a first subject can live in the place of a second, thereby recognising itself in the “other” as a constituent part of itself. The value of GFB Bunny and Edunia, is that in this way they are basically art narrations, and able to directly address people about genetic engineering issues, pushing them to personally face the pro and cons, and poses questions about problems and drifts on something real and not just a presumption. On the other hand, long before the results of this practice, a question surely arises about the artist’s human right to act as if he were a demiurge, oblivious to the implications of considerating of other beings as objects (and not subjects) to manipulate without their permission. Despite these ethical debates, once these transgenic living beings are created they are irrevocably part of a precise social context, demanding care and dialogue just as everyone and everything else in life. And this cannot go without notice.

This is a prerogative that Kac had already looked at in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1994), a non-transgenic installation based on an interspecies dialogue between a canary and a philodendron, each located at different sites. In the installation – whose title refers to John Locke’s 1690 essay – through sensory receptors and a simple Internet connection, the canary’s song is transmitted to the philodendron, and the electromagnetic influences produced by the plant are simultaneously returned to the bird’s cage. Thanks to the intermediation of a technological system that can receive its signals and transform them into sound input, an interspecies dialogue takes place, a dialogue from which human participation is excluded, except as an onlooker or, in the case of the artist, as the creator. Unlike the commonplace view that sees art history as created by and for human beings, Kac’s work plays with displacing the anthropocentric viewpoint toward an aim of a non-human possibility of creation, though induced and controlled by humans.

Maybe without prefiguring a dystopian future, as so much literature and cinema has accustomed us to imagining – among others including Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Gattaca by Andrew Niccol – Kac’s intent is to create transgenic beings with which to establish a concrete relationship, capable of deepening our conception of genetics. By creating a relationship with these beings, while on the one hand we might distance ourselves from the common utilitarian goal of science, aimed only at perfecting species, on the other we are going to lose what the real aim of science could be in the future. In fact, the scenario drawn by Kac evokes the big dream of many bio-engineers and scientists by projecting a vision of genetic life with a goal of perfection, without consideration for the environmental loss of biodiversity and all the genetic consequences that point towards eugenics.

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June 10th – September 25th
Living works – Eduardo Kac
curated by Claudio Cravero
PAV – Living Art Park
Experimental Centre for Contemporary Art
Via Giordano Bruno, 31 – 10134 Torino – Italy
Web:www.parcoartevivente.it;
Email: info[at]parcoartevivente.it;
Tel.: (+39) 011.3182235

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