January 28, 2013

Nothing New?

by Bridget Esangga

SAIC professor and alumnus Eduardo Kac (MFA 1990) revels in the freedom of creating new worlds. He has made a “plantimal” that expresses his own DNA in red veins on the petals of its flowers, a live rabbit that glows bright green under blue light, and bacteria with text from the Bible encoded into their DNA, which can be mutated by a remote audience turning on a light source with the click of a mouse. 

Kac (pronounced “Katz”) does not see his work as breaking with the natural order in any way. The laws of physics rule nature. But some things may not exist because circumstances have not led those laws to create them—not because they are unnatural. “And this is where art can be interesting,” he says. “Art can open up other directions.”

Kac first came to SAIC as a student. He earned his MFA through the Department of Art and Technology Studies in 1990 and his PhD at the University of Wales in Great Britain in 2003. He returned in 1997 as a professor in Art and Technology Studies and teaches classes such as Forbidden Avant-Gardes and Art and Biotechnology.

His students learn to work within a principle of the avant-garde, believing that new ground can always be broken. 

“I do not at all subscribe to the idea that there is nothing new. I do not accept that. I think there are many artists working today that have indeed done something that had not been done before. The difference is that we no longer necessarily perceive ‘new’ as a value in and of itself,” he explains.

Being on the frontier means that recognition sometimes comes later. Kac’s career is the perfect example. Throughout 2012 his work appeared in exhibitions across the globe, most notably at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid where curators unearthed some of his earliest work—created when his native Brazil was under a military dictatorship—to display in a museum for the first time as part of an exhibition called Losing the human form. A seismic image of the 1980s in Latin America, which runs through March 11. 

“It’s about artists working with their bodies in inventive ways that have to do with political transgression and also political resistance. And right there, that might explain why that work lay dormant for so long,” says Kac, whose rebellious photoperformances from 1980–82 and work as the leader of a performance group are documented in the exhibition. 

When the dictatorship fell shortly after, Kac’s work moved to the forefront of digital technology, earning him an international reputation for his telecommunications art in the pre-Internet ′80s. He emerged in the early ′90s with radical work combining telerobotics and living organisms and when he felt that digital art’s pioneering work was being recycled and re-experimented, he coined the term “bio art.”

He became the first human to implant a microchip in his body in Time Capsule (1997) when he injected an RFID chip into his leg live on television and on the Internet and allowed online participants to retrieve its digital content. “I was embodying this question about the future in which the human body becomes a hub…an element on the network, and also of the possible advantages and certain dangers that this kind of ultimate convergence could signify,” he says. 

In his first publicly presented transgenic work, Genesis (1999), he translated a sentence from the Bible—"Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."—into Morse code and synthesized DNA base pairs from the code. He incorporated the DNA into bacteria displayed in a gallery. Participants online and in the gallery could shine a light on the bacteria which mutated the DNA and altered the Word of God. 

The following year he created a piece that unintentionally became his most famous:GFP Bunny (2000). Kac implanted jellyfish DNA into a rabbit cell, generating a bunny that glowed bright green under blue light. He named her Alba and intended to bring her home to live with his family. A manifesto he wrote for the Leonardo Electronic Almanac that predated the piece explains why this cohabitation was so important to the work. Ethical concerns "become more crucial than ever in the context of bio art," he writes. He goes on to say that transgenic art calls for an interspecies dialog between the artist, creature, and those who come in contact with it.

GFP Bunny surprised its creator by becoming another telecommunication work when the laboratory refused to release Alba and the ensuing scandal drew international media attention. Alba appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe, on the cover of Le Monde, San Francisco Chronicle, and L’Espresso. The Chicago Tribune and Der Spiegel covered the story, as did the New York Times

The work continues to fascinate audiences. GFP Bunny documentation and related works were extensively shown in 2012 in venues that included Documenta (13), Kassel, Germany, one of the world’s most prestigious contemporary art venues. Works from the GFP Bunny series were also shown along with Kac’s more recent project, Natural History of the Enigma (2009), the petunia plant that shares his DNA, at his solo show at Tatiana Kourochkina Galeria d’Art in Barcelona, Spain.

Reactions to Kac’s work have ranged from censorship to acceptance to the misconception that it is about science. In reality, he sees poetry, with its freedom to invent, and philosophy, with its investigation of the world as it is, as the axis of his work. Experimental poetry is his parallel practice, and in 2011 he released a book of aromapoems designed to be read with the nose. Kac says, “This sense of inquiry upon the world…as well as the freedom to invent new ones—poetry and philosophy—they have been the wheel that has turned my practice…from the very beginning.”