The Ethics and Anxiety of Being with Monsters and Machines: Thinking Through the Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac
Twice, especially since 1900, scientists and their ideas have generated a transformation so broad and deep that it touches everyone's most intimate sense of the nature of things. The first of these transformations was in physics, the second in biology.
Eduardo Kac is an Associate Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts (CAiiA) at the University of Wales, Newport, United Kingdom. An internationally recognized artist using new technologies to create interactive and telepresent installations, he is currently involved in what he calls Transgenic Art. According to Kac,
Transgenic art, I propose, is 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 one species into another, to create unique living beings. Molecular genetics allows the artist to engineer the plant and animal genome and create new life forms. The nature of this new art is defined not only by the birth and growth of a new plant or animal but above all by the nature of the relationship between artist, public, and transgenic organism. Organisms created in the context of transgenic art can be taken home by the public to be grown in the backyard or raised as human companions. With at least one endangered species becoming extinct every day, I suggest that artists can contribute to increase global biodiversity by inventing new life forms. There is no transgenic art without a firm commitment to and responsibility for the new life form thus created. Ethical concerns are paramount in any artwork, and they become more crucial than ever in the context of bio art. 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 .
Kac has genetically altered a rabbit, fish, mice, bacteria and plant-life so that they generate green fluorescent protein, which causes the entity to glow green when placed under UV light. These animals, bacteria, and plants are placed in installations where they sometimes interact with machines known as ‘bio-bots’ and where local and telepresent spectators can interact or alter them in some manner.
Firstly, the goal of this essay is to ask some very basic questions about how Kac's transgenic and interactive work operates in the tradition of modern art. Secondly, it is to begin an inquiry into the philosophical and ethical issues that Eduardo Kac's art raises, namely, the elimination of the borders between art and life, virtual and embodied spectatorship, aesthetic genetic-engineering, the ethics of robotics and the responsibilities of the artist to the art of monsters and machines.
I. The Re-Materialisation of the Art Object: From Conceptualism to Installation to Biologically-Based Work
Although Eduardo Kac's transgenic art is establishing new frontiers of art practice that challenge the boundaries of biology, robotics and aesthetics, the manner in which the artworks generate meaning and construct spectatorship are similar to the practices of much conceptual and installation art of the twentieth century. In conceptual and installation art, idea and process are promoted over representation and object through a dematerialisation of the art object in a contextualised space. While the goals of transgenic art and conceptualism and installations share certain concerns, the biological and mechanical certainty of objecthood in Kac's work represents a radical re-materialization of the art object – a re-materialization with certain problems.
Art critic Lucy Lippard modeled the trajectory of modernist art as a process of the dematerialization of the art object .* From abstraction to action painting, from happenings to conceptualism, installations, video and performance, the effect has been to challenge the representational element and objecthood in art in favour of its conceptualisation and process. The deconstruction of the object and its location in space and time in the paintings of the Futurists and Cubists in the early twentieth century was the opening salvo of the battle to eliminate the problem of representation from the discourse of art. Multiple planes of space and accelerated depictions of time reordered the ways in which both the object and the subject were constructed as coherent and chronological phenomena. During the post-World War II era the process of ridding art of representation and object status was pursued in the action paintings of Jackson Pollock where the trace of the artist's gesture was as critical as its painterly accident on the canvas. Further, the incorporation of performance in art practice by artists working in happenings presented the penultimate attack on the object. At the point that performance superceded objecthood in the production of art, conceptualism and installation were established as central modalities of art production.
Succinctly and reductively defined, conceptual art, through its insistence on idea and process over object, offers a critique of art production and institutions of the culture industry that evaluate and market the art product. The spectator's commodity fetishism is likewise challenged in the conceptual art that forgoes artifact. Simultaneously, conceptual works pose philosophical questions regarding the nature of art. When John Baldassari in ‘I Am Making Art’ (1971) stands before a video camera making simple gestures while repeating the phrase ‘I am making art’ for twenty minutes, the viewer is invited to dialogue with the work about the truth of his statement. The statement raises the question as to whether or not he is creating art, which requires a definition of art, which requires some philosophical reflection. The loss of the object opens a space for thought.
Installations found favour with those artists during the 1950s and 1960s who wished to structure a context in which their concepts could be played out. Distinct from sculpture or theatre, installation art offers a presentation of conceptual matter that remains outside of simple objecthood. The work of installation represents the staging of an art concept through the creation of a spatial context. The saleable and knowable object is still disenfranchised from the art moment as the environment of an installation is a presence always already in the process of dematerialization, given its performance in a timed manner. In the last decade artists' use of video and interactive installations has risen dramatically indicating an interest in establishing a performative space for the virtual environments of electronic communications.
Eduardo Kac's transgenic art carries with it the remembrance and the results of the temporary disappearance of the art object into concept and the performance of that loss in installation. This may seem a strained relation to model, as the objects of transgenic art are biological and mechanical. The art object is very much there. Yet, this is the very point I wish to make. The biological subjects and performing machines of Kac's transgenic art are constructed as idea and placed within installations for philosophical reflection. Therein lies the rub: animal bodies and machine bodies revealed not within their own destiny but altered within and serving unknowingly an aesthetic discourse. In an interview included on the Eighth Day web site Kac states that, ‘A lot of the art I make is both an attempt for me to grapple with an issue, to try to develop an understanding for myself and create a context, not in which I convey my understanding to the public but always create a context in which the public can develop his or her own understanding, their own understanding of an issue.’ What is at issue in transgenic art is an aesthetics of conceptualism housed in installation, which is built on the bodies of altered animals and articulated through machines. The animals and machines are fuel for the art engine.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. I am offering a structural analysis of the signifiers of transgenic art. I am not at all interested in making a moral judgement or drawing ethical lines within Kac's work. Given the volatile nature of his art he strives to foreground the ethical ramifications of the process. I am not trying to decide if he is right or wrong. His exploration of biological and mechanical transgressions give us a remarkable path to think through the current revolutions of science that are unmaking and redoing our bodies, subjectivity and identity.
II. As Posthuman Subjects
In a short comment featured in this publication, I attempted to reflect on the performance work of art technologist Stelarc through the conceptual model of posthumanism. I wrote,
Posthumanism, under a variety of names, is an ongoing project initiated in the late nineteenth century. As a counter-argument to the notions of humanism, which tend to essentialise categories of gender and race, defer difference and construct a ‘family of man’ as the centre of all things, strands of posthumanism have been promoted in the writings of Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. The scheme of dethroning a centralised ‘man’ in favour of more marginalised concerns has continued in poststructuralist, feminist and postmodern thought. More recently, posthumanism, as a component of digital culture and theory (developed and critiqued most clearly in the work of Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles), argues for a model of identity that is dramatically altered within technological cultures. Posthumanism argues that western industrialised societies are experiencing a new phase of humanity ‘wherein no essential differences between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals, exist. . . . Embodiment is seen as an accident of history and consciousness is an evolutionary newcomer’ . Both the body and its conscious (no separation intended) and the spaces it inhabits are challenged and reconfigured. The technologies of scientific visualisation of the body through magnetic resonance imaging, the territorialising of the body through genome mapping and genetic engineering, and the alteration of the body through aesthetic and sexual reassignment surgery and mechanical, electronic and biological prosthetics, mark the speed of change in the ways the body is seen, controlled and constructed. Additionally, this posthuman body ‘lives’ within new spaces of virtual environments and ubiquitous surveillance .
My thumbnail sketch of posthumanism is designed to demonstrate that humanism, an invention of the Enlightenment (or Renaissance, depending on the history you rehearse), is being reconfigured through digital culture, new scientific visualisations, and the body and genetic alterations of biology. In Kac's transgenic work, art object and spectator function as posthuman (or post-biological in the case of the genetically altered animals).
Kac works with fish, amoebae, mice, rabbits and plants genetically altered with green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is isolated from Pacific Northwest jellyfish. Under UV light, the animals will glow green. Regarding the process of aesthetic genetic engineering, Kac writes,
Genes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules. DNA carries all the genetic information necessary for a cell's duplication and for the building of proteins. DNA instructs another substance (ribonucleic acid, or RNA) how to build the proteins. RNA carries on the task using as its raw material cellular structures called ribosomes (organelles with the function of bringing together the amino acids, out of which proteins are made). Genes have two important components: the structural element (which codes for a particular protein) and the regulatory element (‘switches’ that tell genes when and how to perform). Transgene constructs, created by artists or scientists, also include regulatory elements that promote expression of the transgene. The foreign DNA may be expressed as extrachromosomal satellite DNA or it may be integrated into the cellular chromosomes. Every living organism has a genetic code that can be manipulated, and the recombinant DNA can be passed on to the next generations .
What is of interest, and perhaps a bit dangerous, is not the process of genetic engineering, although that has enough people up in arms, but that in transgenic art life is framed as art. The animals carrying the transgene are framed as aesthetic objects within Kac's model. The problem of conflating art and life has a rich theoretical history. In the eighteenth century Denis Diderot wrote in his Encyclopedia that ‘In the arts of imitation the truth is nothing, verisimilitude everything, and not only does one not ask them to be real, one does not even want the pretence to be the exact resemblance’ [4, p.289]. Heidegger in outlining the aesthetics of Nietzsche suggested that ‘Art is worth more than “the truth”’ [6, p.75]. What all three philosophers are stating is that the convergence of art and life is a corruption of both phenomena. If you believe that art is life and life art, then you do not understand either one or the other. The lies that form art, the dissimulation that constructs its beingness, the illusions that build its world, mysteriously open to an appearance of the truth. Nietzsche would argue that the real, or the ‘truth,’ simply leads to more illusions. Aesthetics as an autonomous activity shows us the truth of life. Life has a tendency to be devalued when it stands in for the goals of art. Walter Benjamin suggested a further problem when he argued that aestheticising politics is the performance of fascism. Conversely, he suggested that politicizing aesthetics is exemplary of communism.
Is the framing of altered animal life as an aesthetic a similar problem?
The Posthuman Spectator
The spectator in Kac's interactive and transgenic art is positioned, in part, as a disembodied participant. Entry to the work is either through traditional appearance in a gallery space or through virtual participation online. Kac describes how telepresence offers interaction with his work Uirapuru (1999):
‘Uirapuru’ merges virtual reality with telepresence through the internet. Virtual reality offers participants a purely digital space that can be experienced visually and in which one can be active, in this case the VRML forest populated by six flying fish. Telepresence provides access and a point of entry to a remote physical environment .
In Kac's interactive and transgenic installation, Genesis (1999), present and telepresent spectators are offered the opportunity to effect a change in the biological entity (E. coli bacteria) through computer-mediated manipulation. Kac describes the work:
The key element of the work is an ‘artist's gene,’ a synthetic gene that was created by Kac by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle specially developed by the artist for this work. The sentence reads: ‘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.’ It was chosen for what it implies about the dubious notion of divinely sanctioned humanity's supremacy over nature. The Genesis gene was incorporated into bacteria, which were shown in the gallery. Participants on the Web could turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, causing real, biological mutations in the bacteria. This changed the biblical sentence in the bacteria .
The spectator of Genesis is then able, with the click of a mouse, to engage in a rudimentary biological alteration. Hardly earth shattering, but evocative of the effortless activities of virtual action performed daily throughout the datasphere of digital culture. The California-based machine performance group, Survival Research Lab (SRL) is using similar technologies that permit online users to fire a real cannon during their performances. It is not difficult to compare these aesthetic practices with contemporary weapon systems, whose strategy consists of disengaging both the soldier and spectator from the ‘real’ component of the action, namely the target. The impersonal nature of the telepresent user alters both engagement with the activity and the ethics of behaviour in that action.
The Posthuman (?) Artist
III. Writing, Splicing and Buying the Body (Human Genome Project)
The construction of Kac's interactive and transgenic artwork Genesis as described above in section two consists of an ‘artist's gene’ created through a translation process (Morse Code to DNA pairs) linking a biblical sentence to a gene. The work resonates in several interesting and troubling ways. The language of the biblical quotation transposed and linked through the primitive technology of Morse Code to the new technology of genetic engineering through the bacteria points toward the ways in which the body and subjectivity are being reconceived and rewritten through biological interventions. As we know, the human genome project to identify all the approximately 30,000 genes and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, will be completed in 2003. The mapping of the human DNA is leading to patenting and marketing of the human code of life. The U.S. Human Genome Project states on its web site that, ‘Another important feature of the project is the federal government's long-standing dedication to the transfer of technology to the private sector. By licensing technologies to private companies and awarding grants for innovative research, the project is catalyzing the multibillion-dollar U.S. biotechnology industry and fostering the development of new medical applications’ . Like the California Gold Rush, the human genome project has led to claims being staked and territory marked out for ownership of our interiority. The human is being portioned and purchased.
Genesis depicts the constructed character of the Judeo-Christian model of nature as natural and essential while demonstrating the mutable structure of our biological coding. Kac's installation implies that life is a game of chance, but in this artwork, who controls the aleatory experience? The telepresent spectator of Genesis is offered the opportunity to engage in the switching on of the alteration technology. They are not witness, nor are they required to take responsibility for their actions. Is there a cost to such telepresence?
In another reading, Genesis might be seen as a model of the unconscious, structured as language, as Lacan argued, and set to dreaming, connected to a responsive virtual dreamscape wherein the body of the dreamer is reformed. The copula between language and biology is orchestrated by a third element of information flow engendered through the surveillance and interaction of internet users logged into the system. In both readings there is a technology that when switched on creates a chain reaction of chance systems for which no model has been formed. The results of these bio-alterations are unknown.
IV. Taking Care of the Anxiety and Ethics of Being with Monsters and Machines
Transgenic art must be created ‘with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues at the core of the work and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created’ .
Recently, critics have made much of the performativity of animals and machines . In an article for Theatre Research International, I attempted to understand the use of the supplemental performers of children, animals, and machines in the performance work of the Italian collective, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. I wrote:
The presence of the machines brings an uncanny charge to the stage as they are always already ‘in performance.’ The human performer walks on and off the stage, begins and ends a performance, but the performing machine or object is always ‘on.’ The timelessness of the machine, the inexhaustible performativity of the object, summons forth a revealing of the timed nature and fatigued performance of the human. Mortality is brought back to the stage through the immortal nature of the machine .
The simple point I am trying to make in the above text is that the ‘permanence,’ steady state and constant performativity of the machine foregrounds the impermanent, fluid state and negotiable performativity of the human.** The performativity of the animal is similarly placed in question as its consciousness of performance is limited and task oriented. An animal wandering through a stage set may or may not have any reference understanding of the act. The animal's unreflective act of being points to the always already doubled nature of a human on stage. The human's consciousness of performance indicates agency on the one hand, but a confinement in representation on the other. Kac's use of animals and machines operates in a less dramatic system of difference, but suggests useful ways of thinking through how humans construct the world through the assistance of these animals and machines.
In The Eighth Day, Kac and his associates at Arizona State University have devised a biologically driven robot known as a biobot. The artist explains,
A biobot is a robot with an active biological element within its body which is responsible for aspects of its behavior. The biobot created for ‘The Eighth Day’ has a colony of GFP amoeba called Dyctiostelium discoideum as its ‘brain cells.’ These ‘brain cells’ form a network within a bioreactor that constitutes the ‘brain structure’ of the biobot. When amoebas divide the biobot exhibits dynamic behavior inside the enclosed environment. Changes in the amoebal colony (the ‘brain cells’) of the biobot are monitored by it, and cause it to slowly go up and down, or to move about, throughout the exhibition. Ascending and descending motion becomes a visual sign of increase (ascent) and decrease (descent) of amoebal activity. The biobot also functions as the avatar of Web participants inside the environment. Independent of the ascent and descent of the biobot, Web participants are able to control its visual system with a pan-tilt actuator. The autonomous ascent and descent motion provide Web participants with a new perspective of the environment .
Kac writes of an ‘ethics of robotics’ that will need to be considered as the links between machine, animal and human are solidified. The biobot is a crude example of how the biological organisms and machine forms might create co-dependent entities. In a piece called A-Positive Kac designed a system that would draw oxygen from the blood of an individual to power a flame . The traditional master/slave narrative of human and machine are troubled in Kac's work and suggest the time is ripe for a reconsideration of our ethics in regards to machines. As the machines are invited into our bodies and biological organisms introduced into machines, the neat boundaries of what marks a human are being complicated. Andy Warhol's wish to be a machine is becoming a reality.
The GFP Bunny ‘Alba’ is one of Kac's first transgenic creations. Fixed with the gene that codes for the green fluorescent protein, Alba glows green under a UV lamp. Kac writes on his web site that the life of Alba is an artwork in three stages.
The first phase of the ‘GFP Bunny’ project was completed in February 2000 with the birth of ‘Alba’ in Jouy-en-Josas, France. . . . The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my [Kac's] family and living with us from this point on .
The art is not placed in a physical or virtual installation but framed through the existence of the rabbit. The art is not performed, presented or represented. It exists. The boundaries of art are extended to a presence that will only stop at death.
Martin Heidegger's notion of human existence as a phenomenon of ‘being-in-the-world’ might be a useful model for understanding the problem that transgenic art offers us. Heidegger's ‘being-in-the-world’ exists through an operation of ‘care.’ Caring is structured as a three-part process of projection wherein ‘being-in-the-world’ ‘projects upon or towards its possibilities to be,’ throwness ‘into and among these possibilities,’ and fallenness among the possibilities ‘to the neglect of [the being-in-the-world's] own deepest possibility to be itself’ [1, p.227]. These movements are experienced in the ‘being-in-the-world’ as anxiety. The human is responsible for her life and must take care of it. The artist is responsible for her creation. She must take care of it. As the infinite quality of our possibilities accelerates in the advent of new science and technology, we must take care not to be overtaken by the anxiety of fallenness and find that both ourselves and creations are incapable of revealing our separate and unified destinies.
As Dr. Frankenstein learned, that which we create desires our care and responsibility. We are animals, and our machines are our extensions, supplementing and sometimes, displacing, ourselves. Transgenic art is a process for the manufacturing of monsters and machines and thereby must become the ‘care-taker’ of these other beings. Without a concerned ‘care-taking,’ these monsters and machines will return with desires and demands no posthuman can supply.
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Austin's work on iterability, but as a signifier for a
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Matthew Causey is a lecturer in Drama at Trinity College Dublin. A theatre and new media artist, he has directed, designed and written numerous theatre, video and multi-media works. He is a contributing author to the anthology Cyperspatial Textuality, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Postmodernism and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. His theoretical writings have appeared in journals such as Theatre Research International, Theatre Journal and Theatre Forum. Currently, Dr. Causey is at work on a book titled Posthuman Performance: Theatre in the Virtual's Mediation of Illusion.