— Book Review —

Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, and Robots

by Eduardo Kac
(University of Michigan Press, 2005)

Reviewed by Matthew Causey
School of Drama, Film and Music
Trinity College, Dublin

Telepresence and Bio Art by Eduardo Kac Anyone with even a passing interest in the intersections of contemporary art and science undoubtedly will have come across the work of Eduardo Kac. Over the past fifteen years his art has remained on the cutting edge of media art, telecommunications and biotechnology. His art has uniquely followed and responded to the development of contemporary new media and biotechnologies spanning the origins of the web to the brave new worlds of bioengineering. During the early days of the Internet, Kac and others developed online art pieces that questioned the nature of telecommunications, interactivity or ‘dialogisms’ and cyberculture identity. Kac extended his art using technologies of telepresence and robotics through the 1990s, exploring the manners in which our modes of electronic communication shape the ways in which we construct our environments, cultures and subjectivity. In his most recent work Kac has ventured into the field of biotechnology, developing work he calls transgenic art or bio art, which draws as its subject and material living organisms altered through genetic modification. His oeuvre is remarkable for its volume and pertinence, and my short gloss of his career to date indicates the truly pertinent and critical nature of the subject matter, mediums and techniques of Kac's art.

Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, and Robots is an invaluable anthology of Kac's writings on both the history of computer-aided art and telecommunications, but it also includes his theoretical and ethical considerations on his own work. Perhaps what is most welcome in this collection are the early chapters that outline the development of media art. Originally published in the 1990s, these writings indicate that Kac is not only an important contemporary artist but a formidable historian and theorist of the meetings of art, media and science. Kac discusses the beginnings of mail art, fax art, telex, telephony, on-line message boards and conference calling. Here Kac points us toward areas that for the scholars of new media art will continue to represent fruitful areas for further research. What Kac is able to do in his critique of the art created with these early media forms is to illuminate that at their root level is an essential connection, communication and networking of two or more humans, machines or animals. He illuminates the ethics of the network. What Kac as an artist has been able to do is to set these communications and networks into play to enhance or disrupt their processes and functionality and focus our attention on the outcomes of these systems. Telepresence and Bio Art guides the reader through the development of the media technologies used in art production while never allowing the essential nature of these technologies as tools of communication to be missed. Kac's understanding of the uniqueness of the early atemporal, non-chronological and non-linear communication technologies is readily apparent in this book. What the reader is afforded is not simply a closer look at Kac's own work but a valuable mapping of the history of media art.

In the second section of the book, Kac develops the discussion to include the phenomena of telepresent art and robotics. Here he continues to elucidate the nature of the new art forms as problem pieces for contemporary communication, interpersonal networking and the ethics of the human-machine interface. Kac poses questions and proffers theories: What are the effects of so much of our contact with the world being performed within virtual environments and telepresent communications? What is a robotic art? What are the ethics of our relation to the machine? How might art respond to these conditions? Kac's questioning requires him to theorize a combination of aesthetics, technology, science and culture, a strategy he is well able to fulfill. The technique suggests the importance of his art and theory. It is an art and theory whose medium and message are inseparable and which leads us to interrogate the nature of life in the space of technology.

Much of Kac's notoriety is based on his most recent work in the field of bio art or transgenic art, a term he coined and spends much of the book explaining. Transgenic art is, according to Kac, ‘a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to create unique living beings.’ Kac's most famous work to date is GFP Bunny. The artist created in a genetics lab an actual rabbit genetically modified so as to glow green when placed under special lighting. The work sparked world-wide interest and in some cases condemnation. What right does Kac have to manipulate life in such a manner? What are the outcomes of such monster-making? What are the ethics of the genetics lab? Again, the questions arising from Kac's work serve as the ‘meaning’ of his art and drive its importance and value. Kac has driven the work of the genetics lab scientist into the glare of the art gallery, and it is to his credit that he is able to direct our attention and clarify our understanding of what is possible with these new technologies.

The development from telecommunications to genetic modification that Kac's artwork and his book touch upon are some of the most crucial issues of the contemporary world. The computer brought us radical new manners of communications, which have promoted unprecedented means of information exchange and manipulation with both positive (research) and negative (surveillance) ramifications. The development of bioscience and technology, which Kac now incorporates into this art, is creating new models and problems for personal identity and freedom as well as new ethical problems for the human and its live creations. Kac has created an artistic and critical response to these developments, which help us understand the problems and opportunities.

Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, and Robots is an essential document in the growing field of science, technology and art. Kac's mapping of the early histories of media, telecommunication and technology arts will continue to serve as a vital resource in understanding the development of their methods, strategies and theories. Further, the book delivers in one volume the many fascinating articles Kac has written in support of his remarkable body of art. Kac's work and theory remain uniquely positioned within the critical discourse of science and technology and our own vulnerable position within that cultural upheaval.

About the Author

Dr. Matthew Causey is Senior Lecturer in Drama at Trinity College, Dublin where he is Director of Postgraduate Teaching and Learning in the School of Drama, Film and Music. His book Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture: From Simulation to Embeddedness was recently published by Routledge.

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