Melanitis: In a conversation we had at an interval
of your speech in the
Performative Site Conference 1999, which took place at Penn State
University, we discussed some lacunas in the contemporary version
of postmodernity. Have we reached a stage where an artwork regains
its analogue characteristics after its dematerialization by digital
that the digital revolution has achieved closure, we are seeing
the beginning of what the English critic Mike Punt has called the
"post-digital analogue". Let me clarify: when I say that "the
revolution has achieved closure" I'm not saying that there will not
be new digital developments in the future. Clearly, new technologies
will be developed. What I mean is that for many decades these new
digital technologies will not be a radical departure like the Web was
in the early 1990s. These new technologies will simply expand the
digital revolution of the last two decades. In the near future, for
example, we'll have broadband global wireless access from small
portable devices. Now, when that the digital revolution
has completed its main cycle, it is the field of biotechnology that
is bringing unprecedented social change and prompting renewed
philosophical reflection on profound issues about what is life, about
evolution, about our relationship to other members of the community
of life, about what it means to be human. Naturally, artists are
tuned to this accelerated process and seek to participate in it,
intervening critically but also creating real biotechnological works
that are alive and demand response on the part of the viewer.
Anything that is alive is analogue. Biotechnological art is alive,
even if it has been designed digitally, like some of my transgenic
art works. So, transgenic art is analogue; an analogue that can
emerge from a computer screen into the physical world and that, in
certain cases, can also be part of the digital network through a
Melanitis: Do you think there are differences in the way an artifact
of the GFP Bunny
variety has been received in Europe and the United States?
Kac:Yes, no doubt. The differences can be seen
Countries and among different areas of the United States as well. Cultural
differences always play a role in the reception of any work of art.
In the case of "GFP Bunny", as you recall, one key element was
transgenic rabbit, called Alba, to come to Chicago and live with me
and my family. My goal was to take personal responsibility for Alba's
wellbeing, introduce the transgenic animal in a social setting and
experience dialogical interaction with our transgenic Other on a
daily basis. So, in this case, probably the most outstanding example
of cultural difference is the fact that in the United States rabbits
are traditionally house pets. You can find rabbits served as food in
the United States, but it is not very common. In France, on the other
hand, the concept of a rabbit as a house pet does not exist. Rabbits
are part of the French imaginary primarily as food. So, in France,
the idea of bringing a rabbit home as a pet sounds as strange as the
idea of bringing a chicken as a pet to an apartment in the United
States. This gives the work a very different resonance, particularly
because part of my goal is to create semantic tension between
something that sounds unfamiliar and potentially frightening
("transgenic") and something familiar and cuddly ("rabbit").
Melanitis: Time seems to be a decisive factor in the way an artwork
is received by the public. Viewers respond to the artwork (in terms of
and realize some important parameters pertaining to it long after their
contact with it. Was this the case with the GFP Bunny?
Kac: Yes, absolutely. If one looks at the "Alba
<http://sprocket.telab.artic.edu/ekac/bunnyadd.html>, for example,
at the transgenic bibliography
<http://www.ekac.org/transartbiblio.html>, one sees the multitude
responses to the work. The work continues to generate debate,
interest, fear, fascination, curiosity, and many other emotional and
intellectual responses, both among art audiences and the general
public. As biotechnology becomes part of popular culture, the
reception of "GFP Bunny" will continue to change.
Melanitis: You are Associate Professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
What exactly do you include in your lectures on art history?
Kac: I teach many classes on a variety of topics.
Two examples: "History
of Art and Technology" and "Art and Biotechnology". In
class I offer an overview of media art in the twentieth century, from
Radio in the 1920s to the emergence of biotechnology in the late
1990s. In the second, I focus on biotechnology, examining
"biopolitics", the question of genetics in art, aspects of biopop,
and questions of information, context and meaning in biotechnology.
Melanitis: Could you analyze your latest work "The Eighth Day"
Kac: "The Eighth Day" is a transgenic
artwork that investigates the new
ecology of fluorescent creatures that is evolving worldwide. I
developed this work between 2000 and 2001 at the Institute for
Studies in the Arts, Arizona State University, Tempe. The piece
brings together living transgenic life forms and a biological robot
(biobot) in an environment enclosed under a clear 4 foot diameter
Plexiglas dome, thus making visible what it would be like if these
creatures would in fact coexist in the world at large. All creatures
express the GFP gene through bioluminescence visible with the naked
eye. The transgenic creatures in "The Eighth Day" are GFP plants,
amoebae, GFP fish, and GFP mice. 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
of GFP amoebae 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
the biobot exhibits dynamic behavior inside the enclosed environment.
Participants on the Internet can take the point of view of the biobot
and active control it. "The Eighth Day" creates a context in
participants can reflect on the meaning of a transgenic ecology from
a first-person perspective.
Melanitis: What is the role of the artist nowadays according to Eduardo
Kac: The idea of the artist laboring in isolation
in his studio and
crafting an individual ornate object for detached contemplation is as
anachronistic as the idea of the scientist sitting under a tree and
being hit by an apple. The artist is not a decorator. The artist is a
philosopher (not with a hammer, but with a wireless computer and a
cloning toolkit). I feel that art must overcome the anesthetic
condition and the state of inertia we live in, and awake our
cognition and sensoriality. Why? While other fields have similar
goals (literary philosophy, for example), art can reach out to a
larger audience (potentially a global audience, as in GFP Bunny) and
accomplish this goal. Art is philosophy in the wild.
Melanitis: How could one define the measure of novelty in an artwork
so as to distill a methodology of art strategy?
Kac: Clearly, novelty per se is meaningless.
It is important to consider
the level of inventiveness of the work itself, the seriousness of the
artist, the context created by the work, its resonance in its time,
and its life beyond its time. There are many other factors that play
a role in the successful reception of a work of art. Sometimes, even
though the work is revolutionary, it may take about 50 years for the
art audience to fully realize this, as in the case of Duchamp's
"Fountain", from 1917. In other cases, 50 years pass and the
still does not realize the true importance of a groundbreaking
artwork, as is still the case of Moholy-Nagy's "Light-Space
Modulator" (1930). At the same time, as Joseph Kosuth (Art After
Philosophy, 1969) once put it: "The "value" of particular
after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned
the nature of art; which is another way of saying "what they added
the conception of art" or what wasn't there before they started.
Artists question the nature of art by presenting new propositions as
to art's nature. And to do this one cannot concern oneself with the
handed-down "language" of traditional art, as this activity
on the assumption that there is only one way of framing art
Melanitis: In your opinion, does every novel artwork elicit a political
reaction from the viewers?
Kac: No. In fact, many novel works elicit indifference
Again, many factors play a role, but the level of inventiveness of
the work itself, the seriousness of the artist, and of how a work is
contextualized, is critical for the realization of the work.
Eduardo Kac is Associate Professor of Art and Technology
Art and Technology Department,
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also Research Fellow
Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts.
University of Wales, Newport, UK
112 S. Michigan Avenue, Room 407
Chicago IL 60603
Phone: (312) 345-3567
Fax: (312) 345-3565
Melanitis Yiannis is an artist, (MA in Digital Art,
Phd candidate at the Athens School of Fine Arts)
Velvendou 30, Kipseli, 13364