Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Eduardo Kac: Living Works, by Claudio Cravero

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Eduardo Kac

LIVING WORKS

June 10th – September 25th, 2011

The first exhibition in Italy dedicated to the controversial figure of Eduardo Kac (Rio de Janeiro, 1962; he lives in Chicago). His research explores the frontiers between man, animal and robot, culminating in Transgenic Art, through which living beings become a single entity with the technological.

In Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1994), the interspecies dialogue between a canary and a philodendron takes place, via remote telepresence, from PAV to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea.

Curated by Claudio Cravero.

Opening: June 9th at 7 p.m., PAV – Parco Arte Vivente, Torino

Lecture: June 9th at 11 a.m, G. Quazza Multimedia Laboratory, Turin University, Via Sant’Ottavio 20 / Within the lecture’s annual program organised by CIRMA –Interdepartmental Centre for Multimedia and Audio-visual Research

Eduardo Kac: Telepresence and Bioart

Workshop: June 10 th, from 1 to 5 p.m., PAV – Parco Arte Vivente, Torino

Living Works, workshop guided by Eduardo Kac, organised by Orietta Brombin

 

 

PAV – Parco Arte Vivente

Via Giordano Bruno 31

10134 – Torino

tel. 011/3182235

info@parcoartevivente.it

Hours: WED – FRI, 10 – 13, 15 – 18

SAT – SUN, 12 – 19

Entrance: 3  , reduced: 2


Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea

Piazza Mafalda di Savoia

10098 – Rivoli (To)

tel. 011/9565222

info@castellodirivoli.org

Hours: TUE – FRI, 10 – 17

SAT – SUN, 10 – 19

Free entrance to the installation

LIVING WORKS

by Claudio Cravero

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 laboratory experiments – experiments which are deliberately not shown – his research 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 immediately to the awareness, and in regard to the human body.

Since the mid-1980s, Eduardo Kac has been the pioneer of 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 empathic mediation among the subjects involved, which are located at different sites.

But it was at the end of the 1990s, with the transition from Environmental Art to Bio-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 questions of a bioethical order concerning 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.[1]

The debate around the figure of Eduardo Kac, in the sector of contemporary art but also in the wider sphere of the mass media, is in particular linked to a series of works that are rather problematic vis-à-vis current ethics: Genesis (1999) and GFP Bunny (2000). Genesis explores the relationship among biology, belief and information technology, through an artificial gene created by translating a verse of Genesis into Morse code, transferring it to bacteria, and presenting them to the public[2].

GFP Bunny is without doubt the case that has earned the most media furor: the case of the “green rabbit”. Named Alba, this 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 of the Pacific Ocean. For genetic science, manipulation is nothing new: for some years now, science has been discovering organisms that are naturally equipped with this fluorescence.

The tensions and perplexity aroused by Kac’s work derive, on the one hand, from people’s familiarity with rabbits, and, on the other hand, from the apparent monstrosity suggested by the colour green. 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”.[3] Alba is not an artwork, in fact, but a subject that, biologically and socially, implies the possibility of acceptance, integration or rejection. The nature of living beings thus, by definition, becomes fluid, hybrid and transgenic. Transgenic is not a synonym of monstrous, because – even without man’s direct intervention – 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 transfer its DNA to the plant’s cells.[4] The human genome, too, like the world we live in and that lives in us, presents sequences of viral origin acquired during our evolutionary history. This does not make us “monstrous”.[5]

Edunia (2003-2008) moves in this same direction. This is one of Kac’s most recent studies on the theme of hybridisation and otherness. The plant, comprising 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 senses of touch and smell in all its vitality, reflecting on the biological possibilities of “becoming other”. Through transgenic art we may thus glimpse a dimension in which a first subject can live in the place of a second, thus recognising itself in the “other” as a constituent part. And where the other, in every way a new creation inserted into a precise social context, demands responsibility, care and dialogue.

Over and above the transgenic aspect, in the artistic sphere GFP Bunny and Edunia are two projects that, a priori, include adopting and taking care and responsibility for all that is living. This is a prerogative that Kac had already looked at in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1994), an installation based on interspecies dialogue between a canary and a philodendron, located at different sites. The title – though taken from John Locke’s 1690 work – implies a criticism of Western philosophy in general.

Before the development of Cognitive Ethology in the 1980s, animals were considered perceptively different from human beings, not having the ability to think, and thus being unable to formulate any type of language. In the installation, 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. Although the plant has no vocal emissions of its own, thanks to the intermediation of a technological system that can receive its signals and transform them into sound input, an interspecies dialogue takes place, from which human participation is excluded, except as an onlooker. Unlike the commonplace view that sees art history as created by and for human beings, Kac’s work thus displaces the anthropocentric viewpoint toward a non-human possibility for creation and enjoyment.

Without prefiguring a dystopian future, as so much literature and cinema has accustomed us to imagining – among others including Gattaca, a film cited by the artist in his installation Cypher, 2009 – Kac’s intent is that of creating transgenic subjects with which to establish a concrete or ideal relation, capable of modifying our conception of genetics. In the artist’s view, we must distance ourselves from the common utilitarian goal of science, aimed only at perfecting species (with its consequent bias toward eugenics) and that, over centuries of hybridization and selective breeding, has given rise for example to a remarkable variety of ornamental plants for purely decorative purposes.[6]

Continually redefining the concepts of natural and artificial, Kac thus talks of a biodiversity that is not part of science fiction that, if not actually a model, could perhaps become a practicable alternative.


[1] Daniele Perra, “Eduardo Kac” in Tema Celeste, n. 81, Milano, luglio-settembre 2000, p. 76-81

[2] Jens Hauser, Art Biotech, Clueb, Bologna, 2007, p. 56

[3] Maurizio Bolognini, “Bioestetica, arte transgenica e il coniglio verde. Conversazione con Eduardo Kac” in: Simonetta Lux, Arte ipercontemporanea – un certo loro sguardo. Ulteriori protocolli dell’arte contemporanea, Gangemi Editore, Roma, 2006, pp. 433-439

[4] Jens Hauser, Op. cit., p. 60

[5] Jens Hauser, Op. cit., p. 59

[6] Simone Menegoi, “Arte e genetica” in Activa n. 8, Milano, dicembre 2000, pp. 104-111

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