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

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From The Technological Herbarium, by Gianna Maria Gatti – Teleporting an Unknown State, by Eduardo Kac (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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Telepresenza, bio arte, arte transgenica: questi saranno i temi al centro del racconto di Eduardo Kac, l’artista che a partire dagli anni ‘80 è stato il pioniere delle nuove declinazioni artistiche del biologico ed è riconosciuto internazionalmente come fondatore della Transgenic Art.

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Teleporting an Unknown State by Eduardo Kac

by Gianna Maria Gatti

translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro


Teleporting an Unknown State is defined by Eduardo Kac as a biotelematic interactive installation in which the natural biological process at the basis of the artwork is activated by a telecommunications system managed by the computer. The first realization, from 1996, has been modified in two subsequent versions, respectively from 1998 and 2001, but the basic concept has remained unvaried: light emanating from a hole in the ceiling concentrates on a single seed planted in a rectangle of earth inside a dark room; the light is emitted by a video projector behind it which diffuses the images of various skies captured and sent from all parts of the world by anonymous Internet users. In their turn, these people can, through the Internet, verify the effects that their gestures have on the plant. They can also track the overall growth for the entire online time of the installation, corresponding to the  exhibit’s duration at the gallery or museum which hosts it.

The Internet navigators ensure the survival of the vegetable. Only they can bring a little bit of light, therefore a little life, to the inside of the dark room in which the plant is constrained to germinate. The technological media of communication is the only way for an act of generosity to take place: sharing one’s own sky with a vegetable being that has been deprived of it. This existential condition, simple in its elementariness, but exemplary in the negative consequences that it entails, is an effective stimulus to the emergence among the Internet users of an instinctive feeling of protection towards the disadvantaged plant. Kac’s intention is to induce the navigators to act in its favor, for the purpose of giving them a new experience in the use of the Internet: to develop a feeling of shared responsibility that is expressed in collective action, albeit maintaining the anonymity and impossibility of a verbal encounter through the exchange of messages. As the artist asserts: “The ethics of Internet ecology and social network survival is made evident in a distributed and collaborative effort.” A collective action which also reverses the traditional unidirectional model which distinguishes the modes of transmission of the principal media of communication, or rather the simultaneous diffusion of a specific message from a single source to more passive receivers. Exploiting the potentialities of the new media, in Kac’s work the inverse procedure is carried out: multiple persons from different places voluntarily transmit light towards a single point in the space of the gallery.

Teleporting an Unknown State, by Eduardo Kac”, telepresence work, 1994/96. Photo courtesy Espacio Fundación Telefónica.

Kac’s reflection on the experience of communication is not limited to the dynamics of the process of the spreading of the message, but considers the message itself and its content,  conferring on them a new meaning: “The installation takes the idea of teleportation of particles (and not of matter) out of its scientific context and transposes it to the domain of social interaction enabled by the Internet. Following my previous work with telematic interactive installations and my exploration of non-semiological forms of communication with electronic media, this installation uses the remote transmission of video images not for their representational content but for their optical phenomenon as wavefronts of light. Internet videoconferencing is used to teleport light particles from several countries with the sole purpose of enabling biological (and not artificial) life and growth in the installation site.” It is therefore not the figurative appearance of the image constituting the message that has value, but rather its property of being the carrier of light: the object of the communication is neither words nor forms nor sounds but photons, ‘packets’ of energy, the elementary particles of light. This is the most suitable language for the dialogue established by Kac between human beings and vegetables; the best message that a plant can receive is that which guarantees its survival! For the artist, communication among different forms of existing beings is not only an information transmission but a living process.

In the first version of Teleporting an Unknown State, created on the occasion of ‘SIGGRAPH 1996’ in New Orleans, the installation was situated at the Contemporary Art Center and mounted to the Internet through a system of public videoconferencing. The users were invited to capture the sky of their own country with a digital video camera, and to send the image via the Internet to the exhibition space. A software program selected the images and transferred them to the video projector which from above irradiated them onto the plant in the flowerbed positioned on a pedestal. The hole in the ceiling was purposely made in a circular form so that the cone of light gave visitors the illusion that sun rays were bursting into the dark room. A small video camera installed next to the plant captured its growth like a vigilant eye. Connected to the Internet, the cam enabled users to observe the vegetable in real time.

To remedy a number of technical defects in the first version, caused especially by the slow transmission speeds of telephone lines in several countries of the world, but also by the fact that not all users had access to the equipment necessary to film the sky, Kac created in 1998 the web version of the installation, entitled Teleporting an Unknown State – Web Version, presented to the Kibla Art Gallery Multimedia Center in Maribor in Slovenia. The novelty consists in the introduction of a global network of fixed web video cameras distributed in eight localities of the world and directed towards their respective skies: Vancouver, Paris, Moscow, Chicago, Tokyo, Cabo San Luca in Mexico, Mawson Station in Antartica, Sydney. The participants are welcomed to the Internet site of the artwork by a grid of nine windows: the one in the center shows the image in real time of the plant at Maribor, the host country to which the position of the center of the world is symbolically assigned; around it are distributed images from the eight countries in an order corresponding to their real geographical location in relation to Slovenia. The choice of places indicates the will of the artist to involve more areas of the planet so as to underline the communitarian spirit in which the poetics of the installation is founded, but also in order to encourage the encounter between different countries, based on time zone differences, perceptible from the panoramic transmissions configured in the grid: particularly evident is the varying of the intensity of light according to the time of the day. The visualization of the grid of the nocturnal sky of one locality can contrast with the sunny view of a region located in the opposite hemisphere. In the initial state, the eight areas are black rectangles: clicking at random on one of them, the user automatically activates the webcam installed in the city corresponding to it. After a few seconds, the view of the sky captured by the webcam appears on the screen. At the same time, the same image is forwarded to software at the Kibla Multimedia Center which projects it onto the plant for a few minutes. The result of this action is made visible online at the center of the grid. When time is up, the sector of the selected city darkens and becomes black again, allowing the next user to interact with the work.

The third version of the work becomes itinerant: as part of the exhibition “Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace,” it undertakes a journey lasting more than a year that  includes a number of cities: starting out from San Francisco in March 2001, ending in Oklahoma City at the end of 2002, passing through Pasadena, Austin, and Atlanta. To increase the manageability and ease of transportation, Kac places Teleporting an Unknown State – Modular Web Version inside a wooden structure, a sort of case made of glass only in its center, rendering visible the basin containing the earth and the plant. The two spaces below and above the glass are used to hide the electronic and informatic tools: video projector and  webcam, server and computer. User operations and modes of access are unchanged compared with the version of ’98. With the exceptions of Paris and Tokyo, the locations of the webcams have changed: the new ones are St. Petersburg, Isummerit in Greenland, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, and Capetown. In all three versions of Teleporting an Unknown State, human action for the survival of the vegetable is the fundamental constant. The installation, according to Kac, creates the metaphor of the Internet as a life-support system. Aleksandra Kostic, comparing Teleporting with other works of, speaks of the ‘functional’ website, a “rare alternative to the standard, asynchronous, self-contained webart sites,” where the precariousness of the terrestrial climatic and atmospheric conditions – and therefore the unpredictability of nature – give to Teleporting an Unknown State an original and varying rhythm.

Visibly expressing this rhythm is the alternation of the skies projected on the plant, which guarantee a constant luminous flux thereby getting around the problem of meteorological uncertainty. Several locations serve as such sources of light: a geographical fragmentation which is so only on the map, since all converge at a single point and at the same time, exploiting the potentialities of telepresence. But the combination of all these cities captured by the webcams constitutes only one of the real concrete spaces that act in the work. There are two others: the space of the art gallery which hosts the physical structure of the installation, and the sum of the innumerable spaces, private or public, from which the anonymous Internet users connect. These latter are brought into association by the unique virtual space of the work: the website. An artwork that does not have a definite physical positioning, but that, in order to function, links as many as four spaces simultaneously.

Maria Luisa Palumbo emphasizes how Kac’s installations question the concepts both of space and of presence in space. Referring to De Kerckhove’s definition, she considers the installations as “‘connected architectures’, that is, as systems of relations or of correlation between the different spaces in which we happen to live, space built on the border or on the overcoming of the border between real and virtual, multi-user universes able to connect local and remote presences…” For Palumbo, the technology that supports the art of telepresence in Kac goes beyond the cancellation of spatial and temporal distances: it becomes “a system to overturn not anymore a physical distance but to overturn the ‘difference’ itself, not only between here and elsewhere but also between subject and objects…” The step forward of his installations consists in the combining of entities which belong to different kingdoms of living beings, in the creating of a communication between different species without ever eliminating their individuality, or better still, pursuing the goal of stimulating man’s knowledge of his surroundings: “By asking humans to temporarily take the point of view of another life form,” Kac asserts, “my goal is to point out that there are as many realities as there are sensorial systems to apprehend them, and intersubjective experiences to construct them.”

Teleporting an Unknown State lends itself to a symbolic reading: in the essentiality of its components, one sole living being and the light, is contained the representation of the vital process. The artist has chosen as a form of life the vegetable one because it is at the basis of the entire existence of each organism on Earth: through photosynthesis it is only plants who are capable of transforming the radiant energy of light into chemical energy, of producing organic substances from the initial inorganic substances. The fundamental importance of light within biological mechanisms is reflected in the installation, where it assumes a central role. But so as to allow photosynthesis to take place inside the dark room, and metaphorical life to proceed in its cycle, the contribution of man is indispensable; compared with what normally happens in nature, Kac adds one step more, forming a synergic circuit in which it is man who gives to the vegetable the means to elaborate the process which also guarantees its existence. Teleporting an Unknown State can therefore stimulate awareness of the foundations of life which concern without exception the entire human collectivity. To achieve this, it is not necessary to know the identity of the users: they can remain in the darkness of anonymity because what counts is their action.

But one can go further: this action, offering light to the plant, enables the latter to externalize its ‘interiority’. A fascinating interpretation that, deriving from an unusual vision of the artwork, instills in it a deeper and certainly original value. Suggesting this original meaning is the theory developed around the time of the 1960s by the Swiss biologist Adolf Portmann. Focusing attention on the study of the form of living beings, Portmann elaborates the innovative concept of ‘self-presentation’: the distinctive and always different way that each organism shows itself to light and thereby relates itself to the surrounding environment; this demonstration is a symptom for Portmann of a precise albeit unknown ‘interiority’, the specific ‘authentic’ mode of being of each individual. The confirmation of this thought comes to the biologist from plants: “We would like to draw attention to the imposing phenomenon of self-presentation in the vegetable world and derive from it the consideration that to such an obvious self-presentation must also correspond, even if in a still incomprehensible mode, an interiority. Of course we must leave aside entirely, in this respect, our own trusted way of experiencing consciousness.” The scholar puts into new perspective the role that has always been assigned to the vegetable kingdom: “The sense of innumerable vegetable forms is not in the first and highest instance the conservation of the individual and the species, as one reads in certain definitions of life, but in self-presentation, the apparition of light… To appear to light: that is an essential characteristic of life.” Light for the plant is not only an inorganic phenomenon to be adopted for the purpose of a biochemical process. It is, according to Portmann, necessary for the essence of the plant: “Light is an element of that ‘relational field’ of which it constitutes the active center. Light is associated with the plant as an efficient factor.” The infinite variety of unforeseeable forms and colors which plants produce in nature thanks to the presenting of themselves to light are above all the disclosure of their hidden reality, and not only functional structures for pollination, reproduction, and conservation. Portmann reads self-presentation to light [Note by Alan N. Shapiro: die Selbstdarstellung, das Erscheinen im Lichte] as the ability of plants to express their particular way of being, comparable to human self-expression. Recognizing that vegetables have their own interiority is one more reason that convinces Portmann to see the plant, in comparison with human and animal organization, as “the other great alternative and not simply as a form of inferior life, a step towards animal life.”

Portmann offers further legitimacy to that which Teleporting an Unknown State has succeeded in embodying: man relating to the plant but on the same level, two beings who engage in dialogue under the same sky, united in their diversity. As Kac concludes: “Networking is both a technical means of linking disperse entities and an intellectual tool to perceive the ultimate connectivity between all there is. In my work I have pursued both meanings of ‘networking’. My point is not to eliminate ‘difference’, which is impossible, but to create more complex ways to examine the interplay between similarity and difference. In other words, to allow us to see that in spite of difference, the similarities are much stronger than we once thought.”

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