Thomas Loverro 11/13/01
STS 129- Paper 2
Eduardo Kac: Challenging Norms through Art
Calling Eduardo Kac (pronounced “Katz”) unconventional is an understatement of grand proportion. His artwork challenges science, art, ethics, and just about anything else one can imagine. A superficial view of Kac’s works may lead to quickly dismissing them as trite or downright offensive, as many have done. On September 25, 2000 The San Francisco Chronicle published some of the responses they received concerning “GFP Bunny,” one of Kac’s recent work involving genetic engineering. Those writing to the paper, responded with statements calling it “some kind of twisted statement about technology”  and also commenting, “Mr. Kac has been visiting too many new age galleries.”  Yet, thoughtless iconoclasm and esotericism are not Kac’s way; he has consistently challenged norms with flare and provocative genius. The responses to The Chronicle were not all negative, however. In fact, some responded positively stating, “Like many unforgettable artists before him, Kac has managed to shake up a jaded world which believes it has seen it all.” I believe this comment is extremely insightful.
I have grouped Kac’s artwork in two general categories. The first group is comprised of works pertaining to telepresence, biotelematics, and robotics. The second group is limited to transgenic art. In this essay, I will analyze a sampling of Kac’s works from each of these two categories and argue that through these he asks us to rethink fundamental assumptions concerning what it means to be human, animal, robot, computer, and hybrids of each.
In Kac’s 1989 interactive exhibit, “Ornitorrinco” a one-eyed robot is remotely controlled through the use of a telephone and modems (utilizing the tones generated by the keys on the keypad as directional commands) in an environment setup by another group of artists. Ornitorrinco was one of Kac’s earliest forays into telepresence, “the experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium.” Through its use of a remote control robot, Ornitorrinco was designed to explore the possibilities of the rapidly developing telecommunications system and its impact on society and also the extension of the human body. Oliver Grau, a new-media art historian at Humboldt-University of Berlin, claims “Telepresence unites three themes with deep roots in intellectual history: automation and the search for artificial life, illusion in art, and the rejection of the body in favor of a spiritual or mentalistic conception of the human self.” Kac’s experiment addresses all three of these themes. Automation and artificial life are represented in the one-eyed robot itself, the camera mounted in the robot gives the illusory feeling that one is actually present in the robot’s environment, and the concept of the expression of the controller’s will through the remotely located robot illustrates what Grau calls the “mentalistic conception” of self as opposed to a physical conception.
Specifically speaking to Grau’s second theme, illusion’s role in telepresence, Judith Donath, Director of the Sociable Media Group at MIT, states, “As the virtual world grows to encompass all aspects of our lives and on-line interactions shape our communities, influence our politics and mediate our close relationships, the quality of being real, which is accepted and assumed with little thought in the physical world, becomes one of the central questions of society.” Donath’s point is an important one. It is not especially difficult to fake the experience of telepresence; there are numerous examples of fictitious webcameras that pretended to show live images. This implies that we must enter into telepresence experiences with a degree of skepticism that is not necessary in our everyday interactions. This new skepticism and new concern with the definition of what is real pushes us to redefine and I would suggest expand the limitations of the extent to which our online lives affects our physical lives.
Regarding Grau’s third theme, the mentalistic conception of self, Kac writes, “The question is not how do these technologies mediate our exploration of the world, local or remote, but how they actually shape the very world we inhabit.” [emphasis added] Both Grau and Kac believe that telepresence experiences, although non-real in the physical sense, can have actual or real impacts on our sense of self and the world around us. This presents us with what seems to be a contradiction. Can remote experiences be as rich and effectual as physical experiences? This causes us to rethink some of our most common activities, such as remote communication, which tends to be either non-interactive, like television, or one dimensional, like a phone conversation. In his essay “Telepresence Art,” Kac comments:
I see telepresence art as a means for questioning the unidirectional communication structures that mark both high art (painting, sculpture) and mass media (television, radio)….To me telepresence art creates a unique context in which participants are invited to experience invented remote worlds from perspectives and scale different than human, as perceived through the sensorial apparatus of telerobots.
In this statement, Kac also raises the notion of perception from the viewpoint of the robot. We would normally not attribute a human characteristic, such as possessing a viewpoint to a robot, but Kac is very much concerned with the perspective of the other, which may be a robot, animal, computer, or literally anything else. In this sense, Kac is bestowing the distinction of artificial life upon the robot, even though it has no true life without the presence of the human controlling it.
Kac engaged this topic more directly in his 1996 exhibit “Teleporting An Unknown State.” The work hit upon the concept of biotelematics, “art in which a biological process is intrinsically connected to computer-based telecommunications work” Teleporting An Unknown State is perhaps more aptly described by the classic definition of an experiment rather than art. It weaves together computing, telecommunications, biology, and humanity. A plant was sealed off in a box void of any light, except for a projector capable of producing the necessary light. Using the theme of collective responsibility, the projector would only function as long as light was transmitted to it from a series of remote webcameras operated by independent participants. The plant was literally dependent on the Internet and collective human support for its life. The cause of the plant’s life was a truly global affair, but so was its impact. Paravathi Narayan from The Singapore Business Times exclaimed, “The Internet, a virtual and non-real world, here became one that was quite literally life supporting!” Where Ornitorrinco explored the boundary of communication and artificial life, Teleporting An Unknown State raised the stakes to real life, albeit plant life.
Associate Professor Machiko Kusahara at Kobe University Graduate School of Science and Technology in Japan was particularly intrigued by Kac and other’s experiments with “telegardens.” She is an expert in the field of A-Life, network technology, and automata, yet despite her background, the melding of real life and telepresence in telegardens caught her attention. Comparing Ken Goldberg’s 1994 first of its kind telegarden experiment to Tamagatchi, toy digital pocket pets, Kusahara comments, “The problem with Tamagotchi is that it has nothing to do with real life, and it was a simple and poor simulation of life’s complexities. Telegarden [by Ken Goldberg] is based on life in a real (but remote) physical space.” Though neither Goldberg nor Kac’s telegardens qualify as A-Life, Kusahara’s point is clear; telegardens present more of a challenge to our concept of what is real life versus artificial life than even some A-Life itself.
Kac’s 1997 exhibit entitled “A-Positive” is possibly the most fascinating of his non-transgenic exhibits. A-Positive links a human and robot through an intravenous needle. The needle draws blood from the human and transfers it to the robot (or “biobot” as Kac calls it) and the robot extracts oxygen from this blood which it uses to maintain a small flame (the symbolic flame of life), while the robot donates dextrose back into the human. Kac is conspicuously making a provocative statement about the ties between humanity and our creations. Describing A-Positive in his own words, he states:
A-positive does away with the metaphor of robotic slavery and suggests a new ecosystem that takes into account the new creatures and organic devices that populate our postorganic pantheon, be they biological (cloning), biosynthetic (genetic engineering), inorganic (android epistemology), algorithmic (a-life), or biobotic (robotics). We have always asked what can machines do for us. Now might be the right time to ask what we can do together.
Does A-Positive achieve its goals or is Kac alone in his interpretation of his art? Narayan reflects, “A-Positive also shows a symbiotic relationship between human and machine, which is very different from the popular notion of a master-slave relationship between man and robot.” No, hooking a human up to a machine intravenously was not a novel idea, but turning it into a synergistic relationship and asking what it means to our culture is creative genius. A-Positive does force us to reformulate our previous assumptions concerning man and robot.
The final piece I will analyze before moving onto Kac’s infamous transgenic art, is his 1999 “Darker Than Night” interactive exhibit, which is a culmination of the works I have examined thus far. It involves, telepresence, biotelematics, robotics, computers, and human interaction. Kac placed a robotic bat (“batbot”) in a cave with over three hundred Egyptian Fruit Bats in a zoo. The robotic bat was equipped with the ability to convert real bats’ high-frequency calls to within the audible range of humans and also rotate its head, where the sonar microphone was located. Human listeners could then remotely via a virtual reality headset turn their head to control the batbot’s microphone and immerse themselves in the world of the bat. Darker Than Night asks the human species to experience, to the best of our ability, the world of another species. Our vehicle for understanding the bat is a robot aided by a computer, suggesting a tie nor merely between humans and animals, but between all four: humans, animals, robots, and computers
While Darker Than Night asks questions about the boundaries between humans, animals, computers, and robots, Kac’s transgenic art crosses them blurring the human-animal-robot-computer relationship. Through the use of genetic engineering Kac has produced two pieces of art recently that have excited a lot of controversy. However, Kac views himself as an artist who “literally becomes a genetic programmer who can create life forms by writing or altering this code,” not unlike a computer graphics artist. Many others do not see it as that simple. For instance, Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “’Ethically I don’t think we should use genetics simply for artistic exhibitionism. I think that is an abuse.’” Is transgenic art purely for exhibitionist purposes or does it have a deeper value?
Kac’s first transgenic work, “Genesis,” was initially exhibited in 1999. Kac translated a sentence from the Bible’s book of Genesis into Morse Code and then, using a special program created for the event, into genetic base pairs. This message was then inserted as an artificially created segment of DNA into a group of bacteria that were colored to make them easily identifiable. As the bacteria propagated, the message was transcribed and copied but also sometimes mutated. In addition, both local and remote users (via the Web) had the ability to control a UV lamp that would increase the rate of genetic mutation. Kac claims that the ability to alter the Bible’s word implies that we do not have to be bound to its original meaning and we must continually reinterpret it. Kac uses the Bible, the ultimate source on tradition, and then transforms it in order to elicit a response from his viewers. He wants his audience to think over the issues for themselves, rather than passively receiving the art. The dialectic nature of Kac’s work is vital to understanding its purpose and message.
Kac’s seminal transgenic artwork is “GFP Bunny.” Completed in 2000, GFP Bunny, which involved the creation of a rabbit (named “Alba”) that would glow green under UV light, explicitly incorporates the dialectic dialogue into its form. Kac states, “‘GFP Bunny’ comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit.” He presents us with a challenging concept. The art is not simply the object, but also includes the public reaction and the future life and socialization of the rabbit. Kac insists, “Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objects d’art, either inert or imbued with vitality. Such an approach would suggest a conflation of the operational sphere of life sciences with a traditional aesthetics that privileges formal concerns, material stability, and hermeneutical isolation.” Kac wants to make it clear that GFP Bunny is not like a traditional piece of art such as a painting; it is about much more than a fluorescent rabbit. He did not create Alba because he thought a glowing bunny would please the eye. Kac could have painted a rabbit if he had wanted to do that.
Indeed, under normal lighting Alba is indistinguishable from a normal albino rabbit. Kac wanted to both make a statement and raise questions about genetic engineering. He argues, “Contrary to popular notions of the alleged monstrosity of genetically engineered organisms, her body shape and coloration are exactly of the same kind we ordinarily find in albino rabbits. Unaware that Alba is a glowing bunny, it is impossible for anyone to notice anything unusual about her. Therefore Alba undermines an ascription of alterity. It is precisely this productive ambiguity that sets her apart: being at once same and different.” Alba presents the viewer with a paradox. She is a genetically altered “creature,” yet she’s no Frankenstein. She is a cuddly white bunny! This is no coincidence. Kac chose an animal that would not seem grotesque and something the audience could relate to. Thus, Kac suggests to us that we cannot categorically reject genetic engineering, we must look at it on a case by case basis. Surely Kac realized the humor in the notion of shaking up the scientific, political, and art worlds with a white bunny.
Eduardo Kac’s artwork in telepresence, biotelematics, robotics, and transgenics all cross boundaries. They confound the traditional meanings of human, animal, robot, communication, and computer. Works such as A-Positive and GFP Bunny are unconventional, but were not designed for “shock effect,” but rather to shock us into reevaluating our norms. Kac is asking important questions that our society will need to face in the near future. In NY Arts Magazine Ulli Allmendiner wrote, “To ask questions, to pose the issues that are rumbling through culture right now, and doing it in a way that gives it a visual form, that gives it a way that people can talk about, that’s part of what Kac is doing and that’s what good artists do.” His artwork is not destructive of traditional values, although it challenges them, because it constructs a framework for future conversation.
Allmendinger, Ulli. “One Small Hop for Alba, One Large Hop for Mankind.” NY Arts
Magazine. Vol. 6, N.6, Jun. 2001.
Donath, Judith. “Being Real: Questions of Tele-Identity.” The Robot in the Garden. Ed. Ken
Goldberg. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.
Goldberg, Ken., ed. “Introduction: The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance.” The Robot in the
Garden. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.
Grau, Oliver. “The History of Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and the Rejection of the Body.”
The Robot in the Garden. Ed. Ken Goldberg. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.
Kac, Eduardo. “Dialogical Telepresence and Net Ecology.” The Robot in the Garden. Ed. Ken
Goldberg. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.
Kac, Eduardo. Kac Web. <http://www.ekac.org> Accessed 11 Nov. 2001. “Art at the Biobotic
Frontier” “Genesis” “GFP Bunny” “Transgenic Art” “Telepresence Art”
Kusahara, Machiko. “Presence, Absence, and Knowledge in Telerobotic Art.” The Robot in the
Garden. Ed. Ken Goldberg. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.
Narayan, Parvathi. “Electronic Art: Pushing the Limits.” Singapore Business Times. 22 Aug.
Steuer, Jonathan. “Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence,” Journal of
Communications 42 (Autumn 1992).
Various. “Glowing Bunny Draws Big Response.” The San Francisco Chronicle. Final Ed. 25
 Various, San Francisco Chronicle
 Steuer 75-78
 Grau, ed. Goldberg 227
 Donath, ed. Goldberg 311
 Goldberg 13
 Kac, ed. Goldberg 181
 Kac “Telepresence Art”
 Goldberg xvi
 Narayan 14
 Kusahara, ed. Goldberg 206
 Kac, “Art at the Biobotic Frontier”
 Narayan 14
 Kac “Transgenic Art”
 “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.”- Kac, “Genesis”
 Kac, “Genesis”
 Kac, “GFP Bunny”
 Kac, “GFP Bunny”