Tracking Chimeras: The Eighth Day of Eduardo Kac
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By Dan Collins
This essay appears in the anthology, The Eighth Day: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac (June 2003), co-edited by Dan Collins and Sheilah Britton. Published by the Institute for Studies in the Arts and distributed by D.A.P., the book can be ordered through the following website: http://store.yahoo.com/artbook/0972429107.html
…animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost
all significance. They are the objects
of our ever-extending knowledge. What
we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates
us from them. The more we know, the
further away they are.<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
in ordinary discourse the word "chimera" refers to any imaginary
life form made of disparate parts, in biology "chimera" is a technical
term that means actual organisms with cells from two or more distinct genomes.
A profound cultural transformation takes place when chimeras leap from
legend to life, from representation to reality.
—Eduardo Kac<![if !supportFootnotes]>
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Illuminating the center of a darkened room is a dome, a four-foot acrylic hemisphere mounted on a wooden cylinder. The quality of light is hardly of this world. “Exciter beams” of a particular nanofrequency bathe the room in Giotto blue. Yellow filters secured to the side of the dome reveal a startling scene:a living collection of fluorescent green plants and animals. Glowing tobacco leaves pierce the surface of an undulating, sand covered landscape; iridescent zebra fish dart amidst a miniature pond; a petri dish filled with slime mold emits an eerie verdant light; and bright green mice forage among the plants and feed at stainless steel troughs.
The glowing transgenic creatures in Eduardo Kac’s installation The Eighth Day were created through the cloning of a gene that codes for the production of green fluorescent protein (GFP). Under the appropriate lighting conditions, these organisms glow green. Derived from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, the green fluorescence associated with GFP is widely used as a “marker” in a variety of scientific settings<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>—from helping to identify and locate proteins in embryo development, to determining the infectivity of viruses, to signalling the presence of transgenic proteins in fields of corn. GFP was first isolated in a lab in 1962. Since the cloning of the GFP gene in 1992, it has been demonstrated that the gene can be expressed in a range of species, from yeast and plant cells to fruit flies and vertebrates, including humans. GFP requires only oxygen to fluoresce, and has no physiological effect on cell operation. The transformed cell does not “know” that GFP is even there, and therefore can remain alive while being studied.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In a panel discussion focusing on the work of Kac and the ethical dimensions of transgenics, biologist Alan Rawls reaffirmed the scientific benefits of GFP indicating that animals studied in this way would not have to be sacrificed in order to perceive changes in physiology.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
images clockwise from top left: GFP mice "pups," GFP fish, GFP Dictyostelium discoideum (slime mold), GFP tobacco plant.
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But The Eighth Day is not a scientific experiment. It is meant to be understood as a work of art. Kac has, in essence, cloned the transgenic process itself and inserted it into an art context. But even while the artist seeks to distance the work from the laboratory, the look and feel of The Eighth Day is perilously close to other structures in the neighborhood of science. Recalling that other most Arizona of domes, Biosphere 2 (a structure whose failure as a scientific experiment is its most salient feature), it hardly matters that it only mimes scientific rigor. Not hermetically sealed, Kac’s dome contains the same atmosphere we all share. It is a vitrine, pure and simple.
To be sure, this is not a simple garden under glass. Dominating the center of this completely self-contained environment is an unexpected interloper—a robotic device with a glowing, biological core called a “biobot.” This bot, perched on six articulated robotic legs, is a wavy, hand blown glass vessel about a foot high housing an array of electronic components. Among its many features are two miniature video cameras and a “brain” comprised of an illuminated petri dish filled with a population of slime mold. One tiny video camera is mounted directly above the amoebae where it can be focused by a finely threaded mechanism; the other is on a pivoting arm affixed to the top of the biobot.The initial idea for animating the biobot was to harness the movements of the slime mold. As the slime mold (Dictyostelium discoideum) migrated across the surface of the backlit petri dish to feeding points, its position would be observed by a video camera. Changes in light and dark patterns, tracked by a motion-sensing program, would cause the biobot to contract or relax combinations of its six legs. This movement in turn would ensure that the viewpoint delivered via the web was ever shifting—a “dislocation” worthy of Deleuze.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. In fact, the movement of the mold proved to be too slow to be perceived by the typical viewer. Instead of driving the biobot’s movements in real-time, prerecorded movements of the slime mold were used to trigger the robotic legs. The behavior of the Dictyostelium discoideum was recorded over a 24-hour period; its nearly imperceptible movements sped up and played back through an endless tape loop.
A CRT glowing in the corner of the room points one to additional, more mediated, viewing options via the Internet. Four web cams positioned both inside and outside the dome can be accessed through a standard browser. Two of the cameras—one mounted on the pivoting arm of the biobot and another on the ceiling of the installation—give one the option to pan and zoom in real-time. A camera focused on the petri dish and another below the waterline of the pond offer fixed views of the Dictyostelium and the zebra fish. The video feed is jerky, but the images are colorful and crisp. Clicking on circular thumbnails of the various organisms, a viewer on the Internet viewer can play different roles depending on their chosen position: “god’s eye” from above; a literal “fish-eye” adjacent to the pond; a microbe’s view of the slime mold; and a peripatetic, ever-shifting perspective from the rotating arm of the biobot—call it a “bot” view. Viewers can project themselves, virtually, into the confined quarters of the dome; presumably, viewers from around the globe are doing the same No matter which camera one chooses, the “usual” viewing position—that is, the one determined by the “lived body” (Husserl)—is altered, mediated. Implicitly, web surfers must recognize that their subject position is, in effect, inverted and multiplied in a kind of video cubism. Not incidentally, the cameras situated inside the dome are fitted with GFP filters, providing yet another way to see the glowing green effect.
webcam view from above. Image above right: webcam view from biobot.
Image above left: webcam view from above. Image above right: webcam view from biobot.
Earlier works by Kac—in particular his project Rara Avis in which two tiny video cameras were the “eyes” of a caged robotic bird—provide significant precedents for this kind of multiplying and subverting of viewer perspective. In Rara Avis, the viewer, outfitted with a VR headset, occupied the position of the caged bird—an inversion that transferred the subject position of the observer to that of the observed. This scopic reversal, a recurring theme in Kac’s work in “telepresence,” reflects the artist’s desire to undermine the traditional construct for viewing in which the observer (the subject) maintains a powerful control over that of the observed (the object). Additionally, Rara Avis provided point-to-point “live chat” that connected remote viewers of the piece in a network of exchanges that acted as a continuous meta-commentary on the work (a feature absent from the current work). This dialogical interchange also served to multiply the “points of view” available.
Unlike the sense of empathy one feels for caged animals in Rara Avis, the alternative viewpoints provided by The Eighth Day seem more clinical. The mediated view via the web is, in effect, a video panopticon that both echoes and amplifies the sense of containment and display provided by the dome. There is indeed a desire on the part of the artist to allow for a more empathetic relationship to the organisms contained in the dome. According to Kac, The Eighth Day “recognizes the mutuality of the symbiotic relationship between beings that are so different, such as humans and amoebae.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> But this poses something of a dilemma for the viewer. If I don’t feel a kinship with the amoebae driving the biobot, is this born of my failure to empathize with the working conditions of slime mold? Or is there something about how the work is structured that prevents this sense of connection? If the work were designed more like Rara Avis—with viewpoints from various organisms precisely mirrored by observers—would there be more of a sense of the “symbiotic relationship” so important to the artist?
Its multiple points of access and its shifting allusions to both the realm of art and the vocabulary of science ask us to multi-task: we are positioned by the artist between two poles—between allegory and perception…between acts of interpretation and pure sensory experience. To the extent that the work can be understood as a sophisticated metaphor or allegory—as an idea about communication and interaction—the work implies a deeper level of connection between living beings, be they plant or animal.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> But the direct experience of the work seems more conflicted that this. It points to our continued use of surveillance and techniques of control to establish privileged positions vis à vis the natural world. Undeniably, the flora and fauna of The Eighth Day are objectified, just as surely as in any zoo, lab experiment, or feedlot. Their “invisible nature”—invisible in their everydayness—is here altered through a controversial breeding process that animates their otherwise unremarkable features. At the same time, the dome, with its glowing inhabitants, affords us the luxury of seeing relationships that are all but invisible in nature. While the genes of a jellyfish may not count for much on the evolutionary scale, the simple fact that they provide a means to display—at the level of DNA—the commonality of very different organisms may be partial proof that we are all, finally, connected. In point of fact, these various organisms could not “accept” the jellyfish gene unless they were fundamentally produced out of the same chemical building blocks.This is not fiction; this is concrete fact.
Herein lies one of the paradoxes of the piece. The very feature that demonstrates the commonality between vastly different entities is also the feature that casts them inexorably into the role of “other.” Most people would agree: to glow green is to be marked as different. To the extent that something living—particularly a mammal—glows green, we have an index of alterity. The degree to which they glow marks their distance from us. To paraphrase Berger, “the more we know about animals, the further away they are.” Familiar genetic features go unremarked. Until we situate ourselves in an uncompromising position—scanning for the unfamiliar, the taboo, the bizarre—it is impossible to bridge the gap between ourselves and the too familiar life forms that surround us. Do we require this kind of dramatic difference to stimulate our sense of empathy and concern?
How can we foster a different mode of interaction with the plant and animal kingdom? The concept of “dominion,” inherited from no less authoritative source than the Bible<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, promises stewardship for the human race, but not rights for animals in any contemporary sense.One wants to believe that the artist has found a path out of this cultural dilemma. It is certainly true that the installation provides us with a trace—it makes visible the invisible. And the artist gives us a living world…not a dead collection of specimens pinned under glass. The sculpture invites us to come in proximity to its magic. A kind of “video moat” rings the dome requiring viewers to “walk on water” to observe the contents of the terrarium. The theatricality of the image notwithstanding, how can one resist this opportunity to be implicitly identified with one of God’s miracles? Still, more of a spectacle than a demonstration, the work is more successful exploring metaphors for “interconnectedness” than providing evidence of our ability to commune with nature.A sympathetic reading of The Eighth Day would suggest that the more we are able to project ourselves imaginatively into the condition of the “other,” however constituted, the more chance there is for understanding and connecting with that which threatens our own “sense of the world.” This interpretation, while complicated by the inevitable associations lent by science, seems to be at the heart of the artist’s intention. Kac writes in his essay “Transgenic Art:” “The use of genetics in art offers a reflection … from a social and ethical point of view. It foregrounds related relevant issues such as the domestic and social integration of transgenic animals, arbitrary delineation of the concept of "normalcy" through genetic testing, enhancement and therapy, health insurance discrimination based on results of genetic testing, and the serious dangers of eugenics.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> As a transgenic artist, Kac is not interested in the creation of genetic objects per se, but in the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, he sees his project as one of a completely integrated process involving the creation of living organisms and their relationship to society at large. Crucial to this process for Kac is the provision of a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which the animals can grow safely and in good health.
The Eighth Day implies that we need to be open to not only the “exotic” range of flora and fauna “native” to the planet, but also to that infinite variety of “alien” images and life forms—the fears, dreams, and inventions— that haunt our collective imagination. Once chimeras “leap from legend to life,” are we prepared to open our doors to the unfamiliar—and by extension to the “cultural transformation” alluded to by the artist? Further, as humans and the human genome become increasingly “transgenic,” will we be prepared to accept a fluid definition of what constitutes “humanness?” The Eighth Day and Kac’s ongoing work with transgenics is a call for an ethical dialogue that seeks to mitigate how humans, plants, and animals cohabit the planet.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>John Berger, “Why Look at Animals,” About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 14.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art” (http://www.ekac.org/transgenics.html)
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>See for example http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/xhe/research.html. “GFP has become well established as a marker of gene expression and protein targeting in intact cells and organisms. Mutagenesis and engineering of GFP into chimeric proteins are opening new vistas in physiological indicators, biosensors, and photochemical memories.”
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>See Roger Y. Tsien, “The Green Fluorescent Protein,” Annual Review of Biochemistry (Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews, inc., 1998), 67:509-44
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>Quoted from A Bioethics and Transgenic Art Symposium. A public presentation at Arizona State University on Oct. 25, 2001 supported the Institute for Studies in the Arts and the Greenwall Foundation of New York. Videotape of the panel is available through the ISA. http://isa.asu.edu.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> see for example Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1988), pp. 23-24.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Telephone conversation between ASU lecturer, Tanya Augsburg, and the artist.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>In a presentation A Bioethics and Transgenic Art Symposium by Tanya Augsburg (see op.cit., p. 2).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>See Genesis 1:26. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” It is hardly arbitrary that Kac has used this biblical phrase in various manifestations of his Genesis series. See http://www.ekac.org/geninfo2.html
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>Eduardo Kac, “Transgenic Art” (http://www.ekac.org/transgenic.html).