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BioArt: From Bejeweled Caddis Fly Cases to Transgenic Manipulation

November 3, 2009
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This Halloween, nothing spooked me so much as Eduardo Kac’s portfolio of transgenic BioArt. I know that’s the point: he means for his art to raise awareness about what our technology allows us to do to life on a molecular level. Yet I’m with Steve Baker: Kac’s techniques seem “meddlesome, invasive, and profoundly unethical” (qtd in Wolfe 103). The concept of transgenic artwork strikes me as frivolous at best and egomaniacal at worst. Yes, making a rabbit glow is pretty cool, but how do we know the influence fluorescent jellyfish proteins will hold over multiple generations? What purpose does manipulating genes as art serve? Glancing through Kac’s projects, I was prepared to remain suspicious of “the good” in his work. Splicing a genetic protein from his own blood into the veins of a petunia and naming it “Edunia” smacks of dangerous arrogance and pop culture gimmick. THIS is why we’re gonna have pigoons, I thought to myself. This blithe attitude of absolute control over the living world.

Then Sunday morning, Weekend Edition reporter Catherine Welch profiled Pearl Fryar, a sixty-nine year old man from South Carolina with a passion for fantastic topiary (“Gardener Prunes A Topiary Paradise”). Over the past twenty years, Fryar transformed his front lawn into an internationally acclaimed garden; he cares for 400 plants and trees fashioned into “diamonds, mushrooms, hearts and towering abstract designs.” Though Fryar considers himself more gardener than artist, the local museum director considers him both: “I don’t think you have to separate [being an artist and a gardener]. Because I really do look at a garden, an exceptional garden, as a work of art. I think that we can look for that creativity and that passion and that expressive quality whether it’s working with living plants or paint and sculpture.” If I consider Fryar a BioArtist, or an artist whose raw materials are alive and growing, why am I drawing the line at Kac’s spliced genes?

I think what sets Kac’s BioArt apart for me is the perceived extent of his artistic intervention. Artist Andy Goldsworthy enters into natural places with the intent of creating temporal, place-based, organic sculptures, which he then photographs. French-born artist Hubert Duprat collaborates with caddies fly larvae to create jeweled beads from the cases that the larvae build and shed as they grow. Fryer, Goldsworthy and Duprat participate with the processes of the natural world, but stop short of disrupting or inserting genetic codes that make things what they are.

Kac’s narrative essay on his GFP Bunny project helps me to understand his transgenic work in a similarly collaborative, rather than appropriative, spirit. He says, “transgenic art. . . .must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.” This is not the voice of a thoughtless person. He writes about how it felt to hold Alba the GFP Bunny in his arms. He explains, “as a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but on the invention of transgenic social subjects.” Kac wants Alba to be a both a signal and a living question: humans can and do create transgenic beings. The question is, how can we best live with this technology and respect the creatures we create? As we mentioned in class, the final stage of Kac’s GFP Bunny project was to socially integrate Alba into his home, where his family would be a part of her life. Unfortunately, according to Wired Magazine, Alba died in the lab (of causes unrelated to the GFP splice) before Kac could complete this stage. She was 2.5 years old (depending, as Wired reports, on who you talk to).

In a nytimes.com review of the initial GFP Bunny exhibit in 2002, Kac says his point in creating Alba was to provoke discourse. Honestly, I wish there was a less creepy way to spark dialogue about the ethics of “designer” genes than actually creating a transgenic rabbit. But the international discussion emerging through Kac’s work is extraordinary; Alba moved so many people to debate the ethical dimensions not only of genetic technology, but of how humans should relate to animals in any situation. Though I’m reluctant to trust any art that tries to be “profound” on such a genetically invasive level, Kac’s mindfulness and his call for respect for the integration of life does make me more willing to respond to his art.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 8, 2009 6:06 pm

    A provocative and nuanced response to Kac’s work, and how we might situated him in relation to earthwork artists like Goldsworthy or horticultural ones like Fryer. It is important to ask, as you do, why interventions at the molecular/genetic (vs. ecosystemic / organism) level strike us as more hubristic, disruptive, and even unethical. I too wrestle with exactly this reaction, but also find Kac’s project an ultimately meaningful contribution to animal ethics and, thus, to environmental ethics more broadly. There is no doubt however that his believe that such work as GFP bunny will counter species extinction and global warming by adding to the biodiversity of life on earth is, to put it simply, grandiose!

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