I've been thrashing around at my keyboard for two days, banging out sentences and deleting them, trying to get to the core of what I think about GFP Bunny in 1,000 words or less. GFP Bunny is the project with the green-glowing genetically altered rabbit that Eduardo Kac believes is art. Kac, a Brazilian-born artist (for lack of a more precise term) who lives in Chicago, convinced some French scientists to create a "transgenic" animal for him. They used what is now a standard process in research, inserting the gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish into chromosome material for an albino rabbit. When the embryo grew to maturity, the result was a rabbit Kac named Alba. Under blue light she fluoresces bright green, even her eyes. Scientists use this process to make animals that help them study various things; Kac wants to use--in fact, is using--Alba in what he calls his "dialogic art."
This project has caused a stir worldwide, with most of the discussion centering on the ethics, or lack thereof, of engineering and using an animal for nonscientific purposes. My questions, however, are: Where's the art? Is it any good? Alba, apparently, is not the art--the art was to occur when Kac took Alba and lived with her in a gallery for a month, then took her home and socialized her as part of his family. This intent has been thwarted by the French lab's refusal to release Alba to Kac. So now the art, if it is anywhere, is entirely conceptual and virtual--or maybe in the talking.
Kac was in Durham Nov. 6 for a symposium organized by Eddie Shanken, a doctoral candidate in art history at Duke. Kac gave a presentation about his work, culminating with the GFP Bunny project; there were also four respondents from Duke's religion, ethics, medicine and genetics faculties. Shanken told the large crowd in the Levine Science Research Center's auditorium that Kac "problemitizes science, making it more approachable," and that he "pushes the boundaries of aesthetics." (My notes here say, "Who's not aware of science's problems?" and "No shit!") Shanken declared that Alba "demands a personal response, not a distanced observation," and asserted that "a primary goal of GFP Bunny is to provoke questions and dialogue." He promised us an evening filled with "a highly nuanced exchange of ideas." The questions and dialogue we got, but I wouldn't say that the ideas were particularly nuanced. Kac's ideas are simple and often rather simplistic; the mind games and the technology that support them are complicated.
Basically, Kac is interested in the continuum of life, from bacterial to human, and the continuum of human intellectual pursuits, from philosophy, art and science, to sociology, politics and religion. He holds art up as an investigative system parallel to that of science. In relation to animals, he believes we have been behaving badly, that we have "misguided perceptions that deny animals' consciousness," and that "we need to recognize the cognitive and emotional life of transgenic animals." This seems both arrogant and disingenuous, considering how willing he is to use animals for his own purposes. It's also the sheerest hyperbole, since he structures his works--despite Shanken's assertion--in such a way as to nearly preclude emotional response in the viewer.
Kac says that with his "dialogic art" he attempts to "get away from the idea of the artist as one who embeds meaning in material, or who alters materials and then presents them for contemplation." He wants "shared experience, shared response, shared responsibility through transformative experience." The artist, he says, is not so much in control of content, but is the creator of context. In his highly technical computerized telemedia "network ecology" pieces involving interrelated biological and virtual processes, the viewer is also the viewed--for Kac, this "fluidity of subject positions" is very important.
"The key issue," he says of GFP Bunny and his other works, "is imagining yourself in the world in a presence not your own." Well, duh. This is one of the primary reasons for art. It is not a new idea. If it seems fresh to contemporary aesthetic philosophers, that can only indicate a terrible aridity of thought along art's leading conceptual edge. And however well Kac's over-obvious constructs and the distancing technology work for the viewer's mental grasp of his concepts, they work against empathetic imagining of another life. Kac wants his art to have "a direct, real, physical intervention in what we call ordinary life." Again, isn't this what art does? I look up from my keyboard and see half a dozen artworks that intervene in my life--and do it differently--every day.
I have a bias toward the made object, the art object that serves as analog and metaphor for life, and whose maker, the artist, reflects the distant, omnipotent, unknowable creative force of the universe. Probably from the beginning of time, and certainly since Michelangelo, artists have made their godlike position clear. But is it godlike to have technicians make a green rabbit? I don't particularly like the artist being so literal--abandoning, as Kac says science has done, his metaphors and becoming them. Godlike surely comprises not just power and cleverness and control, but wisdom and kindness and joy. Those last seem missing from Kac's work.
I like artwork that holds still so that your mind can rove around it in contemplation. I think that too often "performative" or interactive artwork detracts from the possibility of contemplating or feeling deeply in your own time--you are subject to the pace of the artist--and if the work is ephemeral, are its ideas, too? Meaning matters; the "communication beyond the idea of clarity" that Kac touts is merely noise. I believe that to fritter away the visceral and emotional capabilities of art is purely sad.
In short, I find Kac's work distasteful, wasteful and worse: boring. But where is the place in our overpopulated centerless global village for the discussion of ideas and values, if not in art?