7 November 2000
Eduardo Kac's GFP Bunny, a work of transgenic art, or, It's not easy being green
Herewith is presented Eduardo Kac's transgenic art work, GFP Bunny. The work, its implications and its relevance to issues of today's society are discussed.
Kac's GFP Bunny—GFP stands for Green Fluorescent Protein—is the first and so far only work of transgenic art. It is a genetically modified rabbit known as Alba. Alba is an albino rabbit; under normal light she is white with pink eyes. When illuminated with blue light (maximum excitation is achieved at 488 nm) she glows bright green (maximum emission at 509 nm).
Alba was created under Kac's contract with the National Institute of Agronomic Research in France. Kac, an assistant professor of art and technology at the Chicago School of Art Institute, maintains that his original, stated intent was always to adopt Alba into his home and family life as part of the cultural experiment. Scientists in the genetic engineering field, however, object to the project as frivolous, saying that there are things of greater import that could be done with the fluorescence genes.2
Transgenic art is a term Kac has coined as "a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings."3 Kac notes that the work is not comprised solely of the rabbit, but rather,
The "GFP Bunny" project is a complex social event that starts with the creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature. . . .and that also includes at its core: 1) ongoing dialogue between professionals of several disciplines (art, science, philosophy, law, communications, literature, social sciences) and the public on cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering; 2) contestation of the alleged supremacy of DNA in life creation in favor of a more complex understanding of the intertwined relationship between genetics, organism, and environment; 3) extension of the concepts of biodiversity and evolution to incorporate precise work at the genomic level; 4) interspecies communication between humans and a transgenic mammal; 5) integration and presentation of "GFP Bunny" in a social and interactive context; 6) examination of the notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness; 7) consideration of a non-semiotic notion of communication as the sharing of genetic material across traditional species barriers; 8) public respect and appreciation for the emotional and cognitive life of transgenic animals; 9) expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to incorporate life invention.1
Indeed, the effects and influence of Kac's new art form on today's society are broad-reaching. In this age when many are afraid of science and technology, largely because they do not understand it, events such as the production of a fluorescing bunny (by scientifically accepted and understood genetic engineering practices) are seen as magic, practiced by a scientific elite. To allay these fears, the proponents of modern science and technology often conjure up grandiose visions of miraculous cures for all that ails society, in the form of more scientific research and newer technology, of course. This spiral of new technology building on old technology is never-ending; indeed, it must be if we are to continue to believe that society's problems can be addressed by technological fixes. To not move forward with technology in pursuit of this goal would be tantamount to admitting that another sphere of knowledge might be more suitable in addressing society's problems. The result of this is that the layperson is left behind in his or her worldview. There is a gulf in understanding between the common person and the scientist; indeed, in many cases this gulf is increasing exponentially as scientists' fields become ever more specialized and narrow in focus. The general public could be forgiven for being suspicious, then, of "miracle" fixes offered by these scientific shamans.
There are alternative domains for solving problems than the scientific, however. People have often looked to spirituality and religion to help them understand and cope with life. Art has also been a powerful force for social change, reflecting popular attitudes, mores, and cultural conditions of the times. Indeed, through studying the past through the lens of art history, we can gain insight and understanding about past peoples and cultures. What then, might future civilizations learn about us through accounts of Kac's genetically modified rabbit and the controversy it evoked? It is possible that the only records dealing with genetic engineering that survive the ages will focus on a small part of what is becoming a burgeoning field. Perhaps the only viewpoint that people of future generations will have is that of government offices promoting genetically engineered crops to farmers, or (perhaps more damning of our generation) that of conspiracy theorists and popular fiction writers warning of the dangers of human cloning or eugenics through bioengineering. The record of GFP Bunny having existed then, may very well better inform future generations about today's society, both culturally and technologically.
Insofar as popular perception holds, anything is possible these days. From this standpoint, Eduardo Kac is a kind of magician, performing a trick for his (worldwide) audience. In addition, Alba's fate (whether she ends up with Kac's family, as was intended, or is kept by the laboratory for study) has captured the attention and hearts of many; Kac's web site4 hosts a guestbook in which people have posted their hopes and wishes that Kac and his creation be reunited. In this sense GFP Bunny could be considered performance art.
The art work cum science experiment that is Alba exemplifies the tension between art and science. Many people have traditionally viewed art and science as separate, even diametrically opposite disciplines. In one sense, GFP Bunny attempts to subsume science into art (or is it the other way around?). There may be more in common between the two than is commonly realized, and Kac's work has opened people's eyes to this.
For the genetics scientists to say that there are better uses for GFP experimentation than producing works of art is shortsighted. Who are they to say that the scientific domain is more important than the artistic domain? Indeed, perhaps the exhibition and popularization of GFP Bunny as a work of art will have greater consequences and generate more and deeper thought in a greater number of people than would mere GFP genetics experiments, which, being more esoteric, and less publicized, would likely affect a much smaller part of the populace.
1 Kac, Eduardo. (2000). GFP Bunny. Web page. Retrieved November 7, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html
2 Amanda Onion. (2000). Hopping Mad. Web page. Retrieved November 7, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/rabbit000918.html
3 Kac, Eduardo. (2000). Transgenic Art. Web page. Retrieved November 7, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ekac.org/transgenic.html
4 Kac, Eduardo. (2000). Kac web Home page. Retrieved November 7, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ekac.org/