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Ted Warnell


Features, reviews, papers

Zn 99/09/03: Chicago artist Eduardo Kac creates an artist's gene -- a landmark transgenic work premiering at Ars Electronica '99 Festival of Art, Technology, and Society.

Copyright © 1999 by Zn and Julia Friedman. All rights reserved.


1999 SEP 3



September 4 - 19, 1999

On the threshold of a new Millenium, Kac continues to develop new art forms, while synthesizing technological discoveries, biological processes, and reflections on the core of contemporary life.

Chicago artist, Eduardo Kac presents "Genesis", an unprecedented, transgenic, interactive installation, September 4 to September 19, 1999 at the O.K Center in Linz, Austria, during the upcoming Ars Electronica '99 Festival of Art, Technology, and Society. Lifescience is the focus of this year's event. Starting September 4, the live streaming video and audio of Genesis can be experienced at URL:, where remote audiences are encouraged to participate in this live, biotechnological artwork.

    "Transgenic art, I propose, is 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. From the perspective of interspecies communication, transgenic art calls for a dialogical relationship between artist, creature/artwork, and those who come in contact with it."
    - Eduardo Kac
"Genesis" is a transgenic artwork that explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet. The key element of the work is an "artist's gene", a synthetic gene invented by the artist. This gene was created by translating a sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code, and then converting the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle which Kac developed specifically for this work. The sentence reads: "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." This sentence was chosen for its implications regarding the dubious notion of (divinely sanctioned) humanity's supremacy over nature. Morse Code was chosen because, as first employed in radiotelegraphy, it represents the dawn of the information age -- the genesis of global communications.

The initial process in this work is the cloning of the synthetic gene into plasmids and their subsequent transformation into bacteria. In this work two kinds of bacteria are employed, bacteria that have incorporated a plasmid containing either ECFP (Enhanced Cyan Fluorescent Protein) or EYFP (Enhanced Yellow Fluorescent Protein). ECFP and EYFP are GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) mutants with altered spectral properties. The ECFP bacteria contain the synthetic gene, while the EYFP bacteria do not. These fluorescent bacteria emit blue and yellow light when exposed to UV radiation. As they grow in number, mutations will occur in the plasmids, and as they make contact with each other, we start to see color combinations and green bacteria arise.

The gallery display enables local as well as remote (Web) participants to monitor the evolution of the work. This display consists of a petri dish with the bacteria, a flexible microvideo camera, a UV light box, and a microscope illuminator. This set is connected to a video projector and two networked computers. One computer works as a Web server (streaming live video and audio) and handles remote requests for UV activation. The other computer is responsible for DNA music synthesis. The local video projection shows a larger-than-life image of the bacterial division and interaction seen through the microvideo camera. Remote participants on the Web interfere with the process by turning the UV light on. The fluorescent protein in the bacteria responds to the UV light by emitting visible light (cyan and yellow). The energy impact of the UV light on the bacteria is such that it disrupts the DNA sequence in the plasmid, accelerating the mutation rate. The left and right walls contain large-scale texts applied directly on the wall: the sentence extracted from the book of Genesis (left) and the Genesis gene (right).

"Genesis" explores the notion that biological processes are now writterly and programmable, as well as capable of storing and processing data in ways not unlike digital computers. At the end of the show, the altered biblical sentence present in the bacteria is decoded and read back in plain English, offering insights into the process of transgenic interbacterial communication. The boundaries between carbon-based life and digital data are becoming as fragile as a cell membrane.

The electronic music, generated live in the gallery, is synthesized by the use of a complex algorithm that transcribes the physiology of DNA into musical parameters. Changes in the sequence are dictated by the mutation rate of the bacteria. Acoustic variations indicate the presence of remote participants logged onto the server. Music synthesis is by Peter Gena and genetic consultation is by Dr. Charles Strom. "Genesis" is managed by Julia Friedman & Associates, Chicago.

Ars Electronica 99 marks it's 20th anniversary with the goal to ascertain the position of art in the field of tension and interplay of technology and society. This year's Festival invites the top theoreticians and artists in their respective fields to participate in symposia, exhibitions, performances, and discussions.

Eduardo Kac is an artist and writer who investigates the philosophical and political dimensions of communications processes. Equally concerned with the aesthetic and the social aspects of verbal and non-verbal interaction, in his work Kac examines linguistic systems, dialogic exchanges, and interspecies communication. Kac's pieces, which often link virtual and physical spaces, propose alternative ways of understanding the role of communication processes in shaping consensual realities. Internationally known in the '80s as a pioneer of Holopoetry and Telepresence Art, in the '90s Kac created the new categories of Biotelematics (art in which a biological process is intrinsically connected to computer-based telecommunications work) and Transgenic Art. Kac works with electronic and photonic media, including telepresence, holography, computers, video, robotics, and the Internet, as well as biological systems, such as animals, plants, bacteria, and organic tissue. Kac's works belong to the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Holography in Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, among others. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and South America, in venues such as Otso Gallery, Helsinki, Galerie Lara Vincy, Paris, Leonora Vega Gallery, New York, Nexus Contemporary Art, Atlanta, Huntington Art Gallery, Austin, St. Petersburg Biennial, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In October, 1999, Kac's work will also be seen at the ICC Biennale "99, at the InterCommunication Center, Tokyo. His work can be seen at: Eduardo Kac is represented by Julia Friedman & Associates, Chicago.

For further information contact: Julia Friedman, TEL 773.489.4588 or

A transgenic, interactive installation work by media artist Eduardo Kac. Remote audiences are encouraged to participate in this live, biotechnological artwork. USA
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