Artist uses genetics to create new life and art forms

February 9, 2001

ANN ARBOR—Both scientists and artists are envisioning how genetic research is changing and will continue to change our lives. One of the artists examining this question is Eduardo Kac, who will make a presentation at the University of Michigan on Feb. 16 at 5 p.m. in Room 1800 of the Chemistry Building  [map , Chemistry Building left center]  at 930 North University on U-M’s Central Campus.

This free and public lecture, “Telepresence, Biotelematics, Transgenic Art,” will be followed by a discussion among Kac, geneticist Elizabeth Petty, and anthropologist Jennifer Robertson, both from U-M.

Kac is an artist and writer concerned with the aesthetic and social aspects of interaction. His work explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, and information technology using multiple electronic and traditional media as well as biological processes to create hybrid art forms. His most recent works have involved the genetic manipulation of bacteria and of a white rabbit to produce living luminous creatures he dubs “transgenic art.”

Kac describes this new art form as, “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. Molecular genetics allows the artist to engineer the plant and animal genome and create new life forms.

“The nature of this new art is defined not only by the birth and growth of a new plant or animal, but above all, by the nature of the relationship between artist, public, and transgenic organism. Organisms created in the context of transgenic art can be taken home by the public to be grown in the backyard or raised as human companions.

“With at least one endangered species becoming extinct every day, I suggest that artists can contribute to increase global biodiversity by inventing new life forms. There is no transgenic art without a firm commitment to and responsibility for the new life form thus created. Ethical concerns are paramount in any art work, and they become more crucial than ever in the context of biological art, when a real living being is either the art work itself or part of it.

“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.”

The post lecture panel participant Jennifer Robertson is a professor of anthropology whose ongoing research includes eugenics. Panelist Elizabeth Petty has training as a studio artist and is now a physician scientist currently conducting science research in genetics and serving as medical director for the University’s genetic counseling training program.

“While excited by and enthusiastic about provocative art,” says Petty, “I admittedly find myself at times questioning the value of the sensationalism or distortion that is associated with some work. Perhaps it is the unsettled juxtaposition of contrasting feelings that continues to draw me away from the hospital laboratory and into the world of art.”

This program is supported by the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series at the School of Art and Design, the Life Sciences Values and Society Program, and the Arts of Citizenship Program.

Eduardo KacElizabeth Pettytransgenic artanthropologySchool of Art and Design