Art, Empire, Industry: The Importance of Eduardo Kac

Art, Empire, Industry: The Importance of Eduardo Kac

2007-10-05
Telepresence & Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, & Robots
Eduardo Kac
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Sandy Baldwin identifies Eduardo Kac as a conceptual artist, a
forerunner of electronic poetry, and a critical writer whose essays
perform their own content: “writing on new media art as new media
art.”

Stefanie Boese:

Eugene Thacker, likewise, suggests that Kac’s work has little to do with biological life or the life sciences but is more about the practice of art as an emerging medium. Read the full review
here.

2007-12-13

The biographical note at the end of Eduardo Kac’s Telepresence and Bioart: Networking Humans, Rabbits, & Robots succinctly describes his art as work that relies on “the indefinite suspension of closure and the intervention of a participant.” He adds that it “encourages dialogical interaction and confronts complex issues concerning identity, agency, responsibility, and the very possibility of communication” (300). I find this accurate and see all these complex issues at work on every level of Kac’s work, including in the reading and performance of the written texts collected in the book itself. This book performs its own content: writing on new media art as new media art.

From the first essay dating back to 1992, Kac’s book is concerned with “The Aesthetics of Telecommunications,” where artworks are not objects but interactions within dialogic relations prompted by participants, of whom the artist is one and one of many. From this beginning and across the fifteen subsequent chapters, it is possible to view all the texts, in all their redundancy and heterogeneity, as different aspects of a single project. The book breaks into three parts, roughly according to topic: I Telecommunications, Dialogism, and Internet Art; II Telepresence Art and Robotics; III Bio Art. The texts in each part are in a chronological order according to publication date, and tend to reflect increasingly complex discourse and sense of context on the topic in question. Moreover, the three sections are themselves in a somewhat chronological order - in that the most recent texts appear in the third section, while the latest texts in the first section are relatively old, and so on - so that the three parts suggest a rough overall development of Kac’s work.

Before I consider the overall work of this book, let me note that there are several things this book is not. It is not a comprehensive account of Kac’s activity as an artist. Telepresence & Bio Art covers what may be the best known of Kac’s endeavors, but other aspects are unrepresented. His holopoetry and other language art appear only peripherally. These works were crucial in establishing digital literature as a field. Kac’s recent “biopoetry” work continues to challenge conditions of practice, authorship, and reception in digital literature. Kac’s 1996 Media Poetry was an important anthology in this area, and is now being reissued by Intellect. Hodibis Potax also appeared in 2007 from Édition Action Poétique, and collects Kac’s experimental poetry from the last 25 years. Clearly, Telepresence & Bio Art is a subset of topics and not a retrospective of the artist’s work.

Secondly, these are not new writings by Kac but a collection of previously published essays. The texts date from 1992 to 2002, and appeared in journals, books, and on Kac’s website. There are a number of consequences to this occasional quality of the book. The texts are often accounts of the history and context of telepresence and bio art, and - more and more as the book goes on - retrospective accounts of Kac’s own work in this area. Because of this, there is repetition and overlap in the histories told. The repetition is not uninteresting, showing the development of Kac’s sense of context and influences for his work, and - in the case of analysis of his own artworks - showing the development of the artist’s practice and a reflexive self-description of it. Still, in part because of the disparate origins of the texts, the structure of the book is hard to grasp and even jarring. We are all familiar with collections of occasional essays where the author makes a more or less successful attempt to produce a book, to build and sustain a single argument across chapters of a single text. There is no such effort here, at least in any obvious way. While individual texts repeat analyses, descriptions, and conclusions, the overall book lacks the reflective apparatus or meta-analysis that would force its parts into an argument. There is a brief Preface that describes what unites the topics in the book as the “practical and theoretical investigation” of “the complex phenomenon generally referred to as ‘communication’ ” (xi). The ambivalent rhetoric and the quotes around “communication” highlight the complex phenomenon of the book at hand and the more general problem of whether communication takes place at all. Or rather: Kac’s statement on the book’s project problematizes at what level and where communication occurs intersubjectively.

None of this singular and non-cohesive quality of Kac’s book should be taken as limitations but rather as the success and aim of the book. The non-cohesiveness goes to another purpose: to the texts as a series of performative occasions, where the texts are part of the performance of Kac’s artworks, and where the texts continue the occasion of the artwork in the networked structure of reading. In all this, the book is part of what Kac calls a “network topology,” i.e. the rhythmic production and reproduction of the specific qualities of an artwork (163). The entire volume is concerned with “the very possibility of communication,” as Kac’s biographical note put it, and the entire book is a further reflection on the possibility of this possibility.

I take this form of reflection as the major achievement of the written medium. Niklas Luhmann’s Essays in Self-Reference points to the function of writing as preserving “not events” but “their structure-generating power.” To recognize the “indefinite suspension of closure and the intervention of a participant” that Kac understands as central to his work requires perceiving his book a part of the communicative field of his artworks. Kac’s book is not about the artworks that are its occasion. As the best possible review of the book, I say: do not read it for its contents, and do not get hung up on the undoubted importance of the green bunny or any of the other works in this book. In truth, no book is about its contents.

As a comparison, I think of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” which remains a crucial statement on networked communication, and puts into play the topics and performance of Kac’s art. Kafka writes that the dying emperor sends a message to you and you alone, to “the humble subject” (4). Unfortunately, the messenger wears himself out struggling to get to you in the imperial city, at “the center of the world.” We recall that the word “imperial,” of course, refers to the command structure of messages. The circulation and delivery of the message is mediated by the empiricity of the network, by its rhizomatic complexity, which is also to say, by its teeming crowd. The parable concludes: “Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself” (5). The medium that is the message here is intersubjective and political. The emperor dies through the parable, so that the arrival and reading of the message is at the center of the world yet decentered and distributed. The messenger wears a symbol of the sun, its rays imaging the spread of information, but you receive the message in the dying light of evening. Yet there is a message, not in the least because we receive and read Kafka’s fragment, which is “an imperial message” according to its title. Which is to say: the written message, with a title and bibliographic codification, seems to both conclude and intensify the problem of intersubjective networked communication. At this meta-level of the network, communication occurs despite its apparent impossibility, but the message read is one of pattern, of reading as meta-observation, of ourselves as subject and observer and reader. What is this network? Not a specific material conduit, not a finite relay, not the reality of power, but a reverie of the noise of techno-bureaucratic protocols meeting human everydayness, still mediated by the symbolics of writing as the epiphany of finite expression and readability.

Kac’s telepresence and bioart work in the same space of techno-cultural power, human everydayness, reflexive observation, and inscriptive auto-implication. Every one of Kac’s artworks creates a communication network much like Kafka’s imperial message, where the center is not the artwork but the resulting dialogic relationship between the observer/viewer and the network, a relationship that is internal and subjective - that we dream to ourselves - but that is real nonetheless. In fact, as shown by the green bunny on the book’s cover, which is not pulled out of a hat like a magician’s white rabbit but that remains pointedly absent in body and yet poignantly present in art, Kac’s artwork is nothing more and nothing less than the proliferating effects it produces.

While Kac’s writing is fluent with the latest media theory and science studies, the key philosophical reference and the reason for the dialogic underpinning of the argument is considerably older, and comes from Martin Buber’s 1923 I and Thou. For Buber, humanity is capable of two forms of relationship. Firstly, I-it or objectification relationships, where I exercises domination over the encounter with the other as it. Secondly, Buber offers the reciprocity of the I-Thou as an ethical relationship. Kac’s insight is that this reciprocity can not be limited to a topic or a theme of artwork. If it remains this, reciprocity is transformed into control and domination, and is no longer ethical but objectified. Instead, the reciprocal relationship must be performed continually and at every level as a part of human existence (Kac 106, 278, and throughout). As a result, Kac’s artworks do not represent this dialogical relation but create hybrid spaces where observers / readers enter into I-Thou reciprocity with nonhuman networks and actors. The artworks choreograph what Kac calls “performative ethics” (254), the range of which implicate the reader as participant in the performance and the ethical questioning involved.

Kac’s writing continues these hybrid performance spaces. The title of Kac’s book tells everything about the contents of the book but nothing of the work of the book. The difference, not surprisingly or insignificantly, is central to Kac’s dialogical approach to art. Or perhaps the second half of the title does offer something of this approach, where “networking” needs to be understood as “putting into dialog,” and where the series “humans, rabbits, & robots” is both perfectly accurate as a description of the contents of the art described in the book, but also indicative of the hybridizing work Kac performs. The notion of networking humans and rabbits, for example, refers to Kac’s best known piece, “GFP Bunny,” yet most description and criticism of this piece focus not on networking humans and rabbits but on the story of the rabbit, and render the humans invisible. We are all familiar with the travails of Alba the transgenic bunny bred with green florescent protein. The human component of the network - the scientists, Kac’s intervention, the history of human-rabbit interaction - are taken for granted while at the same time repeated and perpetuated by the reflection and interpretation - including that performed by critics - on the bunny as the putative object of the work. I use “putative object of the work” to indicate that the work is rather the network between humans and this bunny, a network that includes reactions and readings, as well as Kac’s own self-description of the piece. This auto-implicative process is what makes Kac’s writing so interesting, maddening, and important.

Of course, the occasional nature of these texts adds to their performative quality. Texts from exhibition catalogs continue the artwork through the work of writing as art (for example, think of Robert Smithson’s writings). Kac challenges us to define and defend the borders of such artistic practices, on the one hand, and properly interpretive commentary, on the other. Consider the text “GFP Bunny.” While it first appeared in 2000 in a Slovenian publication, Kac’s website indicates that the text has re-appeared at least eight times in the years since, and continues to appear as a part of the network surrounding this artistic project. Kac is quite clear: “The ‘GFP Bunny’ project is a complex social event that starts with the creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature” (264). The text invents the history of human-rabbit interaction not as a fiction but as a revivification of accurate but forgotten cultural material. The text describes the creation of Alba but also the creation of commitments through the artwork, commitments that the text thematizes and reinforces. The point is the semiotic highlighting in writing and through rhetoric of the chimera or social imaginary of the rabbit as object of “respect, nurture, and love.” The text’s insistence that Alba is not a breeding project but a transgenic artwork builds on this illuminating semiotic. The famous florescent glow of the GFP bunny is carried on and continues to glow throughout the project via this semiotic process.

I would add that the added reflection is the specific message of writing as medium. The point of this message cuts the snarl of debates around the so-called materiality of writing, debates which oscillate between understanding materiality as event and as form. Again, writing preserves the “structure-generating power” (9) of events, in Luhmann’s terms. From this perspective, the achievement of writing is an iterable materiality that is both form and event. To identify the materiality of Kac’s book as the event of inscription reveals simply an oddball collection of occasional text, but the contents are not the point. In the end, the chimera and not Alba is the point - the chimera that is the writing of GFP Bunny within Kac’s book - and precisely this is part of the ethical responsibility that we feel for the bunny and that at the same time maintains us at a distance from her. I find this short text the best exemplification of Kac’s notion of transgenic artwork, which would “accept and incorporate the reactions and decisions made by the participants.” He goes on to say: “This is what I call the human-plant-bird-mammal-robot-insect-bacteria interface” (272), and I would add “the textual interface” as well.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.

Luhmann, Niklas. Essays in Self-Reference. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.