Becoming God

Eddie Cano Gamez on how artists are exploring questions raised by genetic engineering.

It is a well-known fact that genetic engineering can change a species forever. When we place a DNA fragment in the nucleus of an embryo, nature has been changed forever: the being we created will leave its offspring on the planet and a new species will arise. But have we humans a legitimate right over other life forms? Are we entitled to erase the boundaries between them? The work of Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian-American artist who has created everything from glowing rabbits to a partly human flower, ventures into this exact question. In September 2016, La Plaque Tournante in Berlin is opening a show on Kac and his work, and so it seems to me just the right time to review some of the most interesting questions BioArt has given rise to.

It all started in 1999, when Eduardo Kac decided to write a quote from the book of Genesis into the chromosome of a bacterium. The quote was as follows: “… let us make mankind in our image […] so that they may have rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky…” So began what is now termed transgenic art, one of the oddest artistic movements in history. Transgenic art had its own ancestors: the 20th century musician John Cage, for example, when trapped in an anechoic chamber (a sound-isolated room) discovered that life is filled with sounds: the blood flow, the beating of the heart or the movement of air through our windpipe. Body sounds were later used to create art by Joe Davis, an MIT scientist who went even further in using cells and tissues as art materials: he even ventured to pack the human genome, which makes us who we are, into the spores of a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis and send it into outer space so that we can last forever. BioArt had been born. 

But Eduardo Kac went even further, doing something nobody had imagined before: he placed his bacterial strain on the table of an art gallery and over this table he installed a UV lamp. UV light is capable of killing through DNA mutation and so Kac instructed observers to take either of two possible decisions: they could turn on the lamp and kill the bacteria or turn off the lamp and let them live. By doing so, he was pointing out a paradox: no matter which decision the observer made, they were ruling over the bacteria, either killing them or letting them be a new species by human intervention. This performance, called Genesis, changed our self-perception forever.  

After Genesis Kac created two more projects: Alba, a genetically-modified rabbit which was able to glow due to a molecule called Green Fluorescent Protein, and The Eighth Day, a glass dome containing an entire ecosystem of fluorescent beings: fish, mice, plants… He explained that according to the Bible God created the world in seven days and it was now up to us to create our own world in the eighth one. But this transgenic ecosystem gave rise to an even deeper question: when looking at it, the observer felt like an outsider. In the dome, fluorescent was the norm and so any non-transgenic being was here transformed into “the other”. 

Otherness is a prominent concept in philosophy. Emmanuel Lévinas, a French philosopher, believed that when we face another being a dialogue starts: the encounter between two faces generates language and philosophy too. This unknown face reveals our own peculiarities, our own essence… But what is our place in this fluorescent ecosystem? 

To explore this, Kac created Natural History of the Enigma, in which he “transplanted” one of his own immunoglobulin genes (a component of our immune system that helps our body tell the difference between the biological “self” and “other”) into the red veins of a Petunia. Even though the flower does not have the immune cells required to actually use the genes, they are set there as a sort of metaphor: the observer, when looking at the veins of the flower, is able to see his own self in a foreign being. Where are the boundaries between our self and the rest of nature in this dialogue? I do not know, but if you find yourself wandering through Eduardo Kac’s exhibition in Berlin this September, you might find the answer to these questions yourself.

*Eddie Cano Gamez [2016] is doing an MPhil in Biological Science at the Sanger Institute, focusing on the genomics of the immune system and the genetical component of autoimmune diseases. Photograph of fluorescent mice from Wikipedia, originally part of an article published in BMC Cancer in 2012.