8:33 p.m. 5.Sep.99
Marisa Newman on The Genesis Project
The O.K. Center is a five-minute bicycle ride from the Brucknerhaus and it is home for this year's Prix Ars Electronica Exhibition. Unlike openX, the Prix Ars is in a more formal museum setting. The installations are each in their own particular niche; some pieces greet you as you wind up the staircase, others are hidden behind closed doors. "Genesis," a transgenic artwork created by Eduardo Kac, falls into the latter. Ars Electronica commissioned the piece for this year's festival and Julia Friedman, a dealer from Chicago who represents Kac, granted me a private tour.
When I arrived at the center, Julia informed me that we had to first pick up a new petri dish containing bacteria that was created out of the "artist gene." While we went to the refrigerator containing this petri dish, Julia described the gene and assured me that it was not toxic. The "artist gene" is so named not because it is a DNA strand that was taken from Eduardo; rather it is a gene that was synthetically created by the artist. He did this by taking a quote from the book of Genesis (hence the name): "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 line was then translated into Morse Code, which was then translated into DNA base pairs.
Without using too much scientific jargon, the gene is cloned to form plasmids with ECFP (Enhanced Cyan Fluorescent Protein) or EYFP (Enhanced Yellow Fluorescent Protein). When mixed, ECFP and EYFP become GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein).
After this explanation, we arrived at a door and I pushed it open to view not a sterile white space, but a dark room with a large circle projected on the wall glowing in greens and blues. In the center of the room is a Plexiglas case that holds a telescope, a light box, and a UV lamp. On the right wall is the text from Genesis and the left wall holds the Morse translation. Music fills the room.
Donning UV goggles, I helped Julia change the petri dish.
She was worried about whether she had brought enough bacteria-laden dishes from Chicago, because she did not expect the fluorescence of the bacteria to fade quite that quickly. After finishing the complex operation, the screen illuminated even more brightly. The music is live and generated by the computer. It actually chimes as either the genesis gene, the cyan plasmid, or the yellow plasmid mutates. The turning on and off of the UV light (which can be done both at the space and online) also controls the sound. The whole experience is soothing and beautiful, allowing one to forget about all the scientific specifications that were involved in making this project.
"Genesis" uses biology, technology, art and the Internet to create an overall music/art experience. In fact, Eduardo Kac collaborated with the composer Peter Gena and the geneticist, Dr. Charles Strom. The project on display at the O.K. Center does not refer to his work in progress "GFP-K9"and how the two are interconnected. Eduardo would like to take this gene and breed a dog that would glow in the dark a fluorescent green color (GFP is the color and K9 is canine). While everyone claims that the gene is not harmful, and people will agree that dog breeding is a tradition that has a long history, Kac is under scrutiny about the ethical problems with his "artist gene." Perhaps people are horrified by his ideas, because they are done in the name of art and not science. Perhaps the transgenic artwork seems wrong due to the "unnaturalness" of the gene that would be employed. These are all interesting questions and ones that he will address at tomorrow's symposium. In the meantime, let us appreciate the aesthetic sensibility without the guilt.