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But Is It Art?

Kris Schnee

In a translucent box in the art exhibit, you see what appears to be an albino rabbit. But it is no ordinary rabbit: when the lights go off and a faint UV blacklight turns on, Alba the “GFP Bunny” glows green. A gene based on the fluorescence gene found in jellyfish was added to the rabbit’s genome and now makes its entire body glow.

GFP Bunny is a project created by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac and a group of scientists at the French National Institute of Agronomic Research. Originally intending to make a breed of glowing dogs (a project now on hold), Kac made his rabbit not as something simply to be put on display in a cage, but to be taken home by his family and adopted as a pet. Unfortunately, the French lab’s director has so far refused to let Kac keep Alba as planned.

Kac is part of a recent wave of hobbyists exploring the new frontier of genetics from the fresh perspective of the arts. It is easy to be caught up in scientific, ethical, and political debates over the development and proper use of technology, and its effects on society -- but while everyone else was talking, someone seemingly outside the field has taken up the tools to do something harmless, absurd, and cool.

Defending the seriousness of the ongoing scientific debate, Harvard Professor Mark Hauser said, “In a sense, this rabbit is not any sillier than a Chihuahua,” another human creation.

Kac has long worked with advanced technology as an artistic medium. In the 1980s he used holograms; in 1996 he put a robotic bird in an enclosure with real ones and let viewers control its head and see through its eyes. In 1999 he inserted a gene into bacteria carrying a Morse-code rendition of the Biblical verse granting mankind “dominion” over life, and irradiated the bacteria to mutate the message. Now, his hobbyist colleagues have put together entire exhibits of life as art, featuring exhibits like a painting made of colored bacteria and a computer “Human Race Machine” which lets visitors see what they would look like as a member of another ethnic group. One such gallery, “Mass MoCA,” has opened up in western Massachusetts.

Alba the rabbit is being held by the laboratory partly because of protests from animal-rights activists, who say that Alba may be “suffering” (do fireflies suffer?) and that she could have unpredictable and dangerous effects on the environment. Such arguments begin to sound pretty strange when applied to Alba -- less like legitimate arguments like “This corn kills butterflies” than like a knee-jerk fear reaction to anything strange.

Imagine that, in the near future, someone creates a unicorn, perhaps a white horse with narwhal genes. Will animal rights activists or Greenpeace put a stop to it, expressing concern that the creature’s, ah, horniness will harm the horse population at large?

To some extent we’re seeing this same reaction even to engineered species with obvious benefit to the world, like plants that grow biodegradable plastic without petroleum and super-nutritious golden rice. These plants are useful but possibly risky, while Alba is useless but harmless. If it will take a product which is both useful and totally risk-free to make the public accept genetic technology, then the biotech industry is in for a rough century.

Kac does not mind the brouhaha over his work; he expected it. He defines the GFP Bunny project, his work of art, to consist of both the actual rabbit and the debate it generates. He is not just producing art, but challenging our society with it in a way that no finger-painted canvas can match. In a catalogue of Kac’s work, Gerfried Stocker wrote that “if we go on from the representation and simulation of life to the creation and shaping of life, then this is an area from which art cannot abstain.”

If artists venture into the new medium of life itself, so will our culture. Early projects like GFP Bunny and the Human Race Machine are experiments which can help us get comfortable with our necessary future role as stewards of life. They will hopefully give us a greater appreciation for life’s complexity, in ways that are exciting and entertaining.

Arthur Caplan, a professor at Penn, said of Alba: “This is a reminder of how some of the most controversial and far-reaching changes will have nothing to do with medicine ... [Genetics] is going to profoundly change our philosophy, our society, our culture.” The work of Kac and other scientific hobbyists is only the beginning.