Analysis of Eduardo Kac's "GFP Bunny"

General / 31 octobre 2018

This analysis led to a very intriguing art project that I had never heard of nor could I have ever fathomed.  It entails a controversial scientific procedure that has received criticism for its claim as a work of art.  In 2000, Chicago artist Eduardo Kac collaborated with French genetic engineer Louis-Marie Houdebine and coordinated the genetic integration of a green pigment into an albino rabbit, who Kac named Alba.  Once the process had been completed, the glowing rabbit itself was only a small part of the art work that Kac aimed to showcase through what he titled GFP Bunny.  Eduardo used the acronym "GFP" in the title because it stood for "green fluorescent protein", and he also noted that his "transgenic artwork GFP Bunny comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit (Color Plate A No. 2), the public dialogue generated by the project and the integration of the rabbit into a social environment."[1] The culmination of media that it received throughout its controversy and presentation to the public was essentially the bulk of the ongoing documented artwork.  

Link to image of referenced artwork by Eduardo Kac: http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html#gfpbunnyanchor

Kac had first thought to pioneer this effort to initiate inquiry and dialog through a fluorescent dog project in 1998, but it was not realized.[2]  The research documentation did not clarify if this was halted by a response from either the public, government, or scientific community, or if some other factors impacted its feasibility.  However, through the research for this first effort, Kac conceptualized and framed the term "'transgenic art' — art using manipulated genes."[3]  This art project was developed within the time frame when research towards The Genome Project was underway and the implications of genetic engineering was raising questions and debates, so Kac used this as a way of communicating the challenges.  The glowing rabbit was ultimately "realized in 2000 and first introduced to the public at large in Avignon, France."[4]  He had originally set up an agreement with Houdebine and the research laboratory that partook in the project to relinquish the rabbit to Kac, who would ultimately be her caretaker. However, this was not fully settled and it led Kac to spawn a massive media campaign to free the rabbit from the laboratory, which in turn, contributed to the basis of GFP Bunny and his subsequent series of related artwork like Rabbit Remix.[5]  One such art work that was part of Rabbit Remix depicts the placement of the campaign in many different media outlets.

The intervention of genetic engineering in humans, animals, or other living organisms has drawn and continues to draw attention from all ranges of the spectrum.  Some see it as the elixir of youth and health whereas others take issue with its potential for harm.  Kac had intended to showcase the entirety of GFP Bunny by "bringing her to society at large and providing her with a loving, caring and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy," with the ultimate goal of creating "a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated"[6]  This experiential and interactive artwork was meant to go beyond the initial genetic intervention and to exemplify a scenario in which its application could bear the challenges and questions of society.  It could start to resolve debates about the qualms of applied genetic engineering or raise additional questions about life after such a process.  Essentially, Kac's position was to create reaction through such a radical process and its disruptive nature did exactly that, although it may have also contributed to the subsequent death of the rabbit in 2002.  Even though the French researchers who had tended to the rabbit noted that she had died only 2 years after her birth, Kac believes that the typical 12 year lifespan was cut short so that the research laboratory could "put an end to a two-year, unwelcome barrage of media attention."[7] 

Art Historian Jane Blocker makes a unique reference to the story of Frankenstein when analyzing GFP Bunny because of how "its repetitions, multiple voices, lack of origins and hybridity teach us to look for that meaning elsewhere than in the strictly visual."[8]  The genetic intervention could have been anything, but it just happened to be a green pigment applied to an albino rabbit.  Through its scientific research, controversy, and media presence, Kac's project grasps attention and warrants scrutiny.  Conclusively, I do not view GFP Bunny as representative of all recent artwork, but it does highlight the diversity of venues through which art is attempting to permeate and the extremes to which an experience of art might be perceived.  I am also still a bit perplexed about its status as a work of art.  There is a lot of potential in multidisciplinary collaborations by learning from art and how other disciplines can embody its principles and processes to initiate communication and new directions.  Through the ongoing dialogue that emerges, questions will need to be asked and answered, particularly as they tread into unknown and potentially controversial topics.  Nevertheless, there are instances of recent artwork like Kac's GFP Bunny that are disruptive and challenge the nature of art, as well as other disciplines.  They use a certain shock value to grab attention amidst a competitive environment, much like consumer marketing.  With this in mind, caution and restraint should be acknowledged and exercised before exploring frontiers like genetic engineering.

Citations

[1] Eduardo Kac, "GFP Bunny," Leonardo 36, no. 2 (2003): 97.

[2] Mario Savini, "Transgenic art: Creativity in the era of genetic engineering," Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 15, no. 2 (June 2017): 164.

[3] Ronald Bailey, "Arty Biohacking," Reason 42, no. 1 (May 2010): 62.

[4] Eduardo, "GFP Bunny," 97.

[5] Simone Osthoff, "Elsewhere in Contemporary Art: Topologies of Artists' Works, Writings, and Archives," Art Journal 65, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 7.

[6] Eduardo, "GFP Bunny," 99.

[7] Kristen Philipkoski, "RIP: Alba, The Glowing Bunny," Wired, August 12, 2002, accessed October 29, 2018, https://www.wired.com/2002/08/rip-alba-the-glowing-bunny/.

[8] Jane Blocker, "This Being You Must Create: Transgenic Art and Witnessing the Invisible," Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (March 2003): 205.