I’m not worried about the rabbit. She’s living a better life than any animal born and raised to be lab research fodder. And since there have been other animals dosed with this phosphorescent gene without major (observable anyway) health problems, she stands to live a pain free life. One wonders, though, if animals go through the same adolescent trauma we humans do in which we realize that we “didn’t ask to be born.” But the animal was born. She was made to be born, and not out of any natural inertia. She was made to be born (with a Green Fluorescent Protein, hence the “GFP” in the piece’s title: “GFP Bunny”) to be a person’s art work. I personally think that’s a lot to ask, especially from a little bunny.
Just as they have for the last 40 years with 16mm film, video portapaks, virtual reality, CD-ROMs, web sites and other technologies, artists are drooling at the possibility of getting their hands on this science. This was especially vivid to me on a recent trip to New York City where the season’s hottest show was “Paradise Now” at ExitArt. As I watched Bio-Art ascend from rumor to legitimacy I realized there was one bonus I hadn’t counted on: the field had produced its first superstar, Edwardo Kac. We should be bold enough to observe that some Bio- Art is better than other Bio- Art - and that some of Kac’s pieces are better than others. “GFP Bunny”, his most recent piece, is particularly problematic. Kac commissioned GFP Bunny from a French biotech lab as a work of art. A performance/installation would have placed GFP Bunny and the Kac family on display in a living room constructed to accommodate public viewing of the rabbit’s normal, healthy home.
Despite the widespread press and notoriety this piece has garnered, “GFP Bunny” remains an alarmingly flawed work of art, especially coming from someone with Kac’s record of accomplishment. The media coverage took everyone, including the artist, by surprise, prompting the outraged response and subsequent actions of the French government biotech laboratory that actually engineered the critter. The rabbit, named Alba, was to have traveled back to Chicago with Kac to live with him and his family. Instead, Alba remains under house arrest at the laboratory, at the behest of its director, who was mortified at the thought of a live animal being used in an art exhibit; mortified to the extent that there is a very real chance that Alba will live out her years at the laboratory, leaving Kac permanently S.O.L. Yet the work exists and, even if Kac’s original project is cut short, its well-nurtured legend will live on.
The spectacle incited by this piece threatens at first glance to trivialize “GFP Bunny” as a stunt. Kac, however, has already constructed a win-win scenario in which the furor substitutes for the work itself. For some works of art, controversy is an essential component and sometimes intentionally becomes part of the piece - works by Jeff Koons or in the Saatchi collection, for example. If Kac were orchestrating provocation in the form of a media frenzy, that would be fair game; but “GFP Bunny” claims to be about discussion, not just debacle. Where do the well-voiced opinions of the French government and European animal rights groups fit into the work’s evolution? Or is it all just Showbiz first and last? In the wake of Jesse Helms and the Culture Wars, the media has developed (for better or worse) an efficient template for interpreting an art crisis. Any artist willing to do so could knit an entire career together using the news media alone as raw material. It’s unclear whether Kac sees his narrative/legend as artistic ingredient or just a mechanism to get his curious project done. He’s either planning for this to be a disaster and thus a news story or he really does believe that anything done in the name of Art should be beyond bureaucratic interference. Whatever the scenario, the fact remains that this is a very public piece whose clamorous life has no ironic subtext. Hopefully “GFP Bunny” was not just conceived to create a biotech controversy. Biotechnology generates its own debate and outrage. The subject can create more shouting matches than politics, religion and college football combined. It hardly needs an artist/provocateur to get the conversation started.
So if it’s not a Grand Guignol nor a political crusade, then what is it and why should we care? Take away the outrage and the spectacle of “GFP Bunny” and I’m not sure there is anything left other than modest animal husbandry slightly more ambitious than a standard 4H project. That and a lot of fuzzy artistic maneuvers. Let’s get a couple of things straight: first, it doesn’t really glow in the dark. It glows when you shine a black light on it (and so does my granny and we didn’t have to send away to France to make her); second, scientists have been creating these glow-in-the-dark animals for some time (for research purposes). It’s just art appropriating science; finally, Kac contracted the animal from the scientists. He didn’t think of the idea and he didn’t develop the technology. In one of the great modernist traditions, he claims that “GFP Bunny” is his art because he says it is. Kac, however, would never call himself a Modernist - this is the New Future! Yet, to introduce us to that future Kac relies with astonishing regularity, on a Rogues Gallery of old, road tested art-making strategies, all of which are slouching towards retirement. It’s been years since I’ve said this, but I’m not sure that “GFP Bunny” is art. If it is, then it’s a very old-fashioned version despite the fact that Kac says it is completely of the moment. He describes the piece as creating a new canvas on which we must all work; however, if this is true, then it’s composed with a very pale palette of exhausted props: self promotion as Art; Art as extension of the artist’s ego; that it’s all about the process and not an end product (even though a very living, breathing end product covered with fur with a little pink nose is caged somewhere in France wondering where his Daddy is). This is warmed over conceptual art with neither stylistic innovation nor historical invention.
For a finale, Kac trots out that all time favorite, the great-grand daddy of all art cliches: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. He describes this as “a new kind of art” that will cure us of from needing to “paint as we painted in the caves”. This piece aspires to nothing less than leading us out of the darkness of our past ignorance. On closer inspection, though, one notices some startling similarities between “GFP Bunny” and your garden variety caveman art, most notably the hostile, superstitious relationship to content. As any first-year art student knows, the cave paintings were most likely used as part of a ritual the night before the hunt. It was art that gave confidence and power to the tribe over animals and nature. Isn’t that precisely what “GFP Bunny” is doing? It shows a profound impatience with life as it is, bunnies as they are. It’s the same engine - the will towards mastery and domination of flora and fauna, the artist as protector. Like biotechnologists, Kac finds the natural world terribly inadequate and in dire need of repair and revamping.
“But why?” the world asks. A biotechnician would bark back the usual: “because it’s good for you!” “What, you LIKE getting cancer?” “But your child could die!” Kac knows, of course, to answer with the gentility of an artist. He quotes from his own “Transgenic Art” Manifesto: it’s all really about the ongoing public discourse; it’s a collaborative process involving all who engage; it’s going to cultivate a continuing discussion and dialogue that will benefit all in the end. It’s happy talk, the same happy talk that would have explained and justified the performance/installation phase of the project - the living room constructed to accommodate public viewing of the rabbit’s normal, healthy home life as part of the Kac family. Is this full disclosure or pure propaganda? How “normal” is it to build an exhibit for the purpose of showing viewers how “normal” you are? Here’s the real answer: because I can and because I want to; but it’s all moot. France joined in the dialogue, all right: It said “Nope, aucun lapin pour vous.” Suppose Kac does find a way to “free Alba” and mount this installation - what is this “performance” supposed to prove? That an adult man and his family can successfully take care of a rabbit? He ordered it, had it built to his specs and now deems it his pet. This is a great gesture? Most people care for their animals, even without an audience sharing in the “dialogue.”
This proposed installation echoes and owes a huge debt to Joseph Beuys. In “I Love America, America Loves Me,” the artist lived for five days with a coyote; both locked into a corral built for the occasion in a popular Soho gallery. The piece accommodated a steady stream of spectators during gallery hours as the “GFP Bunny” installation would. The difference is that Beuys lived as an equal with the animal, respecting it and, in turn, making the animal respect him (which included marking his territory with his piss). The piece enjoyed major hype yet maintained its integrity. Kac is influenced by these conceptual strategies, but ends up using them like a paint roller to put a happy face on his problematic “GFP Bunny.” Kac’s work is not about harmony and the realities of species cohabitation - it’s about ownership and the appearance of nature and normality when there is none. Another piece by Beuys from which Kac unwittingly quotes is “Explaining Painting To A Dead Hare.” As anyone who has actually tried to explain painting to a dead hare will tell you, it doesn’t work and it bothers the hare. I fear that this little bunny’s creator/conservator has an equally impossible campaign ahead. Try as he might, Kac can’t seem to share or explain his personal exuberance at having done this thing to this beast, let alone convince us to share in his joy.
Creating An Animal In Service of Art sure looks reckless and mean, and sets an example for reckless and mean people. Kac’s art is a silent endorsement for countless others who will Do It For All The Worst Reasons. There is no fourth wall in bio-art and no artist immunity either. It’s no surprise that works like “GFP Bunny” are already giving the whole field a reputation for indulgence and arrogance. Like it or not, all of us will learn the hard way from examples like this and hopefully, save future bio-artists from the same harsh lessons.
This review originally appeared in the March, 2001 issue of Left Curve Magazine