Biopoetics; or, a Pilot Plan for a Concrete Poetry
To many, the work of Eduardo Kac is associated with biology and the life sciences.For book/catalog publications on/by Kac, see Sheilah Britton and Dan Collins, eds., The Eighth Day: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac (Tucson: Arizona State University Press, 2003); Eduardo Kac, ed., Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006); Gerfried Stocker, Eduardo Kac: Genesis (Linz: OK Center for Contemporary Art, 1999). Kac's website (www.ekac.org) contains many of his own writings on his projects. His projects, from "Genesis" (which included the celebrated passage from the Bible encoded into DNA and inserted into a microorganism), to the infamous "Alba," the cloned rabbit containing a GFP jellyfish gene, to his biotech terrarium, "The Eighth Day," Kac's work consistently evokes the biological domain, but a biology that is also inseparable from a bio-technology, where cloning, genetic engineering, and molecular codes are the very stuff of life. Because of intertwinement, it has become standard to include Kac's "bio-art" works in any discussion of the cultural aspects of biotech and the life sciences. Indeed the first scholarly monographs dedicated to Kac's work are starting to appear, and Kac has been the subject of a number of scholarly essays, each of which positions Kac as a bio artist (be it in the fields of art criticism, cultural studies, science studies, or, most recently, in animal studies)..
But I would argue that Kac's work actually has very little to do with biological life or the life sciences. Certainly my position goes against what appears to be the impression that Kac himself is fostering. But a glance at Kac's earlier works reveal another set of concerns: telematics, robotics, and communication broadly speaking. Telepresence and Bio Art offers a trajectory of Kac's artistic evolution through texts, images, and documents pertaining to Kac's art works. Published in 2005, it forms a companion to the exhibition catalog The Eighth Day: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac, as well as the forthcoming anthology Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, edited by Kac. Telepresence and Bio Art, however, focuses not only on Kac's bio art pieces, but on the artist's trajectory and development - the book is therefore more about art as an emerging media than about interactive art, media art, or bio art.
Perhaps it's strange to suggest that art works which so explicitly point to the biotech or the life sciences really have nothing to do with them. Certainly they make great conversation pieces, and works like "Alba" have had their share of controversy. And of course, in the U.S. at least, the notion of artists playing with biology has raised the specter of the terrorist-artist, as the still ongoing case surrounding Critical Art Ensemble demonstrates. But the more of Kac's work I see, the more I'm convinced that the work is not at all about its "content." I have Eduardo himself to blame for this! After having seen his early "holographic poetry" pieces, our conversation turned to text and concrete poetry. I was surprised and pleased to learn that in the early 1980s Kac had been involved in a number of visual/concrete poetry projects, as well as in book arts and even graffiti (I keep wondering what a Kac tag would look like on NYC subways ... ).
This early interest in concrete poetry is not accidental - Brazil is also the home to Haroldo (1929-2003) and Augusto de Campos, both of whom were pivotal figures in the transformation of 20th century Brazilian literature. In the 1950s, the de Campos brothers, along with Decio Pignatari, formed the group "Noigandres," and proceeded to explore all the hitherto ignored aspects of modern poetics - the materiality of words, the physicality of the page and book, and the affective aspects of phonetic and sound poetry.
Kac intersects with this tradition in a number of ways, both personally (the young Kac collaborated with a number of concrete poets and artists), and in terms of influences present in his work. Certainly the holographic poetry pieces are a kind of high-tech variant on concrete poetry, and in this case the materiality of the letter is itself constituted through immaterial light. But Kac's Internet-based pieces, many of which involve robotics and interactive media (from websites to webcams), offer another perspective, one in which the "concrete" is also the luminous and the informatic. It's as if concrete poetry in the late-20th century becomes a concern of light and data - within which both telematic and genetic codes can be included.
Kac's work is not about biotech, but instead about a kind of "biopoetics" in which language, form, and life intersect. But even this term biopoetics is unnecessary. Kac's works are about poetics, pure and simple - or the point at which the very notion of poetics implies a congruence of some sort between language and life. Each of Kac's works can be viewed somewhere in this relation between language and life. Even the "non-biological" works that deal with the Internet and robotics still inculcate a notion of life in terms of temporality, a liveness or an ambivalent vitalism in which various life forms are both networked and set at a distance from each other.
And this of course takes us back to Aristotle. Aristotle had set up (even if in a brief, relatively messy way) the major problems of poetics, centered around three functions: representation (is it mimetic or not?), affect (the role of katharsis), and form (the role of figurative language and figures generally). Each of these functions can be found in Kac's works, in particular as they pertain to the relation between language and life. Recall that Aristotle was not only a literary critic but also a biologist. In approaching Kac's works, therefore, we should keep the Poetics right next to Aristotle's "biological" treatises such as the De anima, in which life is associated with form and the form-making principle.
So is Kac a bio artist? Are works such as "The Eighth Day" examples of bio art? I'll leave the job of classification to the art historians (!). But I think there is a lot to be gained by considering Kac's work not in terms of biotech but in terms of biopoetics. I would even go further and suggest that Kac's trajectory as presented in Telepresence and Bio Art is simply about poetics itself. In this sense, Kac's works offer another view to contemporary bio art - that bio art itself is really not "about" the biology or the life sciences. To suggest that bio art has little to do with the "bio" part of its name is, I think, the most interesting claim one can make. Of course, this then means that one would have to consider the "art" part of the name as equally tenuous ...