Kac has stated Genesis was about ethics and challenging belief systems.6 His biologically imitative synthesis of DNA extends this concept into the realm of biotechnologies. The reproductive processes used by Kac present the hierarchies in Western civilization that are handed down through scripture, but do not critique them. Rather, Kac simply re-inscribes those power structures. It is highly likely that participants within the cybernetic loop of the Genesis project thought about ethical dimensions of manipulating other life forms for art’s sake. They probably also considered carefully their “God-given” privileges over the bacteria—as suggested not only by the excerpted biblical passage but also by the way they implemented their power remotely through a website. Still, the project begs the question: How does Kac’s audience fit within his model of a highly distributed, biotech capitalist system? How might they be “enacting” the very aspects of the Western world’s dominance he pretends to critique?
Whether Kac is blind to present-day implications of the Judeo-Christian faith he quotes is not clear. From a feminist perspective, however, Kac potentially implies a relationship between the bacteria and their human facilitators, which use the same processes of cellular reproduction. In such an expanded reading, Genesis could be considered one work at the beginning of an important debate within art communities about the relationship between biotechnologies and all bodies, but particularly the human. Whenever a body “enacts” its experience through a specific circumstance it calls to, signals, or differentiates itself from those bodies around it. Specificities such as race, gender, age, anatomy, ability, and history all come into play. Within a feminist model, the importance of difference and context is recognized. Also understood are the ways through which power operates in social and representational systems. From this viewpoint, Kac’s audience asserted dominion not just because of his chosen passage, but also because their disembodied state gave them an invisibility and universality to act with impunity.
In Kac’s Genesis, humans became voyeuristic cyborgs who played out their own desires and “spliced” identities. In the guise of a project about transgenics, Kac used the Internet to turn a mirror on virtual subjects who have become instantiated in the flesh. Hayles has reflected upon the manipulative dynamics between the flesh and the virtual in an informative essay on Kac’s project entitled Who’s in Control Here. She cautions about the biosciences, foreshadowing new hierarchies generated from his proposal. “In this fusion of … biology with technology, spectators with genetically modified creatures, I think I see the future of the human… We become like the creatures upon which we gaze, biomedia created by the drive for domination and control.”7
In the millennial era, the “man/machine” interface has been upgraded to “optimized flesh.” In his definitive text on the subject, critical theorist Eugene Thacker explains, “Biomedia is generative, establishing new technical configurations in which the biological can constantly surpass itself.”8 Just as the hybrid concept seems to suggest, the term “biomedia”—including DNA chips, cloning, nanotechnology, and tissue engineering—inheres biology to technology in inextricable ways. The neologism makes both beginning and end clear: in the beginning, flesh, and then, a walking wet-lab that is itself a database of human triumph and folly. With Thacker’s definition in mind, we can see why Hayles is ultimately compelled to ask: “How will capitalism, with its insatiable appetite for commodifying media, affect the biomedia that includes our own bodies?”9 Herein Kac inadvertently presents a predicament—not of transgenic bacteria and the ethics of its observers—but of the amoebic “biomedia” that soon will be us.
New hierarchies will be established by biomedia, suggesting that as bodies increasingly are imagined to be “upgradeable” and those ameliorations are achieved through DNA synthesis, the concept of “body” itself will need to be “brought up to code.” In the cultural narrative of what constitutes a body the normative will begin to list toward those standards. This has implications for natural bodies, especially those of transgender and biological women, and even more acutely, those without the means to afford such luxury. Women already invest in normative modifications at alarming rates—breast enlargements, laser treatments, hair removal, Botox injections, etc. The market for “feminization” is booming. But in the end, this is just a pyramid scheme; the commercializing drive of biomedia will undoubtedly keep upping the ante in the beauty and sex industries. But what if women were to use their buying power for other purposes?
- Artist statement. See http://www.eaf.asn.au/biotech/kac.html.↵
- N. Katherine Hayles, “Who Is In Control Here?” The Eighth Day: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac (Tempe, Arizona: Institute for Studies in the Arts, 2003), 86.↵
- Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 14.↵
- Hayles, The Eighth Day, p. 81.↵