[This text was previously published, along with an interview to Eduardo Kac that will be published later here on Noema, in the volume A. Sgamellotti, B. G. Brunetti, C. Miliani (eds.), Science and Art. The Contemporary Painted Surface, London, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020, pp. 338 – 355]
Eduardo Kac is a celebrated artists worldwide, with a research that has crossed through many techniques and art forms. Recently he created the Space Poetry and Art, with an artwork, Inner Telescope, specifically conceived for zero gravity, which was made in space . With his activity Kac has raised many nodal questions on the transformations of society and culture, in a constant creative relationship with the culture, the technology and the science of his time. In his research communication, intended as mutual information exchange, as a dialogue, as a participation, is a fundamental topic, as he points out in the enclosed interview. This aptitude makes Kac a perfect interpreter of the resources and contradictions of the contemporary, with a strong vision on how the present time can possibly develop and evolve into the future. His interest in the theory of communication, linguistics, semiotics, philosophy, as well as his knowledge of technologies and scientific disciplines, outline a complex personality of both an artist, a researcher, a scholar and a theorist. The aim of this text is not that of retracing and recapitulating Kac’s artistic activity, but to pinpoint some key elements, ideas, and artworks, which are nodal in his research and that can have an impact on culture.
Networks, interactive arts, Telepresence, Robotics
In his wide activity Eduardo Kac has been working with digital technologies, telepresence and networks. In these realms he has been especially interested in the possibilities of a “dialogue based on telecommunications, to the extent that it overcomes local boundaries and makes intersubjective experiences possible across the network on a global scale” . It is the art of networking, opposed to the “monological ideologies”  embodied by the traditional one-way television transmission. This “dialogism”, this reciprocal information exchange, that is a critical topic in networks and telecommunications, pervades all Kac’s artistic research, also outside the digital and networks realms. Along this path he identifies the potentialities of participation, of the interactive artistic forms (that he calls “dialogic electronic art” ) which tend to limit “the emphasis of visuality to give precedence to interrelation and connectivity” . A path that goes beyond the traditional idea of an art to contemplate, that introduces the use of unusual tools and techniques for art, also beyond their rules and constitutive technical aims, in order to develop a critique of the increasingly saturated and oppressive daily infosphere.
Telepresence and robotics can reveal an important artistic potential. Kac extends the meaning of the art of telepresence by defining it as “the integration of telecommunications, robotics, human-machine interfaces and computers” , enclosing it in the wider framework of interactive electronic art . In recent decades, Robotics has experienced overwhelming growth, and in its many applications and forms – industrial robotics, social robotics, biorobotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, etc. – it is going to become a pervasive and essential field in everyday life. The tendency to delegate repetitive or unattainable activities and operations to external devices created by humanity, and to which humanity has transferred its own knowledge, has been existing since a long time. Automata have been historically present in many cultures, from Europe to Islam , to China, to Japan. As well as the attempts to construct living-like entities, mythological simulacra of human and animal life. These ideas pervade the whole history of humanity: the Greek Talos, the Jewish Golem, the Medieval , Renaissance and eighteenth-century automata, the nineteenth-century Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the twentieth-century robots, the androids, cyborgs and replicants in literature and cinema, the sophisticated contemporary social and industrial robots, the explorer robots sent to Mars…
Robotics is a transdisciplinary territory which ranges from the mythological and historical traditions of many cultures to the literary and theatre narratives (in fact the word “robot” was born in theatre ), to cinema and television, to industrial applications. But it is also a transdisciplinary research field, where both humanistic and scientific disciplines collaborate: biology, physiology, psychology, philosophy, automation, electronics, artificial life, artificial intelligence, physics, computer science, mathematics, mechanics… Since the end of the 1950s and the experiences of kinetic art, robotic art (or “cybernetic art”, as it was initially called) has often hybridized with traditional art forms, like performance, installations, dance, theatre. And also telepresence and telecommunication, like in Eduardo Kac’s artworks Ornitorrinco (1989) and Rara Avis (1996) .
The art of telepresence highlights the aspects of relationship, the dialogical opportunities. It can have a critical and social value, being
[…] a means for questioning the unidirectional communication structures that mark both traditional fine arts (painting, sculpture) and mass media (television, radio). I see telepresence art as a way to express on an aesthetic level the cultural changes brought about by remote control, remote vision, telekinesis, and real-time exchange of audiovisual information. I see telepresence art as challenging the teleological nature of technology. To me, telepresence art creates a unique context in which participants are invited to experience invented remote worlds from perspectives and scales other than the human. 
According to Kac, this “space of reciprocity”, which due to digital technologies and telepresence undergoes a profound transformation, constitutes a key element. The “real space” and the very notion of distance become progressively irrelevant , while the image, and more generally the narration, replaces the real by implementing the predominance “of the effect of reality on the principle of reality” .
Recently, many digital-based technologies have emerged. Among them Augmented Reality, which interactively and in real time adds symbolic information layers to the environment; Big Data, that are technologies to analyze or extract information from data sets that are too large to manage using common data-processing applications; the Internet of Things (IoT, and its evolution, the Internet of Everything, IoE), which interconnects objects, tools and devices allowing them to exchange data and take an active role; the development of industrial, social and personal robotics, with increasingly autonomous and economic devices and vehicles. Moreover, a number of applications can combine these technologies with Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Life, Deep Learning and Machine Learning, with increasingly sophisticated algorithms, multiplying the possibilities and at the same time raising troubles of a social, cultural and political nature: let’s think, for example, about the security and privacy related issues.
The art of the living
I was directly involved for the first time in Eduardo Kac’s activity in 2000. I knew his long and multifaceted activity, but at that time I got directly in touch with it. In fact in 2000 I was involved in Cafe9.net, a pilot project supported by the European Community and the Youth for Europe Project that interconnected, in a creative both physical and Internet-based network, the European Cities of Culture for the year 2000: Avignon, Bergen, Bologna, Bruxelles, Helsinki, Krakov, Prague and Reykjavik. I was the director and content manager for the activities of the city of Bologna, and we organized and shared many cultural events, concerts, discussions, exhibitions, many of them about art. In September 2000 an event was dedicated to bioart, in particular to transgenic art, that we organized in teleconference with Avignon. Participants were Louis Bec – the great zoosystematicien, scientist and artist engaged in the realm of Artificial Life, died in 2018, who was my French colleague in Cafe9.net as well as at that time the director of the partner cultural venue of Avignon – and of one of the two scientists who technically created GFP Bunny, named Alba [Fig. 1, 2], the green fluorescent rabbit-chimera that Kac publicly revealed. Louis Bec was deeply involved in this project, and we had a wide discussion about bioart, and in particular on transgenic art. We also debated on the fact that, although Kac’s bio-media performance had become very famous, it was hardly criticized, and Alba was never publicly showed in any exhibition and event because of the protests of many organizations. We also discussed on why art is generally considered as inappropriate and inadequate to discuss about science in the biotech realm, and to creatively act inside this field.
In particular by the end of June 2000, just two months before the beginning of Cafe9.net, I received an e-mail from Louis Bec reporting that Alba had been censored, it was forbidden to participate to the public exhibition “Artransgénique” in Avignon, the French partner city in Cafe9.net. The e-mail also contained an invitation to collaborate and share this information and the topics that bioart raised. So some days after, along with a text by Eduardo Kac about Alba and transgenic art  and with the call by Louis Bec , I published an article in Noema . Those were probably the first articles about bioart published in Italy.
[…] Alba (or GFP Bunny) opens up new art horizons but also rises new questions. Given that its life is respected, as it seems evident from Eduardo Kac’s text, we could ask: do we have the right to do so? And, more specifically: art, which by definition is mainly considered as having no scientific, practical or utilitarian purposes that can justify this kind of experimentation, but cultural scopes, has the right to participate in this discussion?
You know what we think: art has always used technologies, even against the culture that opposed them. Why there should there be a censure for some technologies? Where is the contradiction?
Alba, like all interesting art, actually leads away from art, with its provocative existence it contributes to undermining some fundamental concepts and highlights contradictions, hypocrisies and questions on which our culture is based on (including the idea of “artificial” as opposed to “natural”, the centrality of human culture, ethics, the idea of “life”, the meaning of “nature” and “art”…). Alba points out to an uncomfortable reality, destined to grow in the future, at the end of which for now there are only nuanced distinctions that sound more as prejudice, sophistry, ideology or religion rather than reason or science. So let’s open this discussion, that in the past has engaged us and will engage our culture in the years to come. We believe it would be very interesting if Noema readers could express their thoughts.  […]
Eduardo Kac’s activity on bioart, and especially the Alba affair, promoted a wide discussion worldwide about biotechnologies and genetic engineering. Alba even appeared on the first page of Le Monde  and it was cited in many international magazines. In 2000 biotechnologies and genetics were under suspicion and their use in art was considered as bizarre and even nasty, an experiment to reject and lock up in the room of horrors. Biotechnologies and genetics evoked awful ghosts such as eugenics and bacteriological war. As reported in many texts of that period, the artists working in this field by modifying and even creating living organisms made of the very matter and dynamics of the living organisms, humans enclosed, were “playing God”, were playing with life.
These art forms also forced to reconsider art history and the art forms who used living beings and organic matter as tools and substance to create, like performance, land art, ecological art for example [Fig. 3]. Bioarts were apart from the classic tools and matter of art, likes brushes, canvases, colors, stones, metals, wood, plastics… They were also apart from the digital-based art forms, like the computer generated arts, the algorithmic and interactive arts, the network art processes, although sometimes they can be involved and integrated in the bio-creations. And they were apart from the Artificial Intelligence art constructs, from the Artificial Life applications, from the automated devices and the robotic entities simulating or emulating the living, as art has always done since its beginning. One of the first exhibitions on bioart, “L’art biotech’”, was held in Nantes in 2003, curated by Jens Hauser. 
Bioarts can be a tool to discuss many nodal issues of the contemporary that cannot be as effectively represented and discussed with other art forms. Like the impact of the human culture on the ecosphere; the killing and extermination of other species; the ability of humanity to genetically modify the living, as it has happened with many tools since prehistory; the historical idea of humanity at the top of the pyramid of the living; a critique of anthropocentrism… These topics are present in Eduardo Kac’s artworks. In Genesis [Fig.4], 1999, he criticizes a verse of the Book of Genesis which puts humanity at the top of the pyramid of the living, giving it a supremacy over all living beings:
Let us make man in our image, like us: and let him have rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every living thing which goes flat on the earth. 
Kac creates a synthetic artist gene, non-existent in nature, transducing that verse into the Morse code – which in Kac’s idea represents the dawn of the information age – and then in the DNA code, which is inserted into a population of bacteria through the four nitrogenous bases (Cytosine, Thymine, Adenine and Guanine). In the same Petri dish coexist cyan (which also contain the synthetic gene) and yellow fluorescent mutant bacteria, which may or may not generate a mixture of colors (green). The synthetic gene – and therefore the verse from the Book of Genesis – can mutate both as a result of the normal multiplication process, both because of the interaction between bacteria, and for a human intervention. The latter can be done by activating via a Web interface an ultraviolet light source targeted to the bacteria. The installation allows participants to monitor the evolution of bacteria both locally, in the gallery, and remotely through a video camera [Fig. 5].
The set – consisting of a Petri dish with the bacteria, a video camera and a source of ultraviolet rays – is connected to a video projector and two networked computers. One of them acts as a Web server streaming live audio and video, and manages the remote requests for activating the ultraviolet source. The other computer coordinates the DNA musical synthesis (the music is generated live in the gallery and sent online through multiplication and mutation algorithms). Thanks to the video camera the video projection in the gallery shows the interactions among the bacteria and their multiplication. The ultraviolet light, remotely activated by the users, causes the bacteria to emit visible cyan and yellow light, and disrupts the DNA sequence by accelerating the mutation rate. According to Kac, the triple system of Genesis codes – natural language, DNA code and binary logic – explores the fact that today biological processes have become writable and programmable, able to store and process data similarly to digital computers.
At the end of the exhibition the verse of the Book of Genesis is decoded, transduced and read in English, and the mutations that have deconstructed the initial text are highlighted .
Looking into the future
In the last ten years many important acquisitions have emerged in the field of life sciences. A growing importance has been recognized to the role of bacteria, in the environment as well as inside the organisms, to an extent that they can be considered as peculiar markers of the individuals and able to influence their behavior. Synthetic Biology  has become a widespread practice to modify and create living organisms for many purposes, for example in medicine. Genetic engineering has considerably accelerated thanks to CRISPR-Cas9 , an easy-to-use, economical and powerful genomic editing technique that in a few years has revolutionized life sciences, with the related ethical concerns for its potential use on humans . Finally, since a few years, De-Extinction  promises to revive extinct animals and plants with technologies ranging from the more traditional ones, like breeding and selection, to genetic engineering. A sort of Jurassic Park – related idea but with more recent creatures.
Today the bio-based disciplines – and their applications in medicine, in the environment, in life sciences, in the study of evolution, up to the merge with robotics and digital devices – are among the most active fields of research, and biology has emerged from being an exclusive scientific dimension to a cultural paradigm. Although sometimes they are still considered with suspicion, genetics and biotechnology give birth to many useful and often vital practical applications.
In the art realm what two decades ago was considered as bizarre or monstrous is now a wide and complex field through which looking into the future. There are many artists, events and exhibitions, many books and essays have been published, there is an important international discussion. The bioarts have emerged from the fence of curiosities to reach museums and galleries, also in a dialogue with other art forms, with philosophy, with scientific, cultural and social issues. In the last years many important exhibitions, events, conferences and publications worldwide have raised new perspectives in the fields of philosophy, art and culture. Like “NeoLife”, at the University of Western Australia in Perth , organized by Oron Catts and SymbioticA, on the emergence of new life forms, which included a conference curated by the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts and some workshops and exhibitions on the sciences and the arts of life. The events “Limits of the Human: Human, Inhuman, Overhuman, Antihuman”, at the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Moscow, curated by Dmitry Bulatov and Madina Tlostanova , a series of conferences and exhibitions on the human nature and the meaning of the human beyond the idea of being a measure of all things, and on recognizing within the human things that are normally considered outside it. The special issue of the French magazine mcd – magazine des cultures digitales  dedicated to life-based art forms, curated by Annick Bureaud. The exhibition “La Fabrique du vivant” , in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, on the relationships between the living and the artificial, on the processes of artificial recreation of life, on the manipulation of the living matter and on the hybridization of organic and industrial matter, of animal and plant cells.
The topics and fields of investigation have expanded, multiplied and deepened, connecting apparently distant areas: for example by scrolling through the “NeoLife” lectures there are topics such as anthropology, design, nutrition, ethology, ethics, biopolitics, patentability, copyright, law, literature, theater, De-Extinction…
The bioarts have also entered the world of traditional art, which has always used the organic matter, the body and the environment to create. And since biotechnologies are becoming increasingly common, maybe in a near future the word “biotech” might disappear from the name of these art forms. Moreover, the biotech art forms can hybridize with the Net, the storage, archive, management and visualization systems, with Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, the Internet of Things, Artificial Life, Robotics, Synthetic Biology. This evolution is going to increase the complexity of the field, and contributes to the rise of new life forms created or managed by the human culture: a sort of “Third Life” , being the “First Life” the organic life and the “Second Life” the life in the symbolic realm.
1) Inner Telescope is aboard the International Space Station. It was specifically conceived for zero gravity and it was made in space following the artist’s instructions. See the enclosed interview and Kac’s website, http://www.ekac.org/spacepoetry.html (accessed 21/03/19). [back]
2) Eduardo Kac, Telepresence & Bio Art. Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 104. [back]
3) Ibidem. [back]
4) Eduardo Kac, op.cit., p. 103. [back]
5) Ibidem. [back]
6) Eduardo Kac, op.cit., p. 138. [back]
7) Ibidem. [back]
8) From 31/10/2015 to 28/02/2016 at the ZKM in Karlsruhe has been performed an exhibition on Medieval Arab automata. See the catalogue: Siegfried Zielinski, Peter Weibel (eds.), Allah’s Automata. Artifacts of the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (800–1200), Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz, 2015. [back]
9) Elly R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. [back]
10) “Robot” is from the Czech word robota, which means “heavy labor” or “forced labor”, introduced in 1920 by the writer Karel Čapek in the three-act drama R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti). [back]
11) Eduardo Kac, “Ornitorrinco and Rara Avis: Telepresence Art on the Internet”, Leonardo, vol. 29, n. 5, 1996, pp. 389–400. Also in Eduardo Kac, Telepresence & Bio Art. Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2005, in particular the Chapter II, “Telepresence Art and Robotics”, pp. 125–214. [back]
12) Eduardo Kac, Telepresence & Bio Art. Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots, op.cit., p. 139. [back]
13) Eduardo Kac, op.cit., p. 142. [back]
14) Eduardo Kac, op.cit., p. 144. [back]
15) Peter T. Dobrila (ed.), Eduardo Kac: Telepresence, Biotelematics, and Transgenic Art, Maribor, Kibla, 2000. [back]
16) Louis Bec, “Le lapin fluorescent”, Noema, online, https://noemalab.eu/org/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/bec.html, June 2000 [accessed 10/12/2018]. The texts by Eduardo Kac and Louis Bec published in Noema can be reached from here: https://noemalab.eu/org/sections/ideas/ideas_3.html. [back]
17) Pier Luigi Capucci, “Alba, arte transgenica, arte del vivente”, Noema, online, https://noemalab.eu/org/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/alba.html, June 2000 [accessed 22/02/2019]. [back]
18) Ibidem. Translation into English by the author of this text. [back]
19) W.A., “Lapin Fluo”, Le Monde, 5 October 2000, p. 1. [back]
20) The catalog of the exhibition: Jens Hauser (ed.), L’art biotech’, Nantes, Filigranes Editions, 2003. An expanded Italian edition of this catalog, curated by Per Luigi Capucci and Franco Torriani, was published in 2007: Jens Hauser (ed.), Art Biotech, Bologna, CLUEB-mediaversi, 2007. [back]
21) Genesis, 1, 26. [back]
22) Eduardo Kac, “Genesis”, op.cit., pp. 249–263. Pier Luigi Capucci, “Art as a philosophy of contemporaneity. Poetics of complexity, Third Life, locality and universality”, in Pier Luigi Capucci, Giorgio Cipolletta (eds.), The New and History. art*science 2017 Conference Proceedings, Ravenna, Noema Media & Publishing, 2018, pp. 49–62. [back]
23) On Synthetic Biology W.W. Gibbs. “Synthetic Life”, Scientific American, 2004, 290, 75–81; David Baker et al., “Engineering life: Building a fab for biology”, Scientific American, 2006, 294:6, 44–51. [back]
24) On CRISPR-Cas9 see the dedicated section of Le Scienze, n. 572, April 2016, pp. 28–47. [back]
25) In 2015 in China for the first time this technique was used to intervene on a “non-vital” human embryo: Puping Liang et al., “CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes”, Protein Cell, April 2015, pp. 363–372, also online http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13238-015-0153-5 (last access 10/02/19). [back]
26) About De-Extinction Beth Shapiro, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015, and the website http://reviverestore.org (last access 8/03/19). [back]
27) http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/activities/symposiums/neolife-slsa-2015 (last access 10/02/19). [back]
28) http://www.ncca.ru/en/events.text?filial=2&id=1500 and http://thehumancondition.ru/page?en&mid=209&id=78 (last access 11/01/19). [back]
31) About the Third Life: Pier Luigi Capucci, “From life to life. The multiplicity of the living”, in Roy Ascott, Gerald Bast, Wolfgang Fiel, Margarete Jahrmann, Ruth Schnell (eds.), New Realities: Being Syncretic, Vienna, Springer-Verlag, 2009, pp. 56–59; Pier Luigi Capucci, “Declinations of the living: Toward the Third Life”, in Dmitry Bulatov (ed.), Evolution Haute Couture. Art and Science in the Post-Biological Age, Kaliningrad, BB NCCA, 2013, pp. 50–63. Pier Luigi Capucci, “Art as a philosophy of contemporaneity. Poetics of complexity, Third Life, locality and universality”, in Pier Luigi Capucci, Giorgio Cipolletta (eds.), The New and History. art*science 2017 Conference Proceedings, Ravenna, Noema Media & Publishing, 2018, pp. 49–62. [back]