Monday, June 18, 2012

Bio-Art: Move 36.

The possibilities of technology are terrifying. We're afraid of either a robot apocalypse, in which the robots dominate humanity in every way, or a zombie apocalypse, in which the general populace will have even less free will than usual. Given that our cell phones and computers know every little detail about us, the former is actually more likely.

Computers are smart. Very smart. They're so smart that, in an epic chess match between chess champion Gary Kasparov and the computer Deep Blue, the computer made a subtle move that ultimately won the game instead of a faster move that would have resulted in short-term gain. Commentators and viewers were both stunned. That match in 1997 went down in history as the match between "the greatest chess player who ever lived and the greatest chess player who never lived." It was ended by the historical "Move 36."

From Kac's website.

Then Eduardo Kac made an art piece (2004), also called "Move 36," to showcase the terrifying possibility of technology rising above humanity. Wait, what? That's a plant. It's a plant on a chessboard made of sand and dirt with screens showing trippy visuals and nice lighting. Aside from the plant's positioning on the chessboard, it doesn't look like it has much to do with tech surpassing its creator.

Fear is truly skin deep with this piece. The wild type of that plant has straight leaves. Kac created a gene that made the leaves curl using a binary version of Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)." The Latin phrase was translated into binary, then four two-digit combos were linked with a nitrogen base in DNA. This single gene is what makes the piece truly work.

Descartes was the thinker largely responsible for the idea that the body and mind were separate. He called the body a "machine" that the mind was operating. (This has in turn caused a massive psychosis in Western culture, but I won't talk about the aftershock here.) It was planted right where man lost to the machine and itself blurs the boundary between animate and inanimate. On another level, having a plant with "I think therefore I am" in its veins is kinda scary in itself.No, the plant can't far as we know.

Yeah, you BETTER start worrying about vegetable rights!

Although it may seem like an abstract piece, "Move 36" is quite logical...after elaboration. There's so much explanation required that, even after hearing it, I am inclined to call this one of Kac's less-impressive pieces. It's like the rule of thumb that if you need to explain a joke, it's a bad joke; an art piece that needs explanation is barely art. The lighting is really good, and the chessboard is well-designed, but without that explanation, I sense a few head scratches. Glowing, green bunny? Awesome, I want one! RFID chip? OK, that's kinda creepy. Plant on a chessboard? Umm...whatever you say, Kac. Whatever you say.


  1. I think that's kinda fantastic! It certainly doesn't have much immediacy, but it's like a shocking statement that requires a whole argument to unpack it and realise what it's telling you.

    A bit like "I think, therefore I am" itself, or "E = m.c^2"

    But yeh, definitely need to refer to the notes for this one!

    1. *Nodnod.* Thank goodness Kac wrote an entire essay for this one!