Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits and Robots

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For nearly two decades Eduardo Kac has been at the cutting edge of media art, first inventing early online artworks for the web and continuously developing new art forms that involve telecommunications and robotics as a new platform for art. Interest in telepresence, also known as telerobotics, exploded in the 1990s, and remains an important development in media art. Since that time, Kac has increasingly moved into the fields of biology and biotechnology.

Telepresence and Bio Art is the first book to document the evolution of bio art and the aesthetic development of Kac, the creator of the "artist's gene" as well as the controversial glow-in-the-dark, genetically engineered rabbit Alba. Kac covers a broad range of topics within media art, including telecommunications media, interactive systems and the Internet, telematics and robotics, and the contact between electronic art and biotechnology. Addressing emerging and complex topics, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary art.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472098101
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2005
  • Series: Studies in Literature and Science Series
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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Telepresence & Bio Art
Networking Humans, Rabbits, & Robots

By Kac Eduardo
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09810-1

Chapter One The Aesthetics of Telecommunications

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, but particularly since the early 1980s, increasing numbers of artists around the world have worked in collaborative mode with telecommunications. In their "works," which we shall refer to as "events," images and graphics are not created as the ultimate goal or the final product, as is common in the fine arts. Employing computers, video, modems, and other devices, these artists use visuals as part of a much larger, interactive, bi-directional communication context. Images and graphics are created not simply to be transmitted by an artist from one point to another but to spark a multidirectional visual dialogue with other artists and participants in remote locations. This visual dialogue assumes that images will be changed and transformed throughout the process as much as speech gets interrupted, complemented, altered, and reconfigured in a spontaneous face-to-face conversation. Once an event is over, images and graphics stand not as the "result" but as documentation of the process of visual dialogue promoted by the participants.

This unique ongoing experimentation with images and graphics develops and expands the notion of visual thinking by relying primarily on the exchange and manipulation of visual materials as a means of communication. The art events created by telematic or telecommunications artists take place as a movement that animates and sets off balance networks structured with relatively accessible interactive media such as telephone, facsimile (fax), personal computers, modems, and slow-scan television (SSTV). More rarely, radio, live television, videophones, satellites, and other less accessible means of communication come into play. But to identify the media employed in these "events" is not enough. Instead, one must do away with prejudices that cast off these media from the realm of "legitimate" artistic media and investigate these events as equally legitimate artistic enterprises.

This chapter partially surveys the history of the field and discusses art events that were either motivated by or conceived especially for telecommunications media, attempting to show the transition from the early stages, when the telephone and radio provided writers and artists with a new spatiotemporal paradigm, to a second stage, in which new telecommunications media, including computer networks, became more accessible to individuals and artists started to create events, sometimes of global proportions, in which the communication process itself became the work.

Telecommunications art on the whole is, perhaps, a culmination of the reduction of the role of the art object in the aesthetic experience epitomized by Duchamp and pursued worldwide by artists associated with the conceptual art movement who embraced mass media. If the object is totally eliminated and the artists are absent as well, the aesthetic debate finds itself beyond action as form, beyond idea as art. It founds itself in the relationships and interactions between members of a network.

Art and Telecommunications

One must try to understand the cultural dimensions of new forms of communication as they emerge in innovative artworks that are not experienced or enjoyed as unidirectional messages. The complexity of the contemporary social scene permeated by electronic media, where the flux of information becomes the very fabric of reality, calls for a reevaluation of traditional aesthetics and opens the field for new developments. In other words, to address the aesthetics of telecommunications is to see how it affected and affects more traditional arts. It is also to investigate to what extent the context for a new art is created by the merger of computers and telecommunications. The new media that artists will be working with more and more must be identified, then, in the intersection between the new electronic processes of visual and linguistic virtualization brought irreversibly by telecommunications and the personal computer (word processing, graphic programs, animation programs, fax/modems, satellites, teleconferencing, etc.) and the residual forms that resulted from the process of dematerialization of the art object, from Duchamp to conceptual art (language, video, electronic displays, printing techniques, happenings, mail art, etc.).

This new immaterial art is collaborative and interactive and abolishes the state of unidirectionality traditionally characteristic of literature and art. Its elements are text, sound, image, and eventually virtual touch based on force-feedback devices. These elements are out of balance; they are signs that are already shifting as gestures, as eye contact, as transfigurations of perpetually unfulfilled meaning. What is commuted is changed, rechanged, exchanged. One must explore this new art in its own terms, that is, understanding its proper context (the information society) and the theories (poststructuralism, chaos theory, culture studies) that inform its questioning of notions such as subject, object, space, time, culture, and human communication. The forum where this new art operates is not the materially stable pictorial space of painting nor the Euclidean space of sculptural form; it is the electronic virtual space of telematics where signs are afloat, where interactivity destroys the contemplative notion of beholder or connoisseur to replace it with the experiential notion of user or participant. The aesthetics of telecommunications operates the necessary move from pictorial representation to communicational experience.

Two of the most interesting forms of communication that seem to do away with the old addresser-addressee model proposed by Shannon and Weaver and reinforced by Jakobson are on-line message boards and conference calling. With on-line message boards a user can post up a message and leave it adrift in electronic space, without necessarily sending it to a specific addressee. Then another user, or several other users at the same time, can access this message and answer it, or change it, or add a comment, or incorporate this message into a larger and new context-in a process that has no end. The closed message as identity of the subject is potentially dissolved and lost in the signifying vortex of the network. If real time is not crucial for posting messages, the same cannot be said about conference calling, where three or more people engage in exchanges that don't have to be limited to voice. If the linear model goes as far as allowing for addresser to become addressee when the poles are reverted, this multidirectional and interconnected model melts the boundaries that used to separate sender and receiver. It configures a space with no linear poles in which multilateral discussion replaces alternate monologues, a space with nodes that point in several directions where everybody is simultaneously (and not alternately) both addresser and addressee. This is not a pictorial or volumetric space, but an aporetic space of information in flux, a disseminated hyperspace that does away with the topological rigidity of the linear model. It shares the properties of nonlinear systems, such as found in hypermedia or in the statistical self-similarity of fractals, as opposed to the linear surfaces of painting. It is here, possibly, that artists can intervene critically and suggest a redefinition of the framework and the role of telematics, exhibiting that antagonistic forces mutually constitute each other. What we used to call true and real is and has always been reciprocally and dynamically, in its play of differences, constituted by what we used to call false and unreal. Cultural values are also questioned, since the structures that privileged one culture over the others are conceptually challenged, bringing cultural differences to the forefront. Artists can also show, by working with new media, what role the new media play in forming or preserving stable structures that form the self, that model communication, and that ultimately create social relations (including relations of authority and power).

In like manner, artist and audience are also constructed in this play of differences. If the mass-produced printed book would generate both the notions of author and audience, associating control over the distribution of printed information with power, the disseminated play of meaning of telematic networks potentially dissolves both without fully establishing the integrated, harmonized, aural global village dreamed of by McLuhan. If telecommunications is that which brings people closer, it also is that which keeps them apart. If telematics is that which makes information accessible to everyone at any moment regardless of geographic frontiers, it also is that which makes certain kinds of data generated by particular groups in certain formats accessible to people involved with specific institutions. That which brings people closer is also what keeps them away; that which asks is also what affirms certain values implicit in the framing of the question. If there is no end to this play, to this motion, there must be awareness of its context-but then again awareness is not removed from this motion through which it is also configured.

To the linear model of communication, which privileges the artist as the codifier of messages (paintings, sculptures, texts, photographs), telematics opposes a multidirectional model of communication, one where the artist is creator of contexts, facilitator of interactions. If in the first case messages have physical and semiological integrity and are open only to the extent they allow for different interpretations, in the second case it is not mere semantical ambivalence that characterizes the significational openness. The openness of the second case is that which strives to neutralize closed systems of meaning and provide the former viewer (now transformed into user, participant, or network member) with the same manipulation tools and codes at the artist's disposal so that the meaning can be negotiated between both. This is not a simple inversion of poles, as proposed by Enzensberger, but an attempt to acknowledge and operate within a signification process that is dynamic, destabilized, and multivocal; within a signification process based not on the opposition artist/audience but on the differences and identities they share. Messages are not "works" but a part of larger communicational contexts and can be changed, altered, and manipulated virtually by anybody.

One of the problematic issues here is that the dissolution of the artist in the user and vice versa would take away from artists their privileged position as senders or addressers, because there is no more message or work of art as such. It is clear that most artists are not prepared to or interested in giving up this hierarchy because it undermines the practice of art as a profitable activity and the social distinction associated with notions such as skill, craft, individuality, artistic genius, inspiration, and personality. The artist, after all, is someone who sees himself or herself as somebody who should be heard, as somebody who has something important to say, something important to transmit to society. On the other hand, one can ask to what extent artists who create telecommunications events don't restore the same hierarchy they seem to negate by presenting themselves as the organizers or directors or creators of the events they promote-in other words, as the central figures from which meaning irradiates. As it seems, while a television director works in collaborative fashion with tens or hundreds of people without ever giving up the responsibility for the outcome of the work, the artist (context-creator) who produces telecommunications events sets a network without fully controlling the flux of signs through it. The artist working with telecommunications media gives up his or her responsibility for the "work," to present the event as that which restores or tries to restore the responsibility (in Baudrillard's sense) of the media.

I must observe that a commitment to this change in the processes and issues of art is identifiable not only in the present chapter and in other texts of mine on the subject but also in the writings of other artists who address the aesthetics of communications at large and of telecommunications or telematics in particular, including Roy Ascott, Bruce Breland, Karen O'Rourke, Eric Gidney, and Fred Forest. Artists are endowed with instruments with which they reflect on contemporary issues, such as cultural relativism, scientific indeterminacy, the political economy of the information age, literary deconstruction, and the decentralization of knowledge; artists are able to respond to these issues with the same material (hardware) and immaterial (software) means that other social spheres employ in their activities, in their communion and isolation. If actual walls are falling (the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain), and so are metaphorical walls (telematic space, virtual reality, telepresence), one cannot simply overlook or overestimate these historical and technical achievements. It is not with sheer enthusiasm for new tools that the artist will work with communication technologies, but with a critical, skeptical approach concerning the logic of mediation they entail. This means not ignoring that utopias of ubiquitous electronically mediated communication necessarily exclude those cultures and countries that, usually for political and economic reasons, don't have the same or compatible technologies and therefore cannot participate in any global exchange.

Let us suppose that in a not so distant future Jaron Lanier's dream of "post-symbolic" communication becomes possible. This hypothetical situation could be a viable approach to the problem of linguistic barriers (including language impairment), but it would be no different from other cases of economic segregation, given that even basic telephone technology is full of serious problems in most developing countries. If telecommunications art will not simply neglect the contradictions inherent in the media and in other technological monopolies present in late capitalist societies, I still like to think that perhaps freer forms of communication can emerge out of new interactive artistic practices that make the process of symbolic exchange the very realm of its experience.

Disembodied Voices

An assessment of the parallel development of telecommunications media and new art forms throughout the twentieth century reveals an interesting transition: one first sees the impact of new media on much older forms, such as radio influencing theater; later, it is possible to detect more experimental uses of these media. At last, artists master the new electronic media and explore their interactive and communicational potential. In this perspective, radio is the first electronic mass communications medium used by artists.

In the late 1920s commercialization of the airwaves was in its infancy. Radio was a new medium that captured the imagination of listeners with an auditory space capable of evoking mental images with no spatiotemporal limits. A remote and undetected source of sound dissociated from optical images, radio opened listeners to their own mindscapes, enveloping them in an acoustic space that could provide both socialization and private experiences. Radio was also the first true electronic mass medium, capable of remotely addressing millions at once, as opposed to newspapers and cinema, for example, which were only available to a local audience.

In 1928 German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941) was invited by the Berlin Broadcasting System to create a piece for radio. Ruttmann had already achieved international recognition for his abstract animated films, such as Opus I, II, III, and IV, which pioneered the genre and anticipated computer animation by half a century. His experimental documentary Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) also was acclaimed worldwide and, together with the forerunner "Rien que les heures" (1926), by Alberto Cavalcanti, inspired a whole generation of filmmakers who then created filmic "city symphonies." In addition to his contribution to filmmaking, Ruttmann's innovative work for radio would open the airwaves to the aesthetics of the avant-garde, challenging the standardization of programming imposed by commercial imperatives.


Excerpted from Telepresence & Bio Art by Kac Eduardo
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I Telecommunications, dialogism, and Internet art 1
1 The aesthetics of telecommunications (1992) 3
2 The Internet and the future of art (1997) 59
3 Beyond the screen : interactive art (1998) 88
4 Negotiating meaning : the dialogic imagination in electronic art (1999) 103
II Telepresence art and robotics 125
5 Toward telepresence art (1992) 127
6 Telepresence art (1993) 136
7 Telepresence art on the Internet (1996) 155
8 The origin and development of robotic art (1997) 168
9 Live from Mars (1997) 187
10 Dialogic telepresence art and Net ecology (2000) 191
III Bio art 215
11 The emergence of biotelematics and biorobotics : integrating biology, information processing, networking, and robotics (1997) 217
12 Transgenic art (1998) 236
13 Genesis (1999) 249
14 GFP bunny (2000) 264
15 The eighth day (2001) 286
16 Move 36 (2002) 295
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