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A ‘Holopoem’ for the Cosmos

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The artist Eduardo Kac was at his New York gallery the other day to show a reporter his work: a hologram encoded on a sliver of glass resting inside a tiny metal case. This little package is the capstone of Kac’s career to date — an artifact he created in 1986 that is now, finally, about to find its intended home in space. On Jan. 8 it is scheduled to be on board a Vulcan Centaur rocket as it lifts off from Cape Canaveral and heads into orbit around the sun. This holographic artwork — a “holopoem,” Kac calls it — might or might not be discovered hundreds of thousands of years from now by whatever creatures are around to find it. But for the moment it was here at the Henrique Faria gallery just off Madison Avenue, about to be viewed by a human.

Gingerly, I took the little round case. “OK,” Kac said. “You just have to, like, unscrew it.”

“Unscrew it?” The thing was barely more than half an inch in diameter and had no obvious grips.

I gave it a try. Immediately it went clattering to the floor.

Kac (pronounced Katz) seemed unruffled. “This thing is titanium 5” — the strongest titanium alloy there is. He opened it deftly.

The tiny square of glass inside looked pristine, untouched. But when Kac held it up between thumb and forefinger and aimed a small, hand-held laser at it, the word AGORA appeared in lurid green letters on the opposite wall. This is his holopoem: In his native Portuguese it means “now.” But the name engraved on the outside of the titanium case is ÁGORA — a subtle but important distinction. With the accent mark, the word in Portuguese changes meaning, from “now” to “place,” as in the ancient Greek word “agora” for “gathering place.” (The Greek agora was akin to the Roman forum.)

So the holopoem refers to time, and it refers to space. Space/time. In perpetual orbit around the sun.

“Kac has always been interested in radically new forms of distribution, but this really takes it to a new level,” said Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art. “It completely resituates how we think about art, language, communication — we’re not communicating very well, so why not try space?”

Kac assumes his holopoem will eventually be discovered by some indeterminate species he calls “homo spaciens”: space people. As for when, he knows better than to hurry. “It’s like you have a gallery exhibition and nobody has showed up for the opening,” he said. “But it’s a permanent show, so you hope that in the course of time they’ll come.”

His primary concern appears to be not time but space. “Putting an art piece deep into the cosmos is an attempt — it’s creating this public space by the sheer act of making the work in it,” he said. This is not the first time he has sought to create a public space, an agora. “But now, with this space poem, my agora is the cosmos.”

Kac first ventured into public space, and into the art world, as a 17-year-old in Rio de Janeiro. That’s when he founded the Porn Art Movement with a friend. It was 1980, toward the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship. The Porn Art Movement wasn’t actually about pornography; it was more subversive than that. In his “Pornogram 1,” for instance, a nude Kac sprawled seductively before the camera, his hairy legs parted just enough to reveal a plausibly rendered vagina. Almost as radical was the idea of performing in public, because under military rule any form of assembly was forbidden. Public space did not legally exist. So Kac put on a pink miniskirt and staged guerilla performances in Rio’s central square and on the beach at Ipanema. He had a couple of run-ins with the military police, but nothing he wasn’t able to talk his way out of.

“Paulo Freire had the pedagogy of the oppressed,” he told me, citing the leftist philosopher. “Then you had the theology of liberation. I created the pornography of emancipation.”

Kac was brought up by his maternal grandparents in the fashionable, high-rise beach district of Copacabana. Polish Jewish refugees who had arrived in Brazil in 1939, they supported his unorthodox pursuits. They funded a book of his porn art poetry. His grandfather even came to the print shop to make sure the job was done properly. “The issue for them was, How is this kid going to survive? With art and poetry? The fact that I was dealing with the body and wearing a miniskirt — that they weren’t worried about.”

Enrolling in a Catholic university in Rio, Kac found its art and literature programs unbearably conservative. He settled on communications because that would open the door to other disciplines — sociology, anthropology, semiotics, cinema, philosophy.

By 1982, he was getting into digital technology. Years earlier, when he was 12, he’d devoured an encyclopedia of current affairs that had entries on such subjects as cybernetics, digital art and holography, whose inventor, Dennis Gabor, had recently won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work. Back then, digital art had to be created on a mainframe; by the 1980s Kac could make art on a personal computer or on the Minitel, the French videotex service, a version of which was available in Brazil. And that meant his agora was no longer Ipanema Beach or Cinelândia Square. His agora was bigger, broader — the network.

Examples of his Minitel art are now in the permanent collections of MoMA and the Tate. Even as he was programming the Minitel, however, Kac began experimenting with holopoems. In 1986 he was granted a residency at the Museum of Holography in New York, where he created “Ágora.” But when he returned to Rio and tried to set up his own holography lab, he found nothing but frustration. He wasn’t able to get the materials he needed. His laser stopped working. One of the most advanced holography labs for art practice was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So he moved to Chicago, got his Master of Fine Arts in 1990, started teaching there a few years later, and has remained on its faculty since.

Kac created 24 holopoems between 1983 and 1993. He also started experimenting with telepresence and robotics, and then with what he calls “bio-art.” This culminated in a blaze of controversy over Alba, the “GFP Bunny,” a cute little albino rabbit that, thanks to some fancy gene-splicing, turned fluorescent green when you put her under blue light.

Meanwhile, the excitement that had greeted holography in the ’70s and 1980s was fading. The Museum of Holography shut its doors in 1992. The C-Project, an ambitious program that had artists like Louise Bourgeois and James Turrell experimenting with holography, started up in 1994 but shut down five years later. A second Museum of Holography, this one in Chicago, hung on until 2009. Today the scene is in limbo. It twitches occasionally: a show at the New Museum in New York in 2012, a C-Project exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles next summer. “It’s not dead,” said Matthew Schreiber, a holographic artist who worked on the C-Project and maintains his own holography lab in Brooklyn. “It’s just kinda very small.” And Kac? “Wherever’s the bleeding edge of technology, that’s where Eduardo is.”

These days, that seems to be space. Kac’s first work to venture beyond Earth was “Inner Telescope,” a paper sculpture that was developed under the auspices of the cultural arm of France’s National Center for Space Studies and realized in 2017 by Thomas Pesquet, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. That took him 10 years to arrange. A tiny work on glass, “Adsum,” is planned for the surface of the moon in 2025. If the Vulcan Centaur launches on schedule on Jan. 8 and successfully enters solar orbit a few weeks later, he will finally have accomplished the goal he set for “Ágora” in 1986. “I conceived the work for deep space,” he said. “And since that moment, I have been trying to find a way to complete it.”

It will be the Vulcan Centaur’s maiden voyage. The rocket system was developed by United Launch Alliance, based in Centennial, Colo., a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that competes with SpaceX and others for contracts from NASA and the Defense Department. Its main payload will be a lunar lander that’s scheduled to to separate from the Centaur V upper stage 92 minutes and 20.9 seconds after liftoff to make a moon delivery for NASA. The Centaur V upper-stage rocket and its forward adapter will continue into deep space, settling into orbit around the sun with a “memorial payload” for Celestis, a Houston-based company that’s in the business of sending tiny smidgens of human remains into the cosmos.

Among those whose heirs have tucked them atop the rocket’s second stage, fellow travelers with the holopoem, are the Apollo 14 astronaut Philip Chapman, the “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife, Majel, and the actors who played three key characters in the original “Star Trek” series — Lieutenant Uhura, Lieutenant Commander Scott and Dr. “Bones” McCoy.

The correlation of “Ágora” with science fiction seems appropriate. “I am still astounded by the technology that Eduardo uses so brilliantly in that work,” said Jenny Moore, who curated the holography show at the New Museum and now heads Tinworks Art, a new exhibition space in Bozeman, Mont. “And what a brilliant time for it to meet its moment,” she added — in the wake of the extraordinary success of the James Webb Space Telescope, whose images are taking us ever closer to the moment of the Big Bang. Even so, Moore points out, entering into orbit will not actually complete the work.

“Will it be perceived by some other entities?” Moore said. “Think about the Rosetta Stone — how is that word going to be received? Because until it’s perceived, its potential is still unfulfilled.”

Neither Kac nor the rest of us will be around for the answer.

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