Originally published in The New Yorker Magazine, October 2, 2000, pp. 144-146.



DNART

Peter Schjeldahl

Here's how the artist Eduardo Kac made one of the works in "Paradise Now", a show at
Exit Art in which thirty-nine artists address themes of genetics and biotechnology.
Kac condensed a verse from Genesis: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
He translated it first into Morse code, and then, using a system of his own devising,
into four-lettered genetic code. With the sequence that resulted -- "GTCCA" and so on,
very catch -- he fashioned a gene and introduced it into live bacteria. Kac cultured
the bacteria in a petri dish, which he rigged with a video camera. The apparatus
occupies an elegantly designed booth in this show. A magnified, real-time image of the
microbe colony is projected onto the wall and, at the same time, broadcast on the
Internet. Kac's Web Site (http://www.ekac.org/) is interactive. With the click of a
mouse from afar, you can zap the bacteria with ultraviolet light, creating mutations.
You thereby rewrite the Bible, see. I think that we are meant to like this
consequence, Scripture being politically retardataire, or whatever. Meanwhile, one
can't help noticing that Kac has taken dominion over living things to a level
undreamed of in the Pentateuch. Is the irony of the work profound? It may only be
clever.

This manic show which will be up until October 28th, is a sort of petri dish itself --
propagating a hot trend. The curators, Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric, include
some works from the misty prehistory of today's biocraze -- that is, older than three
or four years. Back in 1993, the collector Isabel Goldsmith asked the painter Steve
Miller to do her portrait. He responded by submitting a sample of her blood to a
process that produced electron-microscope photographs of her chromosomes. He then
tricked these up into a big acrylic-and-enamel painting. It's not a very interesting
picture unless you have a soft spot for jittery X shapes, but it qualifies Miller as a
prophet. Most of the show is dated 1999 or 2000, testifying to a bandwagon in full
career. The collective energy level, which is zestful and infectious, helps one
suspend judgment about the merits of the individual works as art. This is just as
well. Actually, judging is seldom called for with thematic stuff like this, which has
the shelf life of milk. If you wish it would go away, you'll be gratified anon.
"Paradise Now" typifies a recurrent phenomenon, whereby denizens of the fragmented and
generally aimless art world jump on a breaking story in the culture at large. The last
such vogue was broadly cybernetic, and I much prefer the new one. It's so much warmer
and squishier. Beyond that, I'm incurious about my computer; but my DNA concerns me.

Notice that I just said "my" DNA. Do I, in fact, own this tangle of immemorial
instructions as I own a copy of Windows 98? Here's a nifty conundrum for the
conceptual artists Larry Miller (no relation to Steve) and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.
Miller presents elaborate certificates of copyright and license for a friend's DNA.
Manglano-Ovalle rolls out two hefty steel storage tanks that preserve sperm in liquid
nitrogen. The temperature inside is minus three hundred and twenty-one degrees
Fahrenheit, it says here. Also chilly is a display of contracts between the artist and
one of the sperm producer -- spelling out, among other things, the artist's
responsibility for the puissant gunk's indefinite survival. The lid of one tank is
pink, and the other blue, the sperm having been separated out by sex.

What makes these exercises art? Well, what else might they reasonably be? They perform
tasks that no one assigned. They involve real work that is really gratuitous. In a
world of tightly knit job descriptions, that's distinction enough. There's something
discouraging about this, perhaps. Art used to crown civilization. Now it skitters
through seams and around corners, eagerly parasitic.

"Paradise Now" displays other living things besides Kac's edited bacteria. Brandon
Ballengée invites us to observe his selective breeding, in transparent water tanks, of
a tiny, dainty, possibly endangered African species of frog. He says that he aims to
literally breed "backwards," recapturing the traits of former generations. Those are
cute frogs. Nearby, Natalie Jeremijenko's "One Tree" presents several growing clones
of a Paradox tree (a cross between two varieties of walnut). Clones are spooky. Beyond
biota, what thrives at Exit Art is texts. This is the kind of show where your
experience of a work hangs fire until you finish reading the label. Thinking back
later, you may decide that reading the label was your experience. This is certainly
the case with a few artists who protest corporate uses of biotechnology. As usual, the
polemical work on hand is unpersuasive -- not that it is meant to persuade. It is
meant to give a pre-formed "us" a "them" to despise. This intention proves to be
strikingly iffy in matters pertaining to DNA, which, after all, makes an "us" of
everybody, including plankton and asparagus.

The uncanniness of the new bioscience is a boon to practitioners of l'humour noir, who
play it for wondering, shivery laughs. Bradley Rubenstein shares with us some
undetectably manipulated photographs of adorable little kids who have something
strange about them: they look out at us with dog's eyes. Surrealism is back, this time
not as a revolt against reason but as a brand of explanatory illustration and playful
extrapolation. Simply to think along some current scientific lines is to beget
monsters, to the point where any monstrosity may assume an air of science. This show
includes tomatoes that, having been forced to grow into molds, become daffy cartoon
heads. There is an exquisite-corpse video game. I don't know how to characterize a
vast photograph, by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, of two women sunning on a rocky
beach. The picture's medium is a kind of grass that stays green after it dies. I'm
reminded of a remark attributed to a legendary jazzman: "Everybody around here's doin'
somethin'."

Eduardo Kac may translate his beleaguered Frankengene back into English at the end of
"Paradise Now." He has done this before. After a Kac show last year in Austria, the
Biblical sentence came out only slightly rumpled: "Let aan have dominion over the fish
of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that ioves ua
eon the earth." Of course, we know that subtle anomalies in a strand of DNA can make
the difference between, say, a Nobel laureate and a mime. But pardon me for noting
something obvious: the changes in the verse are not improvements. Nor do they affect
its meaning, which persists in a manner that is independent of biology. Meaning may
arise from ultimately explicable chemical and electrical events in the brain, but it
then takes wing -- across thousands of years, in this case, directly from somebody
else's mind to ours. The beauty of the sentence clinches its argument. A creature that
can think and sing like that is irretrievably stuck with a fateful edge over other species.


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