How do we visualize DNA? How might we ‘see’ it? How is this ‘thing’ materialized in the imagination, conceived of, constructed? I wrote about some ways of modelling it in another blog, but recently I’ve been thinking more about aesthetic representations.
The last time this was really a big thing was 2003, a few years after the sequencing of the human genome (there is a good write up of art, music, and architecture, in the Economist). DNA art is not really cutting edge now, it might be argued, possibly something to do with the genome/ double helix becoming so well known and, well, commonplace, possibly? Or perhaps our understanding of DNA has shifted, slightly? Certainly those contemporary artists (see the end of this blog) that work on this are more interested in the social, political, and ethical implications of genetic testing rather more than the double helix or the genome as an aesthetic object.
However, I think there is still some use in looking at DNA art.
Partly this is because what there is of it gives us an interesting insight into social shifts around the communication of DNA and how it conceived of, and visualised. The most clearly marked of these is the ‘authentic and original’ work that businesses such as DNA11 have been producing since 2005 (some 10000 pieces according to their website, and available in a range of places including at one point the MoMA shop). DNA11 ‘creates personalized portraits from a sample of DNA or fingerprints. Each piece is as unique as the person purchasing the piece of art; they are modern masterpieces that combine science and pop art’. These are essentially genetic selfies. What is most interesting here is that the art produced is not a double helix but a different way of rendering the ‘individual’ sequence. The images are quite muddy, indistinct, and strange. DNA11’s invocation of pop art is interesting – seen in the primary colours of their product, but also echoing a vocabulary of readymades, an interest in the superficial, and a clear sense of modernity that one might find in pop art.
DNA art like this is a bridge to understanding DNA itself, shifting from working by analogy to something more physical and representative. Art helps to analogise between ‘self’ and DNA, a way of translating and modelling the genetic make up of the body. DNA11’s publicity also echoes a lot of other work on DNA art that emphasises the ‘unique’ quality of the genetic code. In 2012 Wired reporter Brian Mossop had his portrait done, and found it quite amazing:
But to me, the deeper meaning was realizing that if I reassembled the eight bands before me, I’d end up with, well, me. Not in the literal sense, but more to the point that no other combination would produce the same result. And that originality became the talking point among those who saw my DNA portrait.
Once relatively unique, this type of work is increasingly commonplace. Of course, you can also have your pet done. The ‘personalizing’ of art that is found in this work seems immensely enfranchising – and, to a certain extent, derives its power from the same premise as the Quinn picture (see below). However the ‘art’ premise also ignores the fact that this is simply one of a suite of ways that the individual genome is becoming commodified (Helix will, for instance, sell you a number of products related to your DNA, from matched-(literally) wine to personalized socks). It is also incredibly normalized – if you can have your DNA tested and aestheticized by an artist on Etsy and get a picture for under £50 then the sense that this is novel in any way becomes lost. Indeed, it simply becomes another way of ‘individualising’ gifts or decorating living space. DNA gets hung on the wall and loses much of its aura as something ‘unknown’ or unknowable.
But back to 2001. I spent some of last week in the National Portrait Gallery archive, looking at the materials relating to Marc Quinn’s image of Sir John Sulston. This is an amazing image, product of a collaboration between Quinn and Sulston and reflecting both of their working practices. It was exhibited under the title A Genomic Portrait, Quinn was then considered probably the most respected and cerebral of the Young British Artists, famous for Self (1991), a sculpture of his head in his blood, suspended in frozen silicon. He produces a new version every 5 years. Sulston, of the Sanger Institute, was the man heralded as the ‘saviour’ of the genome from corporate copyright, presented in various profiles as something of a rockstar scientist (on the basis that he rode motorcycles). The image was essentially a collaboration, a plate of Sulston’s DNA agar jelly mounted on stainless steel. Commissioned by the NPG as part of a partnership with the Wellcome Trust, the image was intended to provoke debate about the nature of portraiture, of art, and of science. Many critics made much of this. Writing about the image in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones suggested that
this is a kind of biological photography. As in a portrait photograph, a specific trace of someone has been fixed permanently. Through the most sophisticated modern means, Quinn’s work revives the primitive impulse at the heart of portraiture: preservation of a person.
Ken Arnold wrote in Tate magazine that ‘Quinn’s portrait insistently asserts the need to think much more laterally … fuses the ideas of portraiture and biography’. The viewer looks at Sulston’s DNA, sees themselves reflected in the stainless steel, and ‘reflects’ upon the matter of life, of representation, and of art. It is quite an amazing piece, conceptual and representational at the same time. However the ‘concept’ evidently wins over the ‘image’, and the discussion of the piece shows how DNA art often lapses into abstraction and intellectual conceptualisation.
More recently, and most interestingly, the artists David Blandy and Larry Achiampong produced ‘Trust me I’m an artist’, part of Arts Catalyst’s series Dreamed Native Ancestry (DNA). Blandy and Achiampong undertook a series of Ancestry DNA tests to interrogate the claims made on their behalf, particularly around identity, and ask ‘how does this removal of identity from its narrative and social dimension impact on understandings of race and relationships?’ aI couldn’t get to see the Ancestry event, but the fact that these two political and committed artists are now looking at DNA, and in particular genetic testing, suggests a new interest in the consequences of galloping testing and database expansion, and particularly about bioethics.
Finally, and I’m convinced this is a hoax, in 2013 CNN profiled Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an artist who uses ‘found’ DNA (on chewing gum, mainly) to reconstruct the faces of those who left it. Eerie, strange, and very creepy, her work is intended to provoke discussion about surveillance, privacy, and bioethics.
For these two last examples, DNA is no longer the ‘subject’ here, but metonymic for a wider set of discussions about ethics, politics, migration, biopolitics, and identity. DNA art becomes a way of thinking about much wider and more problematic concerns, a long way away from the hyper-commodified personal genetic portraits, but also, somehow, part of the same continuum.
 ‘Marc Quinn’, Tate, Spring 2002, p. 19.