DNA finger prints

Today I smiled as I read the ending of the City Paper's article on artist Sylvie van Helden's show at Elizabeth Roberts Gallery.

Quote from the City Paper:

“I would run DNA samples through electrophoresis gels and you would get a striped pattern…That was a long time ago.”

I have had no previous experience of this artist’s work directly – Yet, now I’m intrigued to see her work that was, in passing, mentioned to me as “The Pasta Show.”

Her description of the DNA extraction processes brought me nostalgically back to the lab I used to work in, also a long time ago: smooth black laboratory tabletops I used to scratch pencil marks into…the smell of mixing nearly odorless liquid compounds that over time would solidify into a almost clear gel…the squishing, sucking noises that would eek out of the gel once it hardened and the spacer comb was removed, leaving perfectly rectangular wells to hold the DNA samples. I still have photographs of the resultant DNA chains containing patterns in a seemingly foreign language: bright white lines, or weaker, fuzzier stripes, depending upon the concentration of nucleotides.

The entire process – from extraction to sequencing — is time intensive and requires exacting patience, much like etching and lithography; both can be considered a science and an art. In the end, you are left with two forms of documentation (or, “evidence” of the performance of sequencing – yes, I mean that in the sense of performance art): one is a sequencing of the arbitrarily named but logically positioned nucleotides [lists of A, T, G, C symbols for nucleotides, like hieroglyphics] and the second is a photograph representation of the DNA chains separated by length in the electrophoresis process, a light-painted portrait of the sampled DNA. Both are equally abstract, minimalist and difficult to access their meaning without a substantial amount of training and knowledge specific to the field.

Now, I’ve alluded to a number of art traditions in the last paragraph, deliberately so. Genetic engineering, for quite some time now, has been represented in the mass media, along with other technically-oriented scientific advances. And, for a while now, artists have been incorporating the techniques in their productions, with their philosophical concerns riding along in the sidecar. Two artists I can think of off-hand whose work I’ve seen are Marc Quinn and IƱigo Manglano-Ovalle.

Since work like this is being produced, and curators, writers, etc. have to explain it to audiences – in text and orally – how are these explanations being derived? Are courses in genetics, biotechnology and other sciences becoming a required part of the coursework for art history majors/curators in training? Or, is it assumed that faced with materially challenging work, like that of Quinn or Mangalno-Ovalle that the curator/educator will do what they usually do – Research? Yes, except that now curators will be accessing the science libraries and journals first, perhaps. But how clear can these texts be to the traditionally art-trained? Science has its own linguistic register just as the art world does. How challenging is the translation?

Again, I return to the question of the education and training programs that are producing this generation of young curators and art writers. It seems that art is being used to access science at both the primary education and university level, but is that true for the reverse scenario?

NOTE: the link on the word "university" goes to a biology course syllabus. I was extremely disappointed to not see my favorite -- Mark Dion -- listed. From this neglect, I assume that yet again we have evidence of academia ignoring the larger societal implications of their projects (which Dion's work addresses directly).

I didn’t see anyone I knew from my biology or chemistry classes in art history courses, nor would I expect to…my suspicion is that these two fields have yet to truly converge. As my next project for the journal gnovis will explore, interdisciplinarity is not as common or easy as those that use the highly-touted buzzword believe.

Additional reading from this morning which fueled this:
The “Third Culture and Disciplinary Science
, by Micheal R. Allen.

“The literary intellectual who inquires into what is written or thought about the physical world is also studying, through discursive reference, the physical world. That intellectual also studies the literary work of scientific intellectuals, who, after all, write and talk about their work. The scientific intellectual also studies not just the physical world, but also the discursive one. Theorems and data are all encoded in discourse that other scientists must refine or replace. Scientific paradigm shifts are much like linguistic paradigm shifts: they are a change in how reality is defined and perceived.”

This quote makes my final point nicely. Literary intellectual, or art historian/curator, both access other disciplines (in this case, science), in order to communicate an idea about their object. To truly capture the conceptual depth of some of the contemporary artwork that deals with genetics and other “hard” sciences, a discursive language must be understood and used in order to capture how this type of contemporary artwork–like a scientific paradigm shift—offers a change in how reality (and its art forms) are defined and perceived.

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