The double nature of culture: Radical human-plant donation
Project description (500 words)
According to a study in 2015 from Clear Labs, 2% of all tested hot dogs contained human DNA; probably from saliva, body fluids or traces of skin in the food processing chain, but reported with a juicy undertone of cannibalism. Another study from Cambridge claims that humans may have evolved with genes from plants, microorganisms and fungi, also suggesting the process may be ongoing. Around 1% of the human genome could have been transferred from plants and other sources via horizontal gene transfer (HGT) of DNA.
Both studies provide a thematic background for my residency project at Coalesce: Within a larger conceptual framework in which I intend to migrate, extend and transform “my” life, body and work beyond the limits of “myself”–essentially to become embodied artwork, to inhabit other non-human beings and forms, and to infiltrate the art world and its agents–my proposal is concerned with a radical human donation practice, i.e., the act of giving of “myself” to the world, on the premise of kinship and similarity between eukaryotes.
Yet unlike traditional human-to-human donations of blood, plasma, organ, sperm and egg for regenerative or reproductive purposes, I would like to inquire a human-to-plant donorship utilising the human body to host, feed, spice or otherwise “give back” to nature after ages of anthropocentric exploitation, by using my own body tissue and DNA as biomaterial. In this larger framework I want to focus on characteristics on a cellular and genetic level that relate to the look, feel, taste and smell of the human “me”: extract my scent, rewrite my DNA, redraw my fingerprints, pass on my bacteria/microbiome. Sensibilia and sense-making are critical components in this artistic investigation of donation, both in terms of gift and reward.
Transferring human characteristics to plants (by means of tissue growth or DNA manifolds) i.e. to make non-human nature “human” touches upon an ever greater anthropocentric desire to make things look like or function as “us” and risks to further fetishise DNA. However, by “giving away” what is human, its relevance and characteristics also potentially dissolves into otherness, giving up the human as a specific life form. Becoming non-human might actually serve as a survival strategy in the posthuman age of the anthropocene.
Questions to be researched in theory and practice at Coalesce: On the basis of horizontal gene transfer and the concept of Biopresence, how can my DNA/cell/tissue introduce human characteristics to plants, to inscribe human look, feel, smell or taste? How can parts of my human structure migrate or mutate to plants and form new animal-plant relationships and artistic transgenic expressions? What kind of complex ethic, aesthetic, biological and juridical implications can the conceptual loop in edible human-enriched plants or human-scent flowers create?
The act of donation in this project is highly symbolic and performative, (de)constructing myths and meaning. Can the donated self be conceived of as a phantom being in terms of micro-biopolitics, at once on behalf and on the expense of plant life? Donating comes with dilemma.
An artist statement including links to previous projects and their relationships to the proposed project
Timo Menke’s practice is cross-disciplinary and his research-based approach and interest in the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, subject and object, recorder and projector, lens and screen form his visual practice. His work examines how cultural identities, social relations and biopolitical issues are charged with concepts of desire, power and identity. In his collaborative and process-based practice, he aims to challenge the anthropocentric gaze. Timo Menke together with Nils Agdler have been engaged in several long-term collaborative projects. They share an interest in contemporary social phenomena, storytelling and history in works dealing with electrical hypersensitivity (Fugitives from the Fields, 2005), and anonymous sperm donation (Made in Denmark, 2013; Gifted Men, 2015).
On Fugitives from the Fields (2005, 16 min):
Electricity is a naturalised but invisible component in modern life. The controversial phenomenon electro-hypersensitivity, concerning oversensitivity against electromagnetic fields from mobile telephony, power lines etc., drastically throw light upon our dependence on electricity. What would happen in our society if more and more people would become oversensitive? What would a society without electricity look like? vimeo.com/timomenke/fugitives
On Gifted Men (2015, 67 min, single-channel preview):
The three-channel film installation Gifted Men is the result of a research-based project on donation practices and focuses on the commercial distribution of sperm in Denmark, from the perspective of anonymous donors. Danish legislation (unlike most European countries) allows for anonymous sperm donation, leading to increasing fertility tourism. Sperm banks operate in a complex grey area, marketing human sperm as a processed product. Special attention has been given to issues of masculinity and fatherhood manifested at these banks. The project is based on personal interviews conducted with anonymous sperm donors and clinic managers in Denmark. vimeo.com/timomenke/giftedmenfilm
In a residency research project deCODE doNATION at SIM in Iceland 2015, Menke has been examining donation as a critical practice in light of Iceland’s large genetic experiment conducted by the company deCODE. Could the national bio-ethnic registration of Iceland’s total DNA via semi-legal aggregation of genealogical data (Íslendigabok) and pathological data (medical records) be described as a hi-res (self)-portrait of a nation? How can the effects for the Icelandic people be understood in terms of economics (loss of capital and post-financial crisis), ethics (who is ethnically Icelandic) and aesthetics (exclusive viking whiteness based on ancestry literature), and how can a critical examination of these effects be scrutinized artistically? Work on this subject is still ongoing.
In his practice the photographic moving image as a medium has been connected to issues of (self)representation and observation, investigating (in)visible power relations in narrative formats. The interdisciplinary relationship between art and biology offers a turn towards living material itself. From this perspective, genetics as a medium connected to issues of reproduction, synthesis, and transformation of the very life processes, can form a new artistic approach with bioart as a field of conceptual and critical research. The experimental nature of the proposed project should be understood in close relationship to these aspects.
A description of the specific components of the project to take place at Coalesce and a rough timeline. Be sure to specify if activities are to take place primarily in the Fall or Spring academic semester.
Is donating in our DNA? Central to my interest in donation, as a Janus-faced practice with both selfless and selfish desire for other worlds and beings, and with an implicit autoerotic and autographic self interest behind altruistic motives, is to experiment with different lab models to find the conceptually right approach.
Which part of my DNA is to be donated to which plant(s)?
Obviously a key question for appropriate methods and relevant outcomes. My interest in the transgenic donation of the human self is intimately linked to the Manifold method developed by Biopresence, with a non-destructive approach and without animal experiments. Given the complexity of transgenic manipulation, I want to map, explore and experiment with this topic in close collaboration with expert knowledge and assistance from Coalesce. Although I want to run this project truly “donational” in concept, content and form, the artistic decoding and rendering of what is to be donated how and to which plant, might be subject to different strategies and experiments, also reaching for a more eco-critical and queer understanding of how plant life can complicate heteronormative and patriarchal concepts of identity, kinship, and time.
Instead of Soybean, Maize, Wheat, Tomato, Rapeseed and Cotton which are overrepresented in GMO agricultural production, and have “suffered” a lot from human exploitation, in contrast to donation, my focus is drawn to flowering fruit-producing plants. For this project I choose the pea – easy and fast to grow and to detect effects of the experiment suggested. Pisum sativum, pea pod, is botanically fruit, since it contains seeds developed from the ovary of a pea flower. Choosing the pea is also a tribute and reminiscence to Gregor Mendel and his study of genetic traits in Pisum sativum 1865, later known as Mendelian inheritance.
Method 1: Biopresence
I am aware that with every bio-artistic choice in the process the outcome might be different and form and concept might shift meaning. I strongly welcome input from the pairing scientist(s) and residents to develop these or other methods might during experiments with the matter of research. The goal of Biopresence is to introduce human characteristics to a plant, without changing the genes of the resulting plant. I suggest to follow the Biopresence two-step method with possible adaptations, adjustments and even improvements, depending on the resources available and needed at Coalesce:
- Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated transformation.This bacterium has the ability to infect plant, and inject some of its DNA into a cell of the plant.
- Plant-tissue culture is plant breed and propagation on a very small scale. Plant cells are totipotent, each plant cell has the ability to become any other plant cell.
Method 2: Tissue engineering
Human tissue (e.g. from my skin) is donated to plants to grow on as soil and nutrition, simply to serve as plant tissue culture. Methods developed by e.g. biohacker Andrew Pelling using a process of decellularized apples to implant animal cells into the empty apple “scaffolding” seem pretty straightforward and possible to adapt to the inverse model: grow plants from human tissue. The definition of ‘human tissue’ includes human body organs, tissues, or fluids (e.g. skin, blood, urine, saliva, hair, bones, fresh or paraffin-embedded) and tissue derivatives, including DNA, RNA, and proteins obtained from human beings. Again, to find the right and feasible tissue engineering concept in relation to donation, is part of the residency work.
In order to conduct the laboratory research for a at least one plant lifecycle and incubation, and to take care and control of growing, harvesting and documenting the process, I estimate a stay of approximately two months would be good. However, depending on successful funding for travel, accommodation and other costs, and in accordance with my family situation in Sweden, my plan is to apply for either one longer stay of ca 40 day, or two shorter recurring periods of ca 20 days each. Thus the timeline for this proposed project is very rough and should start in January 2017 and end in March 2017. I am fully aware that the residency period might not provide all results and outcomes, but give insight and deepened understanding for a turn in my artistic practice.
The plants in question will feature in an exhibition project with the preliminary title “Rainbow effects” as a living and process-based work. Since this might require a restaging of the experiments at Coalesce back home, I aim to carefully document the project with moving image and sound. The recordings themselves might be used as works of art. See sketches in progress below.