In my practice photographic and moving images have operated as a medium connected to issues of (self)representation and observation, investigating (in)visible power relations in narrative formats. Throughout several projects the symbolic, bio-political, social, economic and cultural aspects of donation have been at the core of my interest. The interdisciplinary relation between art and biology, and specifically new bio-synthetic technologies, offered a turn towards life itself as a critical substance. From this perspective, genetics as an artistic medium, connected to issues of reproduction, synthesis, and transformation of the very life processes, have informed a new artistic approach. The experimental nature of this project should be understood in relation to these aspects.
As part of a lab residency in 2017, and continuously ongoing, I have investigated and conducted experiments aiming for a horizontal transfer of my human DNA to a grey pea cultivar (Pisum sativum var.arvense). Special attention was given to how we can give away or give back, or even give up what is human back to nature, thereby positioning acts of donation at once as an egoistic-colonial desire for other life forms and worlds, but also as an altruistic will to help, care and save the world. There is an undercurrent of donation as dilemma present in the manifold manifestations and methods developed. They engage critically with post-genomics as (un)-social practice.
According to a study from Cambridge, 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.
This provided a thematic background for a residency project at Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts in Buffalo, NY: 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 or inhabit other non-human beings and form—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, ancestry and similarity between eukaryotes.
Yet unlike other human-to-human donations of blood, plasma, organ, sperm or egg, this project inquires a human-to-plant donorship utilising the human body as biomaterial to host, feed, spice or otherwise give back to nature after ages of anthropocentric exploitation. Transferring human characteristics to a plant (tissue growth or DNA transfer) i.e. to make non-human nature human however touches upon an ever greater anthropocentric desire to make things look like or function as us and risks to further fetishise DNA. Nonetheless, by giving away what is human, characteristics also potentially dissolve into otherness, giving up the human as a specific life form. Becoming non-human might paradoxically serve as a survival strategy after the so-called anthropocene.
Is giving in our DNA?
Is giving to others what makes us human or just (post)humanitarian? What dilemmas and ambiguities does donating (be)come with? Is postgenomics an (un)social practice? Given the complexity of transgenic manipulation, a large part of the project is also to map, explore and investigate this topic in close collaboration with expert knowledge and assistance. The artistic rendering of donations might be subject to critical 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.
Can donated DNA be conceived of as a phantom being on behalf or at the expense of plant life? 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? Donating comes with dilemma.
Pisum sativum var.arvense
For this project an older cultivar of Nordic Grey peas was chosen — for different reasons. Pisum sativum, pea pod, is botanically fruit, since it contains seeds developed from the ovary of a pea flower. Soybean, Corn, Wheat, Tomato, Rapeseed and Cotton have “suffered” a lot from human exploitation and gene modification. 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. Based on further botanical research I came to select two cultivars archived in the NordGen database and seedbank.
Pisum sativum var.arvense with ancient Nordic roots dates back to 1600. I use peas also as a robust nutrient, a plant that was easy to grow and provided a stable backbone in food and cooking, a plant that probably followed the stream of Nordic and Baltic immigrants in 18th century, hence also a transmigrational plant. Check out www.greypea.info for more info (in Swedish only).
Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated transformation
This bacterium has the ability to infect plants and inject some of its DNA with a tumour-inducing plasmid (Ti plasmid), which contains the T-DNA and all the genes necessary to transfer it to the plant cell. The procedure and protocol step by step, read more at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Rethinking other radical methods
A biosynthetically engineered transgenic human pea seems like a colonising strategy. How to let nature feast and live of me in a more radical or direct way, by which our common being is as much a becoming with the gift? How to establish a biosocial or transspecies relation based on co-existing and equal rights of nature? While surveying the biotechnical methods and procedures used to potentially engineer the transgenic human pea, given the restrictions and limitations in bio-safety, the most violent but commonly used apparatus I came across is the gene gun—literally used to shoot genetic material into the plant leafs tissue, from where it can be managed to transform the plant cell.
During late lab hours and while researching the donation vs. the shooting methods I discovered Epidermodysplasia verruciformis (aka Lewandowsky–Lutz dysplasia), colloquially known as tree man illness – an extremely rare autosomal recessive genetic hereditary skin disorder associated with a high risk of carcinoma of the skin. The monstrous disease presented a reverse understanding of a hybrid plant-human being, in relation to the ethics and aesthetics of what was turing the project into a much more aggressive “giving” than anticipated. The discovery actualised a socio-political perspective on disease as critique (read more about the film project Fugitives from the fields dealing with people suffering from Electro-hypersensitivity) and my interest in the dilemmas and ambiguities that donating comes with, part of our DNA or not.
Cross-species beings at the extreme
The artistic process from man-pea to tree-man undergoes an ontological shift from radical donation to radical hospitalization, from transgenic to pathogenic, from “giving back” to “receiving” or growing together with the other, not as an agent but as a patient.
The Man Pea experiment expresses a specific power to develop a humanlike growth within a plant. The Tree Man Syndrome a specific weakness to develop a plantlike growth on the human body.
In both cases, biosynthetic transformation and transgression are in focus—a wilful desire to become someone or something else, a hybrid life form beyond natural evolution. Yet both concepts, transgenic resignation and pathogenic patience, reamin related to the philosophy of biology and risk being “trapped within the binaries of nature-culture and human-nonhuman” (Radomska, 2016). According to Thacker, a combinatory biophilosophy should be understood as a “critical, creative and rigorous practice questioning the twofold method of the philosophy of biology (principle of life, boundaries of articulation) and the divisions that are produced from this.” (Thacker, 2008).
Thus, instead of the binary extreme positions of oneway transforming, new meanings and perspectives can be gathered from looking at mutual exchange, symbiotic revival, bio- and eco-aesthetic processes of becoming, rather than predetermined being, existing or experience of being alive, not to mention any “essence” of life. With the bio art lab residency coming to an end, different and more complex strategies are developed in the studio.
To be continued!