Doing the No No

Adam Zaretsky – Bioartist

Art by Lauren Kolesinskas

Adam Zaretsky is a bioartist who explores the manipulation of DNA, the fringes of genetic modification, and butts up against the ethical boundaries of science and beyond.

Produced by Britt Wray.

EXTRAS
Adam’s works mentioned in the interview:
Solar Humans (lab, lecture, and website)
pFarm
Dangerous Liaisons documentary about Transgenic Embryology (Parts 1, 2, 3)
centiSperm

Producer Britt Wray’s website
Britt’s latest project: Aurator, a beautifully presented collection of audio diaries about synthetic biology

Playlist
(in order of appearance)
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – LesLang – Schaum
Gramm – Siemens.Bioport – Personal Rock
Arthur Lyman – Taboo Tu – Taboo Vol. 2
Andrew Pekler – Mirror Structures (Mirrored) – Tristes Tropique
Soft Cell – Sex Dwarf – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
Karen Finley – The Yam Jam – Tales of the Taboo
Steve Silk Hurley – Jack Your Body – Funk’n’Soul 1986
Big Black – Kerosene – Atomizer
Tenor Saw – Lots of Dub – Fever
Steve Silk Hurley – Jack Your Body – Funk’n’Soul 1986
Karen Finley – The Yam Jam – Tales of the Taboo
Colleen – Helio – Everyone Alive Wants Answers
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – LesLang – Schaum
Toe 2000 – Frog – Toe 2000
Andrew Pekler – Mirror Structures (Mirrored) – Tristes Tropiques
Gramm – Siemens.Bioport – Personal Rock
Ursula Bogner – Momentaufnahme – Recordings 1969-1988
Andrew Pekler – Theme From Tristes Tropiques/Avian Modulations/Life in the Canopy – Tristes Tropiques
Rachels – 4 or 5 Trees – Systems/Layers
Sam Prekop – The Republic 3 – The Republic
Deuter – Spirales – The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe 1970-1986
Yo La Tengo – Shrimp Stories – The Sounds of the Sounds of Science
Gramm – Siemens.Bioport – Personal Rock
Tomas Dvorak – The Furnace – Machinarium Soundtrack
Tomas Dvorak – The Mezzanine – Machinarium Soundtrack
DVA – Cinem – Botanicula Soundtrack
Andrew Pekler – Theme From Tristes Tropiques/Avian Modulations/Life in the Canopy – Tristes Tropiques
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – Parades – Schaum
Sam Prekop – A Geometric – The Republic
DVA – Cinem – Botanicula Soundtrack
Andrew Pekler – Mirror Structures (Mirrored) – Tristes Tropiques
Arthur Lyman – Taboo – Taboo
Arthur Lyman – Taboo – Taboo
Arthur Lyman – Taboo – Taboo
Gramm – Siemens.Bioport – Personal Rock
Arthur Lyman – Taboo Tu – Taboo Vol. 2
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek – LesLang – Schaum
Transcript
Doing the No No
Adam Zaretsky – Bioartist
Producers: Brendan Baker, Britt Wray

I made a sculpture of Uranus’ castrated penis. Apparently, Cronus cut off his father’s penis and threw it in the ocean, in the Peloponnesian Sea. He cut off his father’s penis because his mother gave birth to a-hundred-handed titan, like a centipede human, and Uranus was so grossed out by the mutant with a hundred hands, that he kept that being, that person, his child, inside a cave inside of a castle. Even some people say he pushed it back up into his wife Gaia’s vagina, at which point she told her son Cronus, “Why don’t you go cut his dick off?” And he did. He sliced off his father’s penis and he threw it in the sea, and from the foam and blood of the leaking, castrated penis of Uranus came Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.

It’s a strange myth. I didn’t know really much about it. I had gone for the centipede thing because I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll make a person with a hundred hands someday.” But every time someone chooses someone else to make a baby with, they’re making a freak for their own pleasure. It doesn’t matter if it’s random recombination, it doesn’t matter if it’s based on love, it doesn’t matter if this being is cared for, sent to a really nice pre-school, or fed well; or fed a bunch of crap. What matters is reproduction itself is kind of like a freak show.

You want people to see your display of fertility. You want people to see that you have the wealth to go ahead and procreate. You want people to see your child perform a piano recital. Anyone would be able to show off that your genes were worthy of getting to the next generation. It’s really kind of sad. Breeding is narcissism. It’s like your little mirror, right?

I was in a meeting that was talking about the ethics of genetic modification, and they asked parents to raise their hand if they would be willing to pay an extra five or ten thousand dollars to have children with guaranteed perfect pitch, so that they would, you know, basically not need to pay for all those piano lessons. And most parents were like, “Yeah.” That’s cheaper in the long run, and that’s partly what they were thinking; but they were also thinking, “I’d like a kid who’s a good musician.” But I do know when people go for genetic counseling, if they were offered not only to eliminate negative traits but to add positive traits, as long as you put a price tag on it, someone’s gonna hit Buy It Now. It’s the other side of the mountain effect, and it’s what will drive personal genetic alteration.

There are certain people that think that the human genome is sacrosanct, that it’s okay to engineer every other organism on earth, except for humans. Humans have to do it the old-fashioned way, by luck. Including losing through luck. And there are other people that really think that we should just go forward as fast as possible, and are actually actively engaging in projects like this. It’s not illegal.

There’s an uncovering of everything, like a new Magellan-like map of the inner world of our genome, but the purposes that that will be put towards are not necessarily health-based. Obviously, the military wants to make super soldiers; obviously, we have a space program to look after, and we wanna be able to live on Mars. We’re gonna need some special humans for that.

What’s interesting to me is to help people understand all the ways they could go in; what are the other ways that this could go that might even be preferable. What if we became solar-powered? What if humans actually could photosynthesize? What would be good about that? Well, you wouldn’t need to pay rent, because you’d have central heating. You wouldn’t need to work, because all you have to do is sit in a hammock. Skin cancer would probably go up. People around the Equator would become obese. The Nordic races would be suddenly really skinny and have to run down to the Equator during the winter, like at the dark, suicidal end of a long night, and in a neocolonialist way probably eat some really overweight Equatorian solar-powered people. And weirdly, we might actually grow to be flat, and have webs underneath our arms that collect more sun. That could be a problem, but it could be great; like a giant, flat, bat-like solar-collecting human beatnik.

* * *

I work a lot with art and biology, and I’m also a strange cat, if I can help it. I heard someone call me the Lenny Bruce of BioArt, which is kind of like a really loud, Jewish comedian of BioArt, which is probably true. Someone else called me “Bionysus”, like a Bio-Dionysus.

I think I was supposed to just work with art in mud, but along the way I decided to work with life as an art form. Then I spread out into things like ecology, tissue culture, genetic engineering… Weird lab things, all along the way towards exploring new reproductive technologies as art.

I’ve always been interested in what now falls under deviant art, and I find some of the best versions of that art are being made in labs; they’re in Nature Magazine, they’re not in Art Forum, which is filled with incredibly boring, obtuse, intentionally obfuscated crud.

Then I go read Nature Magazine and it’s like, the mutant of the week is fucking fabulous. There’s a giant cow with like Schwarzenegger muscles. The scientists are leading contemporary art right now.
For me, science is actually advanced art practice. Like, “I’m going to kill these newborn rats and take their pineal glands out. Not for a reason, not for a cure, not for knowledge, but just for the experience itself.” Or weirder, to make a sculpture out of.

I am implicating science by calling it art. I’m actually taking away the utilitarian nature of science, like “We’re here to figure out a problem, like kill Alzheimer’s.” or “We’re here to understand the universe.” I’m like, “Actually, I’m not here to cure anything and I’m not here to make knowledge. I’m here to make enigma.”

* * *

I think I wanted to be a banker, a pornographer and a communist. It’s hard to mix all those three, but I’m on my way. I’m already a pornographer and a communist, so I think I just have to go to business school.

Somewhere between science fiction and sado-masochism is an aesthetic based on prurient interest. It’s alright. It’s alright. Sexuality shouldn’t just be about flowers and a glass of wine and some smooth music and some loving sex. I actually love dropping cotton balls on someone who’s tied up – that’s fine, but there’s something raw and rancorous, and there’s something camp, and there’s something trans, and there’s something transvestism, and there’s something transgenic. They’re all sort of flowing together under the aegis of basically queerness.

Let’s just face it, okay? I’m a child of Rocky Horror, I’m a child of Soft Cell. I really like luring disco dollies to a life of vice.

You guys are just uncovering every little thing about me, this is so nice. It’s nice to study myself like a specimen!

* * *

Leaving home at an early age… I left when I was 17. I wasn’t like a runaway, I got out of high-school early. I just wanted to go hang out in the city, but it was in the late ’80s and I was living in a two-bedroom apartment with four guys in Astoria, and I went to Danceteria and I got myself in… I was wearing like a miniskirt and I was ready to dance and look good.

Danceteria at the time had four stories, and each story was a different kind of music or performance art. You’d have a punk floor, a reggae floor, a crazy pre-house techno-industrial floor, and then maybe some freaky acoustic guitar person who didn’t make any sense there. But I remember entering and seeing Karen Finley do her famous performance “Yams Up My Ass” with like these canned yams. She had yams coming out of the can, and all over her body, and in her underwear, and having them drip out, and it was just a yuck fest.

She had some kind of soliloquy, like a monologue at the audience that makes everyone’s hair stand on end. Her voice is grating, and she’s just so confrontationally awful, and she’s so insightful about how she can invade your mind with like a non-stop barrage of negative effect. I loved it. I was just really enthralled. It made the cover of the Village Voice the next day and I was like, “I think I’m a part of underground history. Hurray!” I mean like, what happens? You grow up in a world where everyone is telling you to be sedate, and they’re being sedate because they can’t help it – and they’re all really well trained – and then you get into a New York City sludge scene, like a post-industrial nightmare scene, and people are like “I’m toxic waste. I am a booger.” It’s still, you know, with a grain of salt.

Art is not that impressive, but it’s also relieving to find out that people are able to express their negative entity-nessin a safe space, in a way that shows you the underbelly of the human.

At this point there’s a question as to what it means to be anti-art, because it’s actually part of the establishment to some extent, but this was something that was everywhere at the time. I went and saw Mapplethorpe’s pictures and I remember Mapplethorpe had a self-portrait with a whip coming out of his ass, like at the Whitney.

It was a time when art was suddenly allowed to be as deviant as the people that were producing it, and actually be accepted. Some people refer to it as shock art. And some people refer to shock art in a way to dismiss it, when actually art that shocks is achieving an aesthetic goal. The goal is to make you revulsed; the goal is to make you dismiss or repress the art, but also the goal is to crack through your resistance, your screen, and show you what’s underneath. It’s not always pretty, but this idea that you’re allowed to bullshit-detect rational culture and go ahead and be honest without it being like a situation comedy that ends in a moral, happy ending… I felt a little freer, to go ahead and do the work of the negative. It actually matters.

Was there something that happened to get you starting to work with living things in your artwork?

Let me see… Sometime in the early 2000s I went down to the Rockefeller Research Labs down in New York City and I met with Altman and Ali, who were working with Xenopus frogs, and they had managed to make frogs that had eyes on the back of their heads. They had injected into frog embryos in the place that would become the back of their heads genes that said “Make an eye here.”

Functional?

The first question I asked them was, “Can they see with those eyes?” and they said, “We don’t know, but the nerves did develop all the way to the brain”, but the nerves landed in the auditory cortex, so it is possible that these frogs are hearing the light that they’re receiving. That’s really odd to begin with… But I got into a sort of interesting double-bind with them where I said, “This is really surreal”, and they said, “Well, we’re trying to cure blindness”, and I said “Yes, but you’re making frogs with eyes on the back of their heads”, and they said “Yes, but we’re trying to cure blindness”, and I said “I know what you’re trying to do, but I’m talking about what you’re actually doing.” In some ways they couldn’t see it, and for me it was just amazing enough already.

If you’re raised appreciating surrealism and then you see that someone’s made surrealism come true, it’s one thing to paint an elephant that has 67-meter long legs, and it’s another thing to go ahead and make a mouse with an ear on its back, or transgenic pigs with glowing green noses. I kind of got this feeling that the scientists were actually routing the art, completely stealing the concept of art. Because if you can take imagination and dream and all that strange symbolism that comes with it and make it into actuality, then what’s the point of sculpting in clay? What’s the point of painting? What’s the point of writing a book when you can actually take your imagination and bring it into life?

Usually if a dog and a pig make love, you don’t get a dig or a pog; you just have two strange animals having a strange time. But through genetic engineering you might be able to take some genes from a pig and put them into a dog, or a dog’s sperm, or a dog embryo, and then have a dog that’s born with pig traits, and that would be a dig or a pog. That’s part of what Transgenesis is.

Transgenesis is taking one gene from one organism, cutting it out and pasting it into another organism. Now, we are reaching a point where we’re getting better at the potential for making transgenic humans, genetically modified humans, humans that are GMOs.

First of all, let me just say this – transgenic human embryos are already being made. They’re not necessarily being grown full-term, but this is something that’s possible. It’s been possible to do this since the ’70s, but people have been saying “I don’t know… No one would actually do that! That would be psychotic” because the technique that was how to target the genes into the human genome without them falling anywhere or everywhere, so it lands willy-nilly in the genome and can cause all kinds of problems, like cancer or death. But there’s a new way to get genes into the human genome that isn’t as disruptive as before. CRISPR/Cas9 has made the news as a technique that’s more refined, it’s more targeted, exactly where your gene is gonna land, so we could just use it to knock in or knock out problematic genes or ad genes, and so it won’t harm the rest of the organism.

It’s a fairly easy to use technology, and it’s available in do-it-yourself CRISPR kits already for yeast, for worms, but not necessarily on human cells. It’s not perfected yet, but on the world scene there are different laws in different nations, and I have to say this is one of those standard Pandora things – if you can do it and it’s been 50 years, it’s about to be released that people ARE doing it because they HAVE been doing it.

It’s a point in time where people are taking it seriously to ask “What about the rest of the ethics of human gene-editing? Who gets to decide, and which way are we going? How are we going to engineer ourselves? And is it us, or is it small professional cliques of human designers? Who’s in charge of that?” These types of questions are actually starting to be allowed, and one of the reasons they’re starting to be allowed is all of these things are already happening and we need to get the public to a place where they’re willing to accept them, so that we can ask them if they’re willing to accept them and they will say yes. I think we’ll get to that place sooner than you think.

I was in the Netherlands teaching a BioArt course, something I called VivoArt; I think it was around 2003-2005 at Leiden University, and one of the labs I had was Transgenic Pheasant Embryology to alter growing pheasant embryos and make them, in some ways, genetically modified. But really, it was about helping people understand the connection between aesthetics and transgenics, underscoring the controversy.

We actually did grow pheasant embryos. We went to a breeding farm and got some fertile eggs. I had the students open up these eggs and look at the embryos in different stages of development. This has been a way of studying developmental biology for a long time, a really long time.

It’s a slow development from a single cell, into a ball of cells, into a pre-organism that has some neural networks forming, that has a heart beating, that has a blood flow that starts to absorb the yolk. Suddenly, things form and then they disappear, and limb buds start to pop out, and you start to see different shapes of becoming that we all went through.

You were once a ball, and now you have holes for eyes, and your eyes popped out… All these strange body formation stages are almost part of our psyche. I’m really taken by what development is, and I’d like to bring people into a place where they can observe it, and if they want to, meddle with it. You are allowed to mess with the embryos physically, using mutagens that will cause a mutation, or we’ve got a permit to microinject plasmids possibly going to cause some sort of neurological abnormality.
A plasmid is like a circular donut of DNA that has some kind of virus attached to it, or a viral head so it’s infectious. It gets into the center of a cell and it unravels and it inserts itself into the genome. It’s kind of like sending a flashy e-mail to someone that attaches to them and won’t come off.
Then they had a choice also to close up the eggs again with a piece of tape, put them back in the incubator and come back a couple of days later and see what difference had occurred, at which point in time it was their duty to end the lifecycle of these embryos, kind of abort them. I even gave them the option to not do this at all. I was like, “You will still get an A if you don’t entertain any of this”, because I thought it was actually a little bit weird, and some people inevitably don’t wanna do the process themselves, and I think that’s fair.

Some of my favorite students are the ones that opt out of the entire thing. There’s always one or two, and I’m like “Thank you. Thank you for being here, because you’re one of those people that say ‘I’m not gonna do what everyone else is doing. I think that this is fucked up.” What I’ve called it is a Milgram experiment without so much authority. You still find out that most people, if given the choice to do something that’s somewhat taboo but know they won’t get punished, will do it. I think it’s true right down to genocide.

What did the students decide to do when you gave them those options?

Well, we get sort of like a crazy bell curve where some students decide that they’re going to do microsurgery. Others wanna add toxins, some wanna inject with plasmids, some just wanna observe, and others wanna make art with them.

I don’t know… There was a couple of guys tripping on mushrooms in their underwear in the bathroom with their eggs, hitting them with a hammer on the floor, and kind of like some kind of psychedelic Nietzsche and horror show. Different students have different reactions, which luckily, the Dutch have a really weird sense of humor.

I’m a little bit confused about what was the art in this case. Was it a performance?

Alright, let me lay this down, in the bio-arts. If you are doing this laboratory as a performative act, in order to help the public and the students and even yourself understand all of the issues, that’s one thing. But what I tried to underscore was that the embryos themselves and the alterations that the artist pushed upon them – impressed upon them, literally surgically cut into them – was the sculpture.

To call a developing embryo that’s been altered a sculpture is meant to cause a kind of double bind in people’s minds, where they’re like “Oh, it’s not a sculpture, it’s a being” or “It’s growing to be a being.” What I’m trying to get across is that the making of transgenic humans or transgenic non-humans is a somewhat invasive act, but is also based on a particular aesthetic at a particular state of time in a particular state of mind. I’m trying to problematize the process, and sort of de-science it a little bit so that people can see it for what it is.

I’m really good at giving people hands-on experience understanding the issues involved with doing the no-no, but I’m also really involved with getting them to do it, coercing them a little bit. Even if I’m offering that they don’t have to, I’m still saying like “Here, it’s open. You’ll be okay”, and I’m saying that this has a problem to it. It’s not that easy to make a decision, and there’s no such thing as not making a decision. So I’m kind of coming from an agnostic front where I’m like, “I don’t know, but here’s all the stuff – here’s all the issues, here’s all the options, here’s the real process… It’s hands-on, we’re all kind of amateurs, but it’s not just a glorification of amateur science. It’s actually presenting the complexity of the situation itself.”

So yes, part of the art is making a wide open array of choices available and talking about the issues, and then saying, “Now it’s up to you”, and seeing where they go. In that sense, I’m not too judgmental about how people act during my labs. I wanna allow people to make their own decisions and to live with them.

* * *

There’s a movement… Some people call it the singularity movement, transhumanism, posthumanism, based on the idea of human enhancement. And that would be through genetic modification, epigenetic modification, stem cell technology – basically, synthetic enhancement to make us taller, stronger, longer living, resistant to disease, resistant to radiation, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and eventually perfect.

I have a problem with this, first from the standpoint of the history of eugenics or master racing… But what is this enhancement, right? What is it? It’s always towards the better. Now, I’m an artist, I’m not into utilitarianism as an aesthetic. But if it’s going on already, somebody’s gotta come up with alternatives. It’s been a goal of mine for more than ten years to make transgenic humans. I do have problems with the process, I do have problems with the results, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do it if I could. I’m not against the technology itself, I’m actually not against the disorganized techno-evolution of the human – adding genes, knocking out other genes, even uncovering genes that have been there for millions of years that haven’t been used since… But I’m most interested in the future of bodies.

I think that it’s important to make versions of transgenic human anatomy that are not based on idealism. I wanna make sure that there’s plaid kids, all the other queer anatomy out there to compete with the other add-ons that parents are gonna be paying for. To get bio-queer transgenic humans is going to save a lot of difference on the planet. It’s gonna stop us from monoculturing ourselves and it’s gonna also offer a real and possibly unacceptable face of the democratization of the human genome.
The idea is that you take a gene, say for pig noses, or ostrich anuses, or aardvark tongue, and you paste that into a human sperm, a human egg, a human zygote. A baby starts to form. Developmentally, the baby is mostly human, but it has an aardvark tongue, a pig nose and an ostrich anus. That makes for bodily difference and surely metabolic differences etc, but it also makes for a version of ourselves that’s based on collage. It’s literally gene collage.

What’s weird about it is that once you get that started, if it stabilizes, if you can find partners, if you’re still fertile, if you’re still into it, you go ahead and reproduce and you’ll have children born with ostrich anuses and aardvark tongues and pig noses.

There are unacceptable faces of what we can become: arachnid, more worm-like, covered in clitori, that wouldn’t necessarily be anything but fringe and might not ever exist unless someone was willing to make that transgenic human fringe as a project.

I can tell you that idealist, non-cynical, happy-go-lucky Ted talk-style transhumanists would say “That’s a degraded version of what we’re working towards with human enhancement.” But if we talk about the Nazi in relation to modern art calling it degenerate art, unless it’s hyperrealism – which has to do with superheroes – then these transhumanists sound an awful lot like neo Nazis. But what would degenerate human transgenic children look like? What would be another aesthetic than Michelangelo’s perfection of the human ideal? Well, we could start with cubism, right? What would Picasso make as a baby? We could go to Jackson Pollock. What would total abstraction be? You know, drunkenly playing with the genome and coming out with sort of this wild splay. Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, that would be cool. And then, to get right down to it… What would Cindy Sherman do?

I kind of like to look into these aesthetic territories as the potential for future humans. It’s not just making ourselves better in various different ways, but also making ourselves go ahead and make ourselves degraded, debased, defaced, dehumanized… But then eventually, also to just go ahead and let ourselves be beyond the body as we know it. It’s not the human as we know it anymore.

What does it mean to make a baby that has antlers, or a third eye, or six arms and is blue? Yeah, it’s a little showy. Pinstripes would be actually a little bit more stylish. You have to feel for the kids who were born with penises instead of hair, the neo-medusas.

On the other hand, in a perfect world, where every difference was really accepted, in a world that understood that queerness and being differently abled, and all the standard stuff that we’re trying to be sensitive about – gender, race, even class… If the world is going to turn into a hyper accepting place without genocide, an all-accepting world, then we don’t just have to take psychedelics to be appreciative of the radical porousness of reality; we could actually let the radical porousness of reality flow into our anatomy. And these people who, yes, are humans, should be appreciated for who and what they are after they’re forced to be born in a really radically strange way.

And do you really believe that you could do that?

I think I could love my children freaks. Oh, why not? Yeah!

No, make them. Do you really think you could make them?

Do you mean can I really make them technically? Or ethically.

Yeah, do you believe you can really make GM embryo with your certain curatorial instincts embedded in its DNA?

So do I think I’m technically capable?

Yeah.

I have more to learn… I still have more to learn, but I know what I have to learn. You know, there are various ways to do this. If I infect someone with a GMO virus that also happens to affect their balls or their ovaries, then they will be able to provide eggs and sperm that have that genetic mutation inside of it. Other ways you can do this is outside of the body, right? You can buy human eggs online, and you can buy human sperm online, and you can mix them together in a dish, and you can go ahead and microinject your construct into the nucleus of this newly-fertilized egg. Then you can grow them up and screen them, and if they’re showing signs that they took your construct well, you can implant them in a pseudopregnant surrogate mother. That’s also like 20-30 grand, it’s not so bad.
Once you implant a transgenic human embryo, nine months later you’ve got a handful of responsibility. Just like any parent, but with, you know, a lot of difference.

Also, you have the not too fun statistical level of failure. It’s not so bad if it causes miscarriage. That’s sad. What’s really bad is if the baby is born and it doesn’t conform to your expectations and the mutation didn’t land exactly where you thought, and there was off-target mutation and it caused some kind of horrific effect.

On the other hand, we’re really kind of entranced with radical difference. That’s what geek love is about, that’s what thrills people about teratology. That’s why I went to the Mütter Museum the other day, to see the three-headed human embryos in the jar. What is that called, that attraction/repulsion…? I’m not sure.

Yeah… can we just talk about how hot it is?

How hot is it?

I mean, there’s a reason that this technology is being developed. It’s partly because it’s just really hot. This kind of meddlesome reproductive technology is actually hugely fetishistic; it’s really hot. In other words, the urge to get into the genome and prod it with various technologies is actually a kind of a pornographic moment. It’s a really basic thing, but although like a third of the world economy is based on really weird porn… We’re still living in a society of compulsory morality. Hotness is made for the bedroom, or the internet. It’s a strange world… I don’t know.
I don’t know why everyone’s so sexually repressed about what’s obviously a weird practice of attraction of control. Anyway…

You’re talking about genetic engineering as sexual, but is making a change in something – which is what genetic engineering is doing – necessarily erotic? Or is that just your reading on it.

Well, you know, there’s motives and then there’s hidden motives. To put this technology in the context of “pleasure for pleasure’s sake”, “experimentation for experimentation’s sake”, what about this is just actually a really kinky project?

Okay, so Pfarm is actually short for PowerFarm. It was one of my early ideas on how to mix organic farming with biotechnology with fetishism, or sado-masochism (which are different things, but…) It’s sort of like a simple idea: people are willing to pay to be forced to be farm animals or farm workers. As long as there’s some doms involved, subs with money will come. So we could utilize their free labor, in a way we could get paid for their free labor. They would pay to be forced to labor, and it would be ethical because it was voluntary. These people would work the farm and at night be also human subjects inside of a lab that studied human reproduction. Then we’d have organic farm products, free labor and get paid to force them into strange positions that they signed up for.

* * *

It was just super fun to film, and it turned into a wild video. It’s online, it’s on archive.org, and it’s a little bit risqué… I called up some friends, we got together; we had $10,000 to shoot and two weeks to do it. It’s not that hard to spend that much, but we just went for it. I brought people together that naturally gravitated towards these topics. In fact, even the funders were I think just in it for the kicks. We had so much fun…

But there was also this slippage between whether or not it was really going on or not, and I’m still not at liberty to say what all happened there. There were some interesting propositions and some experimentation.

And what kind of experimentation was happening?

Oh well, you know, it’s the usual taking samples, trying our best to cause mutation…

[Our human subject has been taking hormones, so that she is hyperovulating at this time. We are hoping that this peanut butter, soy milk, and tomato sauce will mutate her babies and perhaps come up with an entirely new breed of humans.
The pure dominatrix…]

We actually had a lot of men that were kept in these chicken coops. We used them for their body fluids, but we also used them as a chorus. We had them sing the Love Boat theme song; it was kind of like a Nickelodeon retro chicken coop, guys wrapped in Saran Wrap moment.
You know, so it was a very important research is what I’m trying to say.

So did you have a control group?

Oh, hell no. [laughs] There was no control whatsoever. It was completely out of control. [laughs] High weirdness needs a place in the world, and people need to know that it’s an acceptable procedure for living their lives, to go ahead and pursue obscure, queer moments of ecstasy. We still have sometimes some… We’ll go down in New York — if someone wants to pay $3,000, I’ll organize to have them kidnapped and brought up in a farm and be experimented with some medical fetishes at night. I don’t mind… I have a friend who lends me his organic farm, and if we pull in like six or eight thousand for a few people, that’s cool. They’ve got their weekend, and we got what we wanted from them, which is like medical samples.

There is something clearly fetishistic that feels like it’s fun for you in transgenics.

Yeah, practically there’s a relationship to taboo. It’s about doing the no-no, and strangely, both the arts and the sciences have a relationship to the taboo, which is deep, meaningful, even a little bit erotic, which is to say these are areas that have their own process, not necessarily just waiting for social approval. Not everything is democratized, you have to actually allow for a non-repressed way of being in the world, even if they’re not approved by majority rule.

Is it about enjoyment, or am I totally misreading that?

Oh wow, I got totally busted once by a bioethicist. It was a woman I was having dinner with; we had presented at Harvard together, and she said “I’ve studied your work a little bit.” I said, “Really? What do you think?” and she said, “If you weren’t doing these things in the name of bioethics, would you still do them?” and I looked at her in all honesty and I said, “Yeah, I would.”

I wonder if I’m not using bioethics as a kind of foil to protect myself from just doing the things that I wanted to do in the first place, and I think that’s exactly what you’re getting at. What’s more important – the social message, or the experience as an artist of mucking about in some genome and making basically sculptural children.

Yeah, I would say that I would do what I was doing even if it wasn’t for public understanding of science or legal/social/ethical guidelines being put in people’s hands. But in my own acts, yeah, I’d probably just keep going.

On the other hand, one of my students pulled me aside and he said, “I’ve been checking you out, and you know a lot; and you’re moving a lot slower than you have to. How come you’re moving so slow?”

What did he mean by that?

I mean, I could have transgenic human babies by now. If I’d really just gone full throttle towards that project, towards that end… You know, I made transgenic sperm in New York City a couple of months ago, but I didn’t put it inside of anyone. Maybe I’m better at foreplay than I even know, but I’m actually teasing these taboos out; I’m not exactly going full throttled into the taboo, as hard and fast as possible. I’m not out of control. I’m kind of doing things one step at a time…

Have you thought about experimenting on yourself at any point?

Well, I have actually let experiments be done on me and done some experiments with my own sperm. I have electroporated my sperm with centipede DNA, I’ve had hybrid DNA blown into my arm with like a microinjection needle. That’s almost as far as I can go without actually involving some eggs and some wombs; it’s really hard for me to give birth alone.

What are some of the reactions that people have had to do? Have there been some really negative responses to your work?

I don’t know… I live in a delusional Universe where I’m just adored. No, let me be serious. I haven’t had vast negative reactions. What I have had is some people can’t have me do what I wanna do where they are. Because of the history the Germans have, like an Embryo Act – that’s one of the strictest ones in the universe, and can’t allow some of what I wanna do on their soil.

Have you been banned from anywhere, doing your work anywhere?

[laughs] Are you sure you wanna go there?
Well, I think you have a few examples, don’t you?
[laughs] Do you wanna talk about [inaudible] or no? So far we’ve avoided that.

Yeah… No, I wasn’t even segueing into [inaudible] with this, but…

I just wanted to, you know… I’ve found my limits, I’m just wondering if you have any.
Right, but… That’s what I thought, let’s keep that off the record. Alright, here we go… We’ve got another journalist here. Don’t ask, don’t tell, right?

No-no-no, Brendan knows. Brendan and I have talked about it, so I’m hoping that we can discuss what went down between you and I a few years ago.

Alright… It’s amazing the – the power relation is that you get to decide. Like, I’m okay, but I think that for you to get it on the record and then decide what you want to release actually puts the ball in your court, and I think that’s great. I’m game!

Awesome, cool. So could you tell me what you think happened?

Okay, so… [clears throat] You and I were at a residency, sort of a bevy of bioartists, maybe five or six of them leading maybe 15 students in the wilderness. Like a wilderness retreat. People were doing research on, say, the change in climate and the effect on butterflies, or sort of artistic research. Kind of like science, but a little more playful.

In this residency it was asked that no vertebrate organisms be used; plant-based only during the residency, because it was sort of funded with a research grant. The research grant covered non-vertebrate work, like insect work etc., but didn’t cover anything to do with vertebrates. And that research grant had rules, right? There was a giant 20-page contract that listed all the rules, and then we had lectures ad infinitum about them.

So I came as a student helper. We met and you asked me if I might want to help you with the performance that you were doing. We were outside by a tent, there was a table, you had a blender (regular kitchen blender) and then a bunch of different organismal specimens – fruits and vegetables and bark from close-by trees and leaves…

Okay, so I was running one of my standard labs – a lab that I run all the time, which is a hybrid DNA isolation lab. Hybrid means you isolate DNA from 20 or 30 things at once, anything that has DNA in it. It could be bugs, it could be fruit, it could be fungus, it could be yeast, bacteria from yogurt, from swamp water, from spit…

So I was kind of your assistant that passes on the instruments you need, or the ingredients that you want, and we had a very modest audience and you were entertaining folks and describing the fruit you were taking and putting in the blender, and explaining that you would be adding all these different things in and adding alcohol plus soap, and then when you would blend it together and treat it, with a couple other steps you could separate DNA from all of these organisms so that you could see it, like a mucusy club, and remove it. The intention, if I understand correctly, was to put that in a tattoo gun.

The idea was to use the DNA to do tattoos on nature, kind of like genetic graffiti. The needle itself would actually push the DNA into the center of plant cells, the nuclei of plant cells and other cells, like maybe ant eggs.

Right, so it was an artistic approach to doing transgenics.

Right. What actually happened was not that unusual for me, which is I was kind of intrigued and it came to mind and I went “How about this? Can I get a sample from you, tissue sample?” Taking a tissue sample from you would be human subjects research. That involves usually more than a verbal okay. I didn’t think it was dangerous, but I was also not thoughtful about the rule. You can’t just follow the rules and expect to get some insight.

I went a little over my own edge though, but the way that I went over it was a little bit naive. I had a beer… I was just drinking beer, and I got a little drunk and I was like, “I don’t know…” I got into the lab and I got kind of giddy. I brought with me some kind of needle punch biopsy thing; I had a few of them. I’d never used one before, and I was kind of like… I think I goaded myself into asking, and you were kind of like, “Okay”, and I took a sample from you.

My version is very different from that.

Tell me, I wanna hear yours.

From my perspective, near the end of putting a bunch of those ingredients in, you said something to the effect of, “And now, for a special ingredient”, and you pulled out this instrument with a metal kind of like half a needle; kind if like a tiny microscopic shovel, and you said “Human biopsy”, and you motioned towards me and suggested that I give the biopsy.
I was in front of people, it was happening… I’m kind of a people pleaser, and I think I tried to accommodate. I remember feeling uncomfortable with it and put on the spot, and I didn’t know it was coming because you hadn’t mentioned it to me before. But I felt flustered immediately, I remember that, because I was in the dark, you didn’t talk to me about it, right?

Sure, yeah. I mean, I didn’t even know that I was gonna whip out that instrument, and it came to mind… I know we were both on video and in front of a crowd and drinking, and the judgment was a little marred, and I do think I was a little pushy. I think you’re right. Because I can be… I can be absurd as dominant, but I’m pretty dominant anyway. I tend towards the absurd, where it’s like silly dominance, but I’m actually also quite persuasive. I can be a little hypnotic.

For people who like that, I’m really good. Sometimes that can be on the verge of just being like a peer pressure person. I don’t like that… I don’t like being a bully, or that kind of thing. It’s hard to hear it, but I can hear it.

I just wanna pick up on where that went. So there was a film crew there, there was a person on the camera recording this, and who got kind of excited by this happening and came closer, and was like, “Oh, an action scene. Something’s gonna happen.” But then I offered you my arm to do the biopsy in, and you suggested “No, not your arm.” You suggested that it had to be my butt. That made me uncomfortable. And I said, “Yes, my arm”, and you were like, “No, not your arm”, and I said “Yes”, and it went back and forth that way. I felt pressured, peer-pressured in that, but it felt like inappropriate pressure.

Then I ended up disappointing myself, because I kind of caved. I kind of did… I gave you like a half upper hip cheek thing, and then you stuck this instrument in my flesh in front of this crowd. It took one second and then you removed it, right? That’s what the biopsy was. But I didn’t really know what was gonna happen, and I don’t know why I let you do that if I was uncomfortable with it.
But the thing that really bothered me afterwards was that after the whole performance was over and you’d added the tiny bit of biopsy and extracting the DNA and I had been annotating it, and describing to the video camera what was going on, still participating, the camera person came up afterwards and said, “We need a reenactment”, and I said no.

I had just been through that and kind of been like “Phew, it’s over.” Then the camera person said, “Yes, we do”, and you said, “Yeah, come on, it’s fun. Let’s just get a close-up shot, a more controlled shot. It will be good.” And again, I caved and I said “Okay.”

When we went to go do it, you were like, “I won’t take another biopsy, this is just for show. I will place it above your skin”, and the camera person was there, took a really close-up shot. Then said, “Okay… Three, two, one, roll!” and then you took another biopsy of me.

Did I?

Yeah.

I actually don’t remember that. That’s wild. Yeah?

Yeah.

Wow. Well, I believe you. That’s strange. Well, I’m capable obviously of not remembering everything, but that’s a strange one. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m gonna trust your version. Is that alright? I’m not sure actually… I mean, I sort of trust your version, but I’m like “Jeez, I don’t remember it that way.” I know that the filmmakers always like to do reenactments of things, and I’ve know them for many years, so I was probably like “Yeah, let’s do it.” But I was aware that all of us sort of succumbed to a moment, and I felt actually like I made a really poor judgment call in succumbing to that moment where there was sort of like something finally happening that was a little bit taboo. But I didn’t think that I had put you in a place where you felt obliged. But the fact that you felt like I was pushy and taky, overstepping boundaries – that I wasn’t aware of, actually, until you say it to me right now.

That can be really confusing, I’ve been on both sides of that, you know what I mean? Myself. I’ve been in situations where I’ve gotten to a BDSM parlor and had my own boundaries violated. It was with volition, but there was a lot of pressure, and people were like “You didn’t say no, so I took that as a yes”, that type of thing.

It’s a strange world, but I feel like I did you a disservice, so I can say I’m sorry. I thought I had broken the rules, but I didn’t realize that I hurt your feelings. Even the second biopsy, if I told you I wasn’t gonna do it and I didn’t get an okay to do it, that was actually just wrong.

Right, yeah. And what happened afterwards is that one of the organizers came and very fiercely yelled at me, and was so visibly upset, and I was trying to figure out what had happened. They said, “Don’t play flesh games on my art project. You totally violated the bioethical rules that have been set out here”, and it still took me some time to put the pieces together.

Later that evening, time had passed and some walks had been taken and conversations had been had, and then they came back and asked me to go on a walk. We went on a walk and sat down, and they told me that you had been asked to leave and were already gone. Then I asked why I was still there, and the organizer said, “It’s very clear to me that you were coerced and that you were uncomfortable, and I don’t want you to wake up in the future some day and realize that I created an environment in which you were taken advantage of.” And that kind of shocked me at the time, and then only afterwards started to make some connection for me to what had happened. How do you feel about that?

Well, I really did think that I went overboard. I acted rashly in the moment, which is great generally if you’re doing, say, an abstract painting. But in this realm, where you’re dealing with people and their boundaries and institutions and their boundaries, I felt like I really kind of just fucked up. It was really basic, you know?

Yeah, I mean, I’m glad to talk about this because I’ve honestly wondered, was that an executed performance that was intended? Because it could spur debate that you wanted to spur about what is the role of art and what should artists be toeing the line of – bureaucracy and institutional power, or pressing through ethical limitations and getting us to figure out our own standpoints? All those things.

Those are all really great things to do, and that was not what I was doing. I was kind of a little drunk and just fucking around. I love doing all those things, like pushing boundaries, but I like to be somewhat calculated. I like to have consent. It’s difficult… BDSM politics are difficult, because I do understand people exchanging power in a way that’s respectful of each other’s boundaries, because I understand the thrill, and it’s part of human sexual response. There’s certain things for some people that are hot that aren’t for other people.

I do think that I have my own libidinal interaction when it comes to biology. I think biology is a form of pornography, so when practicing biology I am in a porn scene. That might have not been apparent to you. Then at the same time, in this instant I think that you felt like I got over on you. I didn’t feel that way. I thought we were actually pretty even, but I might have put on some pressure, and I may have gone over the line as far as taking a second biopsy when I said I wouldn’t. That really sucks.

In some ways, yeah… That’s actually not criticism, but actually – what would you call it? Accurate mirroring of the way things are already, which is not proactive in any way. It’s just business as usual, like bore usury.

I don’t really know how that relates to the biopsy – business as usual.

Well, I just mean if I’m trying to be a critic of biopolitical power and I’m actually practicing biopolitical power, then it kind of nullifies any sort of activist stance, any sort of higher moral ground. It has no progressive or thoughtful or critical effect whatsoever. It’s actually just like another creepy person in the world.

Right.

Yeah. [laughs] I don’t like to admit that, but that is an unfortunate event, and I’m sorry if I overstepped your boundaries, but I would say that in general that falls under overstepping my boundaries as well. And I’m learning something here because it’s like, I felt bad about the boundaries of the residency. Now I’m learning also that I pushed a little too hard against your boundaries, you know? And that’s… You know, I think I had a pretty bad day.

I mean, I guess why I wanna even talk to you about this in the context of this podcast is because it’s not just cathartic and nice to talk with you about it after never talking about it when it should be talked about, but it seems to relate to major themes that span across your work. I guess Brendan and I are interested in trying to understand how you feel, what you believe in, where your values lie? What do you stand for?

Well, I mean, that’s weird. I do think I sort of do stand on the idea that artists aren’t like all people, aren’t necessarily there to teach the difference between right and wrong. It’s not that simple. I mean, ethics are kind of situational, and I wanna leave it open-ended. I hope that’s not too bad, but I’m like — oh, that’s a weird thing to say. I hope that’s not too awful, but… Artists aren’t priests. They don’t just preach, and they’re not on the side of righteousness. Artists choose their lives so that they can be a little greedy. Artists are closer sometimes to bikers. Not all of them… There’s a lot of kiss-ass corporate artists out there; there’s a lot of people that are expressing their inner beauty and nothing else, but to me that’s like a watercolor of a red barn… Like another watercolor of a red barn, and maybe a Rothko, okay? I don’t give a shit.

I’m interested in the arts that it’s like tearing down society, shredding culture itself, reworking; deconstruction, as a process. It’s a little bit aggro, it’s a little bit rough, it’s not pretty, but if you’re actually looking at society as a painful comedy and you’re trying to reveal that, like pull the wall off of people’s eyes, or at least let them have their own wall for their own eyes for a change. It’s yucky and it’s not always kosher, but in some ways we run into some really dangerous territory. Where does negation take us? I worked with this theoretically and you can sort of feel it; I’m dabbling in it in practice too, and it’s all of the paraphilias, all of the really kind of extreme and unacceptable human behaviors that fall under kind of outlaw lust.

I have a feeling for this as a kind of deviance. I have a feeling for the organism in an experiment, and it’s not a feeling of just pity, it’s also a feeling of a sort of erotic, incestuous, bestial act of degradation. It’s like a really wrong power situation.

But that also means you get pleasure from it.

Well, I mean… Yeah, it’s a double bind. You’re gonna run back into that, right? Where I’m like, “I’m extremely attracted to understanding biological process as a kind of kink.” So it’s attractive, but it’s also extremely repulsive.

There’s not a contradiction between attraction and repulsion. There’s an economy. It’s not like a dichotomy, it’s an economy. I would hope that everyone out there in radio land has something that they’re extremely attracted to that also repulses them, and I would hope they approach that obliquely at first, but go into the fire. When you’re looking for love in all the wrong places, when you’re looking for love, say, in too many faces, you’re actually attracted and repulsed at the same time, and that’s not a dilemma, it’s a way of being.

* * *

This is repulsive to some, but I have to tell you – there is a small subset of people on earth that would like nothing more than to have like a strange sculptural, maybe goth, human mutant baby. They might be like, body modification people, or transitioning not just in one way or another, but like all over the gender spectrum. These are people that take their bodies in hand. Body artists, live artists, people that do performance, like living/being experimentation. All of them are kind of like intrigued by which way this can go, and they’re out there… I’m calling for my people.

Everyone’s looking to see who’s gonna make the first transgenic human baby as an art project. It’s kind of like “The challenge is on!” Like I’ve said, I’m not moving as fast as I could, but I’m moving there… We’ll see.

Is it fair to say that there is no bioethical limit in your end goal?

Yeah, even for a radio show that’s like a tell-all radio show, I don’t really wanna reveal exactly where my limits lie… They might change in the future. Ethics is a process when you’re acting, when you’re being in the world.

What I would say is this: in the name of being ethical, I’m looking for people that are interested in providing their eggs, their sperm, I’m looking for people that are interested in carrying my mutant babies. So if people are out there that actually want to have a transgenic sculpture baby that’s born under an aesthetic that’s queer, as opposed to merely enhanced, I’m working towards that end and I need your womb. After that is all said and done – yeah, if those are not babies to be produced for someone else, then I promise to be a good parent.

I guess this show is sort of like a dating service, so I thank Love + Radio for making some love possible. I’m putting out a call. I’m calling you, I want you. If you’re out there and you have a womb and you wanna carry a baby that’s really obscure, something novel on the earth as far as humans go,
I’m your man.

* * *

So I have right here… I sort of sent it in the mail to myself, this sculpture. It’s of Uranus’ castrated penis, and I decided to glaze that castrated penis with centiSperm. It’s a tidy mess, I’ll tear it open for you. It’s actually… [unwrapping sounds]

It’s in a lot of bubble wrap.

So here it is… The castrated penis of Uranus, glazed with centiSperm. You can see it has a sort of sheen…

Yeah. I wouldn’t think that’s a penis if I didn’t know. Like you say, it’s castrated, so I guess it’s just kind of like… Flesh. And it’s slightly shining, and I guess that because you lacquered it with your transgenic centiSperm, you’re saying.

Yeah.

Thank you for showing me your sculpture.

You’re welcome. Do you wanna touch it?

No, thank you.

We’re getting better, huh?

Yeah…

We’re doing okay… Really, it doesn’t look like a penis to you?

It kind of looks like a chicken wing, I think.

[laughs] Stop that…

No offense…

Oh, I’m finally offended.

Published on: December 2, 2016

From: Episodes, Season 5

Producers: ,

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