A Virus from Outerspace

Folio of 5 prints, silkscreen, lithograph, 50 x 50 cm, 2007

In 2007 I had the opportunity to collaborate with poet and author Christian Bök. His work was familiar to me from his Griffin Prize-winning book Eunoia, and his performance of sound-poetry.

The project resulted in the production of a print portfolio based on a proposal he was developing to insert a poem into the DNA of a primitive bacterium.

” I propose to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA to implant it into a bacterium, after which I plan to document the progress of this experiment for publication. ……. I plan to compose my own text in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein—a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. I hope, in effect, to engineer a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem"

The intended host is Deinococcus radiodurans, a primitive bacterium with a remarkable resistance to inhospitable environments and extremely high doses of radiation. Preliminary internet research yielded very interesting schematic visual representations of the special proteins in this bacterium.

I conceived of a model made from poultry mesh and curled ribbons to resemble this protein. For these ribbons, clear Mylar strips with printed text could be used. Christian liked this idea and we decided to go ahead with the Xenotext project. The actual poem for the project had not been written yet, so he decided to write a poem specific to this project.

Christian wanted to be sure that I would base my model on the proper protein structure. The site www.rcsb.org yielded the most authoritative model of the biological molecule of Deinococcus radiodurans. I even found a model of the RecA protein, which is responsible for the unique radiation-resistant characteristic of the bacterium. I created a digital composite, which served as a guide for the model I made from Mylar and poultry mesh.

Seeing the protein model had six curls, Christian decided to write a six-sentence poem for the protein, each sentence for one curl. In the meantime, I also found beautiful genome maps of the bacterium produced byKEGG, the Bioinformatics Center of Kyoto University and the Human Genome Center of the University of Tokyo. I extended the project to create a folio with a variance of prints. I printed two colour versions of the genome map, sandwiched between these a translucent sheet with the text of the poem, and a final image of the manufactured protein with the poem text curled into it.

Christian produced a brilliant poem composed of six anagrams derived from William S. Burroughs’s quote that “language is a virus of outer space.” Each stanza is a statement on language. One of the inspirations behind the Xenotext proposal was to make literal Burroughs’s aphorism, that “the word is now a virus”. Thus, the title of our project became: A Virus from Outer Space.

Finished protein model, derived from 1xp8. Poultry mesh and Mylar, 35 x 23 x 6 cm.

The project involves an interplay between science and imaginary science or ‘pataphysics, which is one of Christian Bök’s main fields of interest. Imagine that the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans becomes the vessel for a poem! Will this vessel be a sieve? Returning to Burroughs’s idea that language is a virus, we can perceive how language operates similarly. A virus attaches itself to a host, replicates and spreads from host to host. Like a virus, language is a “nonliving pattern of information, a configuration of meaning that attaches itself to consciousness, a program waiting to be executed, changing both the consciousness it infects and morphing its very own structure as it replicates itself” (Keith Aoki).

The anagram also references the idea of DNA recombination. Viruses use host DNA to replicate themselves. The idea of translating a poem into DNA is not a very large imaginary step when you realize that DNA itself is a code. Information preserved in DNA has passed through generations of life.

Christian Bök finished his poem in the Xenocode and published a first book on the project, The Xenotext 1, in 2016.

A Virus from Outer Space

By Christian Bök

 

Language

is a virus

from outer space.

 

Language

is a pursuer

of covert aims.

 

Language

frames our

virus as poetic.

 

Language

tapers our

vicious frames.

 

Language

for a sum is

a corrupt sieve.

 

Language

for us promises

a curative.

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