Before Charlotte Jarvis applied for a license to do so, no one in the Netherlands had ever created an entirely synthetic DNA strand. The young British artist claimed that honor during a ten-month stint at the Netherlands Proteomics Centre, while developing an installation that has sparked debate among scientists about the goals of genetics and synthetic biology.
On August 4th, Jarvis unveiled Blighted by Kenning, the project she developed during an artist residency at the center. In an old dairy warehouse on the coast of Suffolk, she has installed a small apple orchard of thirteen trees. Each tree was grown in the Hague, the seat of the International Court of Justice. And hanging in the trees, one "contaminated" apple is encoded with a message: the Declaration of Human Rights, developed more than sixty years ago by the United Nations. During the opening on Saturday, Jarvis mingled with the audience as she ate the contaminated apple. Others like it had been sent to scientists to be decoded (and consumed)—the exhibition includes images of scientists (like the Dean of Science at Utrecht University) eating them.
"The process for using the DNA sequence as a code to represent natural text is well established," explains Jarvis. When they decode the apple’s DNA, her collaborators will find the Declaration encrypted in three-letter codons, "a tri-nucleotide unit consisting of a specific combination of Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cytosine (C)." Jarvis originally intended to infect the apples with actual bacteria made from the DNA, but as she recently explained to Don’t Panic, "it’s nearly impossible to legally exhibit a Genetically Modified Organism in a gallery," either in the U.K. or Holland, and asking people to eat the apples would have been out of the question. Instead, she extracted the "naked" DNA from the bacteria, and used spray-bottles to coat the apples. Since DNA alone is no more than the building blocks used to create proteins, there are fewer restrictions on its use.
"DNA is an incredibly stable substance, so it will stay on the surface of the apple for many years," she writes. "In the same way that in the right circumstances DNA evidence can be retrieved decades after a crime is committed." The idea, Jarvis explains, is to involve scientists in a show of support for research about genetics and structural biology, contrary to popular opinion that such research is dangerous to humanity—a forbidden fruit, if you will.
When Blighted by Kenning is complete, scientists all over the world will have reconstructed the DNA and returned samples of it to Jarvis. Speaking over email in the days before the opening, she says she plans to continue working within the field. "It’s while setting up for a show that I start to have new ideas," she says. "I was discussing a new genetic art project with a curator just yesterday." The Suffolk exhibition is on view until August 26th, though hilariously, it’s possible that some unwitting Olympic tourist has already consumed a piece of the art: Jarvis tells Don’t Panic that she accidentally left one of the apples on the London Tube.
[Full interview here; Images courtesy of the artist]