Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment is an ambitious attempt at harnessing emerging scientific technology to create new forms of artistic work.  Most generally, it is an endeavor to merge the humanities and ‘hard’ sciences. Bök writes about his plan to write a poem and encode it inside of the DNA of a bacterium to create ‘living poetry’. Along with the poem itself, Bök would create a number of supplementary materials and, all together, these would make up the Experiment. Bok is currently the first person to design a microorganism capable of writing a meaningful text in response to an enciphered gene. He is now working on getting a sample of the organism in culture. The purpose of the experiment is to convey the beauty of both poetry and biology and demonstrate potential ways for these fields to interact with each other in the future.

The idea of creating poetry in DNA is similar to a concept we read about earlier this semester, which is using DNA for storage. The article “Book written in DNA code”, published in The Guardian in August of 2012, discusses the first successful attempt at storing the contents of a book in DNA code. Currently, it is very expensive and time consuming to store information in DNA. The book was the largest file ever stored in DNA yet is was only 5.27 MB and it was stored in artificial DNA, not implanted inside of a real cell. However, the article reports that technology is improving rapidly and DNA might be a viable option for storage in the future, citing DNAs extremely efficient storage capacity. So the idea of manipulating DNA to create poetry and other forms of art seems like it will be a possibility sometime soon. Unlike the experiment with the book, The Xenotext Experiment is more than just using DNA to store the information of a text.

The Xenotext Experiment involves generating a poem with the intent in mind to have it stored as DNA sequence and having the molecules and bacteria themselves serve as part of the artwork. In living organisms, DNA and its associated machinery not only store information but also allow for the expression of the messages (protein production). Likewise, part of the The Xenotext Experiment is creating the poem and its cipher in such a way that the sequence containing the poem can be translated into a protein, which is itself another text. This concept is part of the art piece and the elucidation of the aesthetics of biology, having poetry mimic nature. The bacterium is not only the book but the printing press as well and part of the art piece.  As for the content of the poem itself, the topic is about the interaction of language and genetics. This, obviously, seems fitting given that the purpose of the project as a whole involves this relationship. Bök is also constrained in what he can write due to the nature of the media itself. As we learned from The Guardian article, artificially storing information in DNA is not only difficult but complicated and tricky as well. The poem has to be short to avoid a DNA sequence that is excessively lengthy and there might be more specific syntactical and dictional restrictions so as to make the sequence stable and capable of coding for the protein. Bok had to redesign the protein many times before he created one that could accomplish its intended function (in this case glowing a fluorescent green) while maintaining the poem sequence inside a cell. In the successful creation of the poetic cipher gene this year, the protein was able to glow and the poem persisted.

As part of the artwork, different types of images of the DNA, protein, and bacteria will be included in the piece. There are many imaging techniques in biology for visualizing organic structures, many of which produce aesthetically pleasing pictures. Bök plans to take advantage of this fact by including artwork of the compounds and in this way adopting the chemical foundation of the media as fine art. As we learned from our discussion with Jussi Parikka and Drew Burk a few weeks ago, the physical features of books are part of the experience of reading a book. The design of the cover, the type of binding, texture of the paper, and font/margins of the page are all attributes of the media and contribute to the message. In this new medium that Bök is envisioning, characteristics of the media again influence the message. Different poems and different coding schemes result in distinct DNA sequences that look different and create different proteins. Also, the choice of imaging techniques could be utilized by the author to establish styles and generate certain impressions, just like a painting can. Along with images of the products, Bök also plans to cover the scientific side of the Experiment as well by producing charts, graphs, outlines of the results, and an explanation of the chemical cipher.

The Xenotext Experiment is not just a written or digital text compilation of all of the documentations of this living poetry project. For example, Bök intends to organize an art exhibit with enlarged copies of the photos and charts, thereby creating a space for a discourse about the topic. One such tool Bök is already employing is a ball and stick model of his protein from a plastic model kit. The 3d protein sculpture has already made appearances in art exhibits. Bök also intends to publish a poetic manual at the end of the project detailing the text of the poem and including many of the pieces such as the chemical alphabet of the cipher, photos, and the scientific data. One cool plan Bök has is to include a slide with a sample of the bacteria with every book for the reader to examine. Providing an actual copy of the organism would enhance the affect of the poem by providing a tangible three-dimensional object for the reader to inspect and help the artwork resonate.

Picture of the protein sculpture on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver

Picture of the protein sculpture on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver

A final thing to consider is whether or not The Xenotext Experiment qualifies as electronic literature and if it even matters. On page x of the Read Me in Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons For the Literary, she says “electronic literature can be understood as a practice that mediates between human and machine cognition…” (Hayles x).  If we understand this statement with a broad definition of machine, including biological ‘machinery’ as a type of machine and not just interpreting it to mean computers, then I think this piece certainly counts as electronic literature. The Xenotext Experiment takes a human conception, poetry and other types of art, and puts it in biological terms. Hayles also comments that electronic literature is tied to the evolution of digital computers, just as print books were tied to the evolution of printing. Although existing in a biological and not computer form, ‘living poetry’ is dependent on and tied to digital computers for its creation and visualization so I believe The Xenotext Experiment fits this condition as well.

Currently, molecular biology and the arts are seen as exclusive fields of study and The Xenotext Experiment is an attempt to combat that notion. These two areas can be combined to create a multidisciplinary medium capable of transmitting information in an entirely new way. Additionally, this ‘living poetry’ makes arguments about both of these fields as well. Namely, biology can be art and poetry can employ technology and scientific principles.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons For the Literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008.