In Hesiod's Work and Days we find the creation of Pandora, the first woman on Earth, whose curiosity caused her to open a pithos, allowing death and all the evils of the world to escape, all except elpis (hope) which remained within.
The pithos is a jar, large enough to conceal a body within. Commonly used to store and transport wine, oil, grain, or other commodities, pithoi were used among civilsations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea in the Bronze and Iron ages. The etymology of pithos is thought to derive from the Proto-Indo European *bhidh- meaning "container", and also from the Latin fiscus or "purse", leading to a generally accepted view of the pithos as a large vessel containing goods of economic value.
The field of synthetic biology is in its infancy, but because of the significant potential in genetically altering existing microbial organisms, for use as energy and within healthcare and medical treatment, the industry has become a lucrative one with both private and public sector investment growing and an increased number of funded research opportunities within the technology and defence sectors.
Pithos is a research project with Northumbria University Art Department and Newcastle University's Institute of Genetic Medicine, exploring scientific methods and using evolutionary strategies as part of a cross-disciplinary fine art practice, the project will investigate the unknown effects of rapid advances in synthetic biology.
This part of my research begins with a 'proof of concept' experiment that references a technique pioneered in an art context by Eduardo Kac, using the tools and techniques of synthetic biology to encode a message within a strand of synthetic DNA. The message is a question to the biological other: the living entity that will eventually embody the synthetic DNA that I create.
The process of encoding the message within the DNA strand is complete and the DNA containing the message has been synthesised within a plasmid (a biological vector containing genetic information that can be ingested within another organism). The next step of the experiment involves careful consideration of the reality of my inserting this synthetic message in vivo, within a biological other, namely a laboratory strain of Escherichia coli. The purpose of the act is to enable enquiry into the future of self and other (in the posthuman, animal that we are context of Derrida, Haraway and Wolfe) through replicating the processes of synthetic biology. Whilst the practice of inserting synthetic material within living organisms is commonplace within a laboratory context, to do so in a cultural context shifts the weight of the action towards one of power and I am immediately drawn to the ethics of the act and the unknowable outer limits of its realisation. I have been reflecting upon theories of holism in the work of Bertrand Russell and Jan Smuts, principally that no individual component of any entity can be fully understood in isolation from the whole. Alvin Lucier's, I am sitting in a room has also been a key influence in shaping this work. In an attempt to smooth out the imperfections in his own voice, Lucier recorded and re-recorded a phrase, incorporating the ambient sounds within the room each time the phrase was re-recorded. By giving my message to the biological other and allowing this to be 'recorded' and 're-recorded' within the biological machinery of the bacterial cell, I offer this a means of smoothing out what I see as the fractured relationship between humanity and nature. I am curious to know whether my chosen (unwitting) bacterial collaborator will agree.
As the in vivo side of the work progresses, I am also developing an in silico (computer simulation) version of the work, with the assistance of bioinformaticist, Dr Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University. Below, the three boxes in sequence contain my original question and it's first two in silico iterations. This initial output is still under development, but I am drawn to the synthesised voice in chorus as a manifestation of the multitude of synthetically altered organisms.
I am pleased to announce that as I grow closer to trialling this work in an exhibition context, I have two new collaborators working with me. The Centre for Speech Technology Research at Edinburgh University, creators of the open source Festival system which I used to generate the sentence mutations below, are working with me to develop the synthetic audio element, more information can be found here: Genophone. To enable the long term nurture of my synthetic E. coli, I will be working with Amino Labs to develop a sculptural 'home' for the objects of my subjectivity.
Ruptured Community, 2015
Lightflip zoom x4 of sampled synthetic E. coli
What will happen...? 2015 (ongoing)
In silico evolution of the question: original sequence, mutation 1 and mutation 2:
(with thanks to http://www.cstr.ed.ac.uk/projects/festival/)