THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Genetic Poetics

Christian Bök gets experimental

by Jamie Packs

Illustration by Pierie Korostoff

published December 5, 2014


“The word is now a virus”

—William S. Burroughs

Something deeply radical is pulsating under poet Christian Bök’s seemingly normal exterior, something that is belied by his blonde crew cut and crisp button-down shirt. With his mind-shattering Xenotext Experiment, Bök is set to catapult the esoteric realm of experimental poetry firmly into the minds of anyone with an interest in science, literature, the future. In his description of the project, Bök proclaims that The Xenotext Experiment “strives to ‘infect’ the language of genetics with the ‘poetic vectors’ of its own discourse, doing so in order to extend poetry itself beyond the formal limits of the book.While this may sound ideal, what exactly would it look like if poetry were to “infect” the language of genetics?

Here’s how it works: Bök translates a short poem of his into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, the building blocks of genetic materials like DNA and RNA. With the help of a laboratory, these nucleotides are then implanted into the genome of a certain bacterium. In doing so, the bacterium then effectively becomes a living manifestation of Bök’s text. This is all a very simplistic explanation of what Bök’s project is. When asked about further details concerning the technical aspects of his project, Bök told The Independent that it is “difficult to explain.” Understandable.

It is perhaps important to note here that Bök is not a scientist. While he did admit to having an interest in science as a younger child and teenager, he is a poet by training. His decision to genetically engineer a biological organism as a part of his poetic practice is thus a remarkable one, and, arguably, verges on lunacy. It is also important to note that Bök is doing almost all of the work himself, i.e. without the help of the extensive team of scientists that you might have expected. While he does need scientists to actually make and test the organism, his is almost entirely a solo mission. Beyond the sheer complexity of the project itself, it is for reasons like this that The Xenotext Project has taken 14 years and is still unfinished.

With his poetic organism, Bök has taken the idea of poetry as a way to bring words to life to a quite literal extreme. He has eschewed the quaint notion of a poetry that can only exist on a piece of paper, shattering the limits of this constricting two-dimensional space. But the project seems to be much more than a showy gimmick, for Bök is not merely flaunting this technology at the expense of substance. The conversation that Bök seems to engage is instead something much more meaningful. And while the confluence between art and science is something of a buzzy trend in academia these days, Bök’s Xenotext merges these two fields in a way that is topical and thought provoking.

His timing could not have been better. In a culture that is fraught with conversations around the ethics of genetically modified organisms, Bök’s gesture seems to be an artfully crafted statement about what these kinds of manipulations might mean. And while you may not be assessing your genetically modified corn product for its aesthetic value, Bök’s project launches this controversial process firmly into the realm of art. In the end, his project is something more than a vaunting gesture aimed at parading its own technological prowess. It is more than simply a place where comma splices can become gene splices.

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Bök has constructed his poem in such a way that the organism will actually respond to it in a coherent and, most importantly, meaningful way. The microbe will interpret the inserted gene sequence as a set of instructions for building a protein, and the amino acids that make up this protein will in turn encipher a poem in response. As such, the bacterium does not serve only as a repository of Bök’s own writing, but is a veritable poetic mechanism in itself. In this way, the microbe almost reaches the level of co-authorship.

And it is here where Christian Bök principally diverges from others who have tested the coding potentials of biological organisms before him. There are, in fact, a surprising amount of people who have tinkered with experiments similar to Bök’s in the past. Scientist Pak Wong, for example, encoded a few lines from “It’s a Small World After All” into the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans as a means to explore the archival potential of biological organisms in the case of a catastrophic disaster. Wong’s goal was to see if bacteria could be used as a way to store and pass on information if, say, nearly all of humanity was effaced by a natural disaster. American multimedia artist Eduardo Kac has also experimented with this technology, although in a manner more akin to Bök’s own vision. In his 1999 project “Genesis,” Kac translated a sentence from the Bible into Morse code that was then encoded as DNA and then “edited” the inscription by exposing the organism to radiation. And while Bök may have drawn inspiration from these preceding figures, there appears an unquestionable desire to move beyond them. “I wanted to do something more ambitious, and, as it turns out, more difficult,” Bök says over the telephone.

And he does seem to be taking the idea a considerable step further. For one, his biological inscriptions are much longer than any of his predecessors (thanks principally to improvements in the technology involved). More important, however, is the way that the project conceives of the biological organism itself. By giving his organism a kind of agency in his poem, Bök is not adhering to the one-sided dialogue of his predecessors. Bök explained how he sought to “hijack” the biochemistry of the organism as a way to create a dialogue, noting his desire to create something that was not only an archive for his own poem but also mechanism for writing a poem itself. Rather than using The Xenotext Project as a platform to herald the dominion of humanity’s scientific prowess, the project instead engages in a veritable dialogue with organisms that have historically lacked any semblance of a voice. And the results are beautiful.

But don’t be fooled by the outward simplicity of his poetry. “It took four years to write these two poems,” Bök tells me emphatically. His work has, however, finally paid off. Bök achieved his co-authored vision during an experimental test on the bacterium E. Coli. His poem, entitled “Orpheus”, begins:

Any style of life
is prim [...]
My myth now is the word, the word of life.

After being genetically inserted into the E. Coli, this poem essentially acts as a set of instructions for building a protein. The protein that is created, it should be noted, causes the bacterium to fluoresce red, and the poem that is written in response by the bacterium reflects on its red glowing state. Bok has titled this poem “Eurydice,” complementing the previous poem while also humorously suggesting what Bök calls “the infernal context of this book.” It begins:

The faery is rosy of glow.
In fate
we rely.

Yet what Bök refers to as the “Herculean constraints” of the project are also a fundamental part of its success as an art object. And while Bök is quick to explain how challenging these constraints are, they are not exactly uncharacteristic of his work. In his 2001 book Eunoia, for example, Bök wrote five chapters in which only one vowel was used throughout each chapter. The book contains sentences like “A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads.” And it is important to also consider that Bök’s oeuvre is itself situated in a long line of literature that is driven by fiercely rigid constraints. Groups like Oulipo, for example, characterize a tradition of using extreme limitations as a means to engender creative work to which Bök is greatly indebted. So while constraints may not be anything new in literature nor even for Bök himself, the Xenotext moves out of a world of playful linguistic constraints and into one of very real technological constraints. Yet much like his previous work, the Xenotext unquestionably derives much of its power from these restrictions, as they ultimately play an important part in driving Bök’s own creative practice. In the end, Bök’s success is characterized by his capacity to work in conjunction with the technical fetters that he creates for himself, moving his work from a space of rigid limitation into one characterized by a complex, unlimited freedom.

One possible critique of Bök’s poems stems from the problem of translation. Through his process, Bök essentially forces the bacterium to speak in a language not its own, making it say something in a language that we understand so that we can perhaps claim a kind of power over it. While this is a problem that can, of course, be argued about any form of translation, there is something perhaps particularly problematic about Bök’s gesture given that it could be interpreted as a way of asserting mastery over an entire species. While the complexities of issues of this sort are vast, I think it is perhaps more important that Bök is creating a dialogue in the first place, albeit an imperfect one. While other scientists are quick to speak for the organisms they study, Bök is not afraid to take a step back.

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He goes still further. And here is where the project garners its cosmic scope and where Bök gets to have the last laugh: the bacteria he has chosen to use for this project is called Deinococcus radiodurans (D. radiodurans), or as the Guinness Book of World Records puts it, “the world’s toughest bacterium.” D. radiodurans is widely recognized as one of the most indestructible organisms on the face of the earth. It is capable of surviving in the vacuum of outer space, of tolerating 1000 times the gamma radiation that a human being can. It is classified as a polyextremophile, an organism that is capable of survivingextreme conditions that are otherwise lethal to us lesser species. And given its quasi-immortal status, no environment on the planet has been capable of driving the evolution of the species. Some scientists have even gone as far as to speculate that it may have spent a part of its evolutionary history in an extraterrestrial environment.

Given the capacity of this organism to survive in the most extreme of conditions, what Bök likes to call the “punch line” of his experiment is that it has the potential to outlive terrestrial life. With this notion, Bök has taken the artist’s impulse of creating something that will outlive himor herself to an almost dark extreme. In effect, his poem has the potential to last forever. “Such a poem, stored inside the genome of a bacterium, might conceivably outlast terrestrial civilization itself, persisting like a secret message in a bottle flung at random into a giant ocean,” Bök writes in his description of the project, which fittingly hovers somewhere between a scientific abstract and an artist statement.

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Bök has been working on the project for around fourteen years. It has cost over $110,000. And while it is not quite complete, there have been some successes. Bök’s process has been proven to work in Escherichia coli (known as E. coli). But the project has not quite received the critical attention that it deserves, perhaps, as Bök admits, because of the extremely lofty promises he made at the beginning.

The Project has, however, proliferated greatly. Bök has lectured widely about the project, and it has even been staged as a gallery exhibition at the Kasian Gallery at the University of Calgary. This exhibition will include the artistic spinoff that has been created thus far in the project. “A lot of material gets generated,” says Bök about creating the Xenotext. But the scope of the project has fittingly not only been limited to our small planet. According to one of Bök’s recent Tweets, a segment of The Xenotext Experiment is “hitching a ride aboard Orion EFT-1 to Mars,” which in addition to serving as a kind of fundraising also “points to the interstellar potential of the project,” as Bök excitedly describes over the phone.

Bök’s project, however improvident it may seem, does serve a very critical function. Through its merging of art and science, the project suggests a kind of necessary symbiosis between the two fields, a symbiosis that is skeptically brushed off by many in our community today. The Xenotext Experiment urges that these two seemingly disparate disciplines have much to learn from one another. And not only can science become more artistic, Bök is also implying that art can become more scientific. “Science is the most important cultural activity that we participate in,” Bök told the Indy. And while it was clear that this was not the first time Bök has given this spiel, it was shocking nonetheless. Underscoring the importance of science, Bök reflected that the current state of poetry wasn’t quite up to par: “Poetry needs to adequately respond to our technological milieu.” He then went on to discuss how there has yet to be any poetry written about the moon landing, for example, which is one of our most important cultural achievements of the past century. In this vein, Bök began sounding something like a PSA for contemporary poets. In Bök’s mind, poets have a responsibility to respond to what is going on in the worlds of science and technology despite the tensions that have historically existed between these discourses.

“I foresee that, as poetry adapts to the millennial condition of such innovative technology, a poem might soon resemble a weird genre of science fiction, and a poet might become a breed of technician working in a linguistic laboratory,” says Bök in his description of the Xenotext. And whether or not you buy into his model, what is important is that Bök is provoking us, pushing us to debate what the future of science or art might conceivably look like.

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Pizzathiefgg says: “Its a cool idea, but would it be better to store more important information than 3rd rate poetry?”

Dghughes says: “It reminds me of Start Trek TNG episode ‘The Chase’ where the DNA of many organisms contain a star map and a holographic message.”

Yannn says: “The only people who would say that art is its own end and means are those who seek to justify pointless art.”

Ex_astris_sci says: “At first I was worried he was attempting to achieve “immortality” through his art.”

Maplevanwax says: “This is cool!”

While Reddit.com is surely not a holistic representation of our cultural beliefs (although on second thought, maybe it is), these comments represent the fascination, the misunderstanding, the controversy that surround Bök’s project. And that seems to be part of the point.

It is easy to sing the praises of a project of this sort. Its innovative use of technology is without question astounding. But is there something meaningful behind this flashy façade? I think so. The Xenotext Experiment pushes language nearly to its breaking point, ultimately achieving its goal to “draw concerted attention to the sublimity of language itself, teaching us about the wonders of science in a manner that might seem more engaging to a layperson untrained in biochemistry.” And while every reader of the Xenotext may not immediately yearn to don a lab coat, the project does integrate these two worlds in a refreshingly thoughtful way. Yet Bök’s Xenotext also pushes beyond a simple collapsing of the time-honored duality between science and art, as it also typifies much of what it means to be an artist in an age of technology. On the one hand, Bök is a kind of translator of bacteria whose work primarily consists of prompting and decoding words that aren’t his, yet on the other hand he is creating a project that is at the same time very much original and his own. It is through this tension that the Xenotext opens up a larger conversation about what it means to create in contemporary space. Bök perhaps exposes that in a technological world, artists don’t only straddle the line between art and science, but also between creator and manipulator. “I’m just trying to be the best 21st century poet that I can be,” says Bök.