Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Kemp: Reporting on Human Chromosome 16

From: Martin Kemp
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 08:55:53 -0400


In lieu of being able to participate in the debate, though sheer pressure of time, I’m sending my latest Nature column, which is at least germane. It is not yet published and has not been through the editorial process.
Sarah Jacobs has been keeping me informed about her work for a number of years. We met for the first time when I was preparing this essay. I think she will come to be regarded as one of the major artists working in the field.

Martin Kemp

Reporting on Human Chromosome 16

Sarah Jacobs mutates information into art
How is any artist to confront the excruciating complexity of the human genome – or any genome for that matter? There are just too many CGATs. It is possible to make some general artistic “statements” about the project, about its implications and about genetic engineering. It is all too easy to sink to the level of the “Frankenstein Food” headline in the Daily Mail on13 February 1999.
But Sarah Jacobs shows that the complexity can be tackled head on and turned to brilliant aesthetic account. She has a record of working with the blank poetics of modern scientific discourse, with its studied eschewing of stylishness or personal _expression_. Her 92-page e-book, Deciphering Human Chromosome 16: We Report Here is studded throughout with phrases from the original 2004 article, “The sequence and analysis of duplication-rich human chromosome 16” (Nature 432). “We report here” is one of these, together with “We observed” (of course),“Here we describe”, “We constructed”, “We adopted a strategy”, “We then eliminated”, “Finally we identified”, and so on. Isolated, the phrases that are so much part of scientific normality, assume the quality of an incantation.
Following the Nature article, Jacobs googled such terms as “human chromosome 16”, “chromosome 16 book” and “chromosome 16 _expression_”. She even searched for odd combinations, such as “chromosome 16 Saddam Hussein”. (Yes, it really does produce results). She sifted out around 250 website links on the basis of what appeared intellectually or intuitively interesting and “looked good”. The e-book proceeds through simple pages of the incantatory phrases interspersed with coloured lower-case overprinting of the site links with fragments of their texts and numbers from the original article in large capitals, such as the “…..NINE PERCENT / EIGHT HUNDRED / AND EIGHTY. ONE THOUSAND / SIX HUNDRED AND SEVENTY / NINTEEN /THREE HUNDRED AND / FORTY-ONE / 3” on the illustrated page.
The result is a doggedly accumulated “report” on the incredibly rapid Internet diffusion of the knowledge in standard and bizarre forms. The contents are however subject to constant mutation. Every 6 months Jacobs took screen shots to document the changes.
To accompany the Report, she has now issued an Index as a print-on-demand book, heavy in its fixed form of 552 pages. Against the rat-a-tat background of the CGAT permutations, the accumulated numbers are remorselessly spelt out, up to “Sixteen million five hundred and forty-one thousand and nine hundred”, still short of 90 million plus noted in the article. They are accompanied by enigmatic fragments from the websites.
Given the vagaries of the production process, each Index assumes an individual character. The CGATs on every left hand page are bled to the very borders, and their visible _expression_ along the unbound edge of the closed book varies unpredictably as the result of minute variations in the trimming process.
The Report and the Index are strange, difficult, perplexing, suggestive and strangely beautiful - and awesome in their numerical persisitence. Jacobs has created something that is very directly drawn from the science and its diffusion, using the tools of a rabid bibliographer-cum-classifier. Yet the result subverts the science in the direction of chaos and cacophany. The effect is analogous the way that the extraordinary particularity of each individual person seems to confound the overwhelming similarity of our genetic constitutions.
At least, this is one interpretation that I can give it. There are others. Jacobs is, I suspect, resisting any closed or dominant reading. Therein lies the difference between the original article and Jacobs’s visual play. The scientific exposition states that “WE FOUND” with as little lattitude for alternative readings as possible. Jacobs provides a field for interpretative flexibility that triggers thoughts and insights of an unexptected nature – unexpected even to the author herself.

Illustration: Deciphering Human Chromosome 16: We Report Here, p. 6 http://www.informationasmaterial.com/ http://www.informationasmaterial.com/documents/HC16report_06_12_20.PDF

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