DNA as an Artistic Medium

An artist creates images on electrophoresis gels using exhibition visitors’ pooled genetic material.

Oct 26, 2016
Kate Yandell

Often, scientists use DNA to highlight what sets individuals apart. In an ongoing exhibit at the Esther Klein Gallery at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, artist Paul Vanouse is using DNA to illustrate exhibition visitors’ oneness.

For “The America Project,” Vanouse isolated DNA from the combined spit of visitors to the exhibit’s opening. He is now using this DNA as the raw material to create images with gel electrophoresis, a process by which an electric current pulls DNA fragments across a porous gel at differing rates depending on each fragment’s size.

Vanouse, who is director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art and a professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, told The Scientist he is playing off of the idea of DNA fingerprinting, a method used by forensic scientists to identify individual people. Because DNA is mostly uniform among humans, it is also possible to use the mixed-up DNA of many individuals to create standard images.

“It was trying to undermine this idea that somehow our DNA held us captive as our identification card,” said Vanouse. “I wanted to do something where I could make an image regardless of who the individuals were.”

The October 20 opening was part visual art exhibit and part interactive performance. Vanouse asked visitors to the gallery to swish saline solution in their mouths for 60 seconds before spitting into a cup and dumping its contents into a communal spittoon—a clear, inverted dome. “It was like a big melting pot of Americans becoming one being, essentially,” he said.

Red tubing emanated from the spit bowl like tentacles, connecting it to test tubes resting in a superannuated centrifuge. Vanouse had rescued the instrument from a scientist who was about to throw it out.

The first night, Vanouse collected spit from gallery visitors while simultaneously working to make images with human DNA he had purchased. He prepared two gels in a small back room that is part of the exhibition, pipetting and then turning on the electric current as guests watched over his shoulder.

Vanouse had earlier used PCR and restriction enzymes to produce DNA bits of varying sizes. He injected fragments of the desired combination of sizes into each gel lane, so that they would create patterns as electric current pulled them across the gels.

The gels in the back room were projected in real time on the walls in the main gallery space. Over the course of a few hours, guests could watch the glowing DNA as it slowly migrated and formed separate bands and smears.

Throughout the evening, an American flag and a less-recognizable crown emerged on the gels. (Vanouse said he had ripped the gel for the crown, causing DNA to float off and some bands to go missing.)

Vanouse compared the process of spitting collectively to voting. Each person does it individually, but the results are combined anonymously and put together to create a new whole. He said that the images, which are meant to represent power, can have multiple meanings. In one interpretation, the message could be that power comes from the people.

“It could also connote the notion of democracy as very like making sausage,” said Vanouse, noting that his spittoon elicits disgust in many. “You don’t really want to know what’s in it.”

After the last call for spit, Vanouse drained the spittoon into the test tubes. He centrifuged the cells as a small group of remaining attendees watched and worked at a small table to extract DNA from the mixture.

Vanouse shut off the gels’ electric current and left them projected on the gallery walls for visitors to see. He will later this month make new gels using the DNA he collected at the opening. Every week throughout the exhibit, he will remake gels using this communal DNA, repeating the American flag pattern each time while also making a new second image.

“The America Project” is on view at the University City Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, through November 19.