Mutate or Die: a William S. Burroughs Bio-technological Bestiary

This afternoon I will discuss my current collaborative bioart project, “Mutate or Die,” and along the way I will touch on some key aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical issues that are inherent in the creation of bioart works. My collaborative partner, Adam Zaretsky, and I have gained support for our project from Grand Arts, an experimental presentation space and artistic production facility in Kansas City, Missouri.

Author(s)

Mutate or Die: a William S. Burroughs Bio-technological Bestiary

Tony Allard
California State University, San Marcos
tallard@csusm.edu

This afternoon I will discuss my current collaborative bioart project, Mutate or Die, [1] and along the way I will touch on some key aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical issues that are inherent in the creation of bioart works. My collaborative partner, Adam Zaretsky, and I have gained support for the project from Grand Arts, an experimental presentation space and artistic production facility in Kansas City, Missouri. We launched the project in July of 2010, and its development will span three years, culminating in an installation and performances at Grand Arts in September of 2013.

Introduction

“Rational thought is a failed experiment and should be phased out.”
-- William S. Burroughs

In 1996, attempted to get the writer William S. Burroughs’ DNA sequenced at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. For various and interesting reasons, Burroughs’ DNA never made it into the sequencer, and I put my attempt back in my subconscious for a very long time. Now, some fourteen years later, in retrospect, I have started to realize that in my attempt to get Burroughs’ DNA sequenced in 1996, I was unwittingly tapping into a Burroughs' multi-temporal, nonlinear reality. That reality is summed up in this quote from the Brion Gysin/W.S. Burroughs third mind, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” [2] Fourteen years later, the future is leaking out in the form of my current collaboration with bioartist Adam Zaretsky.

At the core of our project will be a gene gun blast performance, which will involve shooting a random segment of raw DNA extracted from the ‘beat scat’ of William S. Burroughs into another organism’s genetic code. This biolistic cutup will produce the potential for a transgenic mutation to occur in the future. After the gene gun blast, we are anticipating that the resulting mutations will give us a code, a sign, a transgenic hieroglyph left upon us. In this wet, oatmeal like substance, there may be a new text that will tell us how to make a highly bent immortality blueprint, there may be an edifying nightmare of 'homo sap’s' [3] future, there may be a tasty recipe for Gonad Jam, or there may be proof that indeed, language is a ‘virus from outer space.’

Over a span of three years, Adam and I will be going into the lab and getting scientifically funky with mutagenic protocols, and exploring the role that mutation will no doubt play in the future survival of the human genome and species diversity on this planet. We will also be challenging some of the mystified bio-technological protocols of directed evolution and privatized knowledge bases being generated by the life sciences, and the biotech industry in particular. Specifically, we are challenging the biotech industry’s corporate approach to genetic research and development, and its enormous investment in the illusion of objective, rational control over the organic and inorganic world. We are challenging the biotech industry’s patenting of life forms, which basically amounts to stealing the human genome and others from what the writer Lewis Hyde has identified as ‘the commons.’ [4] Historically and contemporarily, the commons have been and are the collectively owned natural and cultural resources that we all can legitimately lay claim to using. We are, in fact, modeling our project after the commons, Do It Yourself (DIY), and open source movements.

    

We are taking the commons, DIY, and open source approach to making bioart and doing science for the purpose of demystify biotechnology, and getting the public proactively involved in a debate about the role that random mutation plays in generating diversity within a species. Mutate or Die also confronts the almost total media blackout of any critical discussion about what could be described as the biotech industry’s thinly veiled programs of eugenics. This new and highly profitable cottage industry that has sprung up in the exact sciences is clearly in the business of eliminating biologic impurities and mutations in its short-sighted effort to sell genomic purity to an uninformed, and bio-technologically illiterate public. The industry’s genomic cleansing products are sold under the various brand names of human betterment, enhancement, miracle cures, and progress.

For obvious financial reasons, and I will venture to say political reasons, the biotech industry is quietly keeping biotechnology cloistered in high tech research facilities and out of the hands out of the general public. Adam and I, on the other hand, will be creating a DIY lab that is accessible, interactive, and open to the public within the installation at Grand Arts. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the public, working in a not-for-profit lab of our own design, and creatively use biotechnology and poetic protocols together. The transgenic protocols we are developing for the lab are intended to set in motion processes of uncontrolled, random mutations which will have the potential to re-introduce novel mutagenic influences into the still relatively free genomic playing field on this planet. Unlike the biotech industry and a lot of trans humanists who are primarily focused on eliminating entropic, mutagenic processes, we are interested in introducing more mutagenic processes, which are at the core of species diversity and survival.

Mutate or Die, a bioart project in progress

“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”
             -- Brion Gysin/W.S. Burroughs, The Third Mind

In 1996, when I attempted to get William S. Burroughs’ DNA sequenced, I was also experimenting with some of the literary and cinematic cutup techniques that Burroughs and the painter and poet, Brion Gysin developed in the 1960s. Burroughs would go on to use the cutup technique to engage randomness and chance in the writing of his aggressively nonlinear trilogy of novels, which include: The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). With this trilogy, Burroughs shattered the centuries-old linear narrative form, and put in its place a text-based form of traveling back and forth in time, which is similar to flashing forward and backward in time in cinema. The cutup technique also provided Burroughs, and by extension the reader, with a means to get at the content of a text that is not accessible through linear and rational thought processes. With our current bioart project, Adam and I are re-engaging Burroughs’ cutup technique and nonlinear processes at the genetic level in living organisms. Through the medium of a gene gun, we will set in motion a genetic cutup by randomly combining Burroughs’ genetic code with those of other organisms. These biolistic cutup techniques and the results we are anticipating have affinities with the literary conceits of mutagenic forces and mutants that run throughout many of Burroughs’ novels.

With this project, Adam and I are literally taking up the challenge from Burroughs to ‘mutate or die’. Burroughs thought that if ‘homo saps’ are to survive in the toxic political and biological environments of the earth while we are preparing ourselves to leave the planet, then we need to unsentimentally mutate into biological forms that are adapted to these harsh environments. Burroughs puts this mutational survival strategy in perspective when he stated “It would involve a biologic mutation quite as drastic as was involved in the shift from water to land.” [5]

This radical biologic mutation will be a truly tall order for humans to fill because we are becoming quite comfortable with and bio-technologically capable of taking the human genome out of the mutagenic, diversity-generating mechanism of our species hereditary and evolutionary trajectory. The biotech industry is only too eager to kick its bioinformatics machines into high gear and stop the mutagenic forces of evolution, and put the human genome in a kind of eugenic holding pattern indefinitely while their short term goals and market shares ‘vampirically’ increase.

We humans, who are now bio-technologically and rationally poised to reconfigure our genetic code and what it means to be human, would do well to give Burroughs’ literary conceits of mutation and mutants due consideration and room to roam in the real world. We humans, who are now beyond the flirtatious stage of putting the prefix, trans(genic), in front of human, would do well to study Burroughs' dismantling of the exact sciences’ taxonomy of the natural world in order to make room for mutants that stand outside the natural order, or as he tagged them, ‘natural outlaws.’ [6]

The Art of Risk: Bioethics Tour, San Francisco, October 2010, San Diego, July 2011

Before we began the actual wet work of extracting the DNA from the preserved sample of 'beat scat' in June of this year, we went to San Francisco in October of 2010 on the first leg of what we dubbed our bioethics tour. After the wet work had been undertaken in Kansas City, we returned to the West Coast and did the second leg of the tour in the biotech capital of the world, San Diego.

After we came back from the San Francisco leg of the tour, R.U. Sirius, the then editor of the online trans-humanist magazine, H+ (and one of our interview subjects), published our questions and the primer on the project in H+, in February of 2011 (http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/02/06/mutate-or-die-a-w-s-burroughs-biotechnological-bestiary/). As a result of the H+ publication, our efforts to bring the discussion to the public went viral within days after the article went online. The H+ publication began almost immediately to be linked and aggregated on such sites as Dangerousminds, Boing Boing, Flavorwire, and Lifeslittlemysteries. Much like Burroughs’ conception of how language works as a virus, the hyperlinks, comments, memes, and bad puns that appeared on sites early on in the week began to replicate and mutate, and in some cases were transformed into misinformation about the project. Nevertheless, there are some telling comments about the power of peoples' imagination and mutaphobic fears that emerged after they put aside traditional taxonomies and began to entertain the idea of a transgenic mutant living among us. In fact, one mutaphobic fear that got a lot of airtime was the possibility of a mutant Burroughs clone being set loose from our lab and reeking biological and psychological havoc on planet earth. It is exactly these kinds of responses posted by the public online that we will be including in the installation and on the project website (http://mutateordie.net). Allowing the public to weigh in on the ethical and philosophical aspects of the project is a significant part of our efforts to open up a dialogic space that is critical to the survival of our contemporary biological and cultural commons.

Bioethics Tour Questions
 

What follows are questions we asked interview subjects on the San Francisco and San Diego legs of our Bioethics tour. To date we have interviewed, among others, Hank Greeley, a Stanford law professor, and consultant to the U.S. government on bioethical issues, filmmakers Lynn Hershman and Craig Baldwin, Ricardo Dominqez, a University of California, San Diego Professor and co-founder of The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). We also interviewed a senior researcher on the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego.

Question 1: Queer Anatomy: Beyond Enlargement

There seems to be a lot of publicity around transgenic transhumanism these days. Promoting human use of biotechnology to redesign ourselves is not the worst idea. Unfortunately, most human genetic modification advocates forget to think creatively about the full range of forms and beings into which we could force evolve ourselves. They tend towards a naïve optimism based on futurist potentials, emphasizing: longer lifespan, more beauty and bigger brains. Where can fringe anatomical and metabolic goals take us, beyond enhancement, general enlargement and ‘goody two shoes’ betterment? While redesigning ourselves what other directions might we investigate? What resulting forms of genome bending would exemplify the politics and aesthetics of W. S. Burroughs fiction and theory? (See related concepts from his writings: i.e. cut-up, junkie life, control and language as a virus, Dr Benway.) What queer advice can we give to artists and engineers who would intentionally alter future peoples’ minds, senses, body differences and living décor?

Question 2: Mutation 

This project involves random segments of DNA being incorporated into the genomes of sperm, blood cells and microflora. Most random mutation causes instability and harm to organisms. Only very occasionally does a mutant worm grow elbows as humans did. Fitness may just be a lucky oddity; most of the poetry of random DNA upsets the stability of life’s repetitive anatomy. We believe that directed evolution is just as fallible in the long run, we want to ask you what the difference is between letting the production of life differences be spontaneous collage versus an aesthetic based on maximizing short term market shares, ‘enhancing’ traits based on human goals and using organisms as production factories for pharmaceuticals, industrial products and food? When it comes to transgenic art, is it preferable to gamble in the dark with another’s heredity or try to tailor someone and their kindred?

The title of our project, Mutate or Die, comes from William Burroughs’ frank admonition of homo saps to mutate or die. In essence, this project will literally take up Burroughs’ challenge to mutate or die, and will function in a similar fashion that basic research does in that it will, through direct manipulation of genetic material, proactively speculate on the role that mutation can play in the survival and future of the human genome. What are your thoughts on the actual, wet work of mutation-based bioart, versus strictly representational, mimetic art? What science fiction premonitions do you think can be applied through creative biotechnology to alter the future of, not just humans, but also all organic beings?

Question 3: Sex 

Inserting genes into a hereditary cascade is a great responsibility but it is also a powerful sex act.  In biology, sex is defined as the passing of genetic information into the lineage of progeny; meaning and transgenic protocol is sex. This question is about the desires and satisfactions of the experimenter during the techno sexual process of getting the genes into the being to be fucked. Many tinker with the gonads of yeast, worms, rats and in the case of humans, gene therapy. There is a question as to what kind of erotic, pornographic and even deadly economies drive this work? What is the flavor of the compulsive urge to control reproduction? What is the quality of the scientist’s satisfaction when shooting a signature or a graffiti tag into an unsuspecting life’s form? How is the humping joy of defect sex ameliorated or amped up through technology?

This is not an easy question as the economies of techno-sex and sadism as an energy are not simply negative in the world. We cannot pretend that technology is without certain connectivity, or that life is not driven by libido. What kind of sex is interspecies gene gunning? How is the perverted act of shooting nuclei with genetic choices made to seem formally neutered of hotness? Can one imagine the moment of pulling the trigger of a loaded gene gun as a pornographic, erotic and dangerous yet orgasmic pulse as a sex-positive relation? What types of connections can be made between our biolistic aesthetic of shooting genetic information into a target that will result in a cellular based mutation, and Burroughs’ ballistic aesthetic of shooting a target tacked to a piece of plywood in order to generate a psycho-symbolic mutation? What can be said about the frank fact of the destruction that results from shooting any type of gun, regardless of what/who the gun is aimed at?

Question 4: Scatological Biopolitics

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is based on studying the life that lives within us. This is our second genome, our internal ancestors and possibly the source of our third mind. What kind of beings might result after insertion of scrambled shit gene in their family tree? What kinds of identity splay can we expect from becoming bacterial? What is the social and political definition of excrementality, when scientists play with shit, is it kinkier or are the kinks ironed out somehow? In which ways will this project change the cultural reception of scatological action? By way of literally getting into W.S. Burroughs’ shit, can we transcend its waste status and legitimately ascribe use value to it? Can we actually time travel back to Bill’s gut/intestines at that time (1995 when the sample was acquired by Burroughs’ plumber) and biolistically liberate any information that may add to mutant-divergence for the future survival of trans homo saps.

Question 5: Art of Risk

What is your personal risk/benefit assessment on the artistic use of a gene gun to make living animal/human/non-human/cultures of mutagenic difference? Feel free to comment as a bioethicist, ecologist and art critic. There are some laws of course, but we are asking your opinion. Is art allowed to play with as much risk as science? In the name of art or science, where do you draw the line? What should not be allowed to be done to the ecosphere, to dignified living beings and/or informed, human volunteers?

Interviewee Responses to our questions (Video online)

http://mutateordie.net/content/bioethics-tour-short-version

‘Natural Outlaws’ creating a William S. Burroughs Biotechnological Bestiary

Bioart often uses cutting edge and DIY biotechnology as an art-making medium, and it specializes in presenting living organisms as art. This past June, we worked in a multi-million dollar research lab at the Kansas University Medical Center, and extracted DNA from a preserved sample of Burroughs’ shit, and put it in a deep freeze for future use. Our next step this winter will be to get trained in a genetics research lab on how to use a gene gun. However, in the spirit of the DIY movement, we are looking into the possibility of making our own gene guns and nano gold dust for the gene gun blast performances in the installation.

The following is a very condensed version of one of the poetic protocols we are developing for the DIY lab we will be creating at Grand Arts in Kansas City in September of 2013.

Take a glob of William S. Burroughs’ preserved shit 
Isolate the DNA with a kit ($300 from Quiagen Technical)
Make, many, many copies of the DNA 
Soak the DNA in nano gold dust
Load the DNA and gold dust into a gene gun (a modified air pistol)
Fire the DNA and gold dust into a mix of fresh sperm, blood and shit 
Call the genetically modified mix of blood, shit, and sperm a living bioart, a new media paint, a living cut-up literary device and/or a mutant sculpture.

Putting on the Gloves, Opening ‘the commons’

We are modeling the installation and performances after the commons, DIY, and open source movements, and are planning two primary types of interactivity: the DIY lab in the installation at Grand Arts and its virtual counterpart online at http://mutateordie.net. In our DIY lab, the public will be able to get their hands on some biotechnology and make bioart with Adam and I. The public will also be able to write and draw in the installation and online, giving their thoughts and imaginings as to what kind of mutations and mutants might emerge in the future from our biolistic cutups. Most importantly, the public will be able to leave their mark and weigh in on the ethical and philosophical implications of adding novel forms of mutation and transgenic mutants into the mix on planet earth.

References and Notes: 
  1. David Ohle, Mutate or Die—With Burroughs in Kansas (Coventry: The Beat Scene Press, 2007, published in an edition of 125 signed and numbered copies), 8.
  2. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking Press, 1978).
  3. David Ohle, Mutate or Die—With Burroughs in Kansas, (Coventry: The Beat Scene Press, published in an edition of 125 signed and numbered copies), 8.
  4. Lewis Hyde, Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 12.
  5. Youtube, quote transcribed from an unidentified video titled as Jellyfish, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hQ0Gqc_MnY&feature=player_embedded
(accessed April 12, 2012).
  6. William Burroughs, The Western Lands (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987).