Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why I Love This Art – Christian Bök's Xenotext

Why I Love This Art features museum employees, volunteers, and interns talking about art they love from the exhibitions at MCA Denver. Here Program Producer Jesse Leaneagh writes about Christian Bök’s Protein 13, on view as part of the exhibition Postscript from October 12, 2012 – February 3, 2013.

Christian Bök’s The Xenotext is a feat of molecular biology as much as art history. The Xenotext experiment began as a lyrical poem, which Bök first translated into a DNA sequence and then implanted into an extremophile microbe, which is an organism that can live at the bottom of the ocean and in extreme temperature conditions (places where survival is impossible for most life forms). Upon receiving this DNA sequence, the microbe generated a protein in response, a model of which is currently on view in our galleries as the sculpture Protein 13 [above]. This final protein can be translated back into a poem itself, and this final poem is on view behind Bök’s sculpture in the galleries.  In Bök’s words, “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.”  In a final pyrotechnic flourish, the initial poem and the response poem both include the word "glow," and the microbe in fact glows during the process of generating the response protein. 

Xenotext means “alien words.” Speaking with Christian Bök a couple of months ago, he told me “I want to be the greatest poet in the Milky Way.” For just as the DNA sequence created by Bök is alien in the sense of its origin outside of any natural DNA sequence, his audience is potentially “alien,” in the sense of being outside of humanity as currently understood. Encoded as it is in the extremophile, the virus/poem has the potential to live beyond all sentient life.

Bök explained a scenario to me where alien life forms discover the Xenotext microbe long after human life has disappeared. In that sense his work is creating a new art history, spanning our galaxy. The scope as well as the unknown impact of the virus cause some trepidation, and during his visit to the museum recently a colleague asked what Bök would do if his poem created some never-before-seen pandemic. What if this virus-poem wiped out life on earth? “Well, in the short run, it would help my career,” Bök replied before bursting into mock-maniacal laughter.

I love the Xenotext because of the ethical questions it raises. It is undoubtedly a clever piece of science, and its making-literal of William Burroughs's sentiment that "the word is now a virus" is impressive. In fact, the strategic nature of the work is startling, as artworks usually don't consider their audiences galactically. Unlike General Idea's Imagevirus, which used Burroughs's idea to intervene in the social landscape, Bök’s viral poem eschews any involvement with contemporary social context in exchange for "epochal" immortality. In a BBC article from last year, Bök said that he is "producing something that will last over epochal time," and as such I find that a curious model for art-makers to follow. Yet Bök may be re-envisioning and expanding our human context out towards future life forms; only time will tell. At the very least, The Xenotext experiment is an extraordinary thought exercise. I love this art. 

Image credit: Above, Installation shot of Christian Bök’s Protein 13, courtesy MCA Denver. 
Below, Christian Bök performing at the Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art opening October 12, 2012, courtesy Richard Peterson. 


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