Heather Dewey-Hagborg: At the Temperature of My Body
New YorkFridman Gallery
June 26 – August 9, 2019
There is a violence around us, within us. Our bodies are a battleground, not just politically, but existentially. Our very existence, a tower built of cells amassed, jostling, exchanging, is a war with intruders to determine the information that will write the next generation of who we are. Working back from death, through love, to obsession, Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s At the Temperature of My Body traverses these base experiences of humanity and asks how genetic intervention can alter our relationship to them. We see the drama of the cellular and are left with a sense that the deepest of intimacies exist within the cellular penetration and alteration that is genetic modification.
Spirit Molecule (2018–2019), a collaboration with Phillip Andrew Lewis, is an ongoing experiment to create a genetically modified psychedelic plant with a human transgene taken from Lewis’s grandmother, Jinny. Every week during the exhibition, biohacker Sebastian Cocioba will perform live transgenesis at the gallery, inserting a gene from Jinny’s cheek into the cells of the plant Nicotania Sylvestris. Cocioba does this through a relatively simple process, utilizing Agrobacterium tumefaciens that has been altered to insert a plasmid of human DNA into the tobacco plant. Agrobacterium normally produces galls in plants through a process of horizontal gene transfer and unrestricted cell reproduction. In this case, the bacteria inserts the foreign plasmid and a tumour-inducing plasmid into a wounded tobacco cell which causes the genetically modified cells to reproduce. The leaf cutting is then placed in a media saturated with a mix of plant growth hormones that causes cell differentiation, forcing the cell to rebuild its own body. The leaf is then placed in an herbicidal medium that kills plant cells which have not been genetically modified. What is left, from a leaf cut into pieces and bathed in various solutions, is a series of new plants, wholly new, with a piece of grandma in them.
The poetic gesture of Spirit Molecule will not produce a bridge to the island of the afterlife, but poses a possible future of communion beyond the spiritual—a Kurzweilian1 actuality that may come through different technological methods. What of us is in our genes? What would consuming the genes of another within the process of grief do when pieces of them already exist within us, expressed through our continued life—our eye color, our weak hips, or our ability to smell asparagus?
Beyond the blue morning glories and purple passion flowers in the gallery’s sunny antechamber, there is a room glowing in pink LEDs that houses the Nicotania seedlings that will provide the fodder for recurring experimentation. Down the hall, one encounters a microscopy series of archival pigment prints—crimson fluorophores and translucent cells scoped suggestively—that show HEK293 and Jurkat cells.2 These images depict Dewey-Hagborg’s newest work, Lovesick (2019), which is a modified lentivirus—a slow-working species of viruses that inserts its own DNA into the host, the most famous of this type being HIV—hybridized with Indiana vesiculovirus, a cousin of Rabies lyssavirus, living within these immortalized cells.
Engineered to express red fluorescence when energized by light, Dewey-Hagborg’s virus carries a plasmid that if it were to infect a human being, would boost oxytocin production in the individual. These still lifes at 40x and 100x magnification are reminiscent of viewing distant gaseous clusters forming at the ever-expanding edge of the universe. There is a violent voyeurism to them—this act of seeing the otherwise unseen. A strange intimacy swells up in me, near and far doubling back in a grainy image of the fringe of knowledge. Two black columns beckon from the back of the gallery. They are crowned with elongated petri dishes holding rose, glass squiggles. These glass twists filled with a pink liquid mimic the shape of the oxytocin molecule in a variety of excited states. They also hold the virus Lovesick.
Oxytocin had a moment a decade or so ago. It was hailed as the “moral molecule”3 with the ability to increase feelings of love, kinship, and trust. It is an essential hormone produced by the brain to affect social bonding between mates, parents and offspring, and larger social groups. Then research began to show that the same bonds of trust that oxytocin reinforces can work to insulate kinship groups, showing decreased oxytocin production when individuals encountered others dissimilar from their self. Beyond that, many of the positive attributes described by studies of the molecule have been difficult to duplicate leading most to believe that too much responsibility was laid at the feet of the poor molecule.4 It is enticing to think we could make a drug to induce equiminious feelings, to induce love and care for our fellow beings. You can even buy an oxytocin nasal spray on Amazon for around $32. One reviewer recommends using it on grieving pets and reports instant purrs. Another reports that “IT IS JUNK – DO NOT BUY.”
The concept for Lovesick came about after the 2016 election, a response to the infectious hate that overtook civil discourse in the wake of Trump. Again, a gesture, but I think the strength of this work lies in its complicated reality. There is no love drug. There is no quick fix to our human impatience, our selfishness: there is only moderation.
The final work of At the Temperature of My Body is a 4-channel psychological horror called T3511. The video follows an individual, played by the artist, who becomes obsessed with the donor of an anonymous saliva sample she purchased online. The tenor of the film strikes a creepy vibe; the affected but deadpan monologue, a shot of the artist gently holding a vile of “sterile saliva.” There is an element of camp to the story, seemingly over the top but strikingly prescient. As the narrator reads aloud from the attributes of the individual’s DNA one cannot help but equate them to dating profile attributes. The obsessive geneticist then goes on to immortalize the person’s cells, transfecting them with a gene from a jellyfish so they begin to fluoresce.
The horror of T3511 comes in the lack of consent given by the anonymous donor to suddenly be made known—to be found out through means that just a few years prior seemed like Science Fiction. When Dewey-Hagborg and Andrew Lewis were searching for a subject to act as the source of the DNA for Spirit Molecule, they faced a series of false starts because they couldn’t get unanimous consent from deceased individuals’ family members. This respect for consent reveals the intimate violence of this technology. At the beginning of T3511, the artist says frankly, “to break the cell is to trespass the most intimate of spaces.”
- Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and technologist, is well known for his concept of the singularity, a moment in which artificial intelligence will surpass human cognitive possibilities in an exponential and dramatic fashion. However, he has also been a vocal proponent of immortality research spurred on by the loss of his father.
- Both these cell types are workhorses of molecular biology. Jurkat cells are an immortalized line of lymphocyte cells that originated from a 14 year old boy with leukemia in the late 1970s and are used to test immune response and susceptible to viral entry. HEK293 are human embryonic kidney cells grown in culture that are easily subjected to transfection, a non-viral method of genetic engineering.
- Oxytocin increases trust in humans, Michael Kosfeld, Markus Heinrichs, Paul J. Zak, Urs Fischbacher & Ernst Fehr, Nature, 2005. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature03701
- How scientists fell in and out of love with the hormone oxytocin, Brian Resnick, Vox, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/4/4/11348288/oxytocin-love-hormone