Charlotte Jarvis isn’t your average artist. For a start, she’s using DNA instead of watercolours. For the past year she’s been working on a project dubbed Blighted By Kenning, for which she has transcribed the Declaration of Human Rights into genetic code and then ‘contaminated’ apples with the resulting DNA strands. As she terms it, slightly tongue-in-cheek, this is the ‘fruit of knowledge’. We spoke to her to find out more.
Since we last spoke, you've graduated from the RCA's Design Interactions course, which is somewhat infamous for producing artists for the future. How was your degree, and how has it shaped what you create?
I was recommended the course quite last minute by someone I worked for and I actually knew very little about it when I went for the interview. I was quite concerned about it being in the design rather than fine art department, however, after the interview I was taken round the studios and completely seduced - it's like Frankenstein's lab; that day someone [Nelly Ben-Hayoun – see our interview here] was attempting to make dark matter at their desk.
I have always been interested in science, but I had not found a way of combining it with my art practice. I was also stuck in a bit of a rut making art about art - which becomes rather boring, not to say pretentious, after a while. When I got to Design Interactions the concepts behind my work changed very quickly and I found that process immensely gratifying. I found that it was possible to have meaningful collaborations with scientists and to make work that is actually interesting rather than just 'clever'. Being on a course like that, with genuinely rigorous tutors and so many truly inspirational peers also forces you to raise your game and to account for absolutely every decision you make. That might also be a factor of the design background of the course - there is very little indulgence in ambiguity or in being a smart arse - I like that a lot.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as written in DNA
So, you've got a show coming up - tell me about it as if I were a tourist over for the Olympics.
Firstly, welcome to London. Let’s leave.
Don't worry; you can see the stadium from the train on our way. We are going to an installation space in Suffolk called The Big Shed. It’s a 300 square meter converted dairy set within the brackish marsh lands between river and sea.
In the space at the moment is a new bio-art piece called Blighted by Kenning that I have been working on for the past 10 months with The Netherlands Proteomics Centre. We have bio-engineered a bacteria so that it has The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence (using codon sequences (groups of three bases) to code for individual letters of the alphabet – such as ‘GCT’ for A). Apples which have been grown at The Hague, seat of the International Courts of Justice, have been 'contaminated' with the synthetic DNA and these 'fruits from the tree of knowledge' have been sent to genomics laboratories around the world for participating scientists to sequence the DNA, find the message hidden within and send back a translation. We also asked those scientists to eat the fruit.
For the installation we have created an orchard inside the gallery. The natural transplanted into a synthetic, man made environment. Hanging on one of the 13 trees is one of our forbidden fruits. I will be eating it at the opening. Also in the space is a 12m by 3m billboard showing visualisations of The Declaration of Human Rights expressed as a protein (see below). There are also films of the scientists eating the fruit, the documents that institutes have sent to us after sequencing the apples and a wall of correspondence detailing the process of making the project.
Enjoy the volleyball.
Gerrit van Meer, Dean of Science Utrecht University - see here for more scientists eating forbidden fruit
If I can extend the sporting theme (a push, I know), what hurdles have you encountered while working on the project?
As with all these kind of projects we had to adapt to what was scientifically and legally possible throughout. For instance, at first I wanted to use the bacteria itself to contaminate the apples (not just its DNA), but it was going to prove nearly impossible to legally exhibit a Genetically Modified Organism in a gallery. More importantly, we would not have been able to ask people to eat it, and that is crucial to the project. It allows scientists to make a gesture in support of genetics research and to reject the idea that knowledge in any form is evil. 'Naked' DNA is essentially an inert chemical so there are no legal restrictions placed upon it. This has allowed us to do a lot that might otherwise have been impossible. It also meant that when I accidentally left one of the apples on the Piccadilly line last week, it was not a bio-hazard and I did not cause a major shut down of the underground just before the Olympics.
Getting the licence to make the bacteria was also very difficult. It was actually the first time in the Netherlands that an entirely synthetic DNA sequence had been made. We were told that there was also a lot of debate on the committee about whether it was appropriate to give the licence to an art project. Some people felt that allowing artists to work with genetics would bring the field into disrepute. After my incident on the tube, perhaps that was a fair concern.
Declaration of Human Rights DNA sequence visualised as it would look as a protein
Where do you think genetic modification might be in the next 50 years?
I think that in the future there will be no technology only biology. We won't think of biological manipulation as "genetic modification" in the same way that we don't think of computers and smart-phones (with all their calendar reminders, filling capabilities, away messages etc) as robots. I also don't think we will be scared of genetics in the way many people are now. Genetics will ultimately be used to make our lives better. Some people will undoubtedly use genetics for bad, but some people use fertiliser to make bombs. I don't believe that any technology is evil. People can be evil and use it to bad ends, but that has always been the case.
Blighted By Kenning opens at Big Shed on 4 August. Following the opening there will be two round table events (5 & 13 August). For more information, visit artforeating.com/blightedbykenning
Charlotte’s also got a film piece in the Wellcome Collection's current Superhuman show depicting the video diary of a reality TV show entrant undergoing cyborg body modification by popular vote. That’s running until 16 October