Metagenomics in Art is a workshop that I developed during my collaboration with the BP Art Exchange at Tate Britain and Tate Modern.
Metagenomics as a subject is very human and intimate, but the word does not communicate the richness of the subject and its importance to the human condition. Each of us has a host of other life-forms that reside on and in us, some of which are vital to keep us alive, some of which are invasive and harmful. They even leave fragments of themselves in our own DNA, and Metagenomics is the field concerned with how the genomes of the bacteria and viruses that call us home can interact with our health on a fundamental level.
At the start of the collaboration with the Tate, we were asked to work in response to artworks that were being displayed in the Tate Britain. Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais, has always been one of my favourite artworks. Ophelia lies there on the point of death, but around her is a scene full of life, and this thought inspired me to think about ecosystems and whether there exists such a thing as ‘the genome of an environment’ rather than just of individuals. My research led me quickly to Metagenomics. I also learned at this point about sequencing and how the genome of the cells being sequenced are ‘chopped’ into tiny fragments and their data reassembled to construct the sequence of letters. These two elements became the core of the workshop.
|Ophelia Sequenced I, from the original artwork Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais. First artwork inspired by metagenomics. I explain more in this video by the BP Art Exchange https://vimeo.com/160707686|
I devised two activities for the workshop that expressed in different ways the core concepts of Metagenomics and recombination. The first was a freeform modelling activity, in which participants were given a petri-dish and plasticine in the colours typically used to represent the four nucleotides of DNA.
|Early metagenome compositions in petri dishes|
The second activity involved strips of the three artworks and strips of mirror, each artwork corresponding to a different nucleotide. Participants were given a small subsequence of Metagenome, downloaded from NCBI database and asked to reconstruct a new artwork by selecting strips of artworks with the corresponding letters to create the metagenome sequence as an artwork.
|Me setting up the metagenome sequences strips|
|A participant taking part in the workshop and me|
|Artworks strips with the DNA nucleotides printed on them|
|Two participants in the workshop|
One unexpected aspect of the workshop was that people started using the metagenome strips to create their plastiscine petri dish artworks. Another interesting aspect arose due to people being able to see all of the petri dish art created by previous participants; the themes and constructions became more complex and ambitious as the day went on, bursting out of the confines of the petri dishes.
|Different compositions of metagenomes|
I delivered this workshop twice, as part of the Tate Exchange launch and as part of the event ‘This is an Art School’ organised by Alex Schady, Fine Arts Programme Leader at Central Saint Martins.
The selected artworks portray, literally or figuratively, the same traits as Ophelia; being compositions that are full of death and life at the same time:
Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais
Lady of Shallot, by John William Waterhouse
Los Moscos, by Mark Bradford
As there are four letters in the language of DNA, and the goal of the collaboration was to create a workshop, I included mirrored strips so that the metagenome of the Tate Exchange environment and the participants also became part of the artwork.
The workshop triggered the curiosity in the participants, who enquired and reflected on the subject of metagenomics and art.
Pictures by Ben Smith (copyright Tate), Joana Tamarit and Neus Torres Tamarit