Genetic Portraits and Microscope Experiments

I recently finished a new artwork — called Genetic Portraits — which is a series of microscope photographs of laser-etched glass that data-visualize a person’s genetic traits.

I specifically developed this work as an experimental piece, for the Bearing Witness: Surveillance in the Drone Age show. I wanted to look at an extreme example of how we have freely surrendered our own personal data for corporate use. In this case, 23andMe provides a (paid) extensive genetic sequencing package. Many people, including myself have sent in saliva samples to the company, which they then process. From their website, you can get a variety of information, including their projected likelihood that you might be prone to specific diseases based on your genetic traits.

Following my line of inquiry with other projects such as Data Crystals and Water Works, where I wrote algorithms that transformed datasets into physical objects, this project processes individual’s genetic sequence to generate vector files, which I later use to laser-etch onto microscope slides. The full project details are here.

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Concept + Material
I began my experiment months earlier, before the project was solidified, by examining the effect of laser-etching on glass underneath a microscope. This stemmed from conversations with some colleagues about the effect of laser-cutting materials. When I looked at this underneath a microscope, I saw amazing results: an erratic universe accentuated by curved lines. Even with the same file, each etching is unique. The glass cracks in different ways. Digital fabrication techniques still results in distinct analog effects. 

blog-IMG_4106When the curators of the show, Hanna Regev and Matt McKinley, invited me to submit work on the topic of surveillance, I considered how to leverage various experiments of mine, and came back to this one, which would be a solid combination of material and concept: genetic data etched onto microscope slides and then shown at a macro scale: 20” x 15” digital prints.

Surrendering our Data
I had so many questions about my genetic data. Is the research being shared? Do we have ownership of this data? Does 23andMe even ask for user consent? As many articles point out, the answers are exactly what we fear. Their user agreement states that “authorized personnel of 23andMe” can use the data for research. This sounds officially-sounding text simply means that 23andMe decides who gets access to the genetic data I submitted. 23andMe is not unique: other gene-sequencing companies have similar provisions, as the article suggests.

Some proponents suggest that 23andMe is helping the research front, while still making money. It’s capitalism at work. This article in Scientific American sums up the privacy concerns. Your data becomes a marketing tool and people like me handed a valuable dataset to a corporation, which can then sell us products based on the very data we have provided. I completed the circle and I even paid for it.   

However, what concerns me even more than 23andMe selling or using the data — after all, I did provide my genetic data, fully aware of its potential use — is the statistical accuracy of genetic data. Some studies have reported a Eurocentric bias to the data and The FDA has also has battled with 23andMe regarding the health data they provide. The majority of the data (with the exception of Bloom’s Syndrome) simply wasn’t predictive enough. Too many people had false positives with the DNA testing, which not only causes worry and stress but could lead to customers taking pre-emptive measures such as getting a mastectomy if they mistakenly believe they have are genetically predisposed to breast cancer.

A deeper look at the 23andMe site shows a variety of charts that makes it appear like you might be susceptible (or immune) to certain traits. For example, I have lower-than-odds of having “Restless Leg Syndrome“, which is probably the only neurological disorder that makes most people laugh when hearing about it. My genetic odds of having it are simply listed as a percentage.

Our brains aren’t very good with probabilistic models, so we tend to inflate and deflate statistics. Hence, one of many problems of false positives.

And, as I later discovered, from an empirical standpoint, my own genetic data strayed far from my actual personality. Our DNA simply does not correspond closely enough to reality.

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Data Acquisition and Mapping
From the 23andMe site, you can download your raw genetic data. The resulting many-megabyte file is full of rsid data and the actual allele sequences.

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Isolating useful information from this was tricky. I cross-referenced some of the rsids used for common traits from 23andMe with the SNP database. At first I wanted to map ALL of the genetic data. But, the dataset was complex — too much so for this short experiment and straightforward artwork.

Instead, I worked with some specific indicators that correlate to physiological traits such as lactose tolerance, sprinter-based athleticism, norovirus resistances, pain sensitivity, the “math” gene, cilantro aversion — 15 in total. I avoided genes that might correlate to various general medical conditions like Alzheimer’s and metabolism.

For each trait I cross-referenced the SNP database with 23andMe data to make sure the allele values aligned properly. This was arduous at best.

There was also a limit on physical space for etching the slide, so having more than 24 marks or etchings one plate would be chaotic. Through days of experimentation, I found that 12-18 curved lines would make for compelling microscope photography.

To map the data onto the slide, I modified Golan Levin’s decades-old Yellowtail Processing sketch, which I had been using as a program to generate curved lines onto my test slides. I found that he had developed an elegant data-storage mechanism that captured gestures. From the isolated rsids, I then wrote code which gave weighted numbers to allele values (i.e. AA = 1, AG = 2, GG = 3, depending on the rsid).

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Based on the rsid numbers themselves, my code generated (x, y) anchor points and curves with the allele values changing the shape of each curve. I spent some time tweaking the algorithm and moving the anchor points. Eventually, my algorithm produced this kind of result, based on the rsids.

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The question I always get asked about my data-translation projects is about legibility. How can you infer results from the artwork? Its a silly question, like asking an Kindle engineer to to analyze a Shakespeare play. A designer of data-visualization will try to tell a story using data and visual imagery.

My research and work focuses deep experimentation with the formal properties of sculpture — or physical forms — based on data. I want to push boundaries of what art can look like, continuing the lineage of algorithmically-generated work by artists such as Sol Lewitt, Sonia Rappaport and Casey Raes.

Is it legible? Slightly so. Does it produce interesting results? I hope so.

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But, with this project, I’ve learned so much about genetic data — and even more about the inaccuracies involved. It’s still amazing to talk about the science that I’ve learned in the process of art-making.

Each of my 5 samples looks a little bit different. This is the mapping of actual genetic traits of my own sample and that of one other volunteer named “Nancy”.

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Genetic Traits for Scott (ABOVE)
GENETIC TRAITS FOR NaNCY (BELOW)

genome_scott_notatedWe both share a number of genetic traits such as the “empathy” gene and curly hair. The latter seems correct — both of our hair is remarkably straight. I’m not sure about the empathy part. Neither one of us is lactose intolerant (also true in reality).

But the test-accuracy breaks down on several specific points. Nancy and I do have several differences including athletic predisposition. I have the “sprinter” gene, which means that I should be great at fast-running. I also do not have the math gene. Neither one of these is at all true.

I’m much more suited to endurance sports such as long-distance cycling and my math skills are easily in the 99th percentile. From my own anecdotal standpoint, except for well-trodden genetics like eye color, cilantro aversion and curly hair, the 23andMe results often fail.

The genetic data simply doesn’t seem to be support the physical results. DNA is complex. We know this, it is non-predictive. Our genotype results in different phenotypes and the environmental factors are too complex for us to understand with current technology.

Back to the point about legibility. My artwork is deliberately non-legible based on the fact that the genetic data isn’t predictive. Other mapping projects such as Water Works are much more readable.

I’m not sure where this experiment will go. I’ve been happy with the results of the portraits, but I’d like to pursue this further, perhaps in collaboration with scientists who would be interested in collaboration around the genetic data.

FOUR FINAL SLIDE ETCHINGS  (BELOW)

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Dérive in Paris

The first day after arriving in Paris, we embarked on a dérive — the French word for a “drift” — an unplanned journey (usually) through an urban space. The idea is to immerse yourself in the moment, the now of a city. No maps, no mobile phones, no direction, just walk and make choices on where to go based on your senses: the smells, sights and sounds of a city. This experiment would hopefully be some sort of authentic experience, devoid of the central modes of organization and give us a subjective experience.

I did this once before, in Berlin, while reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. That time was by bicycle and I spent the first day meandering through the city with no direction. Every couple of hours, I’d stop for a cup of coffee or a snack and read Solnit’s book, which covered themes of mental and emotional wandering. It was profound. I noticed odd things, mostly architectural.

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My recommendation is to do this when you first arrive in an unfamiliar city, after getting a night’s sleep but before you’ve done anything else. At this point, your body is still jet-lagged. Daily patterns have yet to be formed. Memories are unestablished. The brain is at its most receptive state.

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We started here, near where we were staying. All I know was that the 6th Arrondissement was on the Left Bank. I’ve since become familiar with the shell-like ordering of the city’s districts.

We picked the direction that we most “liked”, based on whatever looked best down the street.IMG_1179

When you’re not trying to get somewhere or having a conversation about something, you notice funny things, like tons of push-scooters locked with cheap cable locks everywhere.

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Or custom-painted tiles like these. Of course, these are “touristy”, but the walk pushed these labels out of my mind. IMG_1184

I wanted to document the dérive, but didn’t want to be in a documentation state-of-mind, so just snapped photos without much consideration for what I was shooting.IMG_1185

The space-for-women was inviting, but also seemed to be closed. It was some sort of library.IMG_1187

We never would have found this old store on Yelp, but it was incredible. Lots of old science and medical devices and posters were inside! The dérive soon meant that we could go inside shops and here is where my expectations of some sort of 1950s Paris that Guy Debord lived in quickly got dashed on the rocks. There were tons of distracting shops and restaurants everywhere. I guess that was the case 60 years ago as well, but I’m sure capitalist advertising techniques have advanced significantly since his time.IMG_1190

We found some contemporary art galleries, too.IMG_1192

Though the Jesus spinning on the turntable didn’t “work” for me.IMG_1193

With two people, the dérive meant compromising. Sometimes I wanted to walk on one side of the street and Victoria would walk on the other. And when we made a decision, we had to pick one person’s “way” if we disagreed. I’m would have been curious to see where my choices would have left me.IMG_1194

Sure, you notice all sorts of details.IMG_1195

And signs in French, mostly about parking rules.IMG_1196

Interesting chimneys on buildings.IMG_1198

You’re not supposed to stop to do errands, but we had to get some coffee capsules for the espresso machine in our room. And then I noticed the shrink-wrapped cheese. IMG_1201

Wide boulevards with complex intersections. Surprisingly little traffic noise and congestions for a major city.  IMG_1202

Streets signs and greenery.IMG_1203

Plaques with names of historical figures and where they once lived.IMG_1204

The smell of dog shit everywhere. Cigarettes, lots of cigarette smoke. I still hate getting the exhale of smoke in my face.IMG_1206

Many apartment buildings with exactly the same window dressing on them. Why do only the 2nd story windows have planters on them?IMG_1207 Everywhere, ads for various services, including “Tantra Massage” on drain pipes. IMG_1209

A giant old wooden door with intricate carvings.IMG_1210

An old church interspersed amongst the apartment buildings.IMG_1211

Odd urban compositions.IMG_1213

A time portal to the year 1858.IMG_1214

Bubble windows.IMG_1215

Ah, the iron work.IMG_1217

Gold leafing shop. Isn’t it dangerous to leave this in the window for potential thievery?IMG_1218

Real estate ads everywhere. Prices are comparable to San Francisco.IMG_1219

French flags outside what looks like government buildings.

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Lots of small dogs and apparently it’s okay to bring them into the restaurant with you.IMG_1222

Sign for a movie theater…or something else.IMG_1226

The most amazing air vent I’ve ever seen.IMG_1227

Reserving your parking spot with trash.IMG_1228

The stop sign figurine is fatter than the walk sign figurine.IMG_1229

Goats in a park.IMG_1230

One cannot escape the Eiffel Tower as a point of orientation.IMG_1231

Bodily functions rule in the end. The toilets are free, but the lines are long.IMG_1232

Make Art, Not Landfill

This Thursday (June 8, 2015), will be the opening of Make Art, Not Landfill, which is the 25th Anniversary of the Recology Artists in Residence program. If you are in San Francisco, you should go to the show.

I first heard about the program in the late 1990s. In 2010, I saw the 20th Anniversary show, and later that year, applied and was accepted. I started my residency in February 2011. During this time, I made a series called “2049” — where I played the role of a prospector from the year 2049, who was mining the dump for resources to construct “Imaginary Devices” to help me survive.

skl_051811_050These included items such as the Sniffer, the 2049 Hotline, the Universal Mailbox, Reality Simulator and Infinite Power. Each one was accompanied by a blueprint with imaginary symbols on it.

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Using these scavenged items, I built a complex narrative around some sort of future collapse. The work was odd, funny and touched veins of consumption for many people. Dorothy Santos did a writeup for Asterisk Magazine on the 2049 Series, which captured some of the feelings evoked by the sculptures, paintings and videos.

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Part of the deal with being an artist-in-residence at The Dump is that they get to keep one of your artworks. And exhibitions like this are exactly the reason why. The good folks at Recology put on shows, featuring work from their program. The artwork that they elected to retain was the Universal Mailbox (below), which will be in tomorrow’s show.

I constructed the Universal Mailbox from a discarded UPS keypad, scrap wood, a found satellite dish and dryer hose. I found the paint at the dump as well. skl_051811_018 I used a similar technique for the 2049 Hotline, and during the opening, friends of mine played the role of “emissaries from the year 2049”, who would talk to exhibit-goers on the phone. Their only directive was to stay in character — they had to be from the future, but the environment they imagined could be anything they wanted.skl_051711_003The artwork later traveled to the New York Hall of Science for their Regeneration Show (walkthrough below)

This was a one-way mission for many of my sculptures, as they were fragile to begin with and 4 months at an Interactive Science Museum decimated the work. I knew this would happen. I always viewed the sculptures as temporary. I was even able to save some money on shipping costs. The artwork, after all, came from the dump!

skl_051811_001_prsThe blueprints survived, as well as a rebuilt versions of the Universal Mailbox and the 2049 Hotline, which I will continue to exhibit. The 2049 project and my 4 months at the dump was a lesson in attachment to material things, which flow from hands to hands and eventually to landfill and hopefully, sometimes, to art.