As we continue to upload more of ourselves to digital networks, the issue of stable, long-term data storage is taking on a new importance. The British artist Charlotte Jarvis is leading one expedition into one of the most exciting areas of storage experimentation: DNA.
The molecular form of DNA is extremely stable under the right conditions (estimates of its durability range from thousands of years to over a million), and the coded nature of its component parts (called nucleotides) means that it is already primed for holding information. DNA acts as an instruction manual for cells, which translate its genetic code into the protein sequences that power all organic life; it’s this natural code that determines which cells will go on to become a frog, a protozoa, or a human being.
Scientists speculate that bio-storage will become increasingly relevant as digital culture expands, and related technology is already beginning to appear. Jarvis made news in 2012 for her project Blighted By Kenning, in which she sprayed bacterial DNA (not the bacteria itself, which as a GMO would have faced certain legal hurdles in the UK) onto apples grown at the Hague. The DNA had the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into it using a simple cypher where combinations of nucleotides are translated into English letters; the message was rendered readable when the apples were sent to scientists around the world for testing. Jarvis conceived of this project as a commentary on the story of Genesis, a rejoinder to the idea (oft-heard in the context of genetics research) that some knowledge or areas of research should remain off-limits to humanity.
Jarvis’s latest work The Music of the Spheres, produced in collaboration with the geneticist Dr. Nick Goldman, is at once less political and more complex than her earlier endeavor. While Blighted By Kenning was, in her words, “clumsy” in its method of encoding a relatively simple textual message, The Music of the Spheres embeds a digital recording into DNA contained in, of all things, soap bubbles.
The installation at London’s Dilston Grove (on view through July 9th) is itself arranged like a song. The first and second “movements” are musical numbers composed by the Kreutzer Quartet members Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Mihailo Trandafilovski, but the “refrain” after each movement is silent. For five minutes, the room is filled with data-laden bubbles, and a silent film plays showing the musicians recording their piece amongst the thundering servers of the European Bioinformatics Institute. This is the missing part of the composition, a direct-to-DNA release that is only available in a single futuristic format.
With proper equipment, the residue of these popped bubbles could be run through a DNA sequencer to get Jarvis’s artificial genetic code (which could then be re-translated into an MP3 format for listening). The practical applicability of this process is all but nonexistent at this stage, but the technology required may not be far off—some early versions of at-home gene sequencers may be hitting the market as early as this year.
The piece takes its name from a line in a Lord Byron poem: “There’s music in all things, if men had ears; / the earth is but the music of the spheres.” The source is appropriately romantic for a project with this kind of existential heft. Jarvis and Goldman are working with what are often called “the building blocks of life”—coded messages, written in molecules, that when properly translated result in the diversity of life on earth. As artists, scientists, and (eventually) regular folks begin using this incredible capacity for their own purposes, there may be no end to the wonders (and, in all likelihood, horrors) we can create. Songs in soap bubbles are just the beginning.