ESSAYS Mousse 34

Epigenetic Reset: Alexander Tarakhovsky

by Hans Ulrich Obrist


Alexander Tarakhovsky is a geneticist who specializes in epigenetics, a branch of biology that studies how new characteristics are developed and propagated in organisms. It examines very powerful form of memory activated by repetition, and its indelible imprint, a sort of biological karma: mnemonic traces capable of skewing the ordinary functioning of cells. At Kassel, Tarakhovsky brings a scientific installation that is a bit of a “molecular Andy Warhol,” according to the definition the scientist supplies in this conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: How did you come to science, and how did science come to you?

ALEXANDER TARAKHOVSKY: I never wanted to do anything else but science, except for a short period of time when I wanted to be a movie director.

HUO: When was that?

AT: Around the age of 18 or 19. I was very impressed by the director Andrei Tarkovsky. I also spent a lot of time with my friend Alexei Parschikov, the poet. The reason I am making science the way I am today is because of our friendship. We spent a tremendous amount of time talking about integrating various live forms and events within a single mega-metaphor. Alexei, who became one of the most original modern Russian poets, has even been dubbed a “meta-metaphorist.” Both of us were attached to the phenomenon of phantom pain as a model of somatic memory of lost experiences. The way I see it, this is how I became primed into science.

HUO: But in the end you came back to science.

AT: Science has a protective power. If you do science, you insulate yourself a little bit against the events of life. You can acquire a certain serenity and quietness, while visually maintaining a Woody Allen personality.

HUO: So science is a frame?

AT: I think the genius of Kazimir Malevich was that he designed a universal language that is basically one word, one symbol. If you ask “What is science?” then I can say, “A black square is science,” as much as a black square is anything else, including a famous Kabakov housefly. Anything that has this simultaneous feeling of monochrome simplicity and incomprehensible complexity is the best metaphor for the meaning of science.

HUO: What else influenced you?

AT: I once read a strange and fascinating article describing retinal memory. Criminologists at the end of the 19th century believed that murder victims retained some kind of snapshot of their killer on their retinas. So if you cut the eyes out of a dead victim and projected light through the retinas, an image of the murderer would somehow be displayed. Of course it is complete nonsense, but it is beautiful poetry.

HUO: In art one can usually say where an artist’s catalogue raisonné starts. There is student work, and then at some point the person makes an invention that is original, and that is the beginning of the catalogue raisonné. In your science activity, what was the beginning of your catalogue raisonné?

AT: I like to put it in a somewhat Hebrew way: Backwards. I think every time I publish new work, it emotionally negates everything I have done before. So for me the most recent work is the most important, and when I measure everything I have done before against it, I see the earlier work as somewhat irrelevant. So one could design a catalogue raisonné that would go in reverse chronological order, though the best catalogue would be only a single work, the most recent.

HUO: Tell me about your most recent work.

AT: What fascinates me is the issue of memory. But not memory as you ordinarily think of it. For example, we frequently say that slavery cannot be forgotten. But there are two kinds of forgetting: one narrative, the other biological. In the first sense, slavery cannot be forgotten because there is always a carrier of narrative who can tell us about it. But what if slavery, as lived and experienced, is actually passed on in another way? And what if this passing shapes people’s minds and behavior, and keeps them being slaves for generations, even without an accompanying narrative? So for instance: to what degree is culture in a proletarian system like the Soviet Union just a reflection of a memory of Mongolian slavery? Is it a state of mind that cannot be reversed because there is something in us that once memorized and stabilized is then inherited? How does it work? We don’t know. But there are a lot of data to support the idea. There have been great papers published by my colleagues that show, through statistical analysis and through experiment, that certain experiences are truly heritable.

HUO: So it’s a different form of transmission than genetics?

AT: It is so-called epigenetics. Genetics is somewhat boring because it’s just scripture: letters and codes that are mixed up between parents but stay unchanged or slightly modified. The more exciting form of inheritance is epigenetic inheritance. What happens if we experience long-term stress, such as famine or oppression? Or what if we are religious in a most zealous fashion and practice religion 12 or 14 hours a day? Does this repetition leave any sort of an imprint? It certainly does as far as the life of an individual is concerned, because repetition creates a sort of stable, imprinted pattern. The question is whether the imprint will be permanent, internally, and passed from generation to generation. Culturally, scientifically, I think it’s very exciting. A key element of religion is that it’s karmic: whatever you do will never disappear in the sense that you will be punished or rewarded for your action. I am not discussing religion, but it is possible that our choices reflects a pattern inherited non-genetically from our predecessors and, moreover, that by acting in a certain way, or being forced to act in a certain way, we will generate patterns that will go into the next generation.

HUO: Can you give a concrete example from one of your recent experiments?

AT: We recently found that a virus, such as an influenza virus, can leave some kind of memory trace after infection. We just published a very big article in Nature describing how viruses can conquer the key regulatory parts of a cell and mildly adapt them for future invasions. Of course, training of future generations by forced experience has terrible parallels in human society. A tyrant’s hope is that if you train people in a certain ideology for years and years, even if the repetition is discontinued they will still remain who they are, in that submissive state.

HUO: So there’s a danger of epigenetics being abused, manipulated?

AT: Yes. Think about post-traumatic syndrome—people who go through wars and suffer major trauma. Will this trauma disappear during the life of the individual? Unlikely. But the most daunting question is whether the trauma could be heritable. We can also talk about art as traumatic. If a whole generation of people experience a certain art, how do they react? What will the generation that follows them see? If you are exposed to certain art, will your children already be adapted to those images? Will their children already be adapted? Cultural adaptations are like any other sort of adaptation. Exposure to art—or any provocation—is helpful because it creates immunity. But a repetitive ritual, whether religious or simply abusive, such as life in concentration camps or prison, or overzealousness in religious procedures, can establish certain patterns that will not only stay with the individuals but also be passed to the next generation.

HUO: Andrei Tarkovsky says in his writings that the problem of our times is that we have no more rituals—that maybe we should invent daily rituals, like flushing a glass of water down the toilet.

AT: I think his comments were mostly reflecting his anxiety about the erasure of rituals he valued. He lived in a system that was actively involved in the elimination of culture.

HUO: I understand that dOCUMENTA (13) will be the first time you’ve participated in an art exhibition. Can you talk about your connection to the art world, and what it means to you to show your work in dOCUMENTA (13)?

AT: There are several levels of what it means to me. My connection to art came about randomly. It began in Moscow when I was a student, going to what are now very famous underground exhibitions. I met many artists, I felt like an artist, but I was determined to stick to artsy, i.e. unorthodox, science. Then when I moved to Germany, I got to know a group of Russian expatriate artists. One of them was Eugene [Evgeni] Dybsky. He was quite well known in the 1980s, because he was one of the Russian artists involved in the famous Sotheby’s auction. I also like the art of my friend George Pusenkoff who lives in Cologne and exhibits in Eurasia. The strongest impression I ever got was from Dmitri Prigov, whom I knew pretty well.

HUO: He’s a genius. Amazing poet, writer, artist…

AT: That’s the kind of art and imagination I gravitate toward. I never really wanted to become part of any art circle or art movement, because by nature I like to be by myself, in my own world, uninterrupted. But I do like to listen to advice on how to become a better artist. Chus Martínez, for example, has been great about advising me. As I was visualizing things for dOCUMENTA (13), she was very helpful in keeping me away from the mundane.

HUO: What’s going to happen in your installation?
AT: There will be some of my drawings. I will show you an example, here. [Produces drawing.] If you dig into the nucleus of the cell, the DNA code is somewhere within this line, and what’s sitting on top of it are proteins, which you can imagine as some sort of graffiti art. There are many proteins around DNA, and they are painted with the help of other proteins: different colors, different patterns, different structures.

HUO: So it’s sort of graffiti art on top of something else?

AT: The proteins that play the most important role in the regulation of the DNA state are called histones. The proteins that modify histones chemically are like a gang of graffiti artists. The DNA makes various structures, loops, blobs, and all of it carries information. We will call our exhibition installation Epigenetic Reset. Everything I have been discussing with you boils down to questions regarding the stability of epigenetic information, and of course “reset” means erasing memory. So in Kassel we will have a certain number of technical elements that will exemplify what we have been discussing from a technical point of view, but at the same time there will be cultural references to the art of the 20th century. I will give you an example: standing in the middle of the room will be a machine called PCR, which stands for polymerase chain reaction. Think of it as some sort of molecular Andy Warhol. It enables me to take a single cell from your body and amplify any of your genes to eternity.

HUO: So, endless repetition.

AT: Endless repetition, endless image reproduction. Why the PCR machine is interesting… well, it’s useful for practical purposes, but forget about that. It’s interesting because it follows what we experience. It is appropriation and reproduction, shameless or purposeful, whatever you like. What is for me the most exciting thing is that it offers some connection to Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp began this century of art by portraying or presenting an object and saying it was an artwork. In French, as you know, a urinal is a pissoir, which equates phonetically with “PCR.” So the whole thing is about Duchamp, Warhol, endless reproduction of genes, games of words. In the show, there will be a gene inside the machine that will be reproduced in this Warholian fashion. In the meantime, we will be projecting in the gallery, in real time, the sequencing of a genome. That DNA will be taken from a particular individual who experienced a memory shock. Nearby there will be 80,000 tubes, each carrying a single drop of DNA from a particular individual. The individuals’ names are here. [He pulls out a sheet of paper.]

HUO: How did you find these people?

AT: They are true or fictitious, it doesn’t matter. The DNA will come from hamsters, rabbits, individuals. It will be my DNA, or my secretary’s DNA, or anyone’s DNA, which I can get in the tube station or on the F train or in a cab. When you leave, I will take a piece of cotton and take your DNA and put it in a tube, and you will immediately become part of the project.

HUO: So it’s like an archive, a collection.

AT: It’s like in Jorge Luis Borges, an endless library of DNA tubes containing information that could be magnified, multiplied, sequenced, decoded. But it remains enigmatic, right? One drop contains endless information. So, however you like to imagine it. Then, from time to time we will have a flashmob event. So there will be flashing light and someone will say “epigenetic reset.” A flashmob message will be sent to attendees’ cell phones, saying that between 11:52 and 11:54 a.m. they can come to the gallery and pick up any DNA tube and take it away with them. It’s a kind of a funny play on how visitors usually like to take away posters, postcards, merchandise from an exhibition. Here you don’t take posters, you take DNA! The entire complexity of an individual, their entire memory that has been before and may yet persist. It could be a relative, it could be a stranger, it could be a criminal, it could be an animal.

HUO: What would you say the future is?
AT: I just read a book by David Deutsch in which he discusses infinity, and I would say this: the future is infinity. Not in a stupid way, like whatever happens, happens. I am talking about our infinity. The future is our infinity.

HUO: Are you optimistic about the 21st century?

AT: Oh, totally. I don’t care about Monsanto, I don’t care about pollution. I can perhaps explain by citing a very simple paradigm, the Red Queen Hypothesis, which explains our interaction with pathogens. The Red Queen is a reference to Alice in Wonderland. The queen accelerates, Alice accelerates, and they talk to each other, but they stay in the same place. That is how we interact with pathogens. New pathogens come, we advance, the pathogens advance, we advance, and so on. This rule is actually the topic of my lecture in Kassel. I will be talking about art and pathogenesis as driving evolution. The thesis is that there is no difference between avant-garde art and pathogens because they come as a shock, they stir the environment, they provoke minds, they create scandals of different sorts, they can even kill. But as soon as we receive the shock, we advance in our cognitive function to match this danger. Art is danger, pathogens are danger, chemicals are danger, overheating is danger, but we always adapt. Humanity’s greatest feature is adaptation. I am not talking about Darwinian evolution as most people think of it. It’s not survival of the fittest; rather, we are getting fitter every day because we are exposed to the environment. The studies I do are on acquisition of fitness, which is heritable. So, I am very optimistic.


Originally published on Mousse 34 (Summer 2012)


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