Blog Post

The Xenotext

I am posting to share a snippet from a talk I delivered at the biannual ASLE conference last week. In this section, I explored Canadian poet Christian Bök's latest constraint-based poetic project—"The Xenotext." The project takes Bök's Oulipo-inspired work to a new level. In short, "The Xenotext Expeirment" aims to create a procedure for the reciprocal, meaningful translation of poetry into DNA and DNA into poetry.

In his 2008 description of the project, Bök writes "Not simply a code that governs both the development of an organism and the maintenance of its function, the genome can now become a vector for modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression.” A future of ecological collapse underlies this techno-lyrical project. Bök goes on to cite cybernetic theorist Pak Wong's view that the use of DNA to encode messages in the highly resilient and adaptive cells of bacteria could serve to store cultural heritages “against planetary disaster.” How and who would later decode those messages—first written in American Standard English and then translated into a DNA sequence, in Bök’s project—is a question we should certainly raise.

Akin to bioartist Eduardo Kac, Bök claims that the genome is today a foundation "for heretofore unimagined modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression.” In turn, he suggests, poetry stands poised to become the conduit for life science research. What does “The Xenotext Experiment” look like in practice? Challenging the relationships between art and science and between language and matter—Bök has set out to write a poem that, with the help of molecular biologist Stuart Kauffman, will get written as a "harmless parasite" into a bacterium. Akin to Kac’s “Genesis,” the xenotext makes of poetry a genetic trait that lives, breaths, and endures within a another body. In the penultimate section of the 2008 project proposal, Bök imagines a future in which, books “no longer take on the form of codices, scrolls, or tablets, but instead [….] become integrated into the very life of their readers.”

Bök's model of the Xenotext DNA sequence

On one view, The Xenotext is a technical project—whose progress has been documented through interviews with Bök in New Scientist and Wired magazine. But on another view, the project is a multimedia endeavor in which DNA is just one among several medium. Consider, to this point, the following account of “The Xenotext Experiment” by Bök:“I foresee producing a poetic manual that showcases the text of the poem, followed by an artfully designed monograph about the experiment […] complete with other apparati such as charts, graphs, images, and essays, all outlining our results. [….]. I plan, for example, to submit the gene to DNA 11,9, a company that makes giclée prints of abstract artworks produced through DNA fingerprinting, and I also hope to build a colourful sculpture of the gene itself out of dozens of Molymod Molecular Kits.” [You can follow the progress of this project in yet another medium, to this point: Bök’s vibrant Twitter feed.]

I would be the first to observe that bioart projects like "The Xenotext Experiment" are riddled with contradictions—aesthetic, ethical, and ecological in nature. In the spirit of teasing out the most thorny and disturbing of those contradictions, let me sign off by citing the final section of Bök’s project proposal (or more aptly, manifesto). “I believe,” he writes, “that such a poem, stored inside the genome of a bacterium, might conceivably outlast terrestrial civilization itself, persisting like a secret message in a bottle flung at random into a giant ocean." At the same time, he observes, "I hope that my poem might urge readers to reconsider the aesthetic potential of science, causing them to recognize that, buried within the building blocks of life, there really does exist an innate beauty, if not a hidden poetry—a literal message that we might read, if only we deign to look for it.”

d. radiodurans bacterium

Allison Carruth's picture
Allison Carruth is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at UCLA, where she is also an affiliated faculty member in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Institute for Society and Genetics, and the Center for the Study of Women.