Christian Bök :
The Allen Ginsberg of Bacteria
(Article originally appeared on motherboard.tv, sub-editted by Sean Yeaton)
Pity the plight of the poet. Misunderstood by the public and unloved by the publishers. Gone are the days of hep cat poets of the beat generation, the celebrated voices of dissent to a modern world enthralled by shopping and atomic bombs.
However, all that could change if Canadian poet and self-taught bio-engineer Christian Bök realises his ambitions for a poetry that uses organisms as its blank page. Bök’s intention is that poetry will no longer be on the brink of extinction, instead it will be the only form of life left long after the extinction of humanity. He plans to do this by encoding transhuman, existentialist poetry secreted into the DNA of a near-indestructible bacteria.
Inspired by William Burrough’s proclaimation that “word is a virus,” Bök set out to prove it through bio-engineering. Using the four letter codes of DNA, he created a system that could be used to encrypt the letters of the alphabet. Having worked out a cypher from eight trillion possibilities, he wanted to insert the code into a purpose-built DNA sequence and then inject it into the bacteria.
Via the magic of DNA, RNA recoding, and splitting helixes, he also needed a code to decipher the newly created protein. Early experiments were unpromising. His attempts to insert a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “THE DANE,” triggered a protein response from the bacteria of “EAT SHIT.” Unperturbed by this and after four years of further experiments, homebrew encryption software eventually yielded a workable code that could be used and recombined to interpret a response message.
Bök’s original poem, a masculine battlecry of life and fate is re-encoded by the bacteria as a gentle ode to fairies, rosy glow, loss and milk, a motherly ode to balance the original machissimo of the “Pater-physical narrative.” This inspired the creation of a pleasant design touch meaning that the new cell will flouresce red in the dark, like the line of the response poem: “The fairy is rosy of glow.”
With the DNA structure theoretically defined, it was decided to insert it into an E.coli bacterium. When it emerged that the structure wasn’t sufficiently stable, Bök realised he had inadvertently created the first molecular poetry critic. Nature decreed his poem unworthy and it “died.”
The ultimate aim for the poem — now called a “Xenotext” — is for it to be inserted into a super resistant bacteria to become a kind of “archive machine.” The bacteria chosen is called phi-x-174, one that is so resistant it could survive nuclear war, life in a vacuum, and “so tough it could devour plutonium,” thereby outliving the human race and becoming an immortal “message in a bottle, in an ocean of the infinite.” Bök calls it, “a literary artifact until the sun explodes”.
Phi-x-174, the first fully sequenced genome, a virus that infects E.coli bacteria and is so enduring, bordering on indestructible, that it has been hypothesised that it originated in outer space. The Arcturus star has been suggested as the most likely origin, such is its resistance to extremes that no environment on Earth could ever have evolved such an invincible lifeform. It is capable of surviving gamma radiation one thousand times stronger than would be neccessary to obliterate a human. This is “life at extremes of it’s own definition,” according to Bök.
One of Bök’s poems about his cellular plaything is called “The Extremeophile.” Reading it aloud he sounds like a cross between Allen Ginsberg debuting “Howl” and a spoken word perfomance by Henry Rollins. To paraphrase the yet-to-be-published prose:
It eats jet fuel / It eats arsenic / It never evolves /
It has lived through five mass extinctions / It awaits your experiments!
Bök taught himself everything he needed to accomplish his goal as he raced traditional science to the same endpoint. Better the first message on DNA be a poem than an advert for a software corporation.
Previous attempts at similar experiments have seen James Joyce quotations encoded into DNA (which triggered an organism based “cease-and-desist”).
If Xentotext redefines what a poet can be, by definition it also redefines what a scientist’s role is: “Geneticists as poets in the meaning of Life. There is also a microbe essential to the vitality of art.” Bök is like a pre-Enlightenment scholar, when the categories between art and nature were not easily defined. “Poetry is the germination of Word, and it requires a new language. This is poetry as the cutting edge in a new frontier of self-expression, the poetry of exploratory biogenetic gamesmanship.”
Given Phi-x-174’s sinister characteristics, is there any chance it could somehow wipe out humanity? “A quadrillion to one chance. More likely this project could be a fool’s errand, being too difficult to fulfill,” Bök says. “Although failure is not an option, an ephemeral project has its own beauty. A lousy poem is biodegradable. Nature and art are breaking down as categories. Perhaps we will use this idea to inscribe the last will and testament of humanity. Writing down who was to blame. Or a users manual, a copyright. An ad for Microsoft? Take the lightbulb. It’s used to illuminate the ferris wheel at night or to create the night shift”.
Despite writing “Canada’s best-selling poetry book ever,” Bök intones, “As an avant garde poet I have no readers. I write into a void. But who did the Egyptian pharoahs write to? Twenty-first century tourists, oddly enough. I see my work as spraypainting a heiroglyph on an obelisk. Immortality acts like a kind of punchline. This may be the only way to preserve any of our culture over epochal time”.
Could the Xentotext be dismissed as a kind of arrogant biological form of vandalism? Exactly the kind of attitude to technology that has dogged human endeavours, creating the destruction obsessed consumer society that the beat poets abhorred? Bök’s answer: “Humanity? We’re better than dinosaurs and microbes.”