Moved by James Joyce’s line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” genetic scientist Craig Venter coded the quote into the DNA of a synthetic microbe he’d been working on — the first of its kind. It all seemed like very appropriate artistic gesture for a landmark moment. Last week at a talk at SXSW, the scientist revealed that the James Joyce estate sent him a cease-and-desist letter because he didn’t ask permission to “use” the language.
This reminds us of a bioart project in progress from artists Adam Zaretsky and Tony Allard. For Mutate or Die, the artists are using genetic material from beat grandaddy William S. Burroughs. DNA from artist’s leavings (literally), will be “isolated, amplified and shot into the nuclei of some cells” using an “art-gun.” The William S. Burroughs Estate has given the go-ahead. If the case of James Joyce estate vs. literary synthetic microbe ever goes to court, let’s hope the parties involved look to bioart for inspiration. What better way for a literary artist and his work to live on than in a living organism?