Kathleen Rogers ::: Biography

Art and the visualisation of conscious DNA in ancient maize

This essay introduces the main thesis of my recent exhibitions and published texts that focus on the retrieval and visualisation of different forms of information from ancient maize. The aim of the project was to weave a poetic synthesis based on cross-disciplinary comparisons of symbolism of maize in genetic science, ancient Mayan mythology and art, and contemporary Mayan cultivation rituals.
Humans are historical creatures, deeply involved with memory, means of remembering, and retrieval of memory. The process of re-membering and the control of knowledge are deeply embedded in artistic and scientific practise. Materials and scripts are organised and displayed as a loci where items of symbolic value can be processed, deposited, preserved and guarded. Gradually the stored and organised material and the associated gestures are embodied, connected and patterned into cultivated forms of knowledge.
The themes of processing and constructing identity and the act of re-membering are simulated in the archaeological and anthropological record of maize and echoed in the archaeobotanical DNA laboratory. The procedure for extracting ancient DNA involves destructive analysis. This irreversible process of retrieval paradoxically involves the fatal transformation of the artifact.

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In pre-Columbian times the uncontaminated souls of the children who died in infancy were buried in front of the maize bin and guarded by this most valued and symbolically significant food. There was a conceptual overlap between the memorialising rituals of the ancestors in living maize and in the cave burials of the dead. The hidden storage of maize inside rooms and caves reinforced the idea of memory as inscribed in human bodies and places as something to be guarded, shared or hidden. Maize was created and negotiated by the human body in the workspace of the mind as a connection of the living to the valued dead it played a part of the ongoing construction and renewal of memory. Storage raised issues of secrecy, memory and prestige. The procedures of molecular geneticists and archaeobotanists echo these themes and obsessions.
For this essay I focus on my recent cycle of exhibitions entitled The Imagination of Matter and DNA.CORN. Both projects expand on meanings embodied in the storage and retrieval of DNA information in ancient maize. The work began in the maize growing community of Chiapas in Mexico in 1996 with the help of Mayan anthropologists and the DNA work was developed in collaboration with specialists in the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University and the Archaeobotanical Department at Manchester University. The video installation works were achieved in the UK and USA as part of a commission by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and an NEA grant in 2000 and 2002 as part of the international Noise and Gateway projects.
A DNA sample from 5000-year-old pre-historic maize from Puebla, Mexico was carried out at the department of Biomolecular Sciences, Manchester. This work was undertaken by Fabio de Oliveira Freitas a microbiologist from Brazil, making maize DNA comparisons between ancient and modern samples in the Amazon basin. The following notes are from a list of some of the key metaphors, thoughts and ideas I initiated. The basis for the exhibition was video work that re-visualised the process of extracting DNA from ancient Maize.

The residue of dust following the destructive analysis, as the carrier of an informational field with structural resonance's that echoes it origins in pre-history.

The existence of altered states in human consciousness that can give access to the informational fields of DNA on a molecular level.

Evidence of maize in ethnography as an alive, conscious and responsive entity.

The cultivation of maize as the basis of a cultural technology for integrating human and plant consciousness.

Links between DNA photon emissions and the idea of a global network of conscious DNA.

Top: After tagging the nucleotides with chemical enzymes the expression of DNA is optimised in rows of Algarose gel.
Bottom: Archaeological cob of maize found in El Reigo caves Teohuacan valley in Puebla Mexico.

Ancient maize DNA is used to trace the passage of maize from hand to hand from its origins in Mexico to Chile and North America, diversifying into thousands of shapes colours and forms over 8000 years. Enzymes are re-patterned and re-stored and used to uncover how, why and when the thousands of physiological and ecological maize archetypes diverged.
In the genetics lab, the process of separating and identifying DNA is slow, precise, technologically demanding, volatile and not guaranteed success. Working on an invisible level it involves many subtle stages, each of which effects the isolation of the DNA.

Top: El Reigo sample of maize.
Bottom: An energetic template and short traces of ancient DNA can persist for several thousand years.

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In the Popol Vuh, a sixteenth-century Quiche (Maya) document, a symbolic text combines a vast temporal sweep with a multi-layered, shamanic narrative. Each word and sign has a very precise meaning and the powerful images that suddenly emerge appear to have been torn straight out of the unconscious with no rational mediation. The themes of the sowing of the sun, the moon the planets humans and seeds by immortal deities is echoed in a psychological drama concerned with the adventures of hero twins. According to the Popol Vuh we are living in the fourth and final creation of human kind fashioned from ground maize and water by a half male, half female weaving god.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In classic Mayan culture sacred objects acquired potency through use and accumulated power. Objects and things became so intense and dangerous that they had to be symbolically killed. Everything was dismantled, destroyed and rebuilt. Art was defaced and drilled with holes. It was believed that supernatural entities including meteorological phenomena, viruses and demons could enter human spaces as physical beings.

* * *
To a gene scientist their experimental subject of choice is something like a simple string of beads strung together in a necklace of causal effects. Using enzymes, viruses and invasive bacteria geneticists snip or bind a gene from the DNA, copy it, reverse it so that it cancels out its own instructions and then put it back to where it was. This process requires an intuitive sensitivity and dexterity. DNA is more highly charged, fluid and dynamic than any generated human alphabet. DNA is more like a pervasive intelligence encompassing four billion years of biological evolution. A relational order that stretches the coiled symmetry of an embryonic seed kernel from 5000 years of dormancy into the present moment.
In sterile laboratory conditions the sample of maize is ground to dust in a pestle and mortar. A liquid buffer is added and the resulting mix is separated using centrifugal force. The resulting substance is incubated, spun again made into a pellet, re-suspended and turned into a gel. The aim is to optimise the reactions through the control of time, temperature and molecular chemistry in order to use the extraordinary attributes of the DNA itself to manifest.
Using enzymes of different concentrations the nucleotides are tagged and again exposed to heat, cold, drying and centrifuge. Using electrolysis the ions are drawn from one side of the gel to the other and visualised using ultra-violet light. This repeated spinning, pressure, dilution, erosion, and absorption and rejection results in a separation of identifiable DNA sequence of 300 base pairs. But it is never predictable.
All creative activity has an underlying relational order and the aim of both art and science is that of understanding. Traditional knowledge as laid down by earlier cultures and civilisations is intrinsic to this understanding. DNA science presents us with ethical responsibilities to understand the different ways of knowing that have developed in different cultures, and the equivalent value of the knowledge gained within these traditions.

Maize in the form of a serpent from Codice Fejervary-Mayer.

Tlaloc God tends and waters female maize plant Codice Fejervary-Mayer.

* * *
Maya cosmology scored and made visible processes charting systems of life in systems of images. In their art they mathematically projected dates and events forward into our own time and beyond to commemorate future rituals in anticipation that they would be remembered. They also invented the concept of zero and placed numbers to correlate with astronomical events that happened millions of years in a fictional past. This work is in invocation of the first moment of creation and mediated through traditional knowledge, shamanic technology, artistic invention and scientific inquiry.
The biologist, Rupert Sheldrake suggests that this inheritance is not just a matter of chemical genes but can also be conceived of in a framework of a scientific hypothesis, which he calls the hypothesis of formative causation. According to this hypothesis the nature of things depends on fields, called morphic fields. Each natural system has its own kind of field that shapes all the different kinds of atoms, molecules, crystals, living organisms, societies, customs, and habits of mind. Morphic fields like the known fields of physics are non-material regions of influence extending in space and continuing in time. They are localised within and around the systems they organise. Morphic resonance involves the transmission of formative causal influences through both space and time. When a particular organised system ceases to exist, as when an atom splits, a snowflake melts its organising field disappears from that place. But in another sense morphic fields do not disappear they are potential organising patterns of influence and can appear again physically in other times and places wherever and whenever the physical conditions are appropriate. When they do so they contain within themselves a memory of their previous physical existences.

* * *
Maize is wholly a ward of the human species, unable to perpetuate itself without human care in harvesting and planting and it is entirely dependent on humans for propagation and survival. The fact that cultivation fertilisation and harvesting are achieved by specialised equipment and technology reinforces the theme suggests Maize has symbolically always belonged to humans rather than nature. The cultivation of maize initiated an interactive, bio-technological and sacred bond between the objective aspects of the plant and the cultural consciousness of its human cultivator. In ancient Mayan art the decapitated heads of ball game victims were represented as maize kernels with the soft endosperm matter of the seed standing for the soft inside of the brain.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In the spiral/vortex of the female maize ear. The paired symmetries of proteins and water were displayed like a digital abacus and thousands of varieties of maize, cross pollinated by the moist breath of wind, formed a complete colour coded information system. Maize was considered to be kin, a gift from the gods and each colour, yellow, red, blue black was part of a directional scheme. Vitally important in this web of meaning is the link between maize and the sun. Many indigenous groups associate maize with the sun and its pathway across the heavens.
There are many anthropomorphic renderings of maize plants in the details of Mayan temple murals. Curious images and unlikely juxtapositions that' are repeated thousands times in pre-Columbian glyphs, paintings and codices. The Maize plant is never a literal botanical specimen. It always has mythological, morphological and etymological meanings. In the Popol Vuh maize in invoked by the Gods chanting AJAJAJA and the eclipse tables backwards. AJAJAJA is a two base four letter word meaning house and four-cornered field with twenty by twenty dimensions.

* * *
Since the late 80s theoretical physicists have been developing entirely new evolutionary conceptions of matter and of the fundamental fields of nature. These investigations point towards the idea that all nature is ultimately controlled by the activities of a single superforce. The superforce would have the power to bring the universe into being and furnish it with light, energy, matter and structure. This would be more than a creative agency. It would represent an amalgamation of matter, space-time and force into an integrated and harmonious framework that bestows on the universe an unsuspected unity. Theories are reaching back into the first moments of creation. Evolutionary conceptions of matter and of fields are coming into being. The cosmos now seems more like a growing and developing organism.
All living cells in the world that contain DNA are filled with water. Every molecule that has information takes its unique shape from the hydrogen bonds in water, which like keys fit only specific locks to wind and unwind the DNA string.
According to consciousness researchers, Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis. Human consciousness involves brain activities coupled to self-organising ripples in fundamental reality. According to the their model the cell framework in the brain utilises a dynamic arrangement of cytoskeletal microtubules. These regulate synaptic firing rates in the brain by creating a primitive electronic gap - a hydrophobic effect based on a water hydrogen molecule. They propose a quantum mechanical "spin networked" behaviour within the microtubules to be the basis of consciousness. Their radical hypothesis suggests that at a quantum level the conscious mind is subtly linked to the universe.

Top: Fragments of DNA are chemically optimised and amplified.
Bottom: The DNA electro chemicals are coaxed through the gel using an electric current.

The graphical image of the Penrose & Hameroff model of this quantum computation bears an uncanny morphological resemblance to the ordered rows of kernels in the ear of maize.
Living cell molecules communicate information via subtle vibration in ways that scientists do not understand. There are some theories, which suggest that the hydrogen bonds in water molecules that form the basis of all life have some remarkable properties for transferring electro-magnetic information across the cell outline. Water is the basis for all biological life and the hydrogen bonds in water are loose bonds that change at about 10 billion times a second. Water is a fluid and an adhesive and the hydrogen bonds crawl up our bodies through our arteries and veins passing information to the living cells by passing electrical impulses across the membrane of the cell. The transforming properties and states of water make it a miracle of chemistry. For instance vortexian energies in water derive from sympathetic harmonies and the avoidance of disharmony in the flow of energy patterns. This living vortex movement is the complex interplay of vibration, direction and force balanced internally.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In the last decade new resources and technologies have become available to both artists and scientists. These technologies promise, not only to embody multi-sensory and innate cognitive processes, they also aspire to describe the very nature of reality. Digital manifestations of DNA and image enhanced mechanised observation from robots force us to question how one can determine whether an observation corresponds to a physical situation or a simulation. These technologies translate the biological into the digital as if they were analogous. They describe the biological in the site of the digital as if this quantitative array was a physical substitute. In consciousness research this extends to images of real time brain metabolic functioning to discover what is digitally created on the screen when a thought occurs in the mind. The psychologically emotive and poetic image, previously the prerogative of artists has been superseded by the images that scientists and technologists present to us of biological processes. These images, the outcome of a reductive method generate the powerful impression that all living systems are embedded and interconnected.

Diagram of quantum field consciousness of maize imagined after Penrose/Hameroff models of microtubule effects.

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Maize mythology is full of biological imagery and metaphorical explanations that reveal empirically verifiable fact. In the Popol Vuh the morphologies of nature were freely interchangeable and hieroglyphic writing systems applied phonetic pictures and text combined to record every nuance of the spoken word.
In addressing the question of Maize, within the overall theme of genetic engineering and biodiversity there is abundant evidence that indigenous people in the Mexico have undertaken domestic genetic engineering for many thousands of years and have a far richer and deeper and more humanistic understanding of genetics and the biodiversity of maize than commercial biotechnologists.

* * *
According to the Mayan, Popol Vuh, at the dawn of the world. The Gods were thinking altogether in the darkness searching and sifting for the ingredients of the human body. These Gods were called the bearer, begetters, the makers, modelers and sovereign plumed serpent and the ingredients of the flesh of the humans was conceived to be maize.

The initial work on Maize DNA was part of an series of exhibitions put together by the artist Adam Lowe and the Simon Schaefer, a philosopher of the history of science concerned with universal language, information and transformation as part of an arts and science series presented at Kettles Yard Gallery in Cambridge UK and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and venues in London as part of Noise 2000 and more recently the theme formed the basis of a new commission for the Lab in San Francisco in a collaboration with the digital sound composer Carl Stone called DNA.CORN. In this installation DNA was conceived as a furnace of infinite randomness based on popping corn. For further credits, bibliography and details of other projects please go to


How to purchase this book



I. LABORATORY: science and technology

Svetlana Borinskaya. Genomics and Biotechnology: Science at the Beginning of the Third Millennium.

Mikhail Gelfand. Computational Genomics: from the Wet Lab to Computer and Back.

Irina Grigorjan, Vsevolod Makeev. Biochips and Industrial Biology.

Valery Shumakov, Alexander Tonevitsky. Xenotransplantation as a Scientific and Ethic Problem.

Abraham Iojrish. Legal Aspects of Gene Engineering.

Pavel Tishchenko. Genomics: New Science in the New Cultural Situation.
II. FORUM: society and genomic culture

Eugene Thacker. Darwin's Waiting Room.

Critical Art Ensemble. The Promissory Rhetoric of Biotechnology in the Public Sphere.

SubRosa. Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century.

Ricardo Dominguez. Nano-Fest Destiny 3.0: Fragments from the Post-Biotech Era.

Birgit Richard. Clones and Doppelgangers. Multiplications and Reproductions of the Self in Film.

Sven Druehl. Chimaera Phylogeny: From Antiquity to the Present.
III. TOPOLOGY: from biopolitics to bioaesthetics

Boris Groys. Art in the Age of Biopolitics.

Stephen Wilson. Art and Science as Cultural Acts.

Melentie Pandilovski. On the Phenomenology of Consciousness, Technology, and Genetic Culture.

Roy Ascott. Interactive Art: Doorway to the Post-Biological Culture.
IV. INTERACTION CODE: artificial life

Mark Bedau. Artificial Life Illuminates Human Hyper-creativity.

Louis Bec. Artificial Life under Tension.

Alan Dorin. Virtual Animals in Virtual Environments.

Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau. The Application of Artificial Life to Interactive Computer Installations.
V. MODERN THEATRE: ars genetica

George Gessert. A History of Art Involving DNA.

Kathleen Rogers. The Imagination of Matter.

Brandon Ballengee. The Origins of Artificial Selection.

Marta de Menezes. The Laboratory as an Art Studio.

Adam Zaretsky. Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz.
VI. IMAGE TECHNOLOGY: ars chimaera

Joe Davis. Monsters, Maps, Signals and Codes.

David Kremers. The Delbruck Paradox. Version 3.0.

Eduardo Kac. GFP Bunny.

Dmitry Bulatov. Ars Chimaera.

Valery Podoroga. Rene Descartes and Ars Chimaera.
VII. METABOLA: tissue culture and art

Ionat Zurr. Complicating Notions of Life - Semi-Living Entities.

Oron Catts. Fragments of Designed Life - the Wet Palette of Tissue Engineering.

Dmitry Prigov. Speaking of Unutterable.

Wet art gallery





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