Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gene Genies Worldwide

I was doing some sorting of old files, and I ran across a brochure for "Gene Genies Worldwide" my husband picked up about seven years ago on a trip to Pasadena. From what he remembers, there was a storefront with a large window. Inside there was a clean lab-like setup with Erlenmeyer flasks filled with colored liquid on the shelves*. It was late evening, so it was closed, but there were brochures outside the door. The text has an odd description of the Gene Genie Worldwide business, and he wasn't sure if it was strange, but serious, new-age woo or an art installation. You can see for yourself if you click the images below:

The founders, "internationally renown biodesigners" Karl Mihail and Tran T. Kim-Trang, offer a special service for people who want to change their personality:
Gene Geneies Worldwide's Dream Tools are the new genetic reality and, for our clients, the greatest shopping experience of all time. Finally, the best Personality that medical science can produce!

Our most prized line of Dream Tools are the Transgenic traits. For the first time in history we are no longer bound at the organism or species level. Now at the genetic level, manipulations can extend to cross-fertilization of species which are incapable of mating in the natural world. Imagine acquiring the personality traits of your favorite creatures in the animal kingdom (i.e. the cunning of a fox or feline intuition). Human to human and animal to human transgenic augmentations are our specialty. Gene Genes Worldwide has secured sole patents for our gene pool and hybrid genetic codes to ensure against biopiracy.
Who wouldn't want badger fierceness, canine loyalty, reptilian cool, otter playfulness, or internal firefly glow? Unfortunately, all but the firefly glow aren't likely to be easily transferred genetic traits. Most of the behaviors they list are pretty vague - are reptiles really "cool", or just lethargic when the temperature drops? That's not to say that our genes don't influence our behavior. There is, in fact, an ongoing project that uses purebred dogs to understand the behavioral genetics of behavioral issues such anxiety disorders and aggression. I suspect that "loyalty" is a bit harder to quantitate.

So what exactly is Gene Genies Worldwide? There's the old Gene Genies website, but it doesn't say much more than the brochure. A little Googling on the names of the "biodesigners", however, turns up page from the November 2002 LA Freewaves festival that provides the background for the project, which is indeed an art installation:
Gene Genies Worldwide?? is a collaboration between Tran, T. Kim-Trang and Karl Mihail. We are artists posing as scientists who aspire to be artists. As Gene Genies Worldwide?? we create work that addresses the conjunction of genetic engineering and consumer culture to provide a critical evaluation of biotechnology while serving to raise consciousness, foster civic dialogue on accountability, and ownership concerns. The project is a catalyst for action by imagining a possible future and challenging viewers to question that future.
The project made Tran and Mihail runners-up for the 2001 Leonardo New Horizons Awards. The award site gives a bit more background about the installation:
Tran T. Kim-Trang and Karl Mihail's public art installation Gene Genies Worldwide (1998) [...] created a seductive retail space for a fictitious company offering to custom design clients' genetic codes. Behind an immaculate red brick facade, Plexiglas display cases presented the various bio-related components of the installation with formality and great attention to aesthetics. One pristine display case contained a row of literary classics updated by the artists ("Eugenic America"; "Genetic Scarlet Letter"); a single text lay open to reveal grinning images of artists/providers peering into microscopes. [... ] Elsewhere, human and animal skulls were grouped against a satin backdrop --- and a mini DNA strand, a model of molecules, and a row of pristine test tubes completed the depiction of science as art and retail. The presentation, presided over by life-size images of the two scientist/artists, was an ironic evocation of a viable future scenario that raises provocative ethical, economic, and social issues.
They also claim to have been technical consultants for a number of movies featuring genetics and genetic engineering, including Race for the Double Helix, The Boys From Brazil, Jurassic Park, Gattaca, and The X-Files. Given the often silly ways that genetic engineering is portrayed by Hollywood, it wouldn't surprise me if that bit were true.

ETA: Gene Genies Worldwide doesn't have anything to do with the Gene Genie genetics blog carnival, despite the similar logos.

* He's actually not sure if he's accurately remembering the way it looked, but colored liquid in flasks sounds plausible.


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