"Agents of Provocation" at dOCUMENTA (13): Alexander Tarakhovsky and Epigenetic Reset
Alexander Tarakhovsky, “Epigenetic Reset” (2012), nucleic acid, enzymes, plastic, wood, metal, video, dimensions variable
(© courtesy Alexander Tarakhovsky, photo by Roman März)
Alexander (Sasha) Tarakhovsky enjoys making people uncomfortable, like any good artist- or virus- does, at least in his mind. As head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling at Rockefeller University in New York, he is well-suited by the many parallels drawn between art and science. It was such parallels that led Head Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to tap him for documenta (13), where he experimented in a whole new way with everyday concepts of immunology and genetics in his exhibition "Epigenetic Reset" in Kassel.
That curators at documenta (13) are referred to as "agents,” a term also used to describe pathogens, is not coincidental, but rather a clear intention of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and her curatorial team. Similarly, Tarakhovsky's role as both an advisor and artist took this play on words as its central concept.
Born in Chernivtsi in what is today Ukraine, Tarakhovsky earned his medical degree and a PhD in Kiev, before eventually leaving for Germany to take on a postdoc position at the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne in 1990. As the Soviet Union fell, Tarakhovsky was left virtually "stateless" in Germany, despite being employed as a state employee there. "I'm very proud of living 10 years without citizenship. I had a great time," he quips. A decade later, he moved his lab to Rockefeller University.
Beginning at the Institute of Genetics and in the past 12 years at Rockefeller University, Tarakhovsky has pursued research in epigenetics. His lab examines lymphocyte signalling, or, roughly, how pathogens affect the immune system through observing the way white blood cells react to perceived threats. In this framework, Tarakhovsky focuses on epigenetics; changes in gene expression that are passed on to daughter cells without alteration of the DNA sequence. This research, while indisputably scientific, is by no means divorced from his art; to the contrary.
The study of nature at the cellular level, and specifically the inheritance of information, says Tarakhovsky, was for most of the previous century focused on "hard-wired"- that is, genetic- evidence. More recently, scientists have begun to look beyond genetics to uncover just how our environment affects us, and if these changes can be passed from one generation to another. While the continuity of adaptations to changes in environment at the cellular level is conceivable and even observable, the question of heritable qualities independent of changes in DNA is much harder to imagine.
For Tarakhovsky and others working in epigenetics, the unavoidable question arises of heritable traits related to the environment, such as psychological and physical stresses brought about by famine, war, or even oppressive political regimes. Can such "softer traits" not found in our genes be somehow carried into the next generation? If that is true, says Tarakhovsky, "[a concept like] fate becomes more supported by scientific data, because it is inescapable."
While Tarakhovsky's lab continues to trace how cells "remember" their contact with viruses, he has mused on the possibility of entire generations "remembering" the traumatic events of their predecessors to produce his exhibition at documenta (13). "The reason we are who we are is because of bacteria," he explains. "It is the essential driving force of evolution." Just as pathogens are only as effective as their ability to confront an organism with "novelty," so, Tarakhovsky argues, only artists who can cause enough "cognitive excitement" in the brain can precipitate a reaction in society. Too much stability for the body and for a society turns both stagnant, in other words, immune, in the absence of "agents of provocation."
Fate, heritability, and even statelessness come into play in Tarakhovsky's exhibition, Epigenetic Reset. Seeking himself to achieve some semblance of provocation, Tarakhovsky took advantage of the average individual's understanding- or, better said, lack of understanding- of genetics in general. To create unease among viewers, Tarakhovsky presented a PCR machine, used in the laboratory to produce copies of a specific DNA sequence, and claimed that the DNA inside was that of "someone who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder." The machine was placed alongside a display of 80,000 tubes (signifying the number of working genes in each cell) filled with a mixture of DNA that Tarakhovsky claimed was obtained from 80,000 individuals- with names on each one.
The machine, already toying with the notion of endless repetition magnifying individuality, often associated with DNA, to the point of absurdity, also is an homage to Michel Duchamp. Duchamp's presentation of a urinal, or pissoir, as a piece of art, is recalled here in the pronunciation of the acronym PCR. Amplifying a gene "to maximum nonsense" was Tarakhovsky's way of "resetting" the game, of undermining stability and memory, and of pointing out the human tendency to regard DNA as quintessentially individual. A projection of DNA sequencing, represented by flashes of little dots and surrounded by two Dalí paintings rounds out the exhibition, prompting viewers to once again reinforce their unease by suspecting that the DNA is being read, a reaction Tarakhovsky finds highly amusing.
Perhaps the biggest response has come from the interactive part of the exhibition, called "flash mob." In lieu of a postcard or similar tourist paraphernalia, visitors are encouraged to take a tube of DNA home with them. This has been met with only resistance thus far, Tarakhovsky says. Being confronted with this option caused "major psychological drama" for some, he says, "which is totally absurd." This is, of course, only a reinforcement of the almost farcical premise that is at the heart of his Epigenetic Reset.
"Culture is one non-violent way to reset societal patterns," explains Tarakhovsky, and in that sense, his exhibition echoes the core of his lab work. He has already been asked to bring the exhibition to Moscow Museum for Contemporary Art and Photography despite, or perhaps precisely because of, causing a stir with other documenta visitors. In the meantime, he continues his research, perhaps finding a new way to present something "novel."