Wednesday, December 09, 2015

BPN 1717: DNA on auction

Would you put up for auction on Internet the full genome of your personal DNA sequence? The Dutch social artist Jeroen van Loon did put it up for a year in his project, which started on September 27, 2015. Today his DNA is worth 333 euro with 292 days to go. It is not a Dutch auction, so the highest bidder of the auction gets 380Mb of data, a server with a display, and server rack. The buyer of will own an extremely personal ‘selfie’ and will become co-owner of the artist’s DNA.  

© Jeroen van Loon / photographer: Gert Jan van Rooij

Blood has been tapped from the artist and DNA isolated from the blood sample. Then a DNA sequencer was put to crank data for two weeks to come up with 380Mb of the genome data. These data were transferred to the data center of the medical institute and studied by experts. Eventually the data were transferred to the server of the installation. Presently the installation is on show in the Utrecht Central Museum (Netherlands).
The DNA installation will most likely not beat Van Gogh’s paintings, but provoke more questions. By putting it up for auction the DNA is turned into commodity, that can be bought, collected  and saved. It is like the auctioning off of a hair lock of Napoleon, but DNA looks more intimate. An expert can read the sequence and discover deficiencies. It is also something that you do not want to be in the hands of the wrong person. And is DNA the future collection item as it is as unique as painting?

There are a lot of ethical questions surrounding this DNA installation. A painting on auction is being sold if the highest bid and the auctioneer’s commission have been paid. The sale is not restricted  by conditions on place and security. The sale of this DNA will need a negotiation with buyer: why does he want to have it, how is being secured, at what expositions is it allowed to be exhibited. And this is just on the external side. But are the data allowed to be collected with other DNA sequences and perhaps being mixed? Can it commercially being used to produce a unique biometric password?

The auction will run till September 26, 2016. It will be interesting to see what the highest bid will be. But more interesting be to see the thought provoking question arising from the project.

Jeroen van Loon is an artist posing social questions in his projects. In Life Needs Internet he documented digital culture through handwritten letters. In Kill Your Darlings he shows the ‘private’ social circles of young teenage girls using social media.