Back at the end of the last century, Jonathon Keats and I were both senior editors at San Francisco magazine. This will tell you everything about us: I edited a section called Culture; Jonathon edited a section called Ideas. I still write about cultural topics (as you may have noticed) and edit books. Jonathon is now an experimental philosopher, writer, and what some call a conceptual artist, with the fruits of his latest cogitations currently on view at San Francisco’s Modernism gallery.
The reason we were working at a general-interest magazine is that we are, as Jonathon has expressed it many times, “interested in everything.” We’re fascinated by specialists and experts, at the unimaginable depth of their interest in one specific realm. We prefer learning about as many different things as possible and linking them when we can.
Jonathon has become a master at making connections, and in an inspired and artful way. (His sixth book, Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, due out from Oxford University Press in January, makes the case for an utterly Keatsian counterintuitive concept.) In his most recent artistic endeavor, he’s conjoined science, art, philosophy, and tongue-in-cheek entrepreneurship to create the Epigenetic Cloning Agency, plus five pieces of artwork to help convey his point.
And the point is? I’ll let Jonathon tell you himself, by way of the clever press release that is always a part of his artwork. In the Epigenetic Cloning Agency, he “has developed the first trouble-free human cloning technique, promising to make replication of famous people as routine as downloading movies. To market the new methodology, which applies the emerging field of epigenetics, [he is] launching a company that will duplicate some of the most well-known figures in history, including George Washington, Queen Elizabeth I, and Jesus Christ. The operation is so noninvasive that none of their bodies have been exhumed, nor have their descendants been notified.
“’We’re doing it entirely with historical data harvested from online archives,’ says Mr. Keats. ‘That and some chemicals bought over-the-counter at Walgreens.’”
Epigenetics looks beyond an individual’s genes, affected as they are by environmental factors such as diet, stress, and toxins, to the way they are “expressed.” Epigenetic cloning evaluates such factors and replicates them. Say you’d like to clone Napoleon, one of the five exemplars in the artworks on display at Modernism. On a shelf under a translucent portrait of Napoleon mounted on a mirror, Jonathon has placed tiny colored vials containing ten of the chemicals to which Napoleon was exposed over the course of his life. These include aminos and cholesterol (because he ate a whole chicken or rooster every day); mercury, sulfur, and arsenic (from all the toxic medicines he took for various complaints); and lead (due to all his battlefield injuries). To become an epigenetic clone, you’d take the substances in the vials on a regular basis.
Also on display are bottles of the Keats Clone Complex, the pills you’d take to become an epigenetic clone of Jonathon, which, frankly, I think sounds more interesting.
Just as he deduced elements in the remains of his five dead personages, Keats has metabolically analyzed living celebrities “by assessing their gross biochemical intake as reported in leading gossip magazines” and applied the chemical formulas to the live cells in brewer’s yeast. Of course, we may never know how successful this experiment is, since the microscopic clones won’t look like Lady Gaga, or anybody else, for that matter. But Jonathon says the yeast should become the same as Gaga at a functional level, and who could prove him wrong?
The thing about Jonathon’s work is that no matter how entertaining the concept, it’s always thoroughly researched and seriously intended. “I’d say that I apply the current scientific thinking about genetics and epigenetics in ways no scientist would ever attempt–I take scientific concepts to their logical extreme and see what happens.
“By putting epigenetics in the realm of human cloning, it becomes a way of making a real proposition of something highly theoretical, about which many decisions will need to be made. I like to take ideas that don’t necessarily fit together and engage others in curiosity about the world. My work is in the spirit of a thought experiment, not a technical one.”
Through Nov. 9, Modernism, 685 Market St., 2nd Floor, S.F., 415.541.0461; modernisminc.com.