Science and art are often perceived as two mutually exclusive activities, which separately advance and enrich culture. However, an increasing number of individuals are of the opinion that art and science are the twin engines of culture, both fueled by creativity. Few projects illustrate this better than the new undertaking of accomplished Canadian poet Christian Bök.
His new project, the Xenotext Experiment, is an attempt to move beyond previous works that simply republish text within the genetic code of organisms. Bök wants to interact artfully with the genetic code of a bacterium and use its internal machinery to publish a second poem in the form of a protein.
Dr. Bök was able to spare some time to sit down with me and answer a few questions.
Peter Kublik: Do you have any formal training in microbiology or genetics?
Christian Bök: No, I’ve no formal training at the post-secondary level, but I’ve always had a lay interest in science. I’ve had to read up on genetics so that I can converse competently with scientists, I’ve had to teach myself computer programming skills so that I can design software that permits me to create ciphers and lexicons that explore this project. It has, in effect, taken a long time and a lot of research just to write one poem.
PK: What do you think is the importance of marrying art and science?
CB: Science is the most important cultural activity that we do as a species. It has the greatest potential for the future of our own evolution. Despite the extraordinary cultural importance of science, scientific reasoning is undervalued in our own popular culture and certainly in the world of poetry. Poets untrained in science typically regard science as the least poetic of all disciplines. This kind of project is one way of exploring a poetic potential that hasn’t been otherwise considered.
PK: What kind of response has your project received from the art community?
CB: When I first proposed the project, I was greeted with a lot of skepticism. It has proven very difficult to get funding, despite the success of my last book which again, was greeted with a lot of skepticism but nevertheless went on to enjoy a great deal of popular acclaim and critical appeal. This is easily the most difficult project I’ve ever tried to undertake.
PK: What kind of response have you received from the science community?
CB: My scientific collaborators are all very interested, but that’s because they’re very imaginative people. They’re already very charismatic scientists, and I wouldn’t have approached them unless they had an element of the “mad scientist” about them. They’re all very curious about extending the cultural reach of their own practice, and they’re flattered to know that there’s a poet out there who is willing to showcase this kind of work to a more artistic audience.
PK: Thank you for time, and good luck with your project!
For those readers interested in learning about more projects at the intersection of art and science, I would highly recommend either of the books by Stephan Wilson written on the topic: Art+Science Now and Information Arts.
Article first published on May 2, 2010.