Plastic DNA
DNA, cement, glass


As part of Dominique Peysson's artistic residency at Espace Jean-Roger Caussimon in Tremblay-en-France, in partnership with Lieu Multiple, the DNA school and the Ebi-Carbios laboratory in Poitiers and supported by the Seine-Saint-Denis Department and the Ile-de-France Region. DNA in plastics was exhibited from January 5 to March 10, 2017 for the Première Impression exhibition, consisting of 5 of my works on DNA.

DNA in plastics is part of a corpus of several works committed to thwarting the often erroneous or distorted representations that we have of the DNA molecule.


DNA in plastics shows us the result of a long development work. Starting from the principle that DNA is an immensely long molecule, therefore belonging to what is usually called "plastic material", I decided to desacralize the DNA molecule for the consider to be what it is according to this last definition: plastic. The axis allowing this molecule to be considered then changes completely: is it possible to manipulate DNA on our size scale? What is its consistency? What is the proportion by weight of DNA in our body? In short, if we leave the sphere of the symbolic, what remains of this helix molecule?


Keeping a shared laboratory notebook allowed everyone to follow the progress of my research live.
The catalog of the exhibition also retraces the research processes in progress, and offers an "activatable" notebook, ie one can animate by moistening the paper thanks to the principle of bimetallic strips.


This work seeks to thwart the often erroneous or distorted representations that we have of the DNA molecule. Carrying a symbolic force without common measure since guarantor of our own identity just as much as of the evolution of all living beings, the idea that we have of DNA remains nonetheless trapped in a prefabricated imaginary representation. , by the scientists themselves or by the media. Of course, the complexity of its operation makes any desire to grasp its keys particularly difficult, but rather than oversimplify and freeze things in an overrated image (a double helix levitating in a non-space), it can be more interesting to generate multiple aesthetic and operational forms to represent it to us. As part of my artistic residency, I made small objects, those that are usually made of low-end plastic, or identical to the very first objects made of plastic. I used two reagents to tint them pink or glass: Schiff's reagent and pyronine methyl green, both used in biology to detect the presence of DNA.
Designed as a research experience, the residency has produced various works. Achievements in themselves, however, they remain starting points for new research.


It all started from a reconciliation between two definitions… It is stated as follows: plastic is a material whose particularity is to be made up of extremely long molecules. DNA is an immensely long molecule. So, DNA is plastic… It is not an image, nor a metaphor, but a reality. However, it leads to superimposing two representations that do not belong at all to the same categories in our thinking… It is this large gap between the boxes in which we have arranged them and their common definition (macromolecules) that I wanted to use. Because it is where things stand out, where classifications collide with the unthinkable, that something can be created...

Plastic could be characterized as being the most low-end material among those we use in our daily life. It radically stands out in this respect from natural materials considered to be much more noble, such as wood, stone, wool or cotton fibers.

DNA, on the other hand, is not considered a “material” as such, since it is only used in nature as a carrier of information and not as a raw material for manufacturing. Unlike plastic, it carries a particularly strong symbolic dimension. The DNA macromolecule, the DNA strand as it is called, is only conceived as a single and unique chain linked to another complementary macromolecule, the two strands taking the form of a helix. It is therefore only "seen" in our imagination as a single and unique entity, whose very precise composition (succession of the molecules which constitute it) is essential since it determines the absolute uniqueness of the being who carries it.

I decided from that moment to make small objects, identical to those usually found in plastic: small figurines, following the stereotypical codes of small games of this type: the princess character and the little soldier. With a return to the very first objects to have been made of plastic, such as buttons.



"Eliminated radically as if by an ejection seat. Or else left behind in the peripheral mass without being able to access the narrow opening. Excluded to the very depths of our very substance? How not to crush us full length on the surface? the pane of security glass that separates us from certain fields of current scientific thought?Wikipedia's simplifying mill skates in semolina when it comes to lightening molecular genetics to bring it within reach of thought... Some descriptions are disobligingly refuse to reconcile, opaque, heavy, heavy, very heavy. An excerpt? Here is: "The pyrimidines are oriented in the anti position on the deoxyribose residues, whose furanose ring has in their presence a C2'-endo folding, while that purines are oriented in the syn position on deoxyribose residues which possess in their presence a C2'-exo endocyclic folding." Certainly, any explanation cannot e does not go through such an intrusive scientific linguistics, but even when the narrator agrees to submit to the law of common language, the story he tells takes such tortuous paths, through dark swamps where we lose our footing , inviting a host of actors, each stranger than the other, whose names and roles we forget, that we find ourselves lost, forgotten, between the beginning and the end of a disturbingly strange story. What wonder then that we cling with relief to the lifebuoys that have been placed there to save us from complete drowning: beautiful propellers of all colors that turn regularly on themselves on the margin of the text at available on the internet. Then, for those who stick to this ramp well enough, are offered: abstract molecules of infinite size and made up of letters, A, T, G, C, chromosomes which unravel their thread in a helix across the page, and zippers that open to allow replication to do its job. The representations never deviate far from the basic iconography, with all the same, we recognize it, certain important variations on the choice of colors, the most attractive being undoubtedly the fluorescent blue scales in helix levitating in a kind of starry space. Beautiful appearances shrouded in the light of the origin of life. We owe him this mystical representation, after all: isn't it this double helix - and this alone - which carries in the most ingenious way the whole history of our singularity, what makes the past, the present and the future of life? Two series of letters therefore, the three letters DNA and the four letters ATGC, combined with a beautiful image of a double helix in levitation, therefore take the place of bio-knowledge supposed to be sufficient for the neophytes that we are.

We are not researchers - they are the ones who take care of these things in the laboratories - nor the officials at the head of the State or of Europe responsible for passing laws to avoid excesses and think about possible ethical problems. that would result from genetic tweaking. And the consumer protection societies are there to look after the corn grain and make sure it's not genetically engineered. In short: why understand, if everything is so complex and that others take care of it for us? How can we get more involved if we do not have sufficient key elements to make a measured choice from the various options offered? How can we imagine all the implications of each of these choices, if we are not accustomed to societal projections or philosophers trained to think methodically and in nuance about the ethical problems raised by the application of this research? Do we really need to worry about all these things? The reality is this: current research in the field of molecular biology – and genomics in particular – is progressing at a dizzying pace, opening the door to applications hitherto unimaginable. The black box of the living, of what makes life, has recently opened, but we are only beginning to unpack its contents and try to use the tools, like the good sorcerer's apprentices that we have always been. . A black box that can quite take on the role of Pandora's box for those who cannot resist the temptation to play the demigod... The stakes are enormous: immense hopes for the improvement of some of our living conditions alive, but also the possibility of making money, a lot of money. The opening towards precision medicine, but eugenic selection made possible. The transformation of plant, animal and human genetic material, for better and for worse. Playing with a few parameters of an equation that we don't know in its entirety, with the risk that the system gets out of hand irreversibly. Because controlling the effects of a complex system is simply not possible, it is mathematics that tells us: launch at the same time several distinct processes which evolve while interacting with each other, and it will become impossible to predict. the progress. In the case of biology, it is not a question of a complex system, but of an infinity of complex systems nested in each other. And excitement is one of the main characteristics of complex systems...Another important point: scientists in molecular biology, as intelligent, competent and involved as they are, evolve in a closed field, that of a knowledge closed to philosophical analysis. , or social, retroactive or speculative. Creative emulation is very strong, for everyone in their particular field, but ethical issues are rarely considered. Research advances headlong, in a frantic but endless race, and leaves it up to others to then think about the consequences. Convinced of the importance of their research, which fascinates them and brings them notoriety when everything is going well, they communicate their progress in the mode of reductive narrative efficiency, to be sure to convince and obtain the necessary funds to continue. their work in the laboratory. The media ask them for images that mark: they take out the sewing kit, with the zipper and the pair of genetic scissors. Things become as simple as patching up a shirt or embroidering a pair of haute couture gloves. Everyone gets something out of it: scientists, laboratories, the media, and ourselves who love so much to be told incredible stories about "our" ingenuity, to us men... The cycle is thus formed, very stable since particularly satisfying, and the looping images make a deep impression. Scientists themselves are imbued with it, in return, thus participating in the increasingly powerful anchoring of simplifying notions. Ask any biologist how he imagines a DNA molecule… they all have in mind our famous lifeline: the double helix, which turns slowly on its axis, in space… Yet it is only of an illustration, very far from the actual reality (and for good reason: the DNA is folded-serated to form the chromosomes at the heart of our cells). Good: the processes of life are currently being tested by experiments on many benches, all over the world. And we just can't follow the facts. Genomics - the study of everything related to genetic heritage - is a vast playing field, the rules of which are far too complex for us to be informed spectators. What can be done, then, to remain active citizens, and keep a right of scrutiny on what is happening and which concerns us all? To even be able to suspect what could lead us to serious ethical or moral abuses? The researchers themselves are in the thick of the action, and are not in the habit of limiting their own objectives, which they always place further ahead, generally seeing in them only progress and benefit for all. . This heritage, it is nevertheless ours, we are all concerned! The solution is certainly not to take at face value the highly touted youtube videos announcing the next miracles of science, nor to register ourselves on the list of followers of conspiracy theories. Then what ?

It becomes urgent in this techno-scientific-media-social context to create an interface zone. An area where you can pass by to take in the spirit of the times… A zone of crossing and interfacing of ideas, thoughts in progress, imagination, disinterested prospective and a look towards the past. A passage towards the inhomogeneity of thought, exchanges between knowledge and critical sense, between analysis and narrative, between precision and delirium. Not ONE truth, but interlacings of convex or concave reasoning, infinities of snippets of data, and ramps to walk around without getting lost. Multiply, root ideas to know how to get out of a rectilinear way of thinking, and accept complexity. Hearing different detailed opinions to choose (later) the one that speaks to us, opening up in our imagination the extent of the possible. And build a thought, step by step. This field already exists, a little. And art can feed it. Any form of art, capable of mixing narrative and science, fiction and techno-reality, the past and the invention of the present; The very small and the very large, the modest and the incalculable. Any art that can invent new metaphors to speak to us differently. And some artists here can take advantage of their particular position: not quite inside, but a bit next to the spinning Ferris wheel. A little stuck or ejected but to come back better. And take the time to immerse themselves in their own way a little on this side, a little on this one, and a little on the other still a little further. Position, not always comfortable, but it is so as not to remain motionless. Immerse yourself in laboratories, or invent a possible (or improbable, depending on) technological future. Read scientists, philosophers, theoreticians, economists, historians, psychoanalysts, doctors, … Do not close the door to feelings, but listen to what is said within. Oh, of course (I raise my arms high in the air): they don't have the right answer, the artists, far from it! No, of course not! They can sometimes – for some of them, yes, why not – say big nonsense or get tripped up in received ideas left there in the middle. It doesn't matter: it then becomes possible to debate these received ideas, these enormous nonsense brought to the fore. To see them as such, to put them at a distance. Because all these materials for thought never arise as ready-to-think. They are multiple, talk to each other and talk to us about ourselves. They arouse, open up, initiate, bud, challenge, surprise… Jostle us, make us waver, irritate us, disgust us, shock us. Also move us, lift us up, for a moment. Carry us. Amuse us. Leave us indifferent too, sometimes. Teach us things, make us experience feelings, combine these feelings with reflections and analyses. In short, allow us to occupy this field of thought, on the edge of scientific knowledge, which we would not have dared to visit alone, in the dark. A living, political space, where to exercise our right to be moved and to take sides, to question ourselves and to imagine, to refuse or to plebiscite, to oppose or support. An approach, and steps to climb, and to descend… It is here, in this place dedicated to this precisely, that the “DNA in plastics” exhibition is located. This is for me the beginning of a gradual transition from my interest in animated matter to my thirst for discovery about living matter. Because it seems to me that it is precisely at this point that the ethical questions will arise with the greatest acuity in the years to come: will we be able one day to synthesize living organisms? How are we going to transform it? What will be the hybrid inert matter-living matter forms? What ethical problems will then arise and above all will it be too late to pose them, when the “advances” will have already been made, and when potential buyers are ready to spend millions to benefit from them? It is already very complicated to work scientifically on the question of the living, the very notion of "what is alive" being impossible to define in a clear and universal way. There are definitions, all of which are characterized by the large number of exceptions they contain. The line that appeared clear only a few decades ago has shifted, and surprisingly becomes all the more blurred as we get to know it better. For the systems are not distributed on either side of a clear boundary, but rather pass continuously from inert matter to living matter. How then to choose where to place the cursor? Of course, I don't pretend to give any answer to these particularly complex questions, but rather to start laying down a few stones to walk around or stumble upon, in order to slow down our walk and take the time to look. ADN en Plastiques is not a single work but a set of several proposals that respond to each other, because there is not ONE way of approaching these subjects, but a whole multiplicity. All of them, however, share the same characteristic trait: to offer representations other than the small number of those which are usually offered to us (such as that of the levitating double helix) and which enclose our thinking. These proposals are the result of long-term artistic research, which required regular work of documentation, meetings with different scientists, combined with active research through experimentation in my studio. I was a researcher in physics and chemistry – and I therefore know how to document myself from pointed scientific articles – but I am not a biologist; I therefore have a way of thinking and a base of scientific knowledge while keeping the naive look of a neophyte. A position that I hope can allow me to avoid the pitfall of a preformatted vision. The progression of my research to be able to define and then produce my works has led my steps alternately along a whole series of small crossroads where treasures and discoveries have abounded, but also sometimes along avenues of disappointments of which there is no end in sight... An excursion, on foot, to take the time to look and be able to stop to visit the places that interest me. A quest, surely, an investigation even sometimes. I kept the travel diary of this artistic hike, of the search for clues and snapshots of the best moments; My backpack with the small collection of my finds; And I invite you to share all this with me in the pages that follow."

Dominique Peyson. Introduction of the exhibition catalog First impression, at Espace Jean-Roger Caussimon, Tremblay-en-France, from January 5 to March 10, 2017.