Meet Jonathon Keats: The man cloning Lady Gaga and Obama… with yeast

Conceptual artist and “experimental philosopher” Jonathon Keats has an interest in yeast—insofar as it allows him to engage in epigentic cloning, a techinque that Keats is using to create clones of Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, Michael Phelps, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez. Keats also would like to clone Jesus Christ and himself. For my part, I would like him to clone Aleister Crowley.

Keats has also attempted to genetically-engineer God, explored quantum entanglement as a solution to marriage, created a movie theater for plants, made a silent ringtone (inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”) and written a book of fables. The New Yorker called him a “poet of ideas” and it’s hard to disagree. There is something wondrously unusual and inspiring about his experimental philosophy.

In the interview, Keats and I talked about how yeast makes cloning possible, growing potatoes on Martian meteorites, and why he sees himself as a Johnny Appleseed of sorts.

Firstly, you’re art project, which involves “unauthorized cloning” of Lady Gaga and Obama. It’s sponsored by AC Institute, and involves Epigenetic Technology. Can you explain epigenetic cloning? You say, “We’re doing it entirely with personal data harvested from the Web… That and some chemicals bought over-the-counter at Walgreens.” Sounds like you are the Walter White of art from that description.
Epigenetics is the realm of gene expression. Genes are turned on or off based on your environment, including what you eat and the toxins to which you’re exposed, which is why twins with identical genes gradually diverge in appearance. Epigenetic cloning turns the twin phenomenon on its head. Rather than allowing organisms with identical genes to drift apart, I’m imposing environmental pressures that force organisms with non-identical genes to converge, by syncing the expression of the overall genetic architecture shared by all people… and even other organisms such as yeast.

So to epigenetically clone Obama, I’m exposing a yeast culture to reagents including riboflavin, alpha-tocopherol, and nicotine. The chemical regimen has been determined based on an analysis of Obama’s diet and habits. The yeast cells are doused with the substances to which he’s exposed beyond average, promoting epigenetic expression equivalent to his own. (For instance, the trail mix he regularly eats contains a high level of alpha-tocopherol, and the epigenetic effect of his former smoking habit is induced with pure nicotine.)

Naturally the epigenetic program for Lady Gaga is different. In keeping with Gaga’s “drunk diet”, the yeast is regularly doused in grain alcohol, with the intermittent addition of sodium and sucrose, emulating the junk foods on which she periodically binges.

I see the Walter White connection, though I think of myself more as a Johnny Appleseed. Anyone can take up epigenetic cloning in their kitchen. It’s easy and cheap. You can clone Lady Gaga for less than the price of a ticket to one of her concerts.

What was the genesis of the project? A fusion of pop culture and politics with technology, namely genetics, or was it something different?
In all of my projects, I take up whatever people are interested in, as well as current assumptions about how things work, putting it all together to see what it might mean. So in the past I’ve applied string theory to real estate development, offering people properties in the extra dimensions of space, and I’ve opened a Local Air and Space Administration that sent potatoes to Mars by growing them in Martian meteorites. (Incidentally, I also bottled Martian mineral water for people interested in space travel.)

So yes, you can think of epigenetic cloning as a fusion of our current obsessions, and also perhaps a remix.

Meet Jonathon Keats: The man cloning Lady Gaga and Obama... with yeast

Why Gaga? Why Obama, for that matter?
Obama and Gaga are only two of the five. There’s also Jennifer Lopez, Michael Phelps, and Oprah Winfrey.

I simply set out to clone some of the celebrities who are most constantly in the media cycle, since apparently a lot of people desire their presence. When it comes to putting celebrities in your livingroom, even HDTV can go only so far in terms of verisimilitude. With approximately 35 billion yeast cells in each flask, there’s potentially enough Gaga and J.Lo to satisfy the world population.

You’re described as an “experimental philosopher”. Does this mean that you’re on the avant garde of a new anti-philosophy, or in the tradition of someone like, say, Wilhelm Reich, Brion Gysin or perhaps the Surrealists?
I call myself an experimental philosopher because it avoids the question of whether I’m an artist or a scientist or anything else that comes with professional expectations. I think of my projects as uncontrolled thought experiments that are carried out in public and that invite everyone to participate.

Of all the people you mention, I suppose I find Gysin the most sympathetic. The Surrealists were too intent on convincing people of their preconceived ideas… and they could also be pretty humorless.

Although I’m not comparing your work to these two writers and philosophers, I feel that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, especially in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, let their curiosity and imaginations influence their ideas and writing. Is that your approach?
Writing is another thing that I do, and when I write fiction it tends to be fabulistic. In a sense my thought experiments can be thought of as fables too. I’m attempting to open up alternative worlds, offering different vantages from which to explore our own.

Can you talk briefly about some influences, whether philosophical, scientific or artistic?
A few of my projects have been directly influenced by others. For instance, in 2007 I produced a ringtone that was silent. The silence was precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds long, the length of John Cage’s notorious silent composition. In a sense my ringtone was a remix, but I think it was also an improvement, taking advantage of technologies that have developed since the 1950s. For instance my silence is digital and portable, whereas his was analog and generally required an unplayed piano.

I suppose that Cage has influenced me more broadly, as has Marcel Duchamp, to the extent that both were intent on provoking questions and upending assumptions about the world in which they lived. That trait is all too rare in art, and perhaps even rarer in philosophy, though I wish there were a way to say that Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of my influences without sounding pretentious.

You have a laboratory at the Art Currents Institute—what does it look like?
The lab is pretty boring, as all labs are. There are shelves with flasks of yeast and smaller vessels containing the reagents to which the yeasts will be exposed in order to epigenetically clone celebrities. As you’ll see in the pictures, the reagents are all artificially colored to help keep track of their concentration. All the colors will combine as the reagents are gradually added to the flasks, making the yeast cultures various shades of brown or gray. In other words, you’re not going to see anything resembling Lady Gaga on her Born This Way tour. At the AC Institute, the epigenetic cloning will be only at the cellular level, which is to say that it’ll be microscopic. If you’re looking for more than that, then you’ll have to wait until I open my epigenetic cloning agency in San Francisco at Modernism Gallery on October 11th. That’s where I’ll be introducing human-to-human epigenetic cloning. (See my response to question #10 for more details.)

I’m particularly interested in the potential intersection of computer code and genetic code, did this enter into your thought process?
I agree that there are some interesting convergences, and also equally intriguing differences. Genetic code is the first open-source technology (freely swapped by horizontal gene transfer and sex) which over billions of years produced humans who invented computer code that many seek to lock down with copyright and patents. Of course the same can be said of patents on cloning procedures. Since epigenetic cloning is totally open-source, epigenetic cloning is a way out of IP.

You’re cloning Gaga and ‘Bama in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewers’s yeast, and state that “These clones won’t physically look like microscopic Gagas and Obamas, but epigenetics tells us that the yeast should become the same as them at a functional level.” This seems absurdist, of course—is that you’re intention?
I think it would probably be more absurdist of me to deny that it’s absurdist than for me to agree.

All of this rather reminds me of the Peter Cook and Chris Morris radio sketch “Christ” from the five-part “Why Bother?” series, in which Cook’s character, Arthur Streeb-Greebling, is attempting to clone a Christ fetus to create what he calls “Micro-Christs.” There’s something very Cookian about this project, whether you are aware or not.
I’m always pleased when my projects remind people of things I didn’t know about, or when the projects give people ideas I’d never have thought of myself. Not only is my epigenetic cloning technology open-source, but so too is the thought experiment underlying it. Everything becomes more interesting when it’s free to mutate.

What was it like pitching this project to AC Institute?
This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with the AC Institute, which may have made them feel more comfortable about letting me clone celebrities than they would have been were I just to walk in off the street. Like my epigenetic cloning project, my past endeavors there have been quite practical if not entirely conventional. For instance in 2010 I opened a movie theater for house plants which allowed ficus trees from New York to experience European skies vicariously. And in 2011 I offered quantum entanglement as an alternative to marriage, allowing couples to be bonded by a law of nature.

Meet Jonathon Keats: The man cloning Lady Gaga and Obama... with yeast

What might this project potentially unleash upon the world?
A bunch of yeast probably won’t unleash much, unless you want to get drunk on Lady Gaga-fermented beer. I think the real potential lies beyond these pilot studies, with the introduction of human-to-human epigenetic cloning. Starting on October 11th in San Francisco, I’ll employ essentially the same technique that I use for yeast, analyzing the target subject’s diet and modifying the biochemical intake of the person undergoing the cloning process by administering appropriate drugs. So if we’re talking about cloning George Washington, whose dentures compelled him to eat mostly fish, that would mean ingesting a vast amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and also large quantities of sodium since the fish he ate was often preserved with salt. I’m also offering people the opportunity to become epigenetic clones of popular historical figures including Queen Elizabeth I and Jesus Christ… as well as taking commissions. And I’ve bottled a simple daily complex that people can take if they want to become my clone. The complex contains lots of amino acids, and thiamine, and plenty of caffeine. If nothing else, cloning myself will allow me to crowdsource the epigenetic cloning process.

What might this unleash? I think it might be amusing to run into George Washington or Jesus Christ on the street, but the more interesting potential is for people to become epigenetic hybrids, mixing a little Washington with a bit of Jesus and a dash of Lady Gaga. Like natural genetic processes, epigenetic cloning need not only be about copying. It can also be creative.

You talk about “disrupting” philosophy with curiosity as a curriculum. Can you elaborate? 
Academia tends to stifle philosophy, perhaps necessarily, since the arcane nature of scholarship is what lends it respectability. Ultimately this is self-defeating, I believe, as it fosters an echo chamber in which the conversation is increasingly hermetic and disengaged. (Come to think of it, the same critique could be applied to the vast majority of contemporary art.) I don’t really care about disrupting what happens in academia. I want to encourage an alternative, bringing philosophy back to its roots.

The origin of philosophy was curiosity. Curiosity is something everybody has until society snuffs it out. And if there’s something I want to disrupt, it’s the societal assault on curiosity. Complacency has already done too much damage to our world. Questioning everything is the only antidote.

[Photo: Jen Dessinger]