Jeroen van Loon < Interview | From Blood To Data /
Who Owns Your DNA’s Futur€? [2018]

It’s been almost 15 years since the Human Genome Project (an unprecedented and ambitious enterprise to sequence the entire human genome) was completed with the help of a global scientific apparatus that accomplished not only the processing of huge amounts of data regarding the genetic instructions for human physiology and human evolution, but also produced unexpected cultural + ontologic fissures that exposed numerous doubts on how individuals would think about themselves in the next decades as informatics subjects, vulnerable to become reduced to units of digital information and ready-to-engineer repository products.

In a retrospective swerve, the HGP was a highly influential antecedent on the emergence of the Homo-datum, a life-coded, fully calculated, biotechnological being capable of perceive itself as a rationalized subject, but nonetheless devoid of ownership, revisited, virtually exploitable, (involuntary) omnipresent, and highly processed; the ultimate DNA-data profitable entity.

In an age in which body translations and digital transfusions resignify the physicality of the human agency, is indispensable to make a critical approach on how genomic databases are inserted into the extractive flux of WWW’s business models and the various misuses of biotechnologie[s] in the hands of high profile ©orporations like 23andMe, Ancestry and many others. To enclose an emphatic framework, this case is worth to take in consideration, in July of this year 23andMe announced that it will allow free access to DNA-data from their customers to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK, a british pharmaceutical company), in order to identify novel drug targets, tackle new subsets of disease and enable rapid progression of clinical programs.

This is an important moment to make contact with Jeroen van Loon’s artistic practices. In his latest work, appropriately called Cellout.me, van Loon offered his complete DNA sequence for sale (Cellout.me was eventually obtained by the Verbeke Foundation in 2016), which contains 380 GB of genetic data stored in a server for anyone who wanted to buy it.

It is clear that van Loon’s intentions are more ambitious than a simple interconnection between non related frameworks, his approach is generating discussions and discourses inside the realities and possibilities that technology is providing.

Flesh is racing against its own rationality, is (now) biomediatic, posthumous and data-ble.

Your projects understand the volatility and power of data containers and distributors under interesting circumstances, for example, «An internet» accentuates the dichotomy between ephemeral/permanent, inherent to the cycles of data consumerism; in the same vein, «What You See Is What You Get» could even be interpreted as an obsessive attempt to look inside of a device that functions as a vital information generator, is the register of a computational biopsy.

As someone who has been capturing the ever-changing “nature” of the WWW behavior, what are your thoughts about the impact and constant transformation of Internet, from a liberation-of-knowledge and hyper-connectivity tool, to a monolithic Silicon Valley profiting system?​

I think the future of the internet will end up being regulated in one way or the other. The same as television, radio and in a smaller way, cinema, ended up being regulated differently within various states.

I think the internet is not any different than the previous media in the sense that governments in the end will try to regulate some of the major parts of it. Be it from a ideological/religious or from a more capitalistic point of view. I see the future of the internet in the same way television worked. Each country has different television channels with different regulation concerning the medium television.

If this is a problem for the internet and it’s users is a different question.

The previous question takes us to «Life Needs Internet»#1 and #2, both volumes of the project attached numerous experiences and perspectives about the impact of Internet in an individual level.
What did you learned about the ambiguity of Internet from this numerous statements taken from the collected letters?​

That there is no single digital culture. The way the internet influences it’s users depends on a lot of things. How often a user uses the internet, in what way the internet has been implemented in their society and how the users started using the internet in the first place. Did he/she ‘grew up’ on the internet or did he/she need to learn to use the internet as a new technology. Especially how often the user uses the internet causes to change the users perspective of the internet as emotional and fundamental or simply very functional. I think this is the case with a lot of technologies that, in time, normalise within our society.

One of your latest projects, «Cellout.me» deals with an idea that has been in the tongue of many people in the last 10 years “Data as gold”, a metaphor that has a direct association with mineral extraction, which has always been linked with high levels of human exploitation. Technology firms shifted gadget-investment to individuals as the potential mines and the center of corporate data harvesting.

What made you offer a 380 GB genetic profile as the main extractive resource?

Are there specific questions that you needed to answer through «Cellout.me»?

The starting point was to create a discussion about the idea that data is gold. If this is the case, then this will not stop at only our likes, clicks and hashtags. Also this would mean that I myself, also own data that could be valuable.

The main question I was interested in presenting, not perse answering, was how should be determine the value, and what kind of value, of a human DNA profile.
This makes us think about how we determine the price of data, but also what this data actually represents. The interesting thing when thinking about the value of DNA data is the question, is this a static value and if not, why would this value differ and to whom? ​

«Cellout.me» is also a high investment posed in the future, even when all your genetic data is contained in a single database/exobody now owned by Verbeke Foundation, speculation still plays a big part on the work’s value and future applications.
In a way
«Cellout.me» is an early warning to be cautionary in front of the symptoms of a heavily genocentric society and it’s exchange entities like biobanks and biotech companies.

How did you prepare to deal with the mining/economic/leaking challenges that
«Cellout.me» will bring in the next 10–20 years?​

I didn’t. Selling my DNA data was a provocation, in order to start thinking about questions like these. By selling my DNA data without any preparations for the future I hoped the public, when viewing the artwork, would question the data is gold paradigm and it’s possible consequences. ​

You commissioned letters divided into 4 thematic blocks «CYBERCRIME» by Pim Volvers (Fox-IT), «BIG DATA» by Sander Klous (KPMG), «ETHICS» by Elinne Bunnik (Erasmus MC) and «ART» by Peter van der Graaf (Christie’s Amsterdam).

The contributions gave a broader panorama on the upcoming problems of collecting and protecting genetic data.
Now that the piece is finished and that media platforms reacted to the project,

What other contributors or themes would you like add to the commissioned letters?

Were you surprised to know that in many ways the (moral, informative, symbolic, economic, digital) value of your data is now in a public notoriety and availability?​

In hindsight I would have added one more letter. From a psychologist who would write a letter about my reasons for making this work, during and after the sale, to investigate what the sale did to me and my view on selling my DNA data and why I had doubts about the proces during the year long auction. ​

If data is the new gold of the first half of the XXIst century, what would you think it will be the next gold of the second half of the XXIst century?​

That is a difficult question, because, will the gold of the second half of the 21th century be a completely different material than data, or, will it focus on a new type of data? To begin with the latter, I think what types of data will become more interesting are GPS and POV data. Especially thinking about data that can be derived from AR/VR/MR. POV data: where we look, when we look, how long we look, where we don’t look, how we behave and what conclusies can be drawn of these data, will become more interesting. Now a lot of data is gathered because a click, link, like, retweet, etc. When AR/VR/MR/… will become more usable, information about where we look, will become more important. When step further in the future, I would say unique data will become more important. Today data is easily copyable, I can imagine that there will be a need in the future for more unique data. Data that is unique in the way that an artwork can be unique. Not a series or reproductions, but the sole original artwork.
To think about a material other than data that will become the new gold, I must say that I find this really hard.

Finally, it would be really interesting to know your thoughts on this interpretation: «Cellout.me» is an eager project that explores/questions the capacity of transcendence of art(itsts), based on biodata-digital stock markets.​​

I view cellout.me as a starting point to talk about DNA data banks, who owns them, what are the right of the people who supplied the DNA data and how these data banks work in a capitalistic world. So yes, it does explore aspects of this, but of course other artwork are needed to fully understand the relationship between biodata and the digital stock market.

Writer, graphic designer and cultural vector. // tecno-grafias.com