Biopresence & Transgenic Tombstones


DIY DNA DAY – if you missed it, was on April 10th and celebrated at a UK conference with a wide range of biotech and transgenic art demonstrations and tutorials. Aside from learning how to extract your own DNA, or the DNA from anything living, attendees were also introduced to a new way for remembering those who have passed away – storing their DNA within a living plant~! Believing that ‘a growing, living tree has the ability to comfort in a completely different way than cold gravestones’, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara of Biopresence were happy to wax on about their ‘Transgenic Tombstones’:

How much do you think DNA is meaningfully coiled up in our identity?
GT: DNA should be seen as a pointer to a person, rather than a blueprint for a human being. What makes a human, and therefore identity, largely depends on the environment and experiences. The true power of DNA lies in its ability to bring together the symbolic and the real.

What triggered the idea to try and make ‘Transgenic Tombstones’?

GT: We were interested in exploring hypothetical design possibilities offered by biotechnologies. Thinking about code, codes, and codecs, their many manifestation came somehow naturally. It was only later we started to explore the mystical and psycho-historical connections and connotations of life, death and trees.

SF: My cat was buried in the garden in Tokyo where my family used to live, as he loved that house and garden so much. I’d much prefer to be buried in my family garden, rather than somewhere far away from them, and a tree is better than a gravestone in the garden. Our project reminds me of an old Japanese tale about cherry blossoms (sakura), which are white with a touch of red. Allegedly the reason for this colour is a person buried underneath the tree, his blood makes the cherry blossoms red.

When do you predict being able to offer DNA blended memorials?
GT: We are at currently at stage 2 of the project. Thanks to support from NESTA ( we are currently able to concentrate fully on it, and are exploring and assessing the legal implications that come along with our trees. We hope to offer Biopresence trees within the next 18 months, but I am not sure, if it will be in the UK.

What sort of genetic background did you have, and what’ve been the biggest hurdles for your learning?

GT: I have some a basic knowledge of genetics, I did study biology and informatics for a little while before studying media art. I think the hurdles in learning are not that big; much bigger are the hurdles in communication. After all it seems that artists and scientists seldom live on the same planet.

SF: It can be a little frustrating, if scientists don’t even try to understand what we are trying to achieve – they never ask us what we are doing and why we do it. I wonder if they don’t think this kind of question should be made before they criticise with a little (or even wrong) information on papers?

How has the scientific community reacted to your work?
SF: Some get it instantly, some don’t. Nearly all the scientists we were able to speak to directly reacted in a positive way. Even if they sometimes did not see the point of our project, they were curious about the technical details.
GT: Because of the sensational value of the project, we got a lot of distorted media coverage in the beginning. And most critic, from environmentalists or scientists, was targeted against the media coverage and not directly to our project. ‘New Scientist’ printed a full-page comment on our project, basically saying ‘they are not scientists, they don’t know what they do’. I was quite pissed off, because I gave them a 30-minute telephone interview, and then they (deliberately?) got two key facts wrong.

What is your response to the more critical scientists?

GT: Our response is to invite them to explain the project thoroughly. It helps.
SF: ‘New Scientist’ said something along the lines ‘interesting, if only it would be more scientific’. We are primarily artists and designers, our role is to pose question to the idea of bioethics and inquiry for better communication to non-specialists in science. We are also interested in being scientific, but it seems hard to understand for some, that science can also be done outside institutions. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Which ‘genetic artists’ do you especially admire?
GT: Heath Bunting’s Superweed project was one early and important display of how the powers of biotechnology can be put to work. Joe Davis, the ‘granddaddy of bio-art’ is hugely important. We are very glad, to have collaborated with him. And of course your very own SymbioticA. We met Oron and Ionat quite early on during our project, and their very positive feedback was highly encouraging.

Future Biopresence projects?
GT: The website (�_�). I’m also thinking about constructing a computer programming language, made only from the letters ATCG. Maybe I can find working programmes hidden in the genetic code.
SF: A book for children and adults explaining the project and its consequences. And a film documenting it. Other projects are secret!

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