The America Project
Paul Vanouse
with Solon Morse, scientific collaborator

The America Project is a live, biological art installation centered around a process called “DNA gel electrophoresis”, colloquially described as “DNA  Fingerprinting”, a process which I’ve appropriated to produce recognizable images.  The project premiered at the Esther Klein Gallery on October 20, 2016.

Visitors to the installation first encountered what might resemble a human-scale fountain or decanter, which was actually a spittoon in which their donated spit was collected. Entering the exhibition, viewers were offered a one ounce cup of saline solution and asked to swish for thirty seconds, then to deposit the solution into the spittoon. During the installation I extracted the DNA from what I hoped to be hundreds of spit samples—containing cheek cells and the cells’ DNA—all mixed together.  The DNA was not individuated nor retained: it was processed as a whole to make iconic DNA  Fingerprint images of power—such as a crown, warplanes and a  flag—which were visible as video projections of the electrophoresis gels throughout the exhibition.

Process of Explanation

I sent the proceeding concept description of The America Project to  colleagues and asked of them, in the spirit of democracy and participation, if they would pose a single question about the work.


What about the paranoia of dna as something ultra-personal and therefore private, still dominating in the public eye?
—Omar Estrada, Toronto

DNA in the public imagination has for decades been synonymous with identity and identification. DNA fingerprinting, DNA profiling and DNA typing are among the technical terms for procedures that fix a person to a forensic sample or to a genetic community. These techniques evoke bold proclamations such as “DNA is a truth machine” and a “gold standard of criminal identification.”  Identity-fixing technologies also provoke a reasonable concern over personal privacy. National databases, such as the US CODIS project, a database shared among federal and civic agencies that contains over 15 million US citizens’ DNA profiles, epitomizes the growing threat to privacy and perhaps to liberty. However, the fear of the penetrating gaze of the surveillant state pales by the more ominous potential use of DNA profiles to infer group proclivities or to institute neo-eugenic imperatives: The Gattaca scenario.  It is no wonder that when we give blood or tissue samples many increasingly feel a separation anxiety about their end use.

opposite: America Project spittoon, photo Natlie DiIenno.
When audiences started to spit at the Sex Pistols on stage; when we kiss or make love...When we share our chemistry as an act of closeness... e whole idea of civilization is based on the practice of sharing our dna. However, the social control of this exchange gives the “master” an upper-hand on civilization.
—Andres Tapia-Urzua, Pittsburgh, PA

Savvy personal genome companies, like 23andMe, have managed to convince over two million people to not only donate their individual DNA samples to be utilized as the company sees fit, but to actually pay the company for the service. Conversely, The America Project does not want to normalize nor acclimatize viewers to surrendering their fluids for fun, safety or profit. Hopefully, the enormous spittoon doesn’t elicit blind trust. It is a symmetrical, somewhat anthropomorphic, authoritarian-looking apparatus standing six feet tall. Ironically, the spittoon was designed to serve as a utopian and unambiguous bio-matter anonymizer. Everyone’s spit is mixed together making separation/individuation impossible. All collected samples merge to become promiscuously comingled. What is visualized from the comingled samples is our shared identity as mammals, our collectivity.

opposite: America Project , Gallery visitors donating DNA, photo Jaime Alvarez.


I am wondering how you conceive of biopower ... and how it is embodied, performed, employed or represented in your project.
—Jennifer Gradecki, East Lansing, MI
If power comes from the people, shouldn’t the image be one of rebellion or a counter vision?
—Millie Chen, Ridgeway, ON

I think these questions really pinpoint the highly-charged ambivalence I’m hoping to create in this work. Jennifer noted that Michel Foucault coined the term biopower as a form of governmentality, administered from above to create, manage, and control populations, in which biological processes such as birth and death all fall under this umbrella of control at every level of the social body. Whereas for Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, biopower comes from below, and “ the common fabric of the biopolitical diagram rest latent, potential, chrysalis-like
the capacities for the multitude to determine autonomously the political diagonal of the transition.”

opposite: Crown , Paul Vanouse, Click Festival, Denmark, 2016.
This concept of latency has been a theme in my own work, and is the basis for the dialectic I’m creating here. The latent images produced by the DNA are (1) a US flag, (2) a crown, and (3) the infinity symbol. The crown symbolizes pure, top-down rigid power, the infinity sign symbolized endless potential, hope and possibility, while the flag’s meaning would remain elusive, particularly in the shadow of the forthcoming election. The America Project was installed from October 20 to November 19, 2016, a period in which the ultimate meaning of the subject/citizen and the meaning of America were being contested and perhaps subverted.

The title “The America Project” itself was chosen to temporalize and desolidify the concept of America. The term Project implies a goal-oriented mission, or experiment, which in this case recollects the early utopian plan for America as a place in which the hardships of the land would force a leveling and result in equality. In recent US elections, this utopian residue has catalyzed both hopes for our capacity for social progress (Obama), but also neo-imperialist doctrines of exceptionalism (Bush) and extreme nationalism and xenophobia (Trump).

opposite: Flag , Paul Vanouse, Esther Klein Gallery, 2016.

Special Thanks:

Angela McQuillan, Curator, Esther Klein Gallery, Philadelphia, PA.

Millie Chen, Omar Estrada, Katya Gibel-Mevorach, Jennifer Gradecki, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Angela McQuillan, John Soluri, Andres Tapia-Urzua, Orkan Telhan, Allison Vanouse, Donald Vanouse, Mary Vanouse, for their inspiring questions used throughout the catalog.

Irus Braverman, Matt Caywood, Jens Hauser, Evelyn Hawthorne, Kathy High, Joan Linder, Jamie Sanbonmatsu, Igor Vamos, Melissa Vanouse, for their feedback and support.

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