DNA as NFT: Artist Rachel Rossin Logs Her Genome on the Blockchain


November 10, 2021 4:23pm

Rachel Rossin in her studio
Rachel Rossin in her studioRACHEL ROSSIN

Ever since she was young, Rachel Rossin had an interest in technology. She began programming when she was eight years old, and has been exploring the crypto space since 2009, when she first dabbled in mining Bitcoin. Digital ecosystems continue to influence her art, which has often taken the form of moving-image works. Earlier this year, she showed oil paintings embedded with holograms at Magenta Plains gallery in New York.

An artist who has consistently mulled the line between the virtual and the real, Rossin just debuted a new work that involves logging her DNA on the blockchain. Minted on the NFT platform OpenSea, the smart contract contains a precious string of code: Rossin’s sequenced genome.

With her DNA now recorded in a permanent digital ledger, this work, titled Rachel Rossin’s Raw DNA (2021), comments on an impending future where wetware (living tissue)—as opposed to software or hardware—serves as the building blocks of technology. To hear more about her provocative new work, ARTnews spoke with Rossin by phone.

Would you say that you’re basically selling your DNA?

NFT doesn’t necessarily mean selling. I come from the old crypto world, where the focus is on contracts and the code—that’s what led me to do this in the first place. Of course, now, NFT are a synonymous with selling, I guess, but I’m not interested in that. If someone were to offer me a million dollars or something, I would be insane to not take it. But I feel strange putting a price tag on it.

Considering the massive amounts of capital flowing through the NFT space, maybe it’s not so unlikely that you do get an offer for a million dollars.

I feel like it’s unlikely.

How did you come up with the idea of minting your DNA?

During Covid and all the efforts to crack the vaccine, I got interested in organic computing. Organic computing is simply the idea that it’s possible to make computers out of wetware, living organisms. This already exists. In 1999, Georgia Tech made a calculator out of neurons that [scientists] took from a leech. I started doing some research, and I sequenced my genome. Understanding my genetic code and how it’s impacted my mental health, and learning about wetware, has made me really aware of where technology is heading: organic computing.

Hologram of a cat running projected from an oil painting
Rachel Rossin, Ryle, Pitched and Curbing, 2021.RACHEL ROSSIN

Where does the blockchain figure into this?

By putting my DNA sequence in the blockchain, I’m stating that I think we’re not fully prepared for the way our bodies and technology will intersect. Both our bodies and technology feel like these illegible black boxes that code runs through. Though they’re very different now, it’s all going to meet. Storage is also a part of it.

How so?

Digital technology can only be stored for 100 years, whereas DNA can be stored in ice for millennia. You can store 215 gigabytes in a strand of DNA. Blockchain is supposed to be about permanence, but it’s an illusion of permanence, especially compared to what is going on in our bodies.

So there’s some irony in the act of storing DNA in this inferior vessel.

Yeah, it’s kind of an eye roll. I want to be emotionally generous, but… It’s a sort of a laughable gesture. I thought it would be interesting to mint my DNA, but now of course NFTs are equated with selling, and that’s a whole different register. There’s a punch line there somewhere.

As someone in the crypto space for such a long time, are you surprised by how quickly this technology—NFTs, the blockchain—was used for such intense commodification of digital ephemera? 

I am surprised. It feels like the entire conversation around this has been about the prices, which is frankly the least interesting part of making art. That sounds so privileged, because I know that this boom has provided so many incredible opportunities for people to actually make any money off their work. I have many friends for whom it’s changed their entire lives. I guess I’m just used to an internet that was very plastic, and I guess I’m still coming to terms with how crypto is changing that.


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